#MentorMonday: Jennifer Johnson, LEED AP BD+C, NOMA

Welcome to #MentorMonday! Mondays are dedicated to celebrating Black LICENSED Architects, Designers, and individuals in the profession of Architecture!

The questions asked to these individuals are to allow us into their lives and to be used as an inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series.

Name: Jennifer Johnson
Hometown: Chicago, IL
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

It appears it was always in my blood line some way. I learned about architecture by winning two Chicago Newhouse Architecture awards in high school along with internships. My second internship was with a well known black architect who has since passed Alan A. Madison.  Located on the South Side of Chicago, he owned his own practice where he focused on small housing and bungalow projects. Along with doing noticeably well in the design competitions, I also enjoyed going to houses and creating new spaces, which at the time was my definition of being an architect. I decided to major in architecture and attended Florida A&M University for a degree in architecture. I thought, “hey maybe I would be good at this…”, now here I am.

What does it mean to be a black architect to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?

Of course I do, I feel like the pressure is on for black FEMALE architects now more than ever. To date there are currently 444 black female architects and the number is climbing fast. I believe in making sure young minorities particularly in low income areas, have a chance at anything they’re not typically exposed to. The key words are “exposure” and “access.” If I was not exposed to architecture, I would’ve never thought twice about it. Also, having access to the design competitions I participated in was a part of me getting deeper into the profession at an early age. While in college I was exposed to NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects). NOMA showed me that there were people like me at all ages and across the U.S., women I could look up to while obtaining life long mentors.

What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/designer?

I’ve experienced working in small to large size firms throughout the years. The challenge has been learning what was best for me as an individual, not just as a female. What firm was the best fit for me regardless of money and the perks. Where did I see myself working for at least 5 years. I don’t look at myself as having obstacles because I’m a female but I will say I’ve had challenges while being black in america in this profession. One of the main challenges was the assumption that “black folks don’t work hard enough.” I’ve literally been told by an older white coworker along with other black colleges, that we didn’t get picked to be on a project because we weren’t hard workers. That has to be the most character building experience I’ve had. It made me think two things, 1. Am I not working hard enough? 2. Was he being racist because he called out the ONLY 3 young black professionals in the office? Either way, in the back of my mind I thought it was racist. I believe I’ve built enough confidence through my experience and learning about how an architecture practice works that I didn’t let it affect me. I doubled my work load, challenged myself with other task that would help the office and now I’m in a position to become an Associate at my firm. All of that to say, in the world today, even if you work for a black owned firm there are still challenges you will face. You have to look at yourself and evaluate what you have going on, you’re not perfect but how can you improve? So as challenges come to you, you’ll have the confidence to know that you’re doing your best no matter what the next person says OR you know what areas you can improve on and actually act on them. It’s sad, but we as females have to be ahead of the game. Make yourself marketable even if you have a job already and stay humble, because the growth never stops.

Should we ignore race in this profession?
No absolutely not. I’m an advocate for change and I mean big change in encouraging firms to seek out students in HBCUs that have architecture programs. When you tell me the reason that you don’t have enough talent coming from HBCUs, I’m going to think you’re lying to my face. I think race is a huge issue in ALL firms, all sizes. It’s ignored because we as African Americans have the fear of speaking out in fear that we will lose our jobs although I’m sure there are a number of reasons. Once African Americans who care about the state of profession and the future of it are put in higher positions to make decisions, we will have a better chance as a race. Also, to take it step further, we would also put ourselves in positions to help our communities and give back.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?

My advice would be to always self improve, be confident in what you do know, do your research, and always stay a head of the game. Seek out a mentor, this was one thing I didn’t do until I was introduced to NOMA. The students today have so many resources at their finger tips, I would advise them take advantage of it all. If you don’t know something ASK! Even if it’s something you think you should know already. Always try to word your questions in a way that lets your boss/teacher know you’re trying to find a deeper meaning in why it is what it is. Why does it have to be this way? Do I truly understand why I’m doing what I’m doing? When you’re presenting your work, be confident because going to school for Architecture and graduating is hard but not impossible, I know this first hand. You put in the work to design a successful project, so flaunt it and be proud of your accomplishment(s), you got this!

Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?

My journey to obtain licensure has been pretty rough. I’ve let life obstacles get in the way and other emotional situations overcome my urge to study. I will say now I’m on the right path and should be done by the end of the year or at the top of the year 2019. I have two exams left and if I will say myself the two hardest ones PPD and PDD. My advice to anyone starting or that’s in the process of taking an exam, is to keep going and don’t stop. Try your hardest to overcome your fear of failing because you have to get it done, besides you owe it to yourself after 5 years of school. Think about the benefits of getting it done and out of the way. Stay motivated and always have someone in your corner to push you and be there when you need to talk about it. Again, there are tons of resources out there for the ARE, I would advise them to take advantage of it as well, because someone is in the same position or has been through what you’re going through. Never give up, even if you need to take a break (which I don’t advise), but just keep going!

How important is representation?

Last weekend INOMA (Illinois Chapter) hosted the 46th annual NOMA conference in Chicago. We had over 700+ attendees from students to professionals,”The Pipeline” as we call it, therefore, NOMA is the perfect example of representation. Some may have their opinions about NOMA, saying that they rather not be apart of it because it singles out African Americans as a whole and keeps us isolated from the outside world. This is completely FALSE. NOMA has grown to be an organization that has opened it’s doors to all shades of minorities. NOMA has relationships with large predominately Caucasian firms and we have continued to foster those relationships throughout the years. No one is discriminated against. NOMA serves as a vehicle for minority architects to have a voice and place in this architecture world. NOMA also addresses issues in the world about race and gender that typically would not be discussed on any other platform.

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