Citizen Architects – Jessica O’Donnell, AIA, and Brandon Warshofsky, AIA

Though only in the first decade of their practices, Jessica O’Donnell and Brandon Warshofsky already have made significant contributions at the local, state, and national levels. Together the two helped build EPiC, a New Jersey-based group for emerging professionals that connects young architects and educates them about how to make an impact on their communities through advocacy.

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Jessica O’Donnell, AIA, is a project architect at Kitchen & Associates in Collingswood, N.J. O’Donnell currently serves on Young Architect’s Forum Advisory Committee as the Knowledge Director, and was the Young Architect Regional Director of AIA New Jersey in 2016, 2017, and 2018. She previously served on the AIA New Jersey Executive Committee from 2016 to 2018 and Board of Trustees in 2018 and 2019. O’Donnell is the current Immediate Past President of AIA West Jersey and most recently served on the national AIA Strategic Planning Committee. In recognition for her outstanding contributions to the profession and community, O’Donnell was awarded the 2019 AIA New Jersey Young Architect of the Year service award.

Brandon Warshofsky, AIA, is an architect at Brick Studios in Newark, N.J. and an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology Hillier College of Architecture and Design, where he has taught architecture and interior design courses. He served as the AIA New Jersey Regional Associate Director from 2016 to 2017, as well as a trustee of the AIA Newark and Suburban Board, followed by Secretary in 2018. In 2019, Warshofsky was AIA Newark and Suburban First Vice President and this year he is the President Elect of AIA Newark and Suburban Architects. In 2018, Warshofsky received the Carleton B. Riker, Jr., Associate Emeritus AIA Honor Award, AIA Newark and Suburban’s highest honor for associates.

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How do you build a Citizen Architect? According to Jessica O’Donnell and Brandon Warshofsky, the same way you build anything—from the ground up.

Their advocacy journeys began with EPiC, AIA New Jersey’s Emerging Professionals Community (EPiC). The two joined forces with a small group of dedicated peers to create an organization within AIA New Jersey that would provide support and resources for emerging professionals and offer opportunities for continued education and community service.

“We wanted to empower our peers and other architects to get more involved in their community,” said O’Donnell. O’Donnell became the group’s founding chair, while Warshofsky was the first at-large director of advocacy, a position that was created along with directors of service and education. Both are still involved with EPiC, which continues to work closely with both the regional and local AIA components to coordinate and hold events throughout the state. The group encompasses all architecture students, Associate AIA members, and any architects licensed for 10 years or less.

Not long after starting EPiC, AIA presented O’Donnell and Warshofsky with another challenge:  to participate in AIA’s SpeakUp advocacy event in Washington, D.C. This three-day conference, held in 2016 and 2017, was formed to teach architects of all ages legislative and political advocacy skills to enhance their impact at the local, state, and federal levels of government.

O’Donnell and Warshofsky both applied and were accepted. During SpeakUp they learned how to create winning campaigns with an effective communications strategy; how to develop relationships with legislators; and the importance of bringing together other organizations to work as a coalition. The event culminated in a competition between five teams of Greek city-states, each challenged to design a complete advocacy campaign to pass a piece of legislation. It was no easy task since each team included individuals representing different age groups, U.S. states, and perspectives, and who had not met one another prior to the event.

While O’Donnell and Warshofsky’s teams did not win the SpeakUp events, the experience left them with new knowledge and a reignited passion for advocacy. “We learned that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu – and our priorities as a profession cannot be on the menu,” said Warshofsky. “It is not enough just to ideate in our ivory towers. We need to take action to set things right in the world.”

While both O’Donnell and Warshofsky returned to SpeakUp the next year as group leaders and speakers, their advocacy paths have diverged somewhat since then.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced her and her colleagues to shelter in place, O’Donnell was busy creating local panels to help other emerging professionals become Citizen Architects. “They are really Civics 101 classes,” she explained. “How to get involved, what qualifications are required for certain positions, basic makeup of governmental boards agencies and fundamental principles one should be aware of if they want to participate on a board.” Warshofsky has become engaged in public policy and politics at the state level, advocating for issues including climate action, housing, resilience, school safety, and student debt. His involvement has put him at the table for conversations that decide which candidates the design industry should support and that develop ways to get more architect candidates elected.    

What is O’Donnell and Warshofsky’s best advice for emerging professionals who want to become Citizen Architects, but are not quite ready for meetings at the U.S. Capitol? Start with one thing you are passionate about, find the group that makes decisions impacting that issue, and get a seat at the table. O’Donnell admitted she initially was skeptical about advocacy, but being deeply involved with AIA New Jersey and attending AIA Grassroots and Speak Up helped her gain a level of comfort.

Both also emphasized that local levels of government provide plenty of opportunity to make an impact. They noted that in their home state of New Jersey, for example, there are more than 500 municipalities, each with its own planning, zoning, historical preservation—even farmers’ markets—committees and boards. “There is a board for every interest,” O’Donnell joked. She also noted that if wading into the water of local politics still seems too daunting, young architects should consider joining their Homeowner Association (HOA) panel.

“There is real work being done all around, and we need to be in these discussions,” said Warshofsky. “We need to be a voice for our communities so we can put our design thinking and training to good use for the public interest.” O’Donnell also noted involvement does not start or end with planning or zoning boards. School boards, for example, provide an important avenue for architects to get involved. Indeed, AIA leads efforts at the state and federal levels to update school design guidelines to avert violence. Additionally, attention must be paid to the preservation of open learning environments that can positively influence student behavior and create more connected school communities.

Warshofsky said making the jump from being an architect to a Citizen Architect should not be daunting. “The hardest part is getting in the door, right?” he said. “But architects are already in the door at city hall anyway, with a roll of drawings, trying to get an approval or permit. All that we do is built on relationships, so getting a little more involved in issues we care about is not that big of a leap,” he said.

And the payoff is potentially huge. “Pretty soon, you’re the one who is getting the call to help solve problems or provide ideas,” Warshofsky said, “You’re the one who gets to be the adviser.” O’Donnell agreed. She said, “You just need to show up. People won’t know your name, so you just need to put yourself out there. Let people know you are interested and passionate about making a difference in your community and see what doors open.”

As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

Brandon and Jessica