By Amy Dvorak, Assoc. AIA, member of the AIA Colorado Member Voice and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness Committees

largeSeventy-five percent. That is the staggering number of AIA members in Colorado who identify as white according to the most recent AIA Colorado Membership Report—and another 70 percent who are male. As a profession whose focus is client service and shaping our built environment, what work is being done to ensure diverse representation within the communities we serve?

In July, the education and pipeline task force of the AIA Colorado Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness Committee set out to identify just that. The committee convened stakeholders in academia, nonprofits, and human resources to assess Colorado’s pipeline to practice. So, how do we measure up? Read on for four takeaways from the discussion and ways you can contribute toward creating—and sustaining—a more equitable practice.

  1. There are many considerations when it comes to diversity. 

Gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability are just a few characteristics that lead to more diverse perspectives in the workplace. Yet so does life circumstance. In addition to increasing the number of diverse youth entering the profession, we must also consider “those off-ramped from profession,” said Sarah Goldblatt, AIA, who is a member of the AIA Colorado Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness (EDI) Committee. “We want to bolster the profession and bring back women and men who have left for various life reasons.”

It’s why many companies like RTD are going beyond compensation to recruit diverse candidates. “The focus has changed to things like work/life balance and what we are doing for the community,” said Andrew Gale, Senior Human Resources Manager, RTD. To adapt, the company focuses on flexibility, not just pay, and works to include photos of women and minorities in nontraditional roles in their recruiting material. “It is important for people to see themselves in these roles,” he said.

  1. Colorado leaders are working hard to carve their own paths to inclusion.

In Jefferson County, teacher Kathy Nightengale launched a PBL, or project-based learning program. She pairs students in Kindergarten with those in sixth grade to tackle solutions. For a recent project, students were tasked with designing a house based on the story of Goldilocks, which involved drafting, material sourcing, roof design, and more. “I see a lot of validation in being able to teach that way instead of just a lecture, where the students aren’t thinking for themselves,” she said. “PBL opens doors for these opportunities. We’re hoping that once they get to college, they’re so ingrained, they want to continue regardless of finances even if they’re struggling.”

Downtown, the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning partners with the ACE Mentor Program, a 25-year-old, free program for high school students. Professionals in the built environment mentor students weekly from the Denver metro area to Manitou Springs, Fort Collins, and beyond to learn about architecture, engineering, and construction through hands-on activities, office tours, videos, and field trips. “Students may not understand the profession, so this is an opportunity to learn about careers,” said Leo Darnell, who serves as the University’s Assistant Dean of Academic Services and Extended Studies. By hosting the program on campus, it allows them, “to consider programs as opportunities,” he said.

Across the street at Community College of Denver, nontraditional students can find even more resources. The school offers flexible options, including certificates in areas like Sustainable Design and Digital Design Media, advantageous for those changing focus or returning to the workforce. The programs also offers a two-year AAS program, a more affordable pathway to a four-year professional degree. In the program, 65 percent of students identify as minority.

On the nonprofit side, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado created a foundation that funds $40,000 of scholarships to AEC students. They also administer the Colorado High School Bridge Building Competition, introducing students to engineering. In addition, the Denver Architecture Foundation (DAF) has been operating its Cleworth Architectural Legacy (CAL) Project for 20 years. The program pairs students with architects, engineers, and design professionals, striving for half to be Tier 1 schools. “We find that when we’re able to do that, the program is really effective with that population,” said DAF Executive Director Pauline Herrera Serianni. “Teachers want it year after year.” Unfortunately, there is not enough capacity to meet the demand.

  1. There is a gap between resources and needs.

Among all mentoring programs discussed, the lack of resources was unanimous. Nightengale cites it as her top problem at Edgewater Elementary School, where she teaches in Jefferson County. “Getting mentors is a huge challenge,” she said, as is, “getting community involved and in the school and having a liaison between community organizations.” The universities also struggle with recruiting mentors, particularly diverse professionals who can identify with the students. “We want to bring in more professionals to teach as adjuncts,” said Mark Broyles, AIA, Assistant Professor and Chair, Architectural Technology at Community College of Denver. “But we want adjuncts to reflect more diversity—more role models—not another old white guy. We want our community to reflect the diversity we see in students.”

In addition, socioeconomic realties stunt success in mentoring programs. “When they live in Edgewater City, they don’t get exposure,” said Nightengale. “They can’t afford it. But they don’t have to work at Target or King Soopers. Being able to mentor, we can show them they can be an architect or engineer and get out of roles they have been pegged into.” In addition, high school students who are expected to contribute financially to the household may have limited time to partake. The issue is even more prevalent come college with “students financially disadvantaged and working 40 hours a week,” said Broyles. “Helping students stay in class and focus on programs is a chronic issue.”

Julia Alvarez, CEO of Point b(e) Strategies, who works with DAF, agreed. “How are we preventing drop out?” she asked. “In communities of color and marginalized communities, retention is huge.”

And this is where the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness Committee is starting to change the gap.

  1. There is not just hope, but a plan.

Beginning with this data, the EDI Committee is developing a centralized repository linking students to resources. “Our main purpose is to create a platform to make resources stronger and make them systematic,” said Margarita Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, who sits on the EDI Committee. “We believe that in the state of Colorado, we will be stronger, more diverse, and more equitable.” Echoed Marisa Pooley of AIA Colorado, “Many in this room are already doing work in this space and initiatives are working well. The goal is not to replicate these things. Now is time to explore what is in community and who is doing great work and amplify and partner with that.”

But this tool is just a small start to a much larger problem of connecting students to opportunities. As Darnell put it, “the people at the table are pretty informed, yet are uninformed about half the programs we discussed.” And its success will take a village. “The most valuable resource shared is our people,” said Broyles, “particularly people interested in EDI. Figuring out how to manage and utilize and direct those resources to help populations is an opportunity.”

The onus to not just populate, but also to utilize the data the EDI Committee collects will fall to us all … mentors, educators, students, counselors, and architects. “Many families are living in cars,” said Nightengale. “The goal is to teach students you don’t have to do this—but you have to work for it.”

Interested in helping? If you know of resources or administer a program, please submit and help us build our database. Submit your answers here: bit.ly/AECforyouth  

Diversity Pipeline Roundtable Discussion Participants

Education / Nonprofit / Practice

  • Kathy Nightengale, Jefferson County Schools
  • Pauline Herrera Serianni, Denver Architecture Foundation
  • Leo Darnell, University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning
  • Julia Alvarez, Point b(e) Strategies
  • Heidi M. Gordon, American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado
  • Mark Broyles, AIA, Community College of Denver
  • Andrew Gale, Regional Transportation District

AIA Colorado Staff

  • Marisa Pooley, APR,  AIA Colorado

AIA Colorado Equity, Diversity, and Inclusiveness Committee

  • Ignacio Correa-Ortiz, AIA, Regional Transportation District
  • Sarah Goldblatt, Assoc. AIA,
  • Margarita Gonzalez, Assoc. AIA, O & G Properties
  • Amy Dvorak, Assoc. AIA, TreanorHL