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Representation Matters: Engaging and Serving with NOMA

Architect Oriana Gil-Perez works with students during a NOMA-sponsored design workshop.

The National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) is a membership organization with a mission of fostering communication and fellowship among minority architects and other professionals in the design community, while promoting justice and equity in underrepresented and marginalized communities through outreach, community advocacy, professional development, and design excellence.

As the importance of representation in the design industry has become more clear, a growing number of Ayers Saint Gross employees have become involved in NOMA, in both member and leadership capacities. Below, a few members of our firm share their experiences with NOMA and why they believe representation matters for architects and designers of all races and ethnicities.

Oriana Bio Insert

Oriana Gil-Perez, a member of our architecture studio, has been involved in NOMA since she was an undergraduate student at Arizona State University. She and some classmates founded a student organization called LASO (Latinx Architecture Student Organization). A few years in, the group was approached by alumni who were involved in NOMA, who began to serve as professional chapter mentors. Oriana soon became a student founder/supporter of the first NOMA Arizona chapter.

“Our relationship supported each other,” Oriana said. “They provided mentorship to our students and we hosted events and opportunities where people could connect and exchange ideas and achieve our goals of embracing our cultures and who we are.”

As a student, Oriana participated in job search seminars, a symposium on Designing while being Latinx, and NOMA Arizona’s first annual Home Cooking Away from Home, in which NOMA members hosted area college students for a homecooked meal.

During her master’s program, Oriana was selected to receive NOMA Arizona’s John Williams Scholarship. She also presented at the National NOMA Conference in 2021, sharing her thesis research on best practices for impacting communities in other countries by partnering with locals and establishing relationships of trust and knowledge exchange.

Since coming to Ayers Saint Gross full-time, Oriana has remained involved in NOMA and recently participated in Project Pipeline, a program in which volunteered shared concepts of design with K-12 students in Arizona.

“Many students mentioned they never thought about becoming a designer or even going to school until they had these activities where we would draw, paint, and model spaces for students with their ideas near their schools,” Oriana said. “This event is proof that representation matters, specifically for youth.”

Monica Bio Insert

As a first-generation college graduate, Monica Retzke has experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to find your career path. Knowing that she is in the minority of Latinx architects who have completed their licensing process and achieved a certain level of career success, Monica has committed herself to helping others find their path forward toward whatever career goals they may have.

At Ayers Saint Gross, she is a founding member of the firm’s Latinx Affinity Group, which works to raise awareness of challenges and goals of the Latinx community. Monica is also a member of the DC Chapter of NOMA. This summer, she spent a day volunteering for the chapter’s Project Pipeline summer camp at DC Dreams Southeast building. During the camp, she worked with others to help students learn about basic architecture concepts, including designing at different scales, programming, and designing floor plans.

A student participates in a Project Pipeline event to learn more about the design field.
A student participates in a Project Pipeline event to learn more about the design field.
A programming exercise during a Project Pipeline event
A programming exercise during a Project Pipeline event

Though she says the field is not as diverse as she wishes it could be, Monica is inspired by these efforts to raise awareness of opportunities in design for new audiences of young people.

“These were all very smart kids, who without programs like District NOMA, most likely would not have the opportunity to learn and understand what architecture is about,” she said. “This was a great opportunity to lay the seeds for those who have talents that can align with the profession.”

Lonna Bio Insert

Lonna Babu got involved in NOMA during her time as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland and served on the executive board of the NOMA student chapter. Looking back on her experience, she is especially grateful for the professional connections which helped her land her first architecture internship as an undergraduate.

“[The firm] usually selected graduate students or more experienced individuals as interns and I had just finished my first year of studio,” Lonna said. “But, solely based on my leadership through NOMAS and NOMA connections at the firm, they took a chance and gave me an incredible internship experience getting to work across project types, disciplines, project phases, etc., and I really got a well-rounded look at the design world. I got to build up technical skills in several programs and grow so much as a future architect.”

University of Maryland students participate in a NOMAS-organized meal service event during Lonna's...
University of Maryland students participate in a NOMAS-organized meal service event during Lonna's time at UMD.

As part of her internship, Lonna had the opportunity to present at both community and firm-wide meetings, which built her confidence. She also made connections that helped give her recommendations for graduate school. Now, as a professional, Lonna remains involved in the Baltimore chapter of NOMA and hopes to grow in her involvement as time goes on.

“It is so empowering to be a part of NOMA as a minority designer,” Lonna said. “Getting to see and hear from leaders and colleagues that have had the same experiences as you or even look like you can be so powerful as you navigate the design field. It is a great way to mentor and give opportunities back to younger designers just like I was given.”

Nakia Bio Insert

Though she has always been aware of NOMA, Nakia Neves, western regional director of marketing and business development, was initially unsure if she could get involved. When she learned that her local Arizona chapter is open to everyone in the design industry, including those in marketing, she started attending meetings and volunteering for various event planning committees. Today, she serves on the Arizona chapter’s board as treasurer and is proud that the organization provides so many valuable resources to its members.

“We’re providing community for people who might feel like they don’t have it and helping people building a professional network, while aiding our community,” Nakia said. “Our goal is to help as many people in the design profession become licensed professionals as we can through scholarships and support and then helping them stay in the industry with all the challenges of school, starting their families, and careers.”

Oriana and Nakia participating in a Project Pipeline event
Oriana and Nakia at a Project Pipeline event

Like Monica and Oriana, Nakia has been a volunteer with Project Pipeline and believes in the good it does by introducing students to the design industry.

“Having people who look like them and speak their languages or have their accents and similar experiences can go a long way in recruiting people and inspiring interest,” Neves said.

Nakia also finds NOMA rewarding because of the close relationships she has found.

“Some of these people I’ve only known for the past two and a half years, but I feel really close to them,” she said. “I have strong bonds within the industry and I’ve been able to double them within a short period of time.”

To learn more about NOMA, visit their official website.

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