#MentorMonday: Gary Nelson, RA

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: Gary Nelson

Hometown: Hempstead, NY

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

During my childhood, my aunt and sister were disabled and access to buildings, restrooms and upper floors was difficult because the Americans with Disabilities Act was not the law at the time. I wanted to do something that would make a difference. In 6th grade I read the book “So you want to be an Architect?” That was the book that led me to my career.

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

Being an architect means that I have a responsibility to make a positive difference in my community. Being an architect that is Black means that my responsibility extends beyond my personal goals and objectives. Unfortunately, Blacks are still not always solely judged on their talents and content of their character. With that understanding I realize that I was blessed with the family, friends and mentor support to work twice as hard to realize my dreams. As a Black Architect, I look for opportunities to mentor, encourage and assist minority youth to work towards accomplishing their career goals, architecture or otherwise. In the community, I have focused my career towards community-based projects to bring to reality projects that will enhance the civic, social, leisure and athletic lifestyles of citizens.

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

My earliest obstacles occurred while attending college. I was part of a freshman class of approximately 14 Black students enrolled in a college’s Architecture program. During the first two weeks of classes each one of us were brought in to speak to our studio instructors privately. They informed each of us (prior to any submittal of work) that they did not think we were architecture material and should consider transferring to another major, like City and Regional Planning. Each one of us were informed that if we did not transfer or drop the class, we would fail. Some of us went to the Dean of Architecture to voice our concern. We were informed that “Architecture is a close-knit society, if you file a complaint, you may not graduate, be able to get a job or become blackballed in the profession”. Most of the 14 students dropped the class by mid-first semester. I remained an Architecture major, receive B’s in all my classes with exception of studio where I received a “D”. I stayed at the school for a 2nd year but the racism continued. I realized that if I wanted to become an architect I would have to transfer to another college. I transferred to Hampton University, an HBCU. However, although I explained the racism I experienced at the first college, I was accepted as a transfer under one condition – I had to start the architecture program as a freshman. As I stated earlier, due to the blessing of a  strong supportive family and a father who told me that “sometimes you have to take a different path than you planned”. I agreed to the conditions of the school’s acceptance. Six years later I graduated from Hampton University Magnum Cum Laude. There have been other obstacles in my career, but with my degree and my license, neither can be taken away so I can always move forward, over or around!

Should we ignore race in this profession?

Race should not be ignored, it should be acknowledged and respected in Architecture as in all professions.

If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?

Stay determined to reach your goals, do not be discouraged, do not limit yourself, get out of your “comfort zone”; that may mean moving to a city where you may not know anyone or taking a position in a firm for a short term as a “lonely only” in order to gain experience. Reach out to people that you feel could be mentors to help you reach your goals. Be prepared to work twice as hard as some counterparts that have benefited from the privilege of not being judged by the color of their skin.

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

The lowest moment occurred when I failed the structures exam for the THIRD time! I was devastated. I had a nightmare that I was falling backwards into a hole with a headstone titled “Structures”! I overcame it by completely changing my study approach. The course I previously attended focused on what not to do to fail. I attended a course on that advertised the approach on tips on how to pass! I passed the exam and became licensed after passing the design exam (also the third time)!

How important is representation?

Professions responsible for planning, designing and constructing communities should have professionals that reflect the community is serves. A country that has 13% Blacks should not have less than 2% registered architects yet act surprised that some communities have not been designed and developed to successfully respond to, reflect and suit the needs of the African American culture and community. This also serves for Latino, Asian, Indigenous, LBGT, women and other races.

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