Citizen Architect - Yiselle​ Santos Rivera, AIA

For Yiselle Santos Rivera, the idea that advocacy and architecture are inseparable came early. The University of Puerto Rico, where Santos Rivera completed her undergraduate degree in environmental science and design, is embedded in one of San Juan’s most storied neighborhoods and has been the site of numerous protests. The architecture professors talked openly about their own histories of activism, and they taught students to view architecture not as a mere act of building, but as a profession that promotes human dignity, a strong culture, and resilient communities. Today, Santos Rivera is a published author, national speaker, and thought leader who is creating positive change by empowering the next generation of architects to find innovative solutions that create a more resilient, equitable, and inclusive future for all.

Yiselle Santos Rivera is the firm-wide director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) at HKS, Inc. She developed the firm’s J.E.D.I. framework and has created external programming, including the LIMITLESS panel webinar series that educates architects about equitable practices in the built environment. In 2017, Santos Rivera founded Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design, which promotes equity in architecture through advocacy, education, and mentorship. The program received the 2019 AIA Diversity Program Recognition Award. In 2013, Santos Rivera co-founded the Latin American Interior Designers, Engineers, and Architects (LA. IDEA) DC Committee, the first Hispanic/Latinx committee of the AIA DC Chapter. LA.IDEA fosters professional development and engages the local community in support of Latinx issues. Santos Rivera was AIA National Associates Committee (NAC) at-large director of advocacy, outreach, and education from 2017 to 2018 and NAC mid-Atlantic regional associate director from 2015 to 2016. She currently is AIA DC Chapter Board treasurer and a member of the AIA Re-imagining America: Strategies for Safer Buildings Task Force and the AIA New Urban Agenda Taskforce. She was a 2015 Christopher Kelley Leadership Development Program Scholar and the 2018 recipient of the AIA Associate Award. Santos Rivera holds a B.S. from the University of Puerto Rico and an M. Arch from Syracuse University School of Architecture.

“I love the word ‘advocacy,’” said Yiselle Santos Rivera. “It can mean so many things, but when I think of architecture I immediately think of advocacy. Architects have such beautiful and amazing power to design the backdrop of people’s lives.”  

Santos Rivera’s own devotion to advocacy has played itself out in a multitude of ways. It has informed how she designs for her clients, has driven her involvement in AIA’s National Associates Committee (NAC) and ArchiPAC, and has fueled her work to help build a more inclusive and diverse profession. Santos Rivera also has mentored young professionals and educated elementary and secondary school students about architecture and the need for community engagement.  

For the last 21 years, the NAC has represented and advocated for AIA associates by providing information and leadership, fostering inclusiveness, and encouraging individual, community, and professional development. As NAC director of advocacy for two years, Santos Rivera helped build emerging professionals’ engagement in ArchiPAC and create meaningful opportunities for community engagement.  “AIA provides an avenue to advocate for people,” said Santos Rivera. “We are advocating for architects, but, in our profession, we advocate for people. Providing for health, safety, and welfare is our mandate. So if I’m advocating for my profession, I’m advocating for people because we have the power to design the stages that they live in.”  

During her tenure on the NAC, the Emerging Professionals WolfPAC won the AIA ArchiPAC’s ArchiCup for most money raised and for generating the greatest number of donors.  

“The ArchiPAC is a means to empower the work that we do,” said Santos Rivera. “It’s one of the avenues that we have in the United States to create a voice and to advocate for the built environment. It allows us to be mouthpieces for all professionals.”

For associates, ArchiPAC and WolfPAC have helped advance legislation related to student loan forgiveness, Santos Rivera pointed out. AIA has endorsed legislation, for example, that would give employers the ability to count recent graduates’ student loan payments as the matching contribution to their employer retirement savings plans. Santos Rivera noted AIA also has supported legislation to forgive a portion of young architects’ student loans if they lend their time and expertise to public projects.  

Advocacy must go beyond public policy, Santos Rivera said, and as NAC director of advocacy she worked with the Young Architects Forum to create opportunities for community service. To demonstrate to emerging professionals how to get involved, she also encouraged her Advocacy and Social Impact Workgroup to publish an article that highlighted architects’ community engagement work.

“We obviously should advocate for enhanced funding to address homelessness,” said Santos Rivera. “But we also must examine what we are doing every day in our communities to create safe, equitable spaces for all people. How are we improving our own neighborhoods? We have the agency. We must bring community engagement and advocacy together.”  

Santos Rivera said there are many avenues architects can take to become more active in their community and public policy. She suggested starting with a local AIA chapter’s emerging professionals community or becoming more involved in their firm’s environmental justice/sustainability or diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.  

“Make advocacy a pillar of your career,” Santos Rivera advised. “Think every day about what you do to build a bridge to your community.”

Getting involved in local schools is another avenue for advocacy, Santos Rivera said.  

“Part of advocacy is thinking about the longevity and resiliency of the profession,” Santos Rivera said. “How do we build that momentum and that curiosity that takes a student all the way to wanting to be part of the profession? That has to start young.”  

Santos Rivera’s own work with Washington Architectural Foundation, AIA’s Washington, D.C., chapter foundation, has taken her into the local public school system. Santos Rivera and her colleagues offer classes alongside teachers that embed lessons about architecture within the traditional history, science, or math curriculum.  

Through this work, Santos Rivera is trying to convey the types of lessons she learned in architecture school. She is showing that placement of a niche in a building can make it easier to find shelter from harsh weather, for example, and is demonstrating that too many corners on a building can create dark shadows that make a city block feel less safe.  

The students are fascinated, Santos Rivera said, but they also are learning that they can have control over their neighborhoods if they are willing to engage. “When we start out, we ask students what they want for their built environment. For some it’s an easier commute for their parents. Others want to improve schools or markets,” said Santos Rivera. “We are showing them how they can help create that type of community.”  

Given the lessons she learned at the University of Puerto Rico, Santos Rivera also has tried to bring advocacy into her design work. She encourages clients to think broadly about how their buildings will impact the community and how they will affect the safety of a neighborhood.  

“Architecture is about people,” Santos Rivera said. “It’s not just about a building. It’s about providing dignity through shelter.”  

- As told to Kerrie Rushton

Image credits

 Headshote of Yiselle Santos Rivera

Courtesy of Yiselle Santos Rivera