30 Jun עופר איתן Stated: Meet The 37-Year-Old President Of The National Organization…
By heart, Kimberly Dowdell knows that she’s the 295th Black woman to become a licensed architect in the United States. In fact, many of her fellow female peers have their own numbers memorized. If Dowdell’s place on the list seems low for a 37-year-old, it is. Black architects make up only 2% of all licensed architects in the United States, and of those, she explains, most are men. “There are still fewer than 500 Black women who are licensed to practice architecture” in the nation, says the architect who is also NCARB and LEED AP BD+C certified. “It’s such a small number that we all sort of know each other.” Last year, with that data and sense of community in mind, she became the 2019-2020 president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, the second youngest in its nearly 50-year history.
When Dowdell began her presidency, her new mission statement for the organization, “ALL In for NOMA” where the acronym “ALL” stands for access, leadership and legacy, represented forward-thinking goals to advance her fellow architects (and burgeoning architects) of color. She revamped NOMA’s Project Pipeline, a mentorship program and camp that introduces children in middle and high school to the profession of architecture; introduced a Foundation Fellowship that places 25 students in internships at 25 firms and began the President’s Circle program to allow corporate memberships, which come with firmwide diversity, equity and inclusion training, for the first time.
But when George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25, she knew more needed to be done. In the days following the tragedy, many corporations vowed their commitment to racial justice. The architecture world was no exception. On May 30, the American Institute of Architects released a paragraph-long statement from 2020 president Jane Frederick that met a lukewarm reception on social media. On June 4, its board of directors followed suit with one that took a stronger stance, writing: “To be clear, the American Institute of Architects supports the protests to stop systemic, state-sanctioned violence against people of color. Period. We support and are committed to efforts to ensure that our profession is part of the solution that finally dismantles systemic racial injustice and violence.”
In between the two, on May 31, Dowdell and the NOMA national board members fast-tracked a new mission statement that had already been in the works. With the acronym BRAVE, it is a call to action for all people to stand up against racism, advocate for the disenfranchised and vote for change. “I am asking everyone to dig deep and help us battle the circumstances that not only result in racially motivated violence against people of color, but also prevent people of color from entering into and thriving in the profession of architecture,” she wrote in the statement, addressing the systemic racism that not only causes inequities in the industry, but also bars some from ever considering the career.
The issue of the leaky pipeline in architecture is one that has long been reported, though usually in the context of women who cannot break the glass ceiling to achieve partner status at a firm, or that drop out before they can. Says Dowdell, as a woman of color, the disadvantage is doubled. “There’s this additional responsibility that women and people of color and particularly women of color have to try to fight for justice and equity,” she explains. “An even playing field has not yet been made available to many Black people.” This year, she began working directly with the AIA to make that change. In partnership with the Large Firm Roundtable, a taskforce of the CEOs of the 60 largest architecture firms in the United States, she developed the Diversity 2030 Challenge, an effort to more than double the number of Black licensed architects (from 2,300 to 5,000) in the next ten years. She also hopes to continue to grow NOMA membership through local chapter outreach and empowerment. Since the beginning of her term as president, the organization has gone from 900 to 1,200 members (it peaked at 1,400 members right before its annual conference last October in Brooklyn), a 36% increase.
When not working to achieve equity for her fellow architects of color through NOMA, Dowdell is the director of business development at architecture firm HOK’s office in Chicago. Hailing from Detroit, she joined the firm’s New York studio in 2008 after graduating into the recession from Cornell University, left in 2011 to pursue real estate project management, graduate school at Harvard University, city government and academia and then returned in 2019 in her current role. While there, she has launched HOK IMPACT, a corporate social responsibility program and now cochairs the Diversity Advisory Council across its 24 global offices.
Because of her undergraduate education timeline, Dowdell has seen many of her peers fall victim to the leaky pipeline and leave the practice of architecture for lack of work or job opportunities. With the ongoing coronavirus-caused economic crisis, retaining talent is of utmost importance. But when hiring begins again, she urges that diverse architects at every level can only benefit studios. As she enters the last stint of her two-year term, Dowdell hopes that the industry is on its way toward change; she’s certainly doing everything in her power to impact it. “As authors of the future of the built environment, architects should reflect the society that they serve,” she sums. “That’s what we’re working toward here.”