Shattering the Glass Ceiling. Making History: AIA, APA & NOMA Women Leaders


L-R: Kimberly Dowdell, Lakisha Ann Woods, Tiffany Brown, and Pascale Sablan. Not shown: Angela. D. Brooks. Photo credit: Ashley Jean Creative 

As we near the end of 2024 Women’s History Month and the recognition of historic females paving the way, we want to acknowledge history being made at this moment. The design industry, for the first time in history, is overseen by Black female leaders and many firsts:

Angela D. Brooks, FAICP, 2023-2024 APA President The first Black female President of the American Planning Association (APA) Tiffany Brown, NOMA, Assoc. AIA, MBA The first Associate AIA Black female as NOMA Executive Director Kimberly Dowdell, NOMAC, AIA, NCARB, SEED, LEED AP BD+C, 2024 AIA Presiden The 100th person to hold the office and the first Black woman Pascale Sablan, NOMA, FAIA, LEED AP, 2023-2024 NOMA President The first Black female CEO of Adjaye Associates New York studio Lakisha Ann Woods, CAE The first Black woman to serve as AIA CEO and Executive Vice President 

In a time when less than 1 percent of Black women are licensed architects and less than 3 percent of Black women are certified planners, we celebrate and marvel at this historical professional accomplishment.

Our aspirations and dreams are attainable. We need leaders who believe in the power of others as leaders and see the hard work where some may not. We also need women to take care of each other because the female architecture experience, and in particular, the Black female architecture experience, is unique. We are all better when more women are at the table and leading projects that impact our communities.   

APA, AIA and NOMA Women Leaders: Leading with Inspiration

In a unique collaboration between APA, AIA and NOMA, we asked our female leaders a series of questions. They answered the questions that resonated with each of them. We hope you will find them as inspiring as we did. 

This is a pivotal time for the industry that must be recognized and more importantly, honored to inspire the next generation of female design leadership.

Womens History Month

L-R: Angela D. Brooks, Tiffany Brown, Kimberly Dowdell, Pascale Sablan, Lakisha Woods

Question: 2024 is the year of black women in leadership in the industry. As you look at this moment, did you envision being in these leadership positions? What has been most surprising that got you to this place? What was the most formidable moment in your career that helped you get to this moment?

Angela D. Brooks: I am honored to share this moment in time with Pascale and Kimberly. There are things that come with national leadership in these types of organizations only others who have served will understand. Having two other dynamic Black women in my rolodex to call or text is invaluable

As I look back, nothing suggested that EVER in my life I would serve in this position. I have been an active member of American Planning Association (APA) since 1996 in graduate school, but serving in national leadership wasn’t on my radar. I was volunteering for one of the APA’s subject matter divisions and it included my bio. A woman I never met was serving on the nominating committee and felt having a person with a housing background would further diversify our board subject background, and well ethnic diversity too 🙂

The lesson I learned as a leader is you have to constantly be looking to identify future leaders, some of whom the idea of leadership won’t even cross their minds. We must open people’s eyes to the possibilities.  

As I begin my last year as APA President, I admittedly can say that early in my career doing permitting for cell towers helped prepare me most for my current leadership position. That role pushed me out of my comfort zone; I was constantly speaking at public meetings, often with heavy opposition. I learned how to articulate my employer’s case and to build consensus, when possible, but make definitive decisions when necessary.

Tiffany Brown: I was most surprised when the American Institute of Architects (AIA) hired Lakisha as its first black woman CEO/VP. I did not think AIA was ready to make a move like that yet. It was unexpected and I was encouraged and impressed. When I saw the announcement, I immediately told her how happy I was to “see” her. We became instant friends and have been close ever since. I was new to my own association executive role as NOMA’s first full-time employee and Executive Director, and seeing AIA make a major statement like that truly showcased the progress the organization has made.

Lakisha and I talked about how powerful it would be to have both Kim and Pascale in place as presidents while she and I were the executives of these two organizations. To be one of four black women in leadership roles of NOMA & AIA after years of partnership for the first time in history is truly an honor, and one I don’t take for granted. During the dual pandemics, I envisioned executive leadership in my future and that’s when the opportunity presented itself at NOMA. At the time, Kim was NOMA’s president and helped me realize my calling for a shift into association management while still being part of the industry. Leading NOMA alongside Pascale has been an amazing experience as we both faced challenging situations together as moms and industry leaders. Paired with her evolving firm role, Pascale’s leadership ethic has been the perfect supplement to my role through NOMA’s growth and transition. 

I have been fortunate to surround myself with a number of black women in leadership who inspire me to be greater. Together we can show the world we are more than capable of being successful in leadership roles. It is important for others to see us lead in these roles. I admire these women because of their incomparable strength. They have reminded me that a reckoning is on the horizon.

