In the Spring of 2007, an article in Architect magazine reported that of the 91,000 licensed architects in the United States, only 196 of these licensed architects are African-American women. Really?! Only 196?? Personally, I know of 7 licensed African-American architects actively practicing in the southeast.
Although we are at the close of 2012, I am hoping that despite the economy of the past few years this number has somehow increased.
If only by a little bit.
One way to begin to increase the number of licensed African-American female architects, the article cited, was to recruit more interested females into the field. For the past few years I have taught and served on the board of a non-profit organization called the Atlanta Center for Creative Inquiry (ACCI). This annual program focuses on introducing architecture, design, engineering and the building trades to interested high school students from inner city schools through studio-based teaching, site visits and professional mentoring. Typically, out of a class of 12-14, half of these students are young black women who are bright, excited and eager to learn about the built environment and – yes, a few of them go on to major in architecture once enrolled in college.
So if we get a good number of female students interested in a career in architecture, why are the numbers still low for African-American female architects?
Well… problem isn’t all about recruitment. A good deal of early and permanent retention has to do with the follow through of some of the students. The world of architectural academia is shocking enough to any freshmen. Without someone to assist new students in navigating the process (new and purposefully ambiguous design language, time management with core classes and understanding the studio culture) a lot of talented students become overwhelmed and either switch majors or drop out all together. While switching to a major more suitable for an individual is understandable, losing potentially strong design students to frustration and unpreparedness is a tougher pill to swallow.
Throughout my academic years in design (interior design and architecture) I had a lot of supportive professors. Each positive interaction better prepared me for the not-so-positive employers that I sometimes had the misfortune of working with and for. Personally, I have not encountered a great deal of negativity in the field of architecture – there has been some, mind you (in academia and in working professionally), but not enough for me to quit and give up my opportunity to pursue my architectural license – no one can prevent me from taking that exam! I am also reminded of the urgency in gaining my license each month when I repay my student loan bill for my graduate education!
The Architect article stated a number of reasons for the low number of 196 (.2%) licensed African-American female architects: experiences ranged from continued questioning regarding competence on the job, long hours and low pay, dismissed relevance on projects and the long and strenuous education-to-licensing process. While I have experienced all of this less times than more, it has not kept me from still wanting to make my mark on this profession by becoming a licensed architect and practicing in the field. I feel as an African-American female designer, I have something to say.
And when I think I’ve got it bad, I just remember the perseverance and courage of the late Norma Merrick Sklerak, FAIA – the first African-American woman to become a licensed architect in the United States. We may have lost a great one earlier this year, but there are plenty of talented, strong and competent African-American females on-their-way-to-becoming-architects waiting in the wings!
So YES! 196 and counting…