Equity in Architecture: A Frank Conversation with Annicia Streete

Annicia Streete

“Every generation has a responsibility to the next generation—and accountability to the previous.”

By Amy Dvorak, Assoc. AIA

Annicia Streete is an architecture and construction practitioner at Catena Construction and Sprocket Design+Planning. She’s an adjunct faculty member of the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado, serves as a faculty advisor for the American Institute of Architecture Students, served in the ACE Mentorship Program, and is on the founding team of the Colorado Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. She’s also a Black immigrant.

With statistical odds against her—there are just 17 registered Black architects in the state of Colorado—Streete emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago in 1998 to pursue her education and career in architecture. And she’s done quite well. She remains committed to improvement and enhancement through education and opportunity, as demonstrated through her service in the ACE Mentorship Program and her recent participation as a panelist for the AIA Colorado event, “Let’s Talk About Race.” 

Afterwards, we caught up with Streete to discuss ways to achieve a more equitable profession. Read on as she dives deep on representation in architecture, accountability, and the racism that still exists in our state today. 

Representation in architecture: Why is it so important? 

Michelle Obama gave a quote at the AIA Conference in Architecture in 2017: “You can’t be an architect if you don’t know architects exist.” For me, that is so specific in what the intent is there. How would we know what we can be if we don’t have an example? 

In Trinidad and Tobago, there were no female architects designers—no influence for me, mostly men. My father was in construction, and my uncle was in engineering. Particularly looking at younger generations, those are formative years to anyone who’s been where you want to be to figure out how to get there. 

How has the architecture profession built roadblocks to participation for people of color? 

When I think about pursuing basic opportunities when first starting my journey into the profession, for me I always have a student’s perspective. Even before higher ed, giving students in communities with lesser access to resources that might exclude them is a hindrance and it trickles all the way up to the profession. I say that because the profession has resources to reach communities. If we expect the profession to be fed by communities, we must nurture communities. 

Some other things that have been noted is that licensing—being able to do that in a timely manner, access to study materials, cost of licensure—it’s a hindrance to some. When some get into the practice world, they’re not making enough to even cover normal or daily expenses. Compensation rates when I first entered the field didn’t seem at all commensurate after doing due diligence toward a degree. 

What needs to change in the architecture profession to better combat systemic racism?

It should be cyclical. What as a profession can we give into the community so that they’re nurtured, so the product—the students—can be fed back into the profession? It’s extending resources at the community level, making sure there’s adequate mentorship and scholarships for upcoming practitioners and designers. 

The thing not so tangible is the relationships, especially for minorities in the field, so that they have an equitable position in the practice. One of my mentors said, “We’re in the business of architecture, construction, or design. But we’re basic human beings, so we have to be able to relate on a human standard with each other.” It’s not always business as usual.

Why is it that we’re so uncomfortable talking about race?

A lot is systemic. Usually when I hear words like systemic racism—and now more frequently—I try to stay rooted in what the words actually mean. There is a system put in place that people have been taught to treat another race differently. Some don’t know how to engage or interact with another race. When that’s been engrained, how would you expect someone to engage on a basic human level if you haven’t been taught that? 

There’s not so much of a willingness to understand another perspective or culture, so the instinct is to shy away versus engage. Some people don’t want to go there. There are three different types of people: Some see themselves as allies. Some see themselves as racist, some as non-racist. And many people are non-racist but don’t have the courage to speak up. You have these systemic factors and some are more personal in how they engage with other people.

What opportunities do you see for those who want to create change but aren’t in leadership positions?

Start by adopting activities of not just mentorship but empowerment. You can be mentored in a firm, but the next step is empowerment. Give opportunity for those you mentor to exercise their skills, and there needs to be accountability with that, where you don’t leave someone out to dry. 

I had a good mentor on a well-known project in Denver. During a client meeting, he was tired from talking and he asked me to run the next part of the meeting. I was an intern. He empowered me. By the time I was done with the meeting, I felt proud and accomplished. Just one experience changed the whole outlook on empowerment. 

You have to recognize that you’ve been given a platform and opportunity to make way in  industry, and that has to be redeposited into the industry. If we’re talking about equity, everyone deserves the opportunity to have knowledge passed on. 

