Kimberly Dowdell on her time as NOMA president and the importance of diversity in architecture
Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, will be the first Black woman president in the history of AIA when she takes office in 2024.
Elected as 2023 First VP/2024 President-elect at the 2022 AIA Annual Meeting in June, Ms. Dowdell is currently Marketing Principal at global design firm HOK. She was previously president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) from 2019-2020.
In the first of our two-part interview with Ms. Dowdell, she talks about her motivation to become an architect, lessons learned during her time as NOMA president, and the importance of diversity in the field of architecture.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an architect?
I decided when I was 11 years old that I wanted to become an architect because I wanted to help heal my hometown, which is Detroit. I learned about architecture in a middle school art class, where my teacher gave us an assignment to create an apartment out of a shoe box, using carpet samples, blocks and other materials. That simple exercise exposed me to the power of design as a tool to shape the way people live.
Around that same timeframe, I took notice of a building in downtown Detroit called the Hudson’s Department Store. It occupied an entire city block for many decades during Detroit’s strongest era in the early to mid 20th century. As a result of suburban flight, Hudson’s closed its flagship Detroit store the year that I was born. I never got to experience Hudson’s as a place of commerce, but I know it meant a lot to the community while it was thriving. I remember looking at this beautiful old building that was a ghost of its former self, noticing the windows had been broken and that there was graffiti abound, all of which was fairly commonplace in downtown Detroit in the early ‘90s.
At that moment, I sort of put two and two together and thought “well, if architects make space and improve buildings, then I’ll become an architect so I can fix this building and all of the other problematic things that I saw around it.” I felt there was a correlation between the blight and the homelessness that I was seeing along with the other issues on display in downtown at that point. I believe that moment was a calling for me to get involved with helping my city recover. I later learned that architects don’t necessarily solve all of these complicated urban challenges, but we are a vital partner on the larger team.
I initially wanted to become a doctor, but I ultimately concluded at age 11 that becoming an architect and working on urban issues would empower me to help heal larger groups of people than I would be able to impact at the individual patient scale. And that’s how all of this got started…from a shoebox.
You were previously president of The National Organization of Minority Architects where your platform “ALL in for NOMA” focused on access, leadership, and legacy. Can you expand on your accomplishments during your term with NOMA?
The ALL in for NOMA platform was meant to help signal that all people could join. NOMA was founded by Black architects at an AIA conference in 1971, and I think the general sentiment was that NOMA is only open to Black architects. I wanted to change that narrative, expanding our opportunities to engage and have a broader impact on diversity in the profession. Our membership more than doubled when I was president and I’m very proud of that accomplishment, among others. Now we’re joined by many architects with different racial and ethnic backgrounds who want to support the mission and work toward our ambitious goals of increasing access to the profession for those who have historically been under-represented. NOMA partnered with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable to double the number of licensed Black architects between 2020 and 2030. Even with achieving this, the number would only be around 5,000 out of more than 120,000 licensed architects in the U.S. We still have much more work to do.
I’m proud that NOMA was really able to ramp up our support for young people considering a career in architecture. Our relationship with the philanthropic leadership at General Motors in Detroit availed us of over half a million dollars to support our K-12 NOMA Project Pipeline (NPP) summer camps. During the pandemic, we digitized a lot of our content so it could be more accessible and help bridge the digital divide for students who wouldn’t otherwise have access to our educational content.
For college students, we have our NOMA student chapters (known as NOMAS), and prior to the pandemic I tried to travel and visit them in person as much as possible. That had to pivot to virtual visits early in 2020, but it was important to establish and maintain those touchpoints with students to drum up more excitement about the organization and architecture as a career. The main objective was to find ways to support young people and get them to stay engaged in the field.
Something I’m super proud of is the NOMA Foundation Fellowship (NFF) program, which is geared toward students who just graduated or are very close to graduating from architecture school. We paired them with architecture firms to help the transition from school into the profession. That was another important outcome of NOMA’s partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, which represents the 60 largest architecture firms in North America. They pooled money and provided funding to NOMA for us to go through a selection process to ensure our students were appropriately paired with firms for a fellowship program. NOMA also managed the compensation for the student fellows, ensuring that each participant had the resources that they needed to navigate that transition process into firm life during the pandemic.
What lessons from being NOMA’s president will help you as AIA president?
I firmly believe that leadership is a practice similar to how architecture is a practice or law is a practice or medicine is a practice. I don’t believe in perfection, but practice definitely helps one to get closer to the goal of excellence.
NOMA has given me a lot of practice. I was national president of NOMA for two years, but it’s actually a six year term. I was President-elect for two years, then I had two years in the driver’s seat as President, and I’m currently the Immediate Past President until the end of this year. It’s a lot of time on the executive committee and helping to make key decisions for the organization. I will gladly bring that experience to AIA.
One of the biggest takeaways from NOMA was learning more about my own resilience as a leader. I certainly didn’t know that I was going to be the sitting president when a global pandemic would strike. I had to take everything in stride. One of the most important things I did was send a weekly note to our members during the uncertain times of the pandemic. After sending my last note several months into the whole situation, I got so many messages back from people saying how those notes really helped them stay connected and gave them a level of comfort that someone was awake at the wheel.
My experience leading NOMA through the early stages of COVID-19’s sweeping impact around the globe taught me how important it is to hear from leadership. Whatever that means in 2024, whether we’re navigating an economic downturn or something else completely unexpected, I intend to be communicative about how the AIA can be supportive, for all of our members, including those at different size firms, in different regions, and at different stages of their careers.
The other thing that unfortunately came up in 2020 was the murder of George Floyd. I wrote a statement in reaction that challenged architects to be B.R.A.V.E., an acronym that stood for:
- Banish racism
- Reach out to those who are grieving
- Advocate for the disinherited
- Vote in every American election
- Engage each human how you want to be engaged
Basically, I was encouraging people to be better humans to one another. The intent of the statement was to be communicative about how many of our members were feeling in those heart wrenching moments following the tragedy. The impact of that statement exceeded my expectations in terms of circulation far beyond the NOMA membership. We even have NOMA BRAVE apparel to help us share the message. As AIA president, I plan to continue searching for and conveying the right messaging to give all of our members the confidence that we are tuned into what needs to be said and done for the greatest benefit of the Institute.
Why is diversity especially important in architecture?
Studies show that diverse teams are far more successful than homogenous teams. Any kind of real estate development project requires a team, and we know that architects are vital to the success of the overall team. If we want our cities, towns, suburbs, and rural areas to be the best they can be, we need to bring the best team of architects available to the development process. Diversity is the differentiator.
Racial, ethnic, ability, economic and gender diversity in design leadership is especially valuable when designing for a wide spectrum of humanity. The design teams that serve diverse communities, particularly for large and complex projects should absolutely offer diversity of thought and diversity of background. We must normalize having people from different perspectives represented at the design table in order to optimally enhance the human experience in the built environment.
It's important to have a workforce that reflects the communities that we want to work for. If we desire high quality outcomes from our design work, we must have high quality teams, and high quality teams, frankly, are going to be diverse.
Part two of our interview with Kimberly Dowdell will be in the July 12 issue of AIA Architect.
Courtesy Kimberly N. Dowdell