How storytelling can be a vehicle for inclusion in architecture

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Melissa Jones, Assoc. AIA, and Dina Griffin, FAIA share a conversation onstage at the 2017 Women's Leadership Summit. The 2019 event, to be held this September, will feature a storytelling segment.

At this year’s Women’s Leadership Summit, AIA members will take the stage, sharing their experiences to inspire a stronger profession.

Representing a profession that has historically battled with problems of diversity, architects are often looking for new ways to promote equity and inclusion. And women are leading the charge. The number of women in the industry and AIA membership is seeing continued growth, but retention is equally important for the continued success of the field. Many design professionals have identified storytelling as a way to increase inclusion in the profession, not only so that more women enter the profession, but also so they are able to have long, fulfilling careers as architects. By sharing their own experiences—from in and out of the workplace—women are finding common ground and support within their firms and networks.

Julia Gamolina, AIA, describes herself as someone who has “always been curious about people’s origins and how they got to where they are today.” She created Madame Architect, a web platform that tells women’s stories through different types of features and interviews, ranging from stories that explore the entirety of a woman’s career down to the day to day details of her life. “Madame Architect was born out of mentorship; out of my own personal need for mentorship and guidance, and also out of wanting to share the wonderful and effective advice I was receiving,” Gamolina says.

Gamolina believes creating safe spaces for storytelling is key, as is allowing people to tell their stories how they would like them to be told. Case studies, profiles, and historical accounts can tell a person’s narrative through an impersonal lens. But when we allow people to tell their own story honestly—not the story we think they have, or the story we think should be told—we can start to understand their unique perspectives, which fosters cultural sensitivity and understanding.

Presenting to members of AIA Cleveland, Julia Gamolina, AIA, describes madame architect, the digital platform she created to elevate stories of women in architecture.

Megan Finnerty, founder of The Storytellers Project, a nationwide series of live community-based storytelling experiences, has a long list of criteria on creating safe spaces and how people can leverage storytelling as a tool. She believes that storytelling is a two-way exchange, noting that “great leaders listen and ask detailed questions about people’s backgrounds and lives to better understand where people are coming from.” Listening to others’ stories can encourage us to reframe our thinking and treat people with more fairness, respect, and understanding. “Most people have stories about why they think something or how they came to know or believe something, and these are often illuminating narratives,” Finnerty says.

The upcoming 2019 Women’s Leadership Summit (WLS) will incorporate a storytelling segment where architects, coached by Finnerty, will share personal and professional experiences to inspire others, offer support, and build community from the main stage. Some of these passionate women describe the ways they see storytelling having impact in architecture.

Stories can shape a career

WLS storyteller Dahmahlee Lawrence, AIA, identifies her family’s stories as a source of professional guidance. “My career is inspired by the stories of my parents and family members who immigrated to America to build a life for themselves and simultaneously pave a way for me to obtain two degrees and practice architecture,” she says. “I am inspired by the family members who did not migrate [also]. While they face hardships, [they] still manage to thrive.”

Another WLS storyteller, Shannon Christensen, AIA, says that stories from those outside the architectural profession propelled her career, noting that it was helpful “learning how they integrate their work, life, and passions on a daily basis.” Christensen has used the lessons learned from non-architects to carve a path for herself as a successful architect and project manager in Montana.

Stories can prevent isolation

“Far too often, we think that we have to take care of it all between work, home, family, and outside commitments and we wonder how others do it,” Christensen says, recalling her decision to submit her story for the Women’s Leadership Summit. She’s hopeful that the more women share their stories, the more they can help each other succeed in the profession.

Lawrence also believes her story will help combat feelings of isolation. While her life and career experiences may be very different from women in the audience, she’s certain there will be commonalities as well.  “If one person hears my story and it sparks something in them and they are able to share their story and pay that forward, then I will have attained one of my goals of attending the summit,” she says.

Stories can push us forward

Gamolina has heard dozens of stories while building Madame Architect. A recent piece about Brandt Knapp particularly inspired her. “Knapp talks about very real elements in crafting a career—things like needing to earn enough by herself to pay rent or needing to get a visa to be able to work— practical things that don’t often get talked about but that add a whole layer of complexity to the choices one has and makes.” She was glad Brandt’s story sheds light on matters of compensation, unhealthy practices, and the need to change unfit habits that often prevent women from staying in the profession.

At September’s Summit, Rachel Prinz, Assoc. AIA, will tell her story about pursuing a career in architecture despite a difficult medical diagnosis. Prinz wants women in architecture to know it is possible to persevere through challenging personal circumstances and ultimately achieve success. “Sometimes what we see as ‘tragedies’ can actually open us up to our greatest possibilities and accomplishments,” she says.

Join us for these stories and more at the 2019 Women’s Leadership Summit in Minneapolis, MN September 12-14. AIA members can register now.

Image credits

GMarks-AIAWLS2017-88__Cropped

Gabriella Marks

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