J.E.D.I. Resource Share: A’22 Conference Recap


This month, the resources team of the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee caught up with our committee co-chair, Ely Merheb, AIA, who shared with us her experience at the recent national AIA Conference on Architecture in Chicago. Read on as Merheb shares her takeaways from the annual signature event and don’t forget to check out two more articles highlighting the newest AIA leaders, Lakisha Woods and Kimberly Dowdell, included after the recap.

Who was the most inspirational keynote speaker from a J.E.D.I. perspective? What J.E.D.I. action takeaways can firms implement?

It is so hard to choose! I think the most inspirational aspect of all keynotes, and of the conference in general, was that J.E.D.I. was central to all. Lakisha Woods, CAE, the newly appointed AIA CEO, really set the tone for the event on day one in her conversation with Julia Gamolina. Her appointment demonstrates that AIA is prioritizing diversity, not only in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of practice because Woods is an expert in business and association management as a Certified Association Executive (CAE). I encourage everyone to read her most recent interview published in Architect and the session recap to learn about her intentions of listening and implementing change through the AIA Strategic Plan, while prioritizing retention and organizational value.

The second keynote, a panel moderated by Lee Bey with Jeanne Gang, FAIA, Vishaan Chakrabarti, FAIA, and Renée Cheng, FAIA, was also incredibly dynamic and challenging. They were not afraid to talk candidly about the challenges faced by the profession while remaining optimistic. They see a future where architects “run into the burning building” – or burning planet – by bringing our thinking and talents into development and politics so that we can amplify our ability to effect positive change. “Thunderous silence”, as Whitney M. Young Jr. said, is not an option.

Former President Barack Obama was the closing keynote and, undoubtedly, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The conversation also centered around J.E.D.I. from his early beginnings as a community organizer to the goals for The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. AIA President Dan Hart, FAIA, closed the conversation by asking about his lessons in leadership, and Obama had three main points, which he believes are applicable to any type of leader and organization:

  1. Build a culture that empowers the team to do the best we can and be our best version. We must be predisposed to empower and invest in team success. Hold ourselves and the team accountable.
  2. Do not get hung up on hierarchy. Know and send a signal to those who do the work (usually the ones in the back of the room). Everyone counts.
  3. We need diversity of ideas — not just diverse people. One doesn’t guarantee the other. Set up a rigorous process to make good decisions by including different perspectives. It’s not a chore or charity to be more inclusive; it will make us better even though it might make us uncomfortable.

This wasn’t a specific J.E.D.I. conference, but can you describe how these topics were woven throughout the conference and impacted your experience?

Though the conference wasn’t specifically J.E.D.I. themed, to me it felt integral to the entire event — as it should as one of the association’s imperatives. It was at the forefront of all the keynote conversations, all the sessions I attended, and even in the event planning. For example, it was very thoughtful and grounding how all the keynote sessions featured Chicagoans introducing, moderating, or animating the sessions. Some of the standouts for me were a graceful Native American prayer dance, a children’s choir that greeted attendees the second morning, the message from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and Lee Bey’s contributions. Even the expo felt more communal, as it was purposefully organized to prioritize chance encounters and used Chicago neighborhoods for wayfinding while describing their unique character. I met a lot of wonderful people, both planned and unplanned. It was especially enriching to meet the Next to Lead participants, a pilot leadership program that removes barriers to AIA leadership positions.

In addition to the conference, what other experiences in Chicago were impactful?

Chicago was a great host city and the conference planners did a great job in contextualizing and grounding the event with the richness of the city. I enjoyed a free concert at the Millennium Park Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a boat tour, the Riverwalk and some great restaurants, but my visit to Wrightwood 659 was particularly impactful. It is a new exhibition space to contemplate socially engaged art and architecture in a 1920s building that was transformed by Tadao Ando. All the exhibits were thought provoking but two were particularly poignant and timely.

“I don’t want to be your icon of poverty or a sponge for your guilt. My identity is for me to build, in my own image. You’re welcome to walk beside me, but don’t stand in front to give me a helping hand. You’re blocking the sun.”

Shahidul Alam

Interesting in further reading? Learn more about AIA CEO Lakisha Woods and AIA National 2023 First VP/2024 President-elect Kimberly Dowell:

Architect Magazine Q+A: A Deep Dive with Lakisha Woods

Kimberly Dowdell on her time as NOMA president and the importance of diversity in architecture

For those who missed the national AIA Conference, save the dates of November 2-4 for the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference in Keystone.

About the Author

Ely Merheb, AIA

2022 AIA Colorado J.E.D.I. Committee Co-Chair

© AIA Colorado 2022