Kimberly Dowdell: I credit my mentors, champions and advocates for helping me get to this point in my career. It meant so much that they saw my leadership potential, even before I could fully see it. I had not set a goal of becoming AIA President when I was encouraged to run in 2021. I completed my two-year term as NOMA President and I was honestly looking forward to taking some down time to focus on my personal life. It became clear that I had some unfinished business in the realm of organizational leadership, and specifically through AIA, which had not elected a Black woman as president since being founded in 1857. I accepted the challenge of running for this position in 2022 because I firmly believe that representation matters. If we want to see more Black women enter this profession, then we need to see more Black women in the highest levels of leadership. Beyond representation, I have a proven track record of success in leadership, dating back to elementary school. I was always the kid that my peers and elders selected to be the leader for various groups. Today, I know that I am more than capable of achieving results for the organizations that I lead, calling upon over three decades of experience. There wasn’t a specific moment that brought me here, but rather it was all of the moments combined that made this moment possible.

Pascale Sablan: Becoming the leader of NOMA was a journey I hadn’t envisioned for myself, but it was a path I was called to follow. Along the way, I discovered that greatness can be seen by others before we see it in ourselves. What’s truly surprising is the support I’ve received from men of color throughout my career. They’ve not only encouraged me but also provided opportunities for me to grow and excel. This collective belief in my potential has been the most formidable force guiding me to this moment of leadership.

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L-R: Tiffany Brown, Pascale Sablan, Kimberly Dowdell, Lakisha Ann Woods. Not shown: Angela. D. Brooks. Photo credit: Ashley Jean Creative

Question: As a woman in leadership, what have you lost or had to give up in order to be in this position? What have you gained?

Angela D. Brooks: Time is the biggest challenge. Early in my term I had to evaluate what I could offload for my two-year term. I am very involved in my Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated grad chapter, my Links chapter and Jackson State University alumni chapter. I learned quickly that those would have to take a back seat for this moment in time. Not to mention balancing my career and caregiving for my father in another state.

My gains are great. I have traveled near and far connecting with planners throughout the world. I have co-chaired APA’s Housing Supply Accelerator to come up with solutions to increase housing supply, and I have been stretched out of my comfort zone and had to play an extrovert more than I would ever pick.

Pascale Sablan: In my journey to leadership, I’ve had to sacrifice personal time, romantic love, and sleep to devote myself to my career and passion work. These losses, however, have been vastly outweighed by the incredible gains from being part of the NOMA community. I’ve gained a global network of visionary designers, unwavering love and support, and a sense of courage knowing NOMA has my back. Above all, NOMA has instilled in me a belief that collectively, we can achieve anything. These gains are the pillars that support and drive me forward in my leadership role.

Question: Personally or professionally, what are two things you struggle with as a female Black leader?  

Pascale Sablan: As a female Black leader, my first struggle is integrating my multifaceted life. From raising a brilliant young boy and leading Adjaye Associates’ New York Studio as the CEO to founding a nonprofit that uplifts over 1,110 women and BIPOC designers and authoring a book celebrating their work, my passions and identities are intertwined. Embracing this fusion has been a journey of self-acceptance. 

My second struggle is the weight of perfection. Being labeled a trailblazer in the industry, like being the youngest African American to elevate to the AIA college of fellows in over 165 years, I often feel the pressure to be flawless, as my actions can influence the future access and opportunities for Black women. It’s a constant challenge to balance excellence with the understanding that mistakes are part of growth.

Kimberly Dowdell: Time management is probably my biggest challenge. I tend to set ambitious goals for myself personally and professionally, which combined requires a significant amount of time and effort to achieve. As a woman of color, there are also extra layers of responsibility and demands on my time. For example, at different and sometimes overlapping points in time, I have been involved with groups for women, people of color, women of color, and for everyone. Managing these many commitments alongside my core responsibilities can be difficult. I’m still working on finding the right balance. Prioritizing my health and well-being is essential amidst these competing demands and opportunities. Self-care is definitely an area that needs greater attention…when I make the time!

Lakisha Woods: I believe all people have various challenges in one way or another within the workplace. However, there are specific challenges to leading as a woman of color based on continued unconscious bias. It’s not just my opinion, all the data continues to show the difficulties that black women face as leaders, from lack of support to people discounting our thoughts and ability to lead. There are so many challenges facing black women that Lean In developed a State of Black Women in Corporate America report that documents barriers and solutions.

Microaggressions: It is important for us to remind people that microaggressions are a real issue, comments and actions that demean or dismiss us based on our race and gender. The quote from that report that I feel in my everyday work is “black women are more likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise and to be asked to provide additional evidence of their competence. They are also nearly two and a half times more likely than white women—and more than three times more likely than men—to hear someone in their workplace express surprise about their language skills or other abilities.”

Balance: I must continue to focus on making work life balance a priority. It is easy in a role of this level to let work be all consuming and not make time for health and wellbeing. However, I also spend a lot of time speaking to firm leaders about the importance of ensuring their staff believe that the company is focused on their well-being. I also encourage my team to make time for themselves and to get away and reset, so I need to practice what I preach.

Question: While women are celebrated in March, are there places and spaces that elevate women all year long?

