#MentorMonday: Melanie Ray, AIA + NOMA + LEED Green Associate

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 inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series.

Name: Melanie Ray

Hometown: Jersey City, NJ, but born in Orange

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and Planning and when?

 I was introduced to architecture at an early age. My father was a licensed architect in New Jersey, and along with his own practice, he had a home office set up in our basement. I went downstairs all the time to see what buildings my dad was working on, such as small business expansions, residential additions, or a new church. Papers were EVERYWHERE, but I thought the rolls of drawings stacked against the walls and the different types of pencils were so cool. I didn’t think much of becoming an architect then, but in high school, I realized that architecture was the ideal career that combined all of my interests.

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

When I was studying for my exams with my peers, I always felt like there was a little more pressure to pass. Looking back, I was probably overthinking it, but even then I knew that becoming an architect would mean so much to myself, my family, and my culture. It’s true that we have to work twice as hard to get half the distance, and architecture is no exception. Being a black woman architect means that I stand on the shoulders of only few hundred before me, but I also am laying the foundation for the next few thousand. I am constantly challenging myself to learn about my profession, expand my professional networks, and increase my skill set because we have to stand out as excellent designers, not just the only person of color in the room.

 

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

Now that I’m a licensed architect, I find myself in a more active fight against ‘tokenism’. When you are one of less than 500 black female architects in the country, it’s easy to find yourself as the voice of ‘the culture’ and, unfortunately, I may not realize this until after I’ve re-evaluated the situation and ask myself “Hold on, am I only being asked this because I’m the only black person in the room?”. While it’s important we celebrate diversity in the profession and encourage more people of color to consider careers in architecture, it’s also important that we are valued as team members and leaders which contribute to all aspects of a project.

Should we ignore race in this profession?

Absolutely not. I have found myself leveraging my identity more than anything rather than hiding it. It’s impossible in 2019 to remove race from the equation of any profession, because race, along with our experiences and culture tied to it, guides our decision-making process and design perspective. Historically, our opinions were undervalued, and in some situations they still are. But there are also cases in which our opinions are necessary to move the project forward.

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

I have two pieces of advice. First, stay true to yourself and your beliefs. It’s very easy to loose yourself in a profession that is dominated by white men. Going to a predominately white school and being the only black student to graduate with an architecture degree in my class, I am very aware of how important your emotional and mental foundation is when you are constantly tested by forces you may be unfamiliar with. Second, engage in every opportunity that you can feasibly take advantage of. Don’t over do it, but don’t think you are less worthy of something simply because you would be the first or the only one of your ethnicity to go for it. You deserve every aspect of this profession just as much as the next person, and until you take chances, you never know where you full potential lies.

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

This question is triggering! My path to licensure was smooth sailing at the beginning. I set a very strict study schedule in which my free time outside of work was dedicated to studying every piece of material I could get my hands on. I studied for 2 hours everyday after work and at least 6 hours Saturdays and Sundays in the weeks leading up to a scheduled exam. My coworker and I passed the first four exams together and with ease. After the 4th exam, we diverted – she stayed with the 4.0 version and I transitioned to 5.0, but I stuck to my typical study routine and didn’t really change my approach. I walked out of the Project Development & Documentation exam feeling apprehensive, but positive that I had passed. The next day, I traveled to the 2017 NOMA Conference, one of my favorite events of the year. After catching up with friends and colleagues, I noticed an e-mail from NCARB as I was heading up to my room. I opened it, confident that it was another PASS report, but was horrified to find my first FAIL! What was worse was that I had to head back to the conference and continue networking like I hadn’t been dealt the biggest sucker punch to my career! Being at the conference that weekend turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I received so many words of encouragement that helped me look passed that fail and on to the next exam. I managed to pass my last two exams after rethinking my strategy, and became a licensed architect within 4 months of receiving my only FAIL report.

How important is representation?

I mentioned that my dad and his practice was my first exposure to the field of architecture. It would not be until I attended my first NOMA conference that I would meet another black architect, and by then I was a sophomore in college. I was able to go into my undergraduate education knowing exactly what I wanted to be, but far too often, young people are not exposed to this field until they have already started in another major. Black architects were not a foreign concept to me because I knew it was possible at a young age. We need more black children to know that this profession is an option if we want to see a different future, and for that, we need representation.

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