To illustrate the very serious task of fighting for equity, AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design Committee uses the poem “Melinda Mae” by children’s author Shel Silverstein:
Have you heard of Melinda Mae,
Who ate a monstrous whale?
She thought she could,
She said she would,
So she started in right at the tail.
And everyone said, “You’re much too small,”
But that didn’t bother Melinda at all.
She took little bites and she chewed very slow,
Just like a good girl should…
…And in eighty-nine years she ate that whale
Because she said she would!
We in the architecture profession have slowly been “eating the whale” for more than 100 years, regarding the task of getting more women and minorities into the profession. There have been some great milestones along the way, including:
- In 1881, Louise Bethune became the first professional female architect. (Like me, Bethune was from the great city of Buffalo, New York.)
- In 1923, Paul Revere Williams became the first African American AIA member. He was also the first black architect elected into the College of Fellows and is this year’s AIA Gold Medal winner. He is the first black architect to be honored the AIA’s highest award.
- Lou Weller said to be the first Native American architect* and was the first Native American awarded the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award in 2000. Today, Native Americans represent less than 1% of licensed architects.
Despite these achievements, architecture still lacks diversity. As of 2014, 22% of licensed architects are female, 2% are African American, and 3% are Latino. That’s not great for a 136 year timespan. More than 50% of students enrolled in architecture schools are non-white, meaning that in five to 10 years, we should see this diversity reflected in our workplaces. But relying on diversity to happen over time only is not enough.
The Equity in Architecture Commission is the vehicle that creates a greater urgency within the profession (and AEC community at large). The percentages will continue to grow at a snail’s pace until the profession allows all of its members to flourish. We must create equitable and inclusive practices to encourage individuals from underrepresented groups to get licensed, remain in the profession, and ultimately thrive. Pushing for equitable practice will create the surge needed to make the diversity of our firms reflect the diversity of the clients and communities we serve. Hopefully, it will take less than another 136 years.
The Equity in Architecture Commission was approved in May 2015, as a result of the Resolution 15-1, approved in May 2015. The commission is a call to action for both women and men to realize the goal of equitable practice in order to retain talent, advance the architecture profession, and communicate the value of design to society. With increasingly greater numbers of women and minorities in architecture schools, it is vital that AIA addresses this opportunity to foster and support a more inclusive workforce across the profession.
The commission serves as the framework for developing a well-conceived and thoughtful action plan and set of recommendations. The initial charge of the 22-person commission, of which I was proud to be a member, was to:
- Develop specific recommendations that will lead to equitable practices
- Create measurable goals and develop mechanisms for assessing ongoing process
- Present a plan of action based on the commission’s recommendations
Dr. Shirley Davis who specializes in organization transformation, diversity and inclusion, implicit bias, and strategic development, facilitated the commission. We started by asking, “When we achieve equity in architecture, what does it look it?”
The question prompted hundreds of responses, which were then categorized into five topic areas:
- Education and Career Development
- Leadership Excellence (within AIA and the profession)
- Firm/Workplace/Studio Culture
- Marketing, Branding, Public Awareness, and Outreach
- Better Architecture
We then focused on these five areas for the remainder of the year, creating actionable items that could create change in both the short and long terms.
All of the recommendations and initiatives are being compiled into a final report which will act as a road map for equitable practice. For the next three years, the commission has recommended the following eleven initiatives which were approved by the AIA National Board of Directors in December 2015:
- Equity, diversity and inclusion as a core value for the board of directors
- Measure and report how equity, diversity and inclusion permeates within the AIA
- Equity, diversity and inclusion training for AIA volunteers and components
- Guides for equitable, diverse and inclusionary practice
- Create a firm self-assessment tool
- Position paper on equity, diversity and inclusion and the profession
- Collect equity, diversity and inclusion data of project teams, firms and clients on work submitted for AIA Awards
- Advocate for equity in higher education
- Engage and expose kids to architecture through K-12 programs
- Tell our stories
- Ensure media reflects diverse range of architects
To download the entire Equity in Architecture report, click here.
My experience on the Equity Commission was one of the most fulfilling things I have done professionally. The Equity Commission was charged with taking action and making real change. As a Millennial, this was music to my ears. I’m encouraged that the eleven initiatives will make real, long-lasting change in the profession.
There are so many great resources out there to read (architecture and non-architecture related) and get involved in the conversation. Here are five to you get started:
- And Justice for All – TEDxPhiladelphia 2015 Highlights via Equity by Design
- EQxD Get Real Series: Bias & Privilege via Equity by Design
- 7 Things Men Should Do at Work to Help Women Get Even via Business Insider
- The State of Gender Equality in the Workplace via FairyGodBoss
- 100 Things You Can Do Right Now to Drive the 3% Number Upwards via The 3% Conference
I’d like to end this post with a challenge for everyone: imagine if Melinda Mae had help eating the whale. She could have accomplished her task faster, and had more fun doing it!
If everyone takes a bite out of the whale, we can achieve equitable practice much more rapidly. This is a conversation must be inclusive of everyone that everyone must join.
For anyone who is more interested in hearing more about the eleven initiatives, please do not hesitate to reach out! You can reach me at LGraff@ayerssaintgross.com. Let’s eat that whale together.
* AIA did not begin collecting data on race and ethnicity until 2000.