Every few months, a group of Ayers Saint Gross firm members gather on Zoom to discuss shared goals and challenges. The meetings, which are part of the firm’s Latinx affinity group, provide an outlet for professionals from Latin American and Hispanic cultural backgrounds to discuss their professional goals and struggles through a shared cultural lens.
The Latinx Affinity Group, which was organized in 2021, is an outbranch of the firm’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Committee. Founded by Monica Retzke, Estefania Vasquez-Domme, and Oriana Gil Perez, the group works together on cultural and educational campaigns, building upon their shared cultural experiences to support each other and the firm.
Monica, who grew up in Brazil, said she was inspired to start the group after reading an article about the challenges faced by Hispanic and Latinx architects in the design profession. According to the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB), only 8.5% of the total architectural workforce and 5.9% of American Institute of Architecture members identify as Hispanic or Latinx. Even though there are many efforts being made to address the disparity, people who come from Latin American backgrounds — especially women — are among the most likely to drop out or withdraw from architecture programs.
“Reading about others’ experiences, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s not just me,’” Monica said. “I thought I was the only one struggling with certain things like public speaking or the language, and not feeling like I really belonged.”
From their earliest conversations, affinity group members realized they shared common struggles related to professional development and confidence. They established goals to build connections around the firm based on their shared culture, to put themselves out there by attending or presenting at professional conferences, and to take on more front-facing roles in project teams. Perhaps the most important goal, Monica said, is simply providing support for each other in the workplace.
“In our group, people can ask a question about anything from software and technical questions to professional development and promotions,” she said. “We’ve created a safe space for these kinds of conversations.”
That kind of guidance has been instrumental for Oriana and Estefania, who are both early in their careers. Estefania grew up in the border town of Nogales, Arizona with Mexican parents who only speak Spanish. While growing up, she was able to jump between two different countries and cultures, with different languages, energies, and world views. It wasn’t until college, as one of only a few Latinos and women to graduate in her architecture program, that she began to feel like her culture made her different. Later when she started her career, she realized she needed extra guidance to help her navigate the profession and answer her questions regarding licensure or career development.
“As a first-generation college student and young professional in the United States, you are always trying to figure things out on your own,” she said. “To find other people with your background, it’s a comfort.”
Since the group’s foundation, the team has organized cultural celebration campaigns related to Latinx History and Heritage Month each year – this year’s campaign includes sharing cultural recipes. They’ve also advocated for members to attend and present at conferences including the 2022 National Organization of Minority Architects Conference in Nashville, TN, and the 2022 AIA Women’s Leadership Summit in San Jose, CA.
Last year the group launched a firm-wide public speaking workshop series, inspired by their anxieties speaking in professional settings with accents. The workshops have become popular, with nearly a third of the firm attending a recent workshop on storytelling.
Estefania said she has been happy with the level of interest in the group’s activities, even from people who aren’t Latinx themselves.
“It’s not only us that want to go to these workshops; People have been messaging us saying this is really great,” she said. “In society, I think people don’t want to admit when they struggle with something like public speaking. But by opening these workshops and talking about our own insecurities, now we all know we can improve our skills with speaking in other ways and we’re all doing it together.”
Since getting involved in the affinity group, Monica said she feels a sense of belonging that she never had before. She also feels more confident about her place in the firm and the design profession.
“I feel like we belong and we are stronger together,” Monica said. “When we speak together in a group, people listen to us and are willing to help and support.”
Since the Latinx group was founded two years ago, additional affinity groups have started within the firm. An LGBTQIA group was kicked off in the spring of 2022, while a women’s affinity group was founded in early 2023.
Oriana, who is from Venezuela, said she has been inspired by the support of the affinity groups and the positive events and conversations that have been a result. She and the other team members are committed to growing the Latinx affinity group for years to come.
“It’s all about keeping the energy growing,” Oriana said. “Sometimes there will be down times, but we can’t forget about the shared goals that will help us grow. The culture that each of the employee affinity groups and the JEDI committee is establishing in the firm is the kind of culture I want to be a part of.”