#MentorMonday: Brien Graham AIA, NCARB
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.
Brien Graham AIA, NCARB
Born in Newark, NJ; lives in Dallas, TX
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
Growing up, I loved playing with Legos. I could spend hours on the floor lost in my own world. At the age of 10, I vividly remember having a conversation with my mother and telling her it would be cool if I could turn my passion for playing with Legos into a full-time job, and she described architecture to me. That was my light bulb moment! From that moment, I’ve been in pursuit of that passion – taking my very first architectural drafting class at age 12. My eagerness remains, and I’m continually motivated to live out the dreams of that fascinated 10-year-old.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
Being a black architect is being a signpost and a unicorn all at once. Because there are so few of us, I feel I have to be my best at all moments. There’s a weight that comes with being a black architect that I assume a large part of us carry. It’s a burden and a blessing. Our profession’s lack of diversity calls stark attention to our presence, but us occupying these spaces is necessary to provide open doors for the future black architects coming behind us.
I feel a responsibility to achieve so that I don’t hinder the opportunities of other black architects currently in the profession and those who are aspiring architects. Several great black architects have come before me who haven’t received the recognition they deserve, and I feel it’s my charge to build upon and continue those legacies.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
I’ve experienced obstacles both in school and in the profession. One situation occurred in my second-year studio that I remember well. I don’t recall the particular project we were working on, but I remember the feelings of disappointment and uncertainty after talking to my professor. As a first-generation college student, even with a scholarship, I had to work in addition to going to school. And being in the honors program meant I also had more challenging classes to deal with, along with my architecture studio. This was new to me. I had graduated in the top 10% of my high school class, but now, I was falling behind.
I went to my professor to get some advice and possibly a project extension because I was struggling to keep up with buying all the materials needed for the project and my books and supplies for other classes. And I’ll never forget his response. He told me maybe I should wait until my classmates discarded their scraps in the trash, then I could retrieve them and use them. To say I felt small would be an understatement.
It’s like he didn’t even see me. There was no compassion or empathy. That was a pivotal moment for me, and it almost made me consider dropping architecture altogether. I already felt I had to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as my classmates, and this was yet another obstacle. Thankfully, I decided not to drop, and that motivated me to work even harder. I used it as fuel to show him I belonged and was just as talented as anyone else in the studio.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
Absolutely not! Ignoring race would be missing a part of someone that makes them whole. Black architects only make up 2% of licensed architects in the country. That number is a measuring stick we can use to gauge our profession’s progress as we move into the future. Participation of minorities and BIPOC groups is essential to the design profession being genuinely reflective of society.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Be you, unapologetically! Don’t let anyone dim your light or put you in a position to feel less than deserving. Use this time to be as creative as possible, think beyond limitations, and allow yourself to soar. Architecture is a great career, with incredible opportunities to shape our built environment’s physical makeup, and YOU are a necessary participant in the creation process.
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
When I began testing, I set a deadline for myself. That deadline came and went several times because life interrupted it. There were many instances I felt like giving up. Years passed by, and there were several failed exams. I had to continue to remind myself that I created the timeline, and I could remove it. I’m thankful I stuck to it and persevered because being a licensed architect was a goal that not many have attained – especially those who look like me.
How important is representation?
Seeing yourself reflected in the career or position you want to achieve is essential. The mantra, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” is real. We often rely on stories of success to propel us to achieve similar goals. My hope is black students from kindergarten through college will see me and aspire to be architects too!