Why Can't the AIA Be More Like the NBA?

My 18-year-old son forwarded Steph Curry's "This Is Personal" essay on gender equity to me yesterday, and I can’t get it out of my head. As the mother of two young men, I am grateful for their role models, from teachers to camp counselors to NBA stars, whose lives exemplify the many wonderful ways to be a man in the world today. In Steph’s case, one of those ways is to be a champion of gender equality. He shows how someone in a position of privilege reaches out and opens the embrace of the sport he loves so much. He recognizes that having the opportunity to pursue one’s passion is a rare treasure, a privilege that has been unavailable to too many for too long. This is why it resonated with me not just as a mother of sons, but also as an architect.

We are at a moment in the architectural community when momentum and energy around issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion seem to be at an all-time high. This urgency is welcome and long-overdue, but my fear is that after a while, words like “equity” and “diversity,” when repeated often enough, start to feel generic and hollow. And that’s why I loved Steph’s piece so much. He made it personal. He told his story with the kind of detail and specificity that is hard to forