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Transforming Architecture and Design: Inspiring Black Women

by: Shayla Hudson, Project Administrator at Design Collaborative
Shayla Hudson
Shayla Hudson
Norma Merrick Sklarek
Norma Merrick Sklarek
Kimberly Dowdell
Kimberly Dowdell
Allison Grace Williams
Allison Grace Williams
I returned to work eight years after staying home with my two wonderful children.

Design Collaborative surrounded me with remarkable architects and designers…yet to my surprise, something was missing. I was the only individual of Black descent. So, I decided to research the industry at large and educate myself and my colleagues on what I learned.

Architect Magazine reported in 2020 that only 0.4 percent of licensed architects in the U.S. are Black women. A 2022 article in Architectural Digest reports that only 2.3 percent of interior designers in the U.S. identify as Black or African American in a $17.5 billion industry.

While growth in racial diversity in the A/E/C industry is slow, the number of Black-led design firms and minority-owned studios is noticeably increasing. One example of a growing and thriving minority-owned firm is Moody Nolan, based in Columbus, OH and founded in 1983. Moody Nolan is the largest African American owned design firm in the country, and employs 350 diverse individuals, comprised of 43 percent minorities and 46 percent women. In 2021, the firm was a recipient of The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Architecture Firm Award.

Let’s take a walk through history and take a look at several women who make strides for the African American community in the A/E/C industry.

Norma Merrick Sklarek
Making history as the first African American woman to acquire her architect's license in both New York and California, Norma Merrick Sklarek carved out an illustrious career in architecture. Some of her key accomplishments include the design of the United States Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, and the Terminal One station at the Los Angeles International Airport.
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She not only designed remarkable buildings but also co-founded an architecture firm with Margot Siegel and Katherine Diamond, making her one of the first black women to do so. These achievements led Author Anna M. Lewis to dub her "The Rosa Parks of Architecture" for her remarkable strides as a black woman in a male-dominated field. She remained a beacon of hope and a source of inspiration for women facing prejudice in their careers.

Recognizing the invaluable contributions of past pioneers like Sklarek is as crucial as acknowledging the work of current designers and architects who are continually challenging conventional norms.

Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMA
Dowdell is an accomplished architect and property developer who holds various esteemed positions including the presidency of the National Association of Minority Architects, Business Development Director at HOK's Chicago office, and a partnership role at Century Partners development firm. Further expanding her repertoire, she is also a lecturer at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. With her multifaceted background, Dowdell offers an exclusive viewpoint on urban planning, architecture, and real estate evolution.

Dowdell's passion was ignited by her personal and familial history. Her grandparents, as early as 1947, were part of a group of pioneering African American families to integrate into their neighborhood on Detroit's east side.

A turning point in her life occurred when she was nine years old. Her childhood home was eradicated following the city government's disinvestment in her neighborhood. This life-altering event led Dowdell, at the tender age of eleven, to view architecture as a possible resolution. She became determined to protect other families globally from experiencing a similar fate.

As a celebrated figure in the spheres of strategic planning, design, project management, housing policy, and property development, Dowdell's academic and professional pursuits have equipped her with the necessary tools to advocate for equality in the design process.

Allison Grace Williams
With experience spanning over four decades, Allison Grace Williams is a renowned architect with a global portfolio comprising large-scale civic, cultural, and research work. Recognized for her creativity and authoritative leadership at leading architectural firms like SOM, Perkins+Will, and AECOM, she has delivered several award-winning buildings that seamlessly blend culture, technology, and environment.

Her innovative designs that reflect the values and traditions of their surroundings include globally recognized structures like The August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, PA, The Health and Sciences Campus for Princess Abdulrahman University for Women in Saudi Arabia, CREATE in Singapore, amongst others. In 2017, she founded AGWms studio, further solidifying her prominent standing in the architecture world.

These pioneers set the stage for what the industry of architecture can become when such talent is discovered, honed, embraced, and sought after – a talent that comes from individuals from all walks of life. The DEI committee at Design Collaborative has initiated a celebration of Black History in our office. We have been featuring impactful individuals each week, including the powerful women highlighted in this article.

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