One Question Series: Part 3, Being a Bystander

What happens when you ask the same question to five designers with five different backgrounds? You get five very different answers that will put you in someone else’s shoes. From firm principals to emerging professionals, we’re diving in to better understand—and share—others’ personal perspectives. This is the third installment of the monthly series—“One Question”—produced by our Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (J.E.D.I.) Committee. 

In partnership with the Colorado Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, we invite you to see through the lenses of five different practitioners to learn how their unique backgrounds shape experiences in the firm and their approaches to design.

Tell us about a time when you were not able to bring your full identity into your work.

Victor Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, NOMA
AIA Colorado J.E.D.I. Committee Member + Editorial Representative
Davis Partnership Architects

“Throughout my experience in the practice of architecture I have found myself holding back from bringing my full identity into my work. As a Mexican queer professional, I believe the first barrier encountered is the draining biased standard of “professionalism”. The culture that has resulted from this so-called “professionalism” is rooted in white supremacy or the systemic, institutionalized centering of whiteness. In the practice and culture of architecture this may be seen as the belief that traditional standards and values are objective and unbiased. As a result, it has affected the way I present myself in the context of white and Western standards of dress, hairstyle, and overall communication.

I have stopped myself mid-sentence from speaking Spanish to my Spanish-speaking colleagues because of the uneasiness I’ve noticed in the facial expressions of those who don’t speak Spanish. How is a diverse professional expected to bring their full identity if the environment they are in is not suited to embrace their cultural difference? Language is a form of expression and allows a greater connection with a person who has a similar cultural background. On the other hand, speaking a different language that is not understood by the majority of those around and may come off as disrespectful. This perception of “disrespect” circles back to how there is a constant enforcement of a biased standard of “professionalism” in the workforce.

Once there is a greater conversation hosted around the problematic elements of how professionalism is defined, there can be a shift that allows other minorities to bring their authentic and rich backgrounds into their work. If there is not a greater analysis of the practice and its norms, there will continue to be the same shared unfortunate experiences for minorities.”

Wells Squier, AIA
AIA Colorado President
Principal, Anderson Hallas Architects

“After much contemplation and introspection, I can’t recall any professional experience where I felt I could not bring my full identity to work. I recognize my alignment with the stereotypical image of what an architect might “look” like: a white male that wears eyeglasses. Also, as previously shared in the first article of the series, early exposure to the profession facilitated my career development path. Adding my ethnicity and gender to this equation, it is apparent to me how that greatly amplified my access to career advancing opportunities, while many had to navigate through roadblocks and prejudices.

This is a challenging profession, and like anyone who is passionate about our profession and the responsibility it demands, I have worked very hard to advance and shape the career that is most meaningful to me. That said, it is quite humbling to consider the additional challenges so many of our colleagues have had to endure to achieve similar advancement in their careers. The demands of the profession are challenging enough, even before considering what it would be like to also have to navigate through stereotypes, prejudices, and racial and gender inequality injustices.

I sincerely believe the work we do as architects is enhanced through greater diversity and perspectives of those in practice. To successfully address the current challenges we face in the realm of housing, justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and the environment, we need to embrace diversity more aggressively as a profession, and celebrate everyone’s sincere and full identity as humans and architects. It is our responsibility to mentor and help develop the next generation of leaders while being inclusive of all races, genders and identities. There is zero room in our profession for bias against diversity; we need to continue to rewrite the outdated and excluding stereotype that architecture is a white male profession. Wherever and however possible, those in our community with the ability to share knowledge, provide opportunities and open doors for those who have been historically underrepresented must do so. It is this diversity that will allow us as a profession to continue to be effective in leading the response to the many challenges we face as humans.”

Patricia Joseph, AIA, NOMA
Project Designer at Cuningham
President-Elect of NOMA Colorado
Lecturer, CU Denver College of Architecture & Planning

“For this third question, I cannot help but think about the stories of my fellow NOMA Colorado Members. Since starting our chapter and being part of leadership, we have heard so much from our minority members about the vast experiences and difficulties they have faced. Most of those experiences underline that as minorities, we have been victims of micro-aggressions or discrimination due to our true selves being unacceptable at work. When the majority finds shock, confusion, or even outrage from the very evidence that our diversity presents, we recede, we mask, and we hide the parts that don’t make the cut.

