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Diversity Update: Designing a More Diverse Profession

The AIA is building new tools to measure and grow inclusive communities of architects

By Damon Leverett, AIA
Managing Director, Diversity and Emerging Professionals Engagement

Fostering diversity and inclusion within the profession is a central pillar of the AIA. It has also become a vital programmatic focus that centers on issues of multiculturalism, women in architecture, and K–12 education as the foundation of a young architect’s career. The 16 members of the AIA Board Diversity Council include practicing architects and university professors and planners. They work closely with AIA Diversity and Inclusion team members at the AIA national component in Washington, D.C.

A number of recent initiatives have galvanized diversity and inclusion advocacy, which is about building awareness and creating opportunities for underserved groups.

The 2013 Women’s Leadership Summit convened in Phoenix in October, the third in a series of events focused on mentoring and leadership guidance. (It was preceded by the 2009 Boston Women Principals Group and the 2010 Women’s Leadership Summit in Kansas City). The Phoenix event gathered architecture firm principals, educators, clients, designers, environmentalists, and innovators in an intimate setting to discuss the challenges and opportunities for women practicing architecture today.

Keynote speaker and Dean of the School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania Marilyn Jordan Taylor, FAIA, spoke about her career arc, including more than 30 years at SOM, where she served as partner in charge of urban design and planning. Billie Tsien, AIA, of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, the 2013 AIA Firm Award recipient, shared her perspective on the firm’s Phoenix Art Museum. Hsinming Fung, AIA, showcased Hodgett + Fung Design Associates Phelan Family Chapel of the Jesuit Martyrs of North America in Carmichael, Calif., describing how the simple geometry, limited material palette, and soaring ceilings are designed to transition the students from an active campus life to a more contemplative, sacred space.

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Stacey Bourne, FAIA, a U.S. Virgin Islands architect and entrepreneur, delivered a dynamic talk at the Women in Architecture Dinner on designing vibrant communities. Photo by Oscar Einzig.

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Summit contributors represented a cross-section of architects from around the United States, along with invited guests from Canada and Europe. Unlike traditional conferences, where ideas are prepared for delivery, the format for this event fostered a more informal sharing of experience, ideas, and solutions. The next AIA Women Leadership in Architecture Conference is slated for fall 2015 in Seattle.

Leading the way

Building leadership is also about fostering the early interests of architects-to-be, which hinges on an important moment: the transition from high school to college. As of March, the AIA/F Diversity Advancement Scholarship has been offered by the AIA Foundation, under the leadership of Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop and managed by the AIA Diversity and Inclusion team. The scholarship, which draws on a $1 million endowment approved by the AIA Board of Directors in December, will award five-year renewable grants of $4,000 each to deserving high school seniors and college freshmen pursuing a degree in architecture in the United States. This year, two students will benefit from the scholarship.

AIA Convention 2014 in Chicago provided many opportunities for the Diversity and Inclusion team to showcase leaders in architecture and beyond. Stacey Bourne, FAIA, a U.S. Virgin Islands architect and entrepreneur, delivered a dynamic talk at the Women in Architecture Dinner on designing vibrant communities. The convention included other opportunities to gather around diversity and inclusion issues, including the LGBT and Straight Allies Reception, Hafele Global Inclusion Reception, Multicultural Fellows Reception, Diversity Lounge, and the meeting of the Diversity and Inclusion Council.

For architects, their professional community is circumscribed by other communities that shape their identities and outlooks. For Bre Davis, a University of Michigan M.Arch student and first-time AIA convention attendee, architecture students should get involved in the interplay between communities as a way of contributing to their cities and towns.

“I believe architecture students should be spurred to develop the environments they live in,” says Davis, “because living and growing up in metro urban areas is a great opportunity to design. The convention influenced me to go home and make a difference in life and community.”

For Gia Johnson, another University of Michigan M.Arch student and first-time attendee, the convention was also an opportunity to find mentorship, and fellowship, at a critical stage in her career.

“I met very successful architects who made my goal of becoming an architect seem more attainable,” says Johnson. “Seeing people from all backgrounds and experiences who shared my professional passion of architecture was euphoric.”

In keeping with the AIA Diversity Gateway Commitment, forged at the 2008 St. Louis “multiFORMity” conference, the Diversity and Inclusion Council convened a panel of diversity managers and council leaders from member associations who, while not architects, often partner with architects. Ken Boyer of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, Constance Thompson of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and Mary Lynn Realff of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers each shared their perspectives on diversity programs and best practices within their organizations.

Their input will help the Diversity Council continue to evaluate its programs and events to establish priorities based on effectiveness, measurability, and how AIA diversity programs match cultural concerns. Through this process, diversity initiatives will emerge with new purpose and focus, and have the ability to apply more resources to the initiatives that can deliver effective change.

Looking forward

There is much more happening in diversity and inclusion as we prepare for the Phil Freelon, FAIA, keynoted 2014 AIA Multicultural Summit, Sept. 12–13, in New Orleans as well as the National Organization of Minority Architects conference, Oct. 1–4, in Philadelphia.

Importantly, the 2014 AIA Diversity in Architecture Survey—building on the last one, conducted in 2005—will offer the AIA Diversity and Inclusion team a lot of critical intelligence about the state of the profession. The new survey has two main objectives. First, it will create a stable data set surrounding ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation that will allow for periodic assessments and improved trend analysis. And it will investigate the careers of diverse architects—from college to firm culture—to see how their experiences impact the professional choices they’ve made.

This year’s survey is a collaboration between the ACSA, AIA, NAAB, and others that will include a more dynamic set of questions, policies, and concepts for inclusion in the project.

Learn more about the survey and get involved in the AIA’s diversity and inclusion efforts, or email the team at


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