Kimberly Dowdell: I am grateful that there are many spaces dedicated to uplifting women, fostering collaboration, and providing support year-round. One such space that has been instrumental for me since 2020 is the CHIEF network. Through CHIEF, I had the opportunity to engage in group coaching sessions, where women in leadership from various backgrounds come together under the guidance of a highly trained facilitator. These sessions have provided me with invaluable support and guidance as I navigate challenges and cultivate opportunities in my professional journey. Similarly, many AIA chapters offer resources specifically for women, including networking and advocacy platforms for female architects, fostering collaboration and empowerment within the field. I’ve also found support through my sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated (AKA) since I was initiated in 2003. Sororities and similar organizations offer a vast network of instant connectivity and resources for women, especially when venturing into new territories or seeking camaraderie in unfamiliar environments. Last but not least, I appreciate the way that my firm elevates women beyond the month of March. We have a woman serving as Co-CEO of HOK and that has been such an inspiration for so many people at our firm and throughout our profession. In addition, HOK hosts programs that are geared toward telling the stories of women throughout the firm and we also work with many women-owned businesses on our design projects.

Lakisha Woods: I have focused on elevating and celebrating women and their leadership all year long as soon as I arrived at AIA. Originally they had the Women’s Leadership Summit every other year, so the first move was moving that event to be annual. In addition, we created our Future Focused series, to allow women and minorities to tell their stories each week and share them through our social channels. The growth and activation on the stories have made an impact already and we are looking into more opportunities to develop a call to action.

Question: What is one piece of advice you would tell your younger self?

Angela D. Brooks: If I could leap back in time and whisper advice to young Angela knowing where the journey may take her, I would tell her to keep going. Lift your head high, take the leap of faith every single time. I would ensure she knew to build a village of people who will celebrate her and encourage her, but also be prepared to critique her and course correct her.

Tiffany Brown: The lessons I’ve learned throughout my career have become the 7 pillars that I share through my non-profit 400 Forward, which helps girls who want to venture into the field of design:

  1. Know yourself. To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom. Learn to understand your identity. You’ll feel stronger and won’t fold into what someone else thinks you should be doing. Acting on self-knowledge will drive you and lead you to your calling.
  2. Know your field. Do the proper research and understand what it takes to get there. I didn’t know about the licensing exams for architecture until my third year studying architecture. Keep learning.
  3. Be confident. This is important beyond the workplace and can take some time and practice to get there. Overcoming self-doubt will take you places you couldn’t ever imagine.
  4. Be Professional. Always. Especially when faced with adverse situations. Integrity and self-control display a high degree of emotional intelligence.
  5. Be Present & Active. Sit at the table. Physically and figuratively. Take part in the discussion. You won’t make it to the top by being in the shadows.
  6. Never Back Down. There will always be someone who challenges you or questions your abilities. Be sure to stay focused and stay calm. Remember what you’re capable of.
  7. Show them it cannot be done without you. Make yourself a valuable team member.

Lakisha Woods: I would advise my younger self to be patient, stay the course and don’t wait for others to validate your potential. There will always be people who question your ability, talent or knowledge as a black woman. It is important for all black women to recognize their ability and believe in themselves. I tell my five-year-old daughter to tell herself every day, I’m strong, smart, brave, beautiful and kind. That type of message may seem unnecessary, but believing in yourself must start young and be reinforced as we grow older.

Question: How do you feel empowered to lead your organization in your role?

Angela D. Brooks: I often have imposter syndrome in this role leading the largest planning organization in the world. When I see my picture in rooms I never imagined I would be in and know no other black woman before me has graced the space, I think about what am I doing to ensure the path for the next 1, 2, 3 is clear and supported. 

I am fortunate to be empowered by a supportive board and exceptional staff team. Leadership at this level doesn’t come without challenges and conquering microaggressions and undercurrents you often wonder if are sparked due to your gender, race or possibly both. Knowing your board and staff will be there to support you and have your back is empowerment and having professional colleagues who always have your back is empowerment in its truest form.

Tiffany Brown: Drawing on the inspiration of my own mentors, peers and personal experiences, I am able to leverage my position and influence to inspire and support the next generation of black female architects, designers, and executives.

Having the privilege to lead NOMA through a period of growth and transformation while building relationships with other organizations shaping the profession makes me feel empowered in my role.

Kimberly Dowdell: The first true moment of empowerment for me in my role as AIA President was learning that the AIA delegates voted for the agenda that I put forth during my campaign in 2022. That gave me a clear idea of what AIA members are seeking from leadership, and the confidence to know that I can offer real value to this organization. The overwhelmingly positive support that I’ve received since the announcement of my presidency has further strengthened my sense of empowerment to lead authentically and ambitiously. Shortly after my election to the position, a second year HBCU architecture student wrote a letter telling me how much my win meant to her. That meant everything to me. I recently reached out to the student to see how she is doing and she reported a 4.0 GPA and incredible excitement about the career path that she has chosen. This is a powerful reminder of why we must feel empowered to keep going, even when things get challenging. There is a generation looking to us for a brighter future. I can’t think of anything more motivating and empowering than that.