How NOMA Is Helping Architects of Color to Shape Our Future Cities

Metropolis speaks with Kimberly Dowdell, the Detroit-based president of NOMA, about her vision for expanding the influence of architects of color.
noma architecture Kimberly Dowdell interview

Courtesy Kimberly Dowdell

In 1971, twelve African-American architects met in Detroit during the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) national convention and, noting their rarity alongside their white colleagues, determined to establish a separate organization to support architects of color. Three years earlier, Whitney M. Young had challenged the AIA for not keeping up with the Civil Rights movement’s calls for diversity and social responsibility. Inspired by Young’s call to action, the twelve founders—all owners of their own firms—named their group the National Organization of Minority Architects and resolved to improve access, resources, and representation for people of color in the profession.

Today, despite progress, African-American architects still make up just about 2 percent of licensed professionals in the United States, a figure NOMA is working hard to grow. A younger generation of architects has taken on the mantle, among them Kimberly Dowdell, NOMA’s 2019-2020 president—herself a beneficiary of NOMA’s network and programming (she entered the fold 15 years ago through student mentorship). As NOMA heads toward its 50th anniversary, Dowdell, an architect, developer, and educator, has outlined an ambitious, multipronged mission, ALL in for NOMA (ALL stands for Access, Leadership, and Legacy).

Given the organization’s origins in Detroit, Dowdell, a self-described millennial, is fittingly dedicated to that city in her work as an architect, developer, and NOMA president. She grew up here, and though as a child she first aspired to be a doctor, it was a visit downtown in the 1990s that made her consider architecture as a way to heal. In many ways, Dowdell and her home city have come full circle since then; after earning a B.Arch at Cornell University and Master of Public Administration in Urban Policy and Real Estate Development from Harvard—“I believe architecture is very much a part of the public realm,” she explains—and a notably multidisciplinary career, she made her way back to Detroit, working briefly for the city before joining design-development firm Century Partners as a partner in 2017.

Dowdell spoke with Metropolis about her vision for NOMA, her approach to shaping cities, and what she’s learned about career and leadership.

Katie Okamoto: You’ll be president of NOMA through 2020, the year before it turns 50. What’s your big picture vision?

Kimberly Dowdell: My vision is that NOMA truly serves as a key resource in the profession—especially by helping to create more harmony within all the building professions: architecture, engineering, development, building construction. This is the entire ecosystem that builds our cities, where more and more people are moving. As our cities become more and more diverse, there’s a need to create a stronger sense of community. In that sense, NOMA is a resource for all of us as a society.

Besides that, I’ve been using this hashtag, #representationmatters, because it’s no secret that African-Americans have represented around 2 percent of the number of licensed architects in the United States for the last 50 years or more. Yet the percentage of African-Americans in the country is closer to 14 percent. That gap represents a real opportunity.

NOMA stands for National Organization of Minority Architects, and we’ve been rightly focusing most on the disparities relative to African-Americans, but NOMA represents all minorities and the full definition of diversity. The more that our profession embraces the entire spectrum of humanity, the better off we’ll be as a society—because architects have such a huge impact on the way that we all live, work, and play.

Your ALL in for NOMA plan tackles increasing representation for people of color in the field through three strategies: Access, Leadership, and Legacy. Let’s start with “Access.” What does that entail?

Access represents kindergarten through licensure; it can be a 25-year span. Architecture is one of the most rewarding professions, but especially for those of us who are millennials, even if we don’t have a lot of student debt ourselves, most of our colleagues have a ton. In a culture where student debt is so pervasive and so limiting, how we choose to make professional decisions is obviously affected.

When you think about the wealth gap, I think it becomes easier to understand why minorities are so underrepresented in the profession. According to a 2013 study by Edward Wolf, the median net worth of a Caucasian family is roughly $117,000. That same number for African-American families is $1,700, so just under $2,000. Let’s say you’re a young, talented African-American student with your whole life ahead of you, you love architecture, you’re good at math, you’re good at art, you have a passion, and you find out about the profession in time. Then you start to look at the educational path, which can be seven years counting undergrad and grad school. That’s expensive. Then you get to architecture school, and you realize you have to buy all these supplies—the model making materials, the technology. Then it becomes a bit more sticky. If you look at the salaries that one can expect coming out of school, it doesn’t really make economic sense. You have to really love the profession if you don’t come from a family that is well resourced.

