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Black women architects gather to bond, build and embolden

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Oct 8, 2019 - 1:36:37 PM

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Black women architects gathered recently in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON—When Nia Muhammad was young, she used to build communities out of Legos, complete with homes, a fire station and a mosque. One day a friend of her mom looked at her latest creation and suggested she become an architect.

“I don’t know what an architect is, I thought, but that always stuck with me,” she told The Final Call.

Two decades later she is finishing a master’s degree in architecture at Catholic University and gathered with other Black women architects at their 5th annual networking event designed to foster working relationships, build future partnerships and support Black women architects.

“I want to transform communities and empower them through architecture which is really fundamental in any society. I want to bring that type of design to our communities and be able to make a big difference in the environment. I’m also looking forward to doing international work in Ghana and Kenya,” She said.

The Sept. 21 event was organized by Katherine Williams, a licensed architect and volunteer with the National Organization of Minority Architects and the American Institute of Architects. She led a team of volunteers that planned a sold out event held at the historic Octagon House in downtown D.C. There was such an overwhelming response some people had to, unfortunately, be turned away for lack of space in the facility.

“In architecture, Black women make-up only 0.4 percent (462) of the over 110,000 licensed architects in the United States. The event serves to connect women who could easily be working in environments where they rarely see other Black women,” Ms. Williams told The Final Call.

For Kathleen Sherrill, an adjunct professor at Morgan State University and owner of her own architect firm, SP ARCH, she was happy to be part of the planning committee for this year’s event.

“Every firm I worked at I was always the only Black and the only Black woman. It’s somewhat lonely in this profession. There were others, I just didn’t know them. I had great mentors that supported me, they were mostly men and not all were African American men. When I was working on my master’s I met my first African American woman architect. So, for me this event is extremely important,” she said.

“We need the support. That’s why I joined this committee and was so happy to help. I started my practice 15 years ago which does commercial and industrial design. It’s important for young people to see architects who look like them,” added Ms. Sherrill.

The Saturday brunch brought together a range of Black women new and old to the field of architecture as well as students from Morgan State, Catholic University and the University of Maryland. There was also a panel discussion with industry professionals.

“The first time I met a Black woman architect was two years ago,” shared Natasha Mosely, director of Single Family Development at The Menkiti Group. “I’m at this boutique architect firm and I knew I needed to be in contact with other Black architects. I found a website with 40 names. I sent emails and only Kathryn Diggs responded. She had worked on the MGM National project,” explained Ms. Mosely.

Dr. Hazel Edwards and JocCole Burton speaking at the panel.

“I needed someone to have honest conversations with me. Kathy taught me how to look at a project wholistically. I can do this and get the project done in six months or I can do this and get the project done in two years.”

JocCole Burton, chief executive officer of Maven Construction, emphasized to the standing room only audience the importance of knowing your project.

“I could site the details and page number on any given project I was working on. No one knew the project better than me. I walked the project day and night. I spent extra time being better than everyone else. When I walk in a room, I know you think I can’t do the job but when you talk to me there is nothing you can’t tell me about building that I don’t know, especially the commercial side. I’ve studied and done my work,” said Ms. Burton.

“They don’t have my experience. I push that. You don’t have my experience. I know that. When we do win a project, I want them to see my thumbprint. When I’m on a project I try to bring as many minority subcontractors as possible. I want to give someone else a chance. It’s my own internal compass. I am female. Men are excited to have me in the room because they are not used to it,” she added.

“It is very important for us to support this Black women in architecture event,” MJ Calloway, director of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at The American Institute of Architects, told The Final Call.

“I think it’s good for us to include women in design to come together, talk, tell stories and get to know one another. There’s not that many. This is an important event and AIA is a great supporter of this. I’m not an architect but my passion is design,” she said.

Other panelists at the gathering included Dr. Hazel Edwards, professor and chair of Howard University’s Department of Architecture, and Sara Goins, director of marketing at Floura Teeter Landscape Architects.

The event was also a fundraiser for the Desiree Cooper ARE Scholarship fund. The fund currently provides scholarships for those who need financial assistance to complete the architect licensure process. To date, the fund has awarded five scholarships to exam candidates.

The 2019 event was possible with the help from a range of sponsors, including OTJ Architects, CURE Architecture and The American Institute of Architects.