What Would Michelle Do? Some Ideas from the Women of FXFOWLE

One week after hearing my ultimate girl-crush, Michelle Obama, speak at the 2017 AIA Conference on Architecture in Orlando, I am still giddy. For 45 minutes, I hung on every word spoken by this fierce, funny, brilliant, and engaging former First Lady, attorney, and mom.

In a wide-ranging conversation with AIA President Thomas Vonier, she reminded us of the unique tools that we, as architects, can use to create positive change in our communities and the world. When the conversation turned to how we can do better to increase diversity in our profession, these words struck me with particular force:

“You can’t be an architect if you don’t know architects exist.”

She went on to explain that "so many kids don't even know what an architect is. They don't think about how buildings are built; they don't know anything about developing or planning. I know I didn't, and I was an educated kid. You have kids growing up in communities where people don't even work, period, let alone as doctors or lawyers or architects."

She then encouraged us to reach out to these children at a very young age, so that they understand what is possible, and to lay the foundation for a future architecture profession that is more colorful, diverse, and expansive.

After Michelle’s talk, I was reminded of a conversation I had with the Women of FXFOWLE in New York last fall, in which they described the kinds of initiatives they are working on to address issues of both gender and socioeconomic diversity in the AEC community. I spoke with Ann Rolland FAIA, LEED and Cristina Rodriguez-Vazquez LEED AP to learn more about their work.

 Ann Rolland, FAIA, LEED AP

Ann Rolland, FAIA, LEED AP

 Cristina Rodriguez-Vazquez LEED AP

Cristina Rodriguez-Vazquez LEED AP

One of my favorite lines from Michelle’s conversation was, “You don’t have to be first lady to influence.”  That should be a rallying cry for all of us, and I feel that the things you are doing are perfect examples of this. Tell me a little bit about the Women of FXFOWLE. How did it to come to be? What is your mission?

Cristina: We started the group about 3 ½ years ago, when a woman who was working on our staff at the time started sharing articles and data about a lack of gender diversity and the wage gap in the architecture profession. Five of us, all young female designers, decided to start a group to raise awareness around these issues, both internally within the firm and externally. Our stated mission is “to support professional growth and leadership development for women and to promote the voice and perspective of women within FXFOWLE.”

And what, more specifically, are some of your goals?

Cristina: We have a range of goals, from encouraging a supportive and inclusive professional environment, to organizing skill development workshops on topics such as negotiation and communication, to supporting work/life balance.

What kind of reception did you get when you started out?

Cristina: At first, I think there were some questions about why we needed a group specifically for women. Once we made clear that the group is open to any and all people at the firm who are concerned about these issues, I’d say the Women of FXFOWLE has been embraced and supported.

Ann: Which should be everyone, by the way. In order to have an impact we have to bring men into this conversation. It has to be an “us.” Not an “us” and a “them.”

Cristina: And interestingly, once we made that agenda clear, we have gotten a lot more interest from a wider group of people within the firm.

Ann: And we’re seeing a real evolution. A lot of the younger men, who grew up with moms that worked have real role models and a clear point of entry into the conversation.

Cristina: And just to be clear, from the very start we have had great champions at the leadership level within the firm, especially from Ann, and partners Sylvia Smith FAIA, LEED AP and Heidi Blau, FAIA, LEED AP.

Speaking of Sylvia, one of the most exciting initiatives you described to me last fall was your involvement with the Girl Scouts of New York. Tell me about how that began.

Cristina: Sylvia was a Girl Scout herself and was recently recognized for her accomplishments by the Girl Scouts of New York. She was named a “Woman of Distinction,” and because of that honor, we began a relationship with them.

Can you describe what you do with them?

Cristina: Last summer we organized an office visit for 20 Girl Scouts representing a diverse cross-section of the city’s racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. They were middle-schoolers, aged 13-15, which I think is a great time to connect with these soon-to-be young women. Once we had issued the invitation to the Girl Scouts, we sent out an email to the entire Women of FXFOWLE group asking for volunteers, and the response was overwhelming. Everyone wanted to volunteer!

We only had 3 ½ hours, so we started with a basic information session and slide presentation, sort of an “Architecture 101.” We made sure to address a lot of misconceptions about architects and what we do. For example, most of the girls didn’t know that buildings aren’t just designed by one person with a big idea, i.e. “the Architect,” but that every project is a collaborative undertaking.

Then we split into small groups and each group made several stops around the office, visiting with architects, designers and other staff at every level, from summer interns to junior architects, to associates and principals.

Did the girls seem to be getting a lot out of it?

Cristina: Yes! Everyone’s favorite stop was the model shop. Miwa, who works in the model shop, showed them the laser cutter and how to make little trees for the models. They loved that!

