Citizen Architect - Sandra Madison, AIA
Sandra Madison began her advocacy journey in the underserved Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up. There were no green spaces where Madison and her siblings could play, and a bar sat in the middle of their residential block. Madison planted flowers in front of neighbors’ homes, while her mother petitioned city officials to shut down establishments where violent crimes regularly occurred. These small acts improved the neighborhood and made an impression on Madison. “I didn’t know I wanted to be an architect,” Madison said. “I just knew I wanted to make my space and the spaces around me better.”
Sandra Madison is CEO and chairperson of Robert P. Madison International Inc., a Cleveland-based company that was the first Black-owned architectural firm in the Midwest. Madison chaired the Cleveland chapter of AIA’s Women in Architecture and is part of the National Organization of Minority Architects. She sits on the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Equity and Inclusion program board, the Shaker Heights Architectural Board of Review, the Shaker Heights Public Art Task Force, the Cleveland Euclid Corridor Design Review Committee, and the board of the Assembly for the Arts, a new nonprofit that focuses on advocacy, cultural policy, racial equity initiatives, research, and marketing to elevate the arts in and around Cleveland. Madison received her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland, College Park and is a graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design – Urban Design Summer Program.
Why is it important to be a citizen architect? According to Sandra Madison, AIA, it’s because architects make a lasting impact wherever they go. “The buildings we design and the spaces we create are here for decades and impact the lives of those who live and work in the community,” said Madison.
The buildings Madison and her colleagues design can also reshape a community’s spirit.
Robert P. Madison International Inc., where Madison is CEO and chairperson, regularly works with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to improve schools. Community engagement is part of this work. “We don’t just design a school,” explained Madison. “We sit down with the principal, the parents, the teachers, and learners and ask them what they are missing. We want to make the school their own. We want to design a place that the user will feel proud of.”
However, community members do not always believe architects will listen to them or hear what they’re saying. “This has occurred so often that many members in the community have given up on attending meetings that involve development because their voices were traditionally dismissed,” Madison said. “Architects can help make sure all people are heard.”
“This has occurred so often that many members in the community have given up on attending meetings that involve development because their voices were traditionally dismissed ... Architects can help make sure all people are heard.” - Sandra Madison, AIA
Madison currently serves on the Cleveland Euclid Corridor Design Review Committee and the Shaker Heights Architectural Board of Review. She also volunteers on a committee to redesign a stretch of road between Cleveland and Cleveland Heights to make it more pedestrian-friendly, as well as improve access to the small businesses along the street. “I was always taught that you should leave a place better than you found it,” said Madison. “If we don’t improve our community or elevate the people around us, we have failed.”
Improving community safety is also part of Madison’s advocacy work. Architects who want to reduce violence in their neighborhoods can start by understanding local zoning laws and how they can be used to improve safety, she explained. Zoning can also be a resource in providing amenities equitably in every neighborhood.
Madison believes children need spaces to congregate and play away from busy thoroughfares. She is working with community partners to create a safe haven for children in Cleveland with the renovation of a building for the Tamir Rice Foundation's Afrocentric Cultural Center. Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old Black boy who was fatally shot by a white police officer in Cleveland in 2014. Madison is helping the foundation design a cultural center where local youth can learn music, art, and Black history, in addition to dance and acting.
Madison’s advocacy efforts also include mentoring younger architects and students. When she became CEO of Robert P. Madison International Inc., Madison revised the firm’s mission statement to include mentorship and service to community.
Madison said this statement was important because she had mentors whose personal advocacy changed her life. Her first mentor was Stan Britt, FAIA, of Sulton Campbell Britt & Associates. Britt, who was president of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ Baltimore chapter at that time, introduced her to advocating for minority-owned businesses through the work of the organization.
Another mentor was Mark Beck, the founder of Beck, Powell and Parsons in Towson, Md., who allowed Madison to work flexible hours as a young mother. Beck also introduced Madison to volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Baltimore. Together, Beck and Madison taught students how the design of a personal space could improve an individual’s well-being. These conversations helped children understand the power they have to shape their communities and therefore their lives. Madison later served on the board of the ACE Mentor Program of Cleveland, which partners with Cleveland high schools to introduce students to careers in architecture, construction, and engineering.
Advocating for women and people of color is yet another hallmark of Madison’s service to her community and industry. Early in her career, Madison was frustrated with the lack of women and women of color in the architecture profession. She was the only Black woman in her class at the University of Maryland and one of the first 25 Black female licensed architects in the entire United States.
Her uncle, Robert P. Madison, encouraged Madison to do something about those numbers. She listened and joined AIA Cleveland, soon becoming the chair of the chapter’s Women in Architecture. Madison also works to place young architects of color in internships and have them volunteer at career day events at elementary schools in Cleveland. “We need to ensure that people of color and women can see a future for themselves in this industry,” she said.
Ultimately, citizen architects do not have to work at the national or state level to make an impact, Madison said. “Start with your own space, your neighborhood, your community,” she advised. “If you make your space better and you help someone else make their space better and so on, underserved spaces and places will become non-existent.”
- As told to Kerrie Rushton