A Panel Discussion Regarding How to Inclusively Lead the Next Generation of Architectural Talent

By Beth R. Mosenthal, AIA, 2019 AIA Colorado Member Voice Committee Member 

Beth Mosenthal, AIA

Beth Mosenthal, AIA

In my previous post, I summarized architect and equity advocate Rosa Sheng’s keynote at the 2019 American Institute of Architects (AIA) Colorado Practice & Design Conference, “Why Equity Matters, A New Value Proposition for Design.”   This post is a follow-up to share the take-aways from a related panel discussion at the conference entitled, “Inclusively Leading the Next Generation of Talent.”  

While overlapping with keynote themes related to equitable practice, Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, led a panel discussion focused on the architectural profession and its pipelines.  In what might be described as a litmus test for the current state of equity in architecture, Correa-Ortiz’s panel discussion explored the overarching question, “How are we fostering the next generation of design talent?” This question was answered through personal anecdotes paired with practices and resources shared by four accomplished women in architecture or architecture-adjacent fields that have beaten statistical odds to pursue leadership positions while championing equitable practice.

It was noted by a panelist, Tania Salgado, that an all-woman panel lacked diversity in its composition.  Correa-Ortiz countered that the unique experiences, backgrounds, and equity-related efforts of the respective panelists provided a valuable range of viewpoints.

Panelists included Tania Salgado, FAIA and Nicole Nathan, AIA, both leaders in their respective Denver-based firms, Handprint Architecture and JOHNSON NATHAN STROHE (JNS).  Salgado and Nathan provided valuable feedback regarding navigating leadership positions.  Nathan spoke to the value of building a thriving practice in which “diversity is one of its greatest assets,” as JNS often pursues projects such as hospitality that benefit from global perspectives and sensibilities.  Nathan shared the organic evolution of building a firm with an employee-base comprised of a large percentage of women in leadership as well as non-caucasian, and/or international employees sponsored with H1B visas.  A staunch equity advocate, Salgado shared her perspective having served in leadership roles on several national AIA committees related to equity, including her recent time spent on the AIA Equity and Future of Architecture Committee, “focused on making equity and inclusion a core value of AIA leadership and ensuring that policies and programs provide equal access to the profession.”

Jennifer Steffel Johnson, PhD, Instructor & Associate Char of the CU Denver’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and current chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council in the College of Architecture and Planning was able to speak to current barriers and opportunities within the academic realm of architecture and planning.  Mary-Margaret Zindren, CAE, Executive Vice-President, Ex Officio of AIA Minnesota, having been instrumental in the publication of AIA Minnesota’s 2015 “Diversity Task Force Report,” that would later inform the AIA’s “Guides for Equitable Practice,” shared her deep knowledge of current equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) research and resources that might benefit organizations and their members.

After an introductory presentation highlighting equity initiatives throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century, Correa-Ortiz first asked the panel, “How are we going to create a more equitable profession?” 

Zindren responded with Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote; “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  She suggested that throughout history, power has shifted to various minority groups, only to be lost again due to systemic inequity.  “We might think we [the architectural profession] is moving forward, but instead, we continue to open the door without changing how we do things.”  Zindren suggested that in order to become more equitable, “it is time [for the profession] to become self-aware” of the systemic challenges that continue to serve as barriers to equitable practice.  Referencing Whitney M. Young, Jr.’s ground-breaking speech at the AIA Convention in Portland, Oregon in 1968, she implored that architects must engage in their communities in a way that allows them to fully understand and challenge systems that have thus far “purposefully kept people out” (one example of this might be a neighborhood with existing racial covenants.)  Zindren warned against subtle efforts towards equity that might easily be reversed in favor of identifying opportunities to create long-term impacts that bend towards a truly more just, equitable profession.

Steffel-Johnson urged the architecture profession to examine the questions that inform their design work.  Question such as “Who is benefiting?”  and “Can we do better?” might have a long-term impact on existing communities and stakeholders.  She also suggested that one of the reasons architecture has been “slow to change” is because people (primarily minority groups) don’t see themselves represented in the profession.  Programs such as ACE mentorship as well as professionals of diverse backgrounds actively mentoring and seeking out opportunities to share their involvement in the profession with minority youth might help continue to create pipelines for a more diverse student population.

Salgado shared that the AIA’s recent commitment to promoting diversity within the field of architecture paired with resources such as the Equitable Guides for Practice aim to help professionals look at how where their firm might fit in to the long term goals of becoming a more equitable profession, and then taking steps to measure or correct existing inequities.  Salgado recommended steps such as implicit bias training that might help individuals recognize and take steps to dismantle existing biases.  Zindren also recommended intercultural competence trainings as another important tool for building empathy and eliminating bias in the workplace.

Nathan’s contributions to the discussion was from a more personal standpoint.  She shared that in her own experience, “diversity is not something that’s been designed” at JNS.  She shared that key employees have moved into leadership roles over time, setting examples and, demonstrating Steffel-Johnson’s point that because women and minority groups were able to see themselves represented, these representative populations have continued to work hard and excel within JNS.  She also shared that having leaders in a firm that might serve as strong advocates for employees of diverse backgrounds has been instrumental in her success.  “There were times in my career when I worked part time, but still had a meaningful role thanks to Jim Johnson’s advocacy.  I’ve seen women dismissed [during this stage in a career, as a primary caregiver.] Our firm celebrates diversity.  We talk about it.  In hospitality, we are bringing global cultures together.”

The conversation continued to flow easily and pointedly around topics of mentorship, what diversity in a profession actually looks like (the concept that the composition of architectural professionals should reflect the diversity within the communities they serve,) political correctness (“when you’re navigating discrimination and bias, it’s okay to have real conversations that allow failures in order to learn how to move forward,”) and creating platforms for people to succeed.

While the discussion could have been another hour or two, the hour provided a good overview of initiatives, resources, and experiences that might inspire audience members to challenge their personal and firm’s status quo.