So it’s not just access to exposure to the profession. It’s actual financial access, such as scholarships and resources to support people through the licensure process, which is also not cheap. NOMA is not a wealthy organization by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, all of our board members are volunteers, myself included. If we had access to $1 million, we could change the face of this profession. I really do believe that.

How does this understanding of Access connect to Leadership?

I think it’s about economic access to opportunities. To some extent, [at certain employers] there are requirements for minority participation, but how meaningful is that participation? In large firms in particular, there’s not enough representation of people of color at the leadership level, and it is virtually absent at the ownership level. There are times when quite frankly a white-owned firm says, “Oh, we’ve got to find some minorities to put on our team.” How do we ensure that those policies are doing what they’re supposed to be doing?

For architects, once you get licensed, what do you do to position yourself as a leader in the profession or in society? Are you starting a business? Are you being promoted? Are you going into public service or running for office? There’s actually a great need for more architects to do that work.

How about Legacy? That seems to be at the end of the chain, after Access and Leadership.

There are three pieces of legacy. First, it’s financial: how can we support and encourage our more seasoned professionals to create a succession plan? The hope is that we can start to have honest conversations about the financial sustainability and longevity of minority-owned firms. We need to give people a sense of the importance of financial planning so that after a long career in architecture, they have enough to pass on to their families. Again, when we look at the wealth gap, it’s important that minority families in particular have systems in place to help bridge the gap as much as possible.

The second piece of legacy is looking at a design legacy of architects of color. How are we documenting projects? Are we cataloging and showcasing the great designs that people have participated in throughout their careers? And the last piece of legacy is passing on experience through mentorship—which connects back to access—which has been a part of NOMA’s DNA from the beginning.

NOMA’s work is volunteer, and it’s fueled by passion and conviction, but it’s still work. What is your advice for architects and students of color who might feel burned out going above and beyond their daytime jobs for advocacy?

I won’t pretend that I have figured that out entirely, but it’s important to build a strong support system. That’s what is really valuable about NOMA. I’m surrounded by people who are just as passionate as I am about this work. I think we feed off of each other’s energy. And when someone needs support, we all rally together.

Make sure that you have a community, whether it’s NOMA or something else. Know when to ask for help, and embed yourself within a supportive group of people who will ensure that you are taking the time that you need to recharge. For those of us in leadership positions, I think it’s important to make sure that we’ve built a solid infrastructure around us to delegate as much as possible. I am working hard to get resources in place that will allow us to hire people to help us to spread the work out as much as possible.

You’ve stayed true to your childhood motivations for becoming an architect—helping communities—and your firm, Century Partners, has taken the strategy of linking design and development. Why were you drawn to development to reach your goals?

In general, African-Americans do not have enough access to wealth-building opportunities. A lot of that relates to policies that go back to the ’40s and ’50s in the United States that barred African-Americans from one of the most important wealth-building opportunities that exists, and that’s real estate. That’s part of the reason why I felt it was important for me to look beyond architecture.

I look at real estate as a way to shape the urban environment, and my personal mission is to improve the quality of life for people living in cities. I believe I wouldn’t have enough influence if I solely focused on the design process, because so much happens before you get to design.

In graduate school, I had a real estate development professor named Edward Marchant [who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government]. One day he asked the class, “Hey, does anyone here know what the Golden Rule is?” Growing up in a Christian household, I knew the Golden Rule is to treat others as you would have them treat you.

But the answer he gave was: “He or she who has the gold makes the rules.” Deciding to work at Century Partners was really about getting to have a seat at the table, where I can raise money and choose the properties that we decide to develop, and select local contractors as much as possible to keep those dollars in the community that we’re serving.

As an undergrad, I had an architecture professor, Andrea Simitch [now chair of the architecture department at Cornell], who said, “You have to control your own destiny.” That’s always stuck with me. I’ve kept an open mind about my career and the jobs that I take. No matter what your profession is, you can dictate to yourself what you want to do. Then you can actually go out and make your destiny a reality.

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Categories: Architecture, Cities, Ideas