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American Institute of Architects Elects 100th President, Dowdell to Become First Black Woman President in AIA History

by: Jessica Hoover
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently made history when the delegates at the 2022 AIA Annual Meeting elected Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC, NCARB, SEED, LEED AP BD+C as 2023 First Vice President/2024 President-elect. As the 100th AIA President, Dowdell will be the first Black woman and first Millennial President.

Dowdell is currently the Marketing Principal in HOK’s Chicago office, where she is also Co-Chair of the firm’s Diversity Advisory Council and was co-founder of its social responsibility arm: HOK Impact. Outside of HOK, Dowdell is a current member and was President of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) from 2019-2020; has been an AIA member since 2007; and has volunteered on numerous AIA committees and task forces. She also received AIA’s Young Architects Award in 2020.

Dowdell graduated from Cornell University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2006 and received a Master of Public Administration from Harvard University in 2015.

“Kimberly is the right person at the right time to serve as AIA President,” said Riccardo Mascia, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, HOK’s Managing Principal in Chicago. “Her whole life has prepared her for this. I have no doubt that she’ll lead the AIA’s membership and our entire profession toward a more inclusive, impactful future.”

Dowdell recently shared her thoughts on her historic election to AIA President and what led her to where she is today.

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What inspired you to enter the race for AIA President?

“Envision New Possibilities” was my campaign slogan during the race for the 2024 AIA Presidency. This concept inspired me to enter — and continues to inspire me today. Architecture and design play an important role in shaping communities and building spaces that have the potential to enhance the way that people live, work, and play. The opportunity to represent all architects for a more inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable future prompted me to pursue the AIA’s highest office. I wanted to use my leadership experience to unlock new opportunities for the AIA and the architecture profession as a whole, encouraging diversity of thought and ideas from all individuals to help improve our built environment together.

How do you think your past experience has prepared you for this role?

Since I was 11 years old, I have been driven toward helping people by leveraging the power of architecture. I wanted to transform communities in Detroit — where I grew up — and improve the quality of life for people who were impacted by blight and disinvestment. Throughout my career, I have been actively working to improve people’s lives through design. During my internship with the General Services Administration, I created the concept for what is now known as the SEED Network (Social, Economic, and Environmental Design).

My role as the 2019-2020 President of NOMA helped broaden my leadership experience in architecture, from doubling the organization’s membership and launching several new transformative programs, to serving on the executive committee and cultivating our 80-plus student chapters. My work at HOK also helped me gain the leadership and expertise in the design profession to prepare for this role. All of these diverse experiences have led me to where I am now, and I’m excited to contribute more to the design community and AIA as its 2024 President.

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What does it mean to you to be the first Black woman to be elected AIA President?

I’m very grateful to be elected as the first Black female President of the AIA, along with the 100th President of the institute. Since the AIA’s founding over 165 years ago, there have been six other women elected President, and two other African Americans who have served in the role. As my sorority sister, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, said, “I may be the first, but I will not be the last.” Representation matters, and it’s an honor to be a face and an advocate for underrepresented groups in the architecture and design profession in this role.

What goals do you hope to accomplish during your term?

My one-year tenure as the AIA President begins in December 2023 and ends in December 2024. During that time, one of my main goals is to increase membership and retention. To do this, I plan to focus my energy on connecting with AIA leaders around the world, listening and learning from them to make sure AIA National understands their values and direction.

During my campaign, I also focused on my alphabet platform with calls to action in: Advocacy for architects, Belonging in the profession, Climate action, and Designing the future. I’m looking forward to prioritizing these initiatives during my tenure as AIA President. By making progress on the aforementioned items, AIA leadership will further demonstrate the value of membership, which I believe will yield greater success with recruitment and retention.

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What advice would you give to someone, especially young women and/or people of color, who are entering the architecture industry?

Be bold. You must be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and ask for what you want in your career, and your life. This is especially important for young women and people of color to achieve their dreams in a profession that has not historically been as accustomed to their participation. I remember at a young age, my grandmother taught me that if you put in the hard work, anything is possible. I want to take what I’ve learned through the years and inspire others to dream big, and like my campaign slogan suggests, “Envision New Possibilities.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

My path to becoming the first Black woman President of the AIA has been filled with many diverse experiences and opportunities to work with others to make the built environment a better place. It’s amazing to reach this new goal and see how it resonates with people. People who previously couldn’t see themselves or someone who looks like me as an AIA President now can. It has tremendous impact, and I’m honored to serve as President, working closely with my colleagues to envision and design a better future for all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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