We are not coming to work with our full selves. Almost daily and since the moment we start in architecture, we have given up some piece of our identity to survive in this industry. If you are caught between needing a job in architecture and not being a white male, you have given up some essence of yourself to feel secure in that position. Historically and even currently, surviving has come at the cost of leaving some part of us — some piece of our culture, race, gender, age, or identity — at home. We have been hiding our accents, our hair, our food, and anything else; to relieve the majority from having to accept what it truly means to be diverse and inclusive.

Other shared experiences include most minorities sacrificing the correct pronunciations of their names to be more agreeable and not face unwanted situations. We avoid saying certain words because our unique accents are too thick and we frequently code-switch during conversations. We avoid eating our favorite salmon dish because it is just a faux pas in America, and we politely tuck in our tight coiled hair for fear of someone asking to touch it.

So was there a time we had to hide our true identity from coming to work? Yes, many.

Sarah Broughton, FAIA
AIA Colorado President-Elect
Principal, Rowland+Broughton

“I understand that as a privileged, professional white woman, I have more opportunity to bring my full identity to my work. I feel fortunate and aim to create approachability and openness to all in our profession and beyond. My identity is rooted in curiosity, big-heartedness, and a sincerely positive forward-looking outlook. Through reflection, processing, and action, I have developed strategies to temper situations where everyone, including myself, can be more at ease and bring personal identities.

I have a big personality, which is interpreted by some as too assertive or intense. In those and other situations where it feels I can’t bring my full-self, I identify and align with common core values so it is possible to establish understanding and flow so good work can be completed in a fun, positive, and collaborative manner. I focus on the aspects of the project where my professional view and ethos will make the biggest impact and let other things become less of a priority. It is not apathy or quiet quitting, but rather preserving integrity and joy in the work.

My identity continues to evolve as I grow and gain experience. Recognizing when I am going through transition allows me to better share who I am with my teams and clients through my actions. My hope is this openness gives permission to others to share where they are in their journey, creating deeper respect for each other’s identity. We become and put forth our best selves and the work excels when we can all be our true selves.”

Kari Lawson, Assoc. AIA
AIA Colorado Associate Director
Designer, TreanorHL

“Bringing your “whole self” is now a major topic in the workplace and it’s an important part of bringing people together. I have witnessed that better synergies for collaborative work can be created by embracing authenticity and vulnerability. Fortunately, I’ve had many opportunities to express myself through my work in my professional career. I feel that it is one of my most valued assets and when my personal identity is supported it allows me to fully invoke my passions and strengths.

I’ve learnt several crucial insights when working on small project teams through the years. A particular lesson came from a project team based on personality types. As an INTP, I value information gathering and construction of a vision plan that moves from macro to micro and back again. The project was centered around a minority community with a desired solution that would be culturally sensitive, equitable, and engaging. If a cohesive vision is not established from the start, small project teams can be challenging. Almost immediately the team was split into factions and as the person with the least experience, my perspective was void. There was a breakdown in communication due to bruised egos and while the primary functions were addressed, there were three very different visual representations of the building. The result was a testament to brutalist architecture with an indifference to human scale, the complete opposite of the intended cultural hub.

Being a disruptor instead of being a wallflower would have saved us from a harsh critique. The teams were grouped in a way that an INTP should be invoking the spirit of “why?” and fostering that collaborative nature. By agreeing that my experience level was more important than my perspective and identity, I felt I failed in that task.

The lesson learnt was that my identity is a crucial distinctive component to creative problem solving. Ignoring my identity for the sake of others’ comfort will never result in an outcome that I am proud of. Growth occurs when you are learning to accomplish something you have never done before. Fully embracing my identity is part of that process of discovery, as is knowing that without that vital aspect, my work is just a job.”

We invite you to read or revisit previous questions in this series:

Question #1: “Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places, or experiences.”

Question #2: “How can we as a profession break down barriers for minorities in architecture?”

We’d like to extend our sincere gratitude to our One Question participants for their vulnerability and humility. You can expect to hear more from them over the course of the coming months as we continue this monthly series, culminating with a live panel discussion reflecting on this project at the AIA Colorado Practice + Design Conference, November 2-4, 2022, in Keystone.

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