How Do We Elevate the Next Generation of Architects of Color?

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by: Alicia Olushola Ajay, Architect Magazine

In these uncertain times, architecture firms and schools are facing severe, though hardly new, indictments sparked by global outcries against racial inequality. Today, the profession is being forced to reckon with allegations of upholding white supremacist cultures and practices—the dismal lack of diversity among architecture firms and student bodies being just one glaring metric. The National Organization of Minority Architects, founded in 1971, has responded by building a pipeline to increase the number of architects of color.

With programs that include Project Pipeline, the National Organization of Minority Architect Students, and the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, the organization is supporting students of color at crucial milestones to becoming an architect. Project Pipeline aims to give students exposure to architecture at an early age—a significant determinant in their choosing to pursue the profession. Since its inception in 2005, the program has served more than 10,000 middle school to high school students in more than 25 cities around the country, offering summer camps, career days, and workshops that teach design justice. The project gives students new insight into the built environment in their communities, while spotlighting architecture as a viable profession.

The NFF is NOMA’s most recent push to add to the pipeline life cycle. Unveiled this summer, the fellowship placed 30 NOMAS students in eight-week paid internships at prominent firms across the country. The new initiative, largely supported by a partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, aims to provide access to graduates of color, while inspiring the profession to see the untapped talent that has been too long neglected.

I spoke with a number of the NFF fellows—all smart, passionate, energetic, and eager for their work to help the communities that need it most. (See their profiles here.) I also had a Zoom call with four leading NOMA advocates who are helping to build the pipeline: Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, the organization’s national president and a principal at HOK Chicago; Bryan C. Lee Jr., co-chair of Project Pipeline and founder/director of New Orleans–based Colloqate Design; Richie Hands, Assoc. AIA, co-chair of Project Pipeline and an associate at Lamar Johnson Collaborative in Chicago; and Dr. Kwesi Daniels, head of Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture in Tuskegee, Ala. They discussed the challenges—financial, social, and otherwise—that students of color face. They also unpacked the real purpose of the pipeline: ushering in a new generation of architects who can think critically about fighting systems of oppression through design and who will create a more equitable profession.