A lot of pressure has unfairly been put on BIPOC to create the necessary change. Whose duty is it to make firms more equitable?

All of us—but not all of us have the same opportunities or the same platforms. 

It should come from a position of conscience, from responsibility, to see your fellow designer succeed so the entire field can succeed. When someone is oppressed for so long, fighting and fighting for so long, chances are you want people who have been oppressing to take some action and responsibility. 

Part of the exhaustion comes into play. When being an ally and approaching someone to see how they’re doing, making sure you’re being aware, you might not get the response you think you’d get. You can’t take it personally. There’s so much you might not know about what that person has been through and is different in how everyone handles certain levels of pressure. 
The word that keeps coming to me: needed. 

In response to the panel discussion—a prompt for the architecture community to have a conversation on racial inequities—someone commented, “Too late. Action is what’s next.” How do you respond to that? 

Any discussion is always good as a way to make sure you’re putting out the right messages and being heard. I partly agree; action is what is needed. When you think about the amount of years of oppression, we’ve been talking. When I think about people who are not aware, I always give people the benefit of the doubt. That’s my approach as a human being. If you show me respect, expect to get that. People who are unaware, we have to educate and inform. So the discussions become a starting point that should have happened and been acted on years ago. But as a catalyst, let it work as a catalyst, not as an escape that might be used. 

When we think of where we are as a society, we’re late. We’re a few hundred years late. And while it’s never too late to do anything I believe, you have to back it up with action, you have to acknowledge that you’re late. Nothing wrong with acknowledging it using words like listen and engage. 

If your intentions are sincere from the beginning, even if you don’t know what the next step is, you need to understand there is action that can come behind your fence. It’s not that everyone is taking the same action or the same scale of action, whether donating or skills-related or protesting and being present, there are different scales of support to be lent, but to me it’s the core of your intentions. 

I want everyone to be aware. If you realize that this is an ever present battle and stigma. Just because it’s not on news, that doesn’t mean it’s not history. People need to understand that this is an ever present issue. That’s why it’s systemic. It’s been 400 years, 500 years, and still today in modern times, we are still faced with the issue. This isn’t just going to go away. 

What concerns you for the future of the profession? 

I had a run-in with a white gentleman who took something away from me. He used the N-word and said, “Trump is gonna get all you out of this country.” I was getting gas in Capitol Hill. He grabbed the hose from me and just went off—in my own neighborhood. Here I thought I had security. This happened first thing in the morning on my way to work. I thought, I have to stand up to this. I spoke intelligently, said what I didn’t appreciate, and asked what examples he was setting for the kids he had in his car. I’m not even safe in my own domain, my own neighborhood, place of work. Then I got to thinking about my family, my students, my black colleagues—are they experiencing the same treatment? 

It’s hard to shut down my brain at night. I try not to live with too much fear. Scriptures are something I really hold onto. One speaks about fear and not letting it take over, but overcoming fear. That helps me calm the mind and think about possibilities.

I think about those kids, sitting there, hearing that. They absorb everything. That’s systemic.

It’s a loaded general concern for loved ones, for friends and family, how they’re going to not just move forward, but also how they may thrive in society as it is right now. 

What else do you want those in the profession to know?

We need to just love and understand each other and treat each other for basic human respect. Take steps that promote each other in being able to succeed. Some firms need to have training on diversity on how to be able to do that. And people need to show up. By your actions, we can tell. If your actions don’t align, then I can’t see you in a certain light that you’re an ally or committed to seeing change. 

If you’re white, and you’re seeing these stories on the news, don’t be in such a position of opposition just because it’s being publicized. I see some very non-understanding responses, and it’s unfortunate and unfair, and some of it is disgusting. If I asked you to put the same scenario on yourself, you’d want me to be understanding. 
Every generation has a responsibility to the next generation—and accountability to the previous. 

About the Author

Amy Dvorak

Amy Dvorak, Assoc. AIA, formerly served as Communications Director at AIA Colorado; as Co-Chair of the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee; and as a member of the Editorial Committee.

© AIA Colorado 2024
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