#MentorMonday: Dahmahlee Lawrence

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: Dahmahlee Lawrence

Hometown: Paterson NJ; Orlando FL

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

The pursuit of and interest in architecture began for me from an early age. In Pre-school I had a fascination with Lincoln Logs and worked my way up to Legos in Elementary school. My older brother liked to follow the manual and build what was on the box but because he is a great older brother, once we finished building in accordance with the manual he let me pull it down and build what I saw in my mind. It was intense, I named all the pieces and he caught on pretty quickly, to the point when I asked him to pass me a “2×4 flat flat” he would hand me the correct piece. I think I just loved seeing the way parts and pieces came together to create a whole. My parents always exposed us to the arts and sciences by taking us to museums, additionally my parents owned rental properties and I watched them manage and maintain/repair them for new tenants. All these things combined in addition to the massive homeless problem I saw as a child in NYC fused together what lead me toward architecture.

What does it mean to be a black architect/ urban designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility? How important is representation?

I never thought of myself as a Black architect, for me, I am a competent architect who happens to be Black. However, I do live in America, so I am aware of race as an identifier in society. Yet, this is still not at the forefront of my mind every day when I show up to work. I did learn early on that many in the professional world will see my skin color first and my title second. I stopped taking responsibility for how others perceive me a long time ago; when people hold biases against “others” that is a direct reflection of that person, not me. While representation matters, change is slow and for it to be effective it cannot be ‘on-trend,’ and then forgotten about in five years, it needs to be ongoing. Firms that are actively recruiting and ensuring their practices are representative of society and much-needed change will continue to succeed and attract the best talent.

For minorities in all fields, as we all know, it may be hard to pursue any profession/vocation when you do not see persons who look like you, doing what you would like to do. However, it is not impossible, if we are not out here laying the bricks / paving the way the status quo will continue. I do think if you want to pursue something, sometimes you must make the way regardless if someone was there before you or not. Otherwise, nothing changes if nothing changes; resting on your laurels hoping someone else will make a way for you, so your path is “easier” is ineffective.
I never felt I had more responsibility than any of my peers who are also minorities in the architectural profession. I do not think the responsibility falls to one group of people to affect change, it should always be a top-down, holistic effort.  I chose this route, and, in many ways, it chose me.  Interning at various firms throughout the pursuit of my undergraduate degree allowed me to know what I was getting into with respect to low numbers and representation – this did not deter me.  My goal was always to do my best and provide well thought out spaces/facilities for the user of the projects I worked/work on.  Along my journey, if I can provide the role of advocate for someone else, I will do so without hesitation.

 

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

When I first began working, I always felt I had to prove myself because I was usually an ‘only’ in the room. Somewhere along the line, I had a breakthrough, where I realized I do not need to carry that burden because I can perform on equal footing. Once I was able to lift that burden off me, I began to look for an employer who saw me as a professional that is capable. Luckily, I now work for a firm where I do not feel the need to prove anything, but it took a long time to get here.

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

The advice I would give is perhaps cliché, but I would say three things:
1. As the adage goes ‘Be yourself because everyone else is taken’ – there is no need to conform to “fit-in,” it is a waste of time and exhausting. Get to really know yourself and be authentic and honest about how you are to yourself, it makes life easier.
2. Intern every summer at various firms so that you understand the profession prior to graduation – make sure you get paid – your labor is not free; if your school offers study abroad, and it makes sense financially for you – try to go at least for one semester
3. Have a life/ passion outside of architecture to avoid burnout
4. Learn from various advocates who will teach you how to advocate for yourself

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

While testing took a great deal out of me mentally, I was never at a true low point. The process for me was an extension of school, it was a challenge I knew I would excel at no matter what happened as I plowed through. Even with failing two exams (one because I flat out failed to study; the other because I was ill-prepared), I had the mindset to push through. I always knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I was sure to have things I wanted to do post-exams that acted as a carrot at the end of the stick. Luckily, between family and friends who supported and encouraged me along the way and colleagues who mentored me, I was had a stable support system during the process.

 

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