At the end of the tour, we had a Q+A session with five women in the firm, describing how their paths led them to architecture. We made sure to have people in different roles on that panel, like our HR manager and our office manager, so that they could see that there are so many different ways to be involved in creating architecture and the built-environment.

What kind of questions and feedback did you get from the girls?

Cristina: We got a lot of comments, like “this is so amazing!” and “I had no idea that this is what architects do!” But one girl had some very serious concerns, which really made an impression on me. She asked if this is a profession where she could have a family and make enough money for her family to be comfortable. This was a difficult question for me to answer. Of course, I wanted to encourage her, but at the same time, I know how difficult and challenging this profession can be, especially for women.

But maybe by the time she’s old enough to enter the profession, things will have improved?

Cristina: Exactly. And that is why we are doing what we do with the Women of FXFOWLE. We are busy planning this summer's event with the Girls Scouts, and again, there is so much enthusiasm for this event within the firm. We are so lucky to do the work we do as architects, and the key is to make our work and the profession more accessible to more kinds of people. 

Ann: And the key to diversity is exposure at a very young age, and understanding that it’s not just architecture. It’s the entire construction industry that needs to be more diverse and inclusive. One of the organizations that FXFOWLE has worked with for many years is the ACE Mentor program, which introduces high-school students to all aspects of work in the built-environment, from architecture to construction to engineering.

Which brings me to my next question. Ann, you are involved with two other organizations, which may not be as well-known as the ACE Mentor Program. Tell me a little about them.

Ann: I sit on the boards of NEW – Nontraditional Employment for Women, and the NYC College of Technology. NEW is an amazing work-development program that trains low-income, primarily minority women in the skilled building trades, preparing them for careers in construction. This program is truly transformative for these women and their families. Many of them are working up to 3 minimum-wage jobs, often raising children single-handedly, and over the course of 5 years, they have been trained and placed in union jobs in the construction industry, making up to $100,000 a year. We talk about a lack of class mobility in this country --- well this program literally lifts these women out of poverty and into the middle class. And you can imagine the effect this has, not just on the women themselves, but on their families! These are women who have transitioned from marginal, low-wage jobs into careers. They now have healthcare for themselves and their kids. What’s more, they have a purpose. The effect on their self-esteem is immense, and now their kids have role models. Now these kids are going to college and planning careers of their own. That wouldn’t have happened for them without NEW.

And what about the NYC College of Technology?

Ann: This is a city-funded school that started out as a 2-year community college/vocational program and has morphed into a 4-year program. 80-90% of the students are first-generation college students. Many of them are immigrants, having come to this country as children.

When I look at these students and the work that they’re doing, I think, this is the group we want in terms of diversity. And not just want, but need. I think if the architecture profession is going to progress, we need diversity. We can’t serve and represent a diverse constituency if we ourselves are not diverse. We are working in all different sorts of communities, designing buildings for people of all cultural backgrounds, but we often lack the knowledge of these communities. We don’t always understand their concerns, their values, their traditions, their priorities. This is why our profession needs all kinds of people, because we are designing for all kinds of people.

Agreed. So where do the students from this program go after they graduate?

Ann: Well, that’s the next challenge. We need to get these kids internships. That’s the biggest next step. How to get them into the pipeline? These students are doing really high-quality work, but they’re not from the “right” schools. They don’t have the imprimatur of a Penn or a Harvard or a Cornell on their resumes. They also don’t come from families who are connected in the professional world, so getting them access to the better firms is challenging. It’s a question of access.

I work for a lot of architecture firms that are looking for a more diverse talent pool. So what would your recommendation to them be?

Ann: I would suggest looking beyond the usual handful of “feeder” schools to capture that talent, especially at the internship stage. These are the opportunities that segue into full-time jobs in the profession.

But speaking of feeder schools, we should mention that you will be giving the commencement address at your alma mater, Washington University, this year. What’s the one big idea you hope to convey in your address?

Ann: We are human beings first and foremost, and as humans we need to be civic-minded and socially responsible. My vehicle just happens to be architecture, but the same principles apply, no matter what career you choose.

That is so true, and I think really brings us full-circle in our conversation. Thank you for taking the time to share what you are doing to make the profession more diverse, relevant and vibrant. And now, dear readers, it's your turn! Please share your own actions, ideas, and initiatives in the comments section, below. 

Links:

Girls Scouts of America http://www.girlscouts.org/

ACE Mentor Program http://www.acementor.org/

NYC College of Technology http://www.citytech.cuny.edu/

NEW – Non-traditional Employment for Women http://new-nyc.org/