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: Byron Nicholas
Hometown: Jamaica Queens, NY
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and Planning and when?
My dad was an architect with New York City’s School Construction Authority and retired this year. I remember seeing all his old school architecture utensils for drawing and visiting his office during summer. I always new I wanted to have a similar presence in an office space. But on the contrary, my mother was and still is a housekeeper. She works in various locations throughout New York City. At a young age I traveled with my siblings via public transit to assist her on some of her jobs, sometimes alone. This is what truly allowed me to explore and appreciate NYC for its extensive transportation system, high density and urban form. That’s how I knew I wanted to get into urban planning/design whether it was through land use or transportation planning.
What does it mean to be a black planner to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
As a Black urban planner, I find that I operate with a double consciousness. I am usually the “darkest” and youngest in rooms filled with well experienced engineers and found it to be very intimidating. But through time, experience, guidance and advisement, with other Black professionals, I realized I am not alone and that although it is common amongst Black planners, it’s not necessarily the most healthy for our mental health.
It was humbling to work with communities of color, particularly Black communities from since my college days in Buffalo, NY. It made me realize how holistic the planning profession can be – impactful to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations. So yes, I do feel like i have a greater responsibility, as a public servant, to work for members of the public, with an emphasis to help Black communities, especially those historically affected by racist and hostile housing and transportation policies.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black planner/designer?
Maneuvering through white spaces, at times, prove to be difficult for me. Customs, force of assimilation, and microaggressions are a few things in my mind when I should be concentrating on the actual task at hand. But this may also work to an advantage, as I have a greater understanding for various demographics, something an employer may value. This is why I’ve created Grid City Planning, LLC d/b/a Blackandurban.com – a safe space for Black urban planners full of various resources.
Working in a highly politicized environment can be frustrating where your internal priorities may want to focus on more vulnerable populations and geographic areas.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
It’s impossible to ignore race in the built environment professions such as architecture and urban planning. Culture and customs play a large role in the way we live and work and should not be approach with a colorblind perspective. Race was a factor when Robert Moses decided to relocate Black Americans from neighborhoods in Manhattan to make way for the Lincoln Center. Race was a factor when black neighborhoods were bulldozed to design and engineer the interstate system; race was a factor for the design materials used for Pruitt Igoe; and race still is a factor when banks and real estate agents redline Black communities to white buyers. Therefore race shall not be ignored when correcting these wrongs and designing spaces for Black inhabitants.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture /Urban Planning school right now, what would it be?
Prioritize equity. As a public servant, make sure the most vulnerable populations have the same public amenities as the least vulnerable people. As a private consultant, do not sell your soul, culture, or identity for money. “People can make money, but money cannot make nor influence people”. Design low income, moderate and high income spaces that understand the culture, customs and identify of people. It’s part of the place making process.
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
As a licensed planner for the state of New Jersey and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, college proved to be the most difficult. College was a time where there were major monetary constraints and stresses of obtaining a job in a recessed economy. ( ’11 B.A and ’13 MUP). My team, co-workers, and friends at Hudson county, NJ (my current employer) was/is very supportive in my journey to my license and certification. I know not every employer is as supportive, so I will always appreciate their support.
How important is representation?
Representation is very important. However, representation without support can be damaging. For example, seeing a person of color in a high position is important. But, it may be damaging to one’s psyche as a young mentee if that person in a high position is resistant to helping him/her. What’s the point of being in a high position if you’re not able to help those below you?