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AIA Indiana Hosts NOMA President Dowdell to Discuss Future of the Urban Built Environment

by: Jack Quigley
Kimberly Dowdell
Kimberly Dowdell
AIA Indiana recently hosted National Organization of Minority Architects’ (NOMA) President Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, for a webinar where she discussed her experiences in architecture and described some initiatives being set forth by NOMA to improve minority representation in the industry.

As a Detroit native, Dowdell noticed signs of systemic disinvestment early on in her life when prominent Detroit neighborhoods fell into disrepair after decades of government inattention and discrimination. Her young observations sparked an early interest in architecture and policy, which led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell University and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. Her years of study, along with her experience working in the field, gives her unique insight into architects’ role in creating better environments for people – especially those living in densely populated cities.

Investing in the Future
Dowdell began her presentation by laying out some of the dangerous consequences of systemic disinvestment in cities. When government bodies enact policies that take resources away from inner cities and reallocate them to suburban neighborhoods, Dowdell said city residents will have limited access to capital, education, jobs, quality foods, healthcare, transportation, and technology, among other things.

To illustrate her point, she showed viewers two aerial photos of a Detroit neighborhood – one taken in 1949 and the other taken in 2003. The older photo shows a downtown area full of businesses and residencies, while the newer photo depicts a rundown and abandoned section of the city. In neighborhoods with larger minority populations like this one, Dowdell said policies with major racial ties combined with discriminatory loan procedures halted development for decades.

As the world’s population grows and larger cities attract more residents, Dowdell said it is crucial for architects to understand the importance of inclusion and perspective in their work.

“Cities across the word are becoming more dense,” Dowdell said. “In the U.S., we have about 300 million people living in our U.S. cities, but by 2050, that number is expected to balloon to 400 million people. As architects, we have to really be thoughtful about how that density is happening.”

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Less than 10 percent of licensed architects come from minority groups, proving that architecture is still a predominately white profession. The majority of Americans by 2045 will be people of color, Dowdell said, so it is important that architects understand how the general population is represented in their work. Dowdell said design teams that include a diverse group of professionals allow firms to garner more perspectives from various backgrounds, which ultimately improves the end design and moves the industry forward.

Advocating for Minority Architects Through Focused Initiatives
Access, Leadership, and Legacy are three pillars that guide NOMA’s mission of advocating for minorities in the architecture profession.

NOMA aims to increase minority access to the profession starting at a young age through programs such as student mentorship courses, a student design competition, and a recently launched fellowship program, which will assist graduates in their transition from academia to the professional world. By establishing a pipeline towards architecture early on in a child’s life and maintaining a scholarship fund for students at HBCU’s who are pursuing careers in architecture or engineering, NOMA is making it easier for minority children to envision themselves as architects and giving them tools to pursue their goals as they grow older.

Once their members become licensed architects, NOMA continues to advocate for minority designers through leadership and legacy programs. Over 80 university chapters and 35 professional chapters give architects at any age the opportunity to build leadership experience through management positions at a local level, while NOMA’s National Board offers a select group of designers the chance to cultivate leadership skills on a national scale. The organization’s annual conference provides members with another valuable networking opportunity.

NOMA also started a design awards show named after the late Phil Freelon, AIA – a pioneer for diversity in architecture – to honor the legacies of minority architects who do great work and pave the way for change in their industry. Dowdell said it is imperative for NOMA to celebrate the work accomplished by their members each year so minorities can continue to build each other up in the profession. Long-time NOMA members can also be honored through a fellowship program started by the organization.

Dowdell then spoke to AIA Indiana members about NOMA’s 2030 Diversity Challenge, which aims to double the amount of registered African American architects from 2,300 to 5,000 by 2030. With just 2 percent of registered architects being African American, Dowdell said NOMA has developed a comprehensive strategy for solving this problem that starts with educating at a young age and continues through licensure.

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“If you’re not aware of architecture, you can’t pursue it,” Dowdell said. “Once you do become aware, we want you to have access to mentors and other resources because often times, a lack of resources prevents people from pursing architecture.”

Existing Disparities in Architecture
  • Women make up 50.8 percent of U.S. population, 18 percent of licensed architects
  • Latino Americans make up 17.6 percent of the U.S. population, 3 percent of licensed architects
  • African Americans make up 13.2 percent of the U.S population, 2 percent of licensed architects (0.04 percent are women)
  • Asian Americans make up 5.6 percent of the U.S population, 4 percent of licensed architects
  • Native Americans make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, less than 1 percent of licensed architects

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