To kick off our new ‘Member Voices’ blog series, we asked Black/African American members of the chapter to share their thoughts on the profession, equity, as well as a few fun questions to get to know them on a more personal level. As we work toward a more equitable and sustainable profession, we look forward to highlighting the voices and experiences of those who make our chapter such a great place.
What or who has inspired you to become an architect?
I was inspired by growing up in Chicago and seeing both the legacy of architecture with Mies Van Der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and many others as well as the historic inequities in my neighborhood like the south and west sides. While I wanted to create beautiful iconic architecture my goals were to bring that to communities like the ones I grew up in. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
I didn’t grow up knowing any architects nor did I really know what architecture was when I was a child. I knew I wanted to do something somewhat artistic, so I figured that graphic design was something I heard of that I could do. My best friend in 7th grade said something about being an architect when we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. The thought never occurred to me, and when I found out more about it, I believed it seemed like the perfect blend of math and art, both things I was pretty good at! I thank her all the time, because she’s the reason architecture was even on my radar. I started the path right away when I went to college at 17, and luckily it was something I really enjoyed! – Imani Dixon, AIA, NOMA
I have wanted to be an architect since I was in the third grade. My dad, who was not an architect, recognized all the scotch tape models and sketches I was making could be my profession. I grew up in Seattle and the first Black architect I ever met was Donald King. My dad arranged for him to review my portfolio when I was still in high school. At the time, I didn’t know much about the profession, but I was incredibly impressed with the conversation we had and what he shared with me. That meeting was very affecting and even years later when I was a practicing architect myself, I met Donald again and we both still remembered that meeting. Early on in my career, I realized being an architect was a social responsibility. As architects, we are stewards of the built environment and hold a unique position to influence and shape human experiences and memories of place. These experiences shaped my view of architecture and my position as an architect. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
My maternal Grandfather was a decorator & owned his own company. My Mother was a school teacher & noticed I had an interest in housing & sports. My Dad was a fireman & on his days off he worked as a finish carpenter while “BeBopping” to jazz. The convergence of these 3 personalities caused me to become the “Rhythm Architect.” – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What advice would you give a younger version of yourself?
Be bolder about your convictions and interests and learn more about the field itself. I wish I had known earlier there are so many other pathways intersection architecture. Real estate development, zoning, codes, construction management, urban design, urban planning, landscape architecture. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
Take risks! Too often we are focused on getting it right the first time. However, like anything that is hard, rewarding, and challenging, getting it right sometimes needs to take a back seat to learning, growing, and making mistakes. Failure is an amazing teacher. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
Everything is going to be alright. – RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
Three things: 1) Be better (through preparation), consistent, determined; 2) Think bigger because some folks will think you’re too ambitious anyway; and 3) Eventually, a benefactor will recognize your talent is worth giving you a shot to make a difference. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What has been the most valuable resource to you in your career? (This can be a mentor, scholarship, organization, initiative, program, tool, etc.)
This is hard because I have had so many influential mentors throughout my career and I have had great value as a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
Absolutely NOMA has been the most valuable resource to me in my career. Not only do I have access to other architecture and design professionals who look like me and share similar experiences, I have also been able to participate in a lot of the youth programs that gave me confidence in the knowledge I do have (especially when I was first starting my career) and gave me leadership experience and skills that I still use every day at work now that I have a lot more responsibility. I think that experience has propelled me in the right direction to be able to take on challenges I encounter on a daily basis in my work. – Imani Dixon, AIA, NOMA
I am the beneficiary of two very valuable gifts that have shaped my career and supported my professional goals. The first was a four-year tuition scholarship to architecture school from the architecture firm, Callison Partnership. This scholarship helped offset an enormous amount of out-of-state tuition that would have otherwise been a burden. The second gift was being offered an internship at Zimmer Gunsel Frasca (ZGF) Partnership in Portland, OR. At the time, the firm’s only Black principal (Ernest Grigsby) dedicated his career to ensuring other architecture students of color had opportunities in the field. He had not attended architecture school himself, instead working his way to a partnership after starting out as support for the firm. He cared about my professional development deeply, and he and I kept in touch for years after I moved to Chicago. Together, the combination of a major tuition scholarship and meaningful relationship with a caring mentor provided me opportunities that allowed me to move to Chicago for my career and gave me tools to succeed. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
Incredible design & engineering education at University of Illinois: Mentors Art Kaha, Hub White, Prof. Berguson, and Bill Erwin. John Moutoussamy, who gave me a raise three times in 18 months and told me to “keep earning it.” Being encouraged to think philosophically at University of Michigan: Mentors Dr. Jim Chaffers & Tom Hille; Through a summer internship, Derrick Howard proved to me that “work-life balance” is possible; and for being applauded for using my design philosophy at the Technische Universität Wein (TUV), Mentor Helmut Richter. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What has been a large challenge or obstacle as an architectural professional and how are you working to/have you overcome it?
Racism. Both Overt and systemic. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
As a Black woman, I have definitely encountered people in the industry who make assumptions about the amount of experience and expertise I have. This is something I’m still learning to navigate at the moment, but continuing to approach conversations with confidence and doing my best is what’s really important. I don’t plan on changing anyone’s biases (that’s not my emotional labor to take on), but communicating effectively and clearly, and making your role known from the beginning does help. – Imani Dixon, AIA, NOMA
I have found a major challenge in the architectural profession to be the relative lack of visibility of women of color. Representation matters. I find it particularly challenging that while many communities of color need and deserve high-quality design, there are few architects of color in roles to support these communities’ goals. I believe building capacity in underrepresented communities empowers residents to make sound decisions for their best interests. Exposure to the design process and design thinking gives community members access and tools to shape their communities in an equitable way. This perspective supports opportunities for more architects of color, reducing barriers to entry into professions that shape the physical environment and contribute to increased quality of life for community members. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
Understanding the vastness of the profession and the many areas that it touches. – RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
Finding talented architects that are willing to work for a small firm, doing the same work that they could do at a large firm – we have commissioned a study that asks this very question! I’ve been told that personally and corporately I/JAQ checks so many boxes, however, it’s a rarity that a Majority Firm will team with me/us. Thus, we pursued work in other states where it seams our talent/perspective is appreciated. We have ascended to a few developer’s conference rooms & so far they feel we are a value added teammate. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What does equity mean to you?
Equity means radically reimagining and disrupting the systems and structures that have been designed to extract from the black community in the US and other racial minorities. Health, wellness, climate, jobs and economy, water, carbon neutrality are all systems that are interconnected so it requires us to align with many other industries and think beyond the parameters of traditional architecture. In our field, programs like redlining, restrictive covenants, blockbusting, predatory lending, and general disinvestment all align to create inequitable environments and it’s up to us to ask the real critical questions. How are we designing spaces for health, community, joy, and love? And who benefits? – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
Equity means creating culturally responsive spaces that are both trauma-informed and recognize the valuable history of a community. It means recognizing communities that have been impacted by past social, economic, and systemic harms and respond by working to address the disparities they created. To address these gaps, some of the areas on which equitable change must focus are wealth generation, preservation of culture, and improvement of physical environments. Equity informs decision-making; it can sometimes mean deep and uncomfortable introspection is necessary to recognize bias in how we treat others both professionally and personally. However, equity also gives voice to and validates those who have been historically marginalized, creating new power structures that are inclusive and honor differences. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
Equity is focusing on our clients and the context of their project while using our divine talents and “professional equity” to deliver responsive, rhythmically expressive architectonic compositions; Providing resources and opportunities to create equal/successful outcomes for all; Sharing in a voice that can be received by the contextual constituents; because each is different; Taking time to understand our clients in their respective communities. As a professional, having opportunities to show the talent that was flashed as an employee so it can now be appreciated as a firm owner. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more equitable and sustainable built environment?
Being a citizen architect has been a critical step in staying connected to equitable design and community. I am actively cultivating relationships and participating in the community beyond the paid work. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
Explaining to people what an architect does and how our work affects everyones quality of life. – RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
During the design process we look for ways to give extra service to our client’s at no additional cost to them. We look for products and systems that provide project value and lower the client’s operating expenses. We design with sustainability in mind by utilizing natural light, infusing textures, and allowing the timbre of the music to color the space. Our philosophy organically creates opportunities through the design process to infuse the client’s ideas. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What is your favorite building and why?
This is a very difficult question cause honestly it depends on what for. I don’t have a Michael Jordan of buildings. I’ll say Inland Steel cause it’s one I always appreciate. – Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
One of my favorite buildings (of course it’s in Chicago) is the Carbide and Carbon Building. The colors and materials are so unique and the facade has just the right amount of ornament with that classic vertical expression of an Art Deco building. – Imani Dixon, AIA, NOMA
Right now, I would say my favorite building is the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. It was designed by Sumner Hunt and George Wyman and completed in 1893 (the same year as my favorite Chicago event, the Columbian Exposition / World’s Fair). I fell in love with the Bradbury Building when it was featured in the Justin Timberlake and Chris Stapleton music video for “Say Something.” The video was shot in one take by a French producer and featured a moody, shadowed interior with amazing acoustics that made the whole building resonate with sound when the full choir sang. I have not visited the building in person, however, this is on my bucket list and now that LJC has an office in Los Angeles, I have one more reason to. – Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
The Wrigley building still holds a special place in my heart, because upon seeing it at night as a child, it took my breath away. – RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
I have two favorite buildings: The Dulles International Airport, which proved that concrete is dynamically fluid, and the Falkestrasse Rooftop Loft, which is a great use of unclaimed space. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
What is one item on your desk that you cannot live without?
My cell phone. – RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
Two items: A family portrait – Nothing else matters if you have no one to share the journey with; My Samsung Z-fold fold – The camera is amazing; the screen proportions allow me to read drawings on the go; and the pen allows me to create ASKs or sketch on a photo to get my point across quickly. – John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
Is your firm looking to take steps toward advancing racial justice and equity? AIA Chicago’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee has a wealth of resources, both local and national, that can aid in the process, including the AIA Guides to Equitable Practice.
Imani Dixon, AIA, NOMA
Senior Associate, Lamar Johnson Collaborative
John Gay, AIA, NCARB, AMAC
Founder and Principal, JAQ Corp
Lesley Roth, AIA, AICP, LEED AP, DPD
Principal, Lamar Johnson Collaborative
Dawveed Scully, AIA, AICP, NOMA
Managing Deputy Commissioner, Chicago Department of Planning and Development
RaMona Westbrook, AIA, NOMA, LEED AP
Founder and President, Brook Architecture