#MentorMonday: Joy Cunningham
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. The opinions and views expressed do not reflect those of America’s Hidden Gem(TM). They are exclusively opinions of those by whom they’re shared.
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
I have always considered myself a creative person; growing up art, particularly drawing, was a passion and hobby of mine. In high school, I was tasked with an assignment in English class to research career paths and began exploring architecture as an option. I enjoyed the idea of using my creativity and drawing skills to design things. At that moment, I decided to pursue architecture as my major and career path. After my junior year of high school, I attended an architecture summer camp at Virginia Tech to affirm my commitment to the field and began building the foundation for my career.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
When I think about my value as a Black designer, I consider my ancestors that did not have the opportunities afforded to me because of systemic racism and the generational disenfranchisement of Black Americans. Virginia Tech, my alma mater, enrolled its first Black student in 1953. Presently, Black students make-up 4% of the population with even less in the Department of Architecture and Engineering. Despite advances and initiatives by Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) to create more diversity Black populations are grossly underrepresented. It creates many obstacles when being one of the few Black students in the room and programs, however it mirrors the reality of my career.
When I think about being a Black designer, I consider the retention rate of Black associates and principals in the field due to the demanding environment. It is imperative for me to work towards becoming a licensed Black Female Architect. I realize only 2% of licensed architects are Black and 0.3% of licensed Black architects are women, this makes it easy to believe that we do not belong in this space. It can result in one becoming discouraged on the track to becoming licensed. As a Black designer on this path, my goal is increasing the number of licensed young Black architects. I understand it is critical for me to place myself in spaces where I can show representation to Black youth and pique interest in the field. Furthermore, I must align myself with opportunities to utilize my voice and create spaces to publicize the designs and achievements of my peers in a field where our work is not always celebrated.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
As a young Black female architectural designer, I find myself feeling physically alone in certain rooms. At times, the disconnect feels overwhelming; like being an outsider amongst people in the industry. I am shy and introverted but will strike up a conversation when I see people that resemble me. I am incredibly grateful to have young Black female friends in architecture outside of those spaces. I know I can rely on them when I need advice or someone to relate to my experiences. One area I am constantly striving to improve is being an advocate for myself. It is vital for me to be louder about my ideas, designs, and skills to receive the same respect as my white counterparts.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
It is crucial to acknowledge diversity and inclusion in all professions. During slavery to present-day Black architects, designers, and builders have been ignored while contributing to the infrastructure of this country. Unrecognized slave architects, designers, and builders provided their talents to the likes of the White House, major American cities, in addition to many academic institutions. Today, we are learning about the many contributions Black designers bestowed to society.
Creating environments where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) can freely express their ideas generates a myriad of perspectives and contributions to the work. The building of diverse collaborative environments can bring powerful changes such as, improving processes and business practices. In professional settings we often work in silos, however different perspectives on distinct conditions correlated to background and experience can provide unparalleled insight to others. In diverse environments it is an integral component of the learning process; it allows designers to engage in discussions instead of depending on one point of view. Embracing different vantage points contributes to innovative designs that can propel projects to another level. While Black voices may still go unheard in this profession, I believe through continued dialogue and engagement we can create new paradigms to improve the profession of Architecture for BIPOC.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Stay the course! There will be people questioning and doubting your quest – tune them out.
· Do not believe your existence as a minority in this field is a disadvantage, rather it is an opportunity.
· You possess a unique set of experiences, skills, and perspectives that no one can take away from you.
· Know your worth and own it.
· Advocate for yourself in and out of the classroom.
· Let your differences elevate you above your peers instead of shrinking you.
· Lastly, find a village of Black colleagues for the journey.
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
It is easy to put exams on the back burners of life. I started pursuing my LEED Green Associate certification two years after college, to get back to the mindset and routine of studying for exams. It was great to learn new studying strategies that worked for me, as well as, taking the exam in the same testing center that I will take future AREs. After obtaining my certification, I found myself requiring a break from studying instead of taking on another exam. Lately, it has been very encouraging to watch several of my Black friends completing their AXP hours and crossing exams off their lists.
How important is representation?
Representation is essential to attract more Black people to the industry. It is the obligation of communities of practice to create areas that focus on this initiative. As Black designers we must commit to expose Black boys and girls, especially those in lower income and marginalized communities to Architecture and Design at an early age. The reality is many Black children do not gain exposure to Architecture until they are much older, which can limit opportunities to develop interest over time. When students are considering what they want to be when they grow up, Architecture may not be a thought of because they were not made aware of different aspects of the field. Black students need to see more Black people in roles that are uncommon for Black people in their communities. While the primary responsibility is up to Black architects, Black leaders and professionals in other fields are needed to shed light on all opportunities for Black youth. Providing exposure to our youth builds hope that they can make it out of their neighborhoods through other means than sports and entertainment. Black architects must get involved at the grade school level through mentorship programs, career days, and camps to help break the cycle and close the racial gap in the industry.
In my pursuits to provide representation, I returned to my alma mater for the past two years to recruit diverse talent. I found this experience extremely rewarding, as one of the handful of Black graduates in the School of Architecture. When returning to campus the same ratio of Black students to white students when I visit has yet to change which is disheartening. It is rare for me to see other Black recruiters at these events, which is jarring because of how critical it is for us to be present. It reminds me that my attendance is important because I represent a successful Black professional to Black students. I am someone that looks like them and faced the same adversities they are experiencing when in undergrad. Now, I am navigating my career in Architecture and Design and developing ways to foster more representation in white spaces.