Leaping beyond typical conference fare of newfangled products, technology innovations and business strategies, “Unbounded,” the theme for this year’s National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) 2018 conference, delivered a deeper message of inclusivity, solidarity and support to its nearly 900 attendees. Hosted by design firms, allied organizations and local institutions, the conference used unique venues in adjacent locations heightening the limitless nature of creativity. According to co-chairs Jason Pugh and Sharon Samuels, the “without walls” format “breaks us out of the confines of stuffy hotel rooms.”
At Thursday’s keynote in the ballroom of the School of the Art Institute (1908. Barnett Haynes & Barnett), architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey pointed out the exclusion of notable Chicago buildings on the city’s South Side in the municipal reporting of heritage places. “Communities know what they have,” Bey maintains and should be part of the greater conversation. Whether deliberate or simply an oversight, sins of omission in documentation leave important cultural landmarks out of the preservation loop when funds are granted.
Down the street at 111 East Wacker, One Illinois Center (1967-1990s, Illinois Center-Ludwig Mies van der Rohe), the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), with sponsor Mohawk Group, hosted two sessions of complementary intent to inform and impact minority professionals. Leading the panel of seasoned practitioners, IIDA Executive VP and CEO Cheryl Durst set the stage for an “unbounded” conversation that frankly addressed the tough questions about attitudes toward race and ethnicity in the design arena. She affirmed her belief in inclusion, “You can’t design for the world if you’re not of the world.” Panelist George Bandy, Jr., vice president of sustainability and director of marketing for Mohawk Group, said that he uses humor as first defense against comments that feel racially motivated. “I try to change behavior and leverage my leadership when I have a mic,” he says. “I’m always thinking about the 300 people behind me and how I can have an impact on the future.” On the topic of mentoring the next generation, Gabrielle Bullock, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins+Will, encouraged young professionals as they grow into leadership positions: “Find your voice. Keep the diversity goal and social equity front and center.” Dina Griffin, president of Interactive Design Architects, stressed the importance of privacy: To protect and advance your career, understand the difference between public and private information and when it is appropriate to share. The panel’s sentiments for determination, diligence and vigilance in handling challenges in the workplace were echoed in Bandy’s final advice: ”Bring your voice and culture to work every day. Corporate America’s racism has gotten discreet. Don’t leave your street sense at home.”
Architect Katherine Williams introduced “Beyond Vortex” at IIDA Headquarters. Williams was a participant in the inaugural Vortex session as a young, aspiring professional. With steadfast momentum and long vision, the Vortex sessions evolved from a specific need in 2007 to a resource forum for African-American women architectural designers and licensed professionals to review and share challenges in the profession.
Saturday’s session highlighted the low numbers of licensed African-American women architects in the United Sates, representing just over .3 percent of the 113,500 thousand architects in the nation. To bolster these numbers, three presenters introduced innovative programs targeting the next generation of designers through purpose-driven projects. Maya Bird-Murphy focused on mentorship of youth through Chicago Mobile Makers. Tiffany Brown spoke about the support of future women architects and urban planners at 400 Forward. And Tiara Hughes discussed The First 500 Project, a national research initiative that is compiling a comprehensive database to accurately document licensed African-American women architects and their contribution to design.
And what design conference would be complete without an abundance of over-the-top parties? With skyline views from Motorola’s Merchandise Mart rooftop, Chicago’s NOMA chapter hosted a jamming “Silent Party” with revelers dancing to DJ’d tunes piped through glowing headphones. South Side fave Harold’s Chicken Shack’s wings and Rainbow Cone ice cream fortified the crowd. Recently appointed NOMA student-chapter faculty advisor Jermaine Washington believes students need a continuity of support as they segue from their education into professional opportunities. “We lose promising talent in the profession when personal and workplace obstacles are challenging,” the California Polytechnic State University lecturer said. His message of the need for inclusivity came in his parting ironic aside: The photographic bragging timeline of design and notable people at LAX airport makes no mention of the iconic Theme Building (circa 1961) and its design attributed to Pereira & Luckman Architects, Welton Becket and renowned African-American architect Paul Revere Williams.
The “Unbounded” theme encompassed conversations around career paths, creating strategic partnerships and advocating inclusive attitudes. Honoring cultural and gender diversity brings creative and intellectual innovation. The atmosphere was uplifting and the organizing team, hosts and partners produced a memorable and inspirational conference.