#MentorMonday: Joseph McKenley, AIA
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.
Joseph McKenley, AIA
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
I’ve always been fascinated by houses – by dwelling as I came to know it in Architecture school. I used to save hundreds of images of houses on my laptops growing up and I imagined owning them all. Eventually I realized that perhaps I couldn’t own them all but maybe I could design them. At the same time I was growing in Kingston, Jamaica where the built environment leaves a lot to be desired. At some point I made the realization that Architects have the power to physically affect their surroundings and to effect change and since then I’ve made it my mission to do so for the better.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
I am happy that you use the term ‘Black’ here rather than ‘African American’ as I am not American, and as many people who move to the U.S. may tell you, I am reminded of that fact constantly. My journey as an Architect started in Jamaica where I didn’t have to think about being a Black Architect per se. We battle colorism more so than racism there, since the country and the profession are predominantly Black. It wasn’t until moving to the U.S. that I had to confront being a minority in the profession.
Realizing my new context and being aware that I am a part of the two percent I take my licensure very seriously and I wear it visibly. I believe in the power of representation. Without being aware at the time, I benefitted tremendously from seeing Black successes all around me, growing up in a predominantly Black country, and it has had a lasting impact on my life. I want to ensure that I offer that opportunity to someone younger; someone looking for successful Black role models.
Do I feel that I have more responsibility? I’m not sure. But I know that as a Black person in our field and in this country that my plate will always be full.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
My career hasn’t been a long one. But so far, I’ve enjoyed tremendous successes and am surrounded by VERY supportive people. From engaging with peers I know that this is not the case for everyone and so I am grateful. I’ll return to this question in a few more years.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Recognize who supports you and maintain that relationship.
Recognize who you can be honest and truly yourself in front of and maintain that relationship.
Enjoy the learning process and reach out for help when you need it!
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
My humble brag used to be that I’ve never failed a major exam. Then I failed my first. It was the fifth of six ARE exams; and I failed it. It also came at a point in time where I was feeling vulnerable about my abilities as an Architect following my annual review where a few areas for improvement had been pointed out.
How did I overcome it? I think it came down to drive – my mindset. I was so close; and I really wanted to be an Architect. I used the insecurity from my failure and the review feedback to push myself – to learn what I needed to learn to prove my legitimacy and to self improve.
How important is representation?
As mentioned before – very important. It may sound silly to some, but for those of us who have experienced FINALLY seeing ourselves in the mainstream we know how huge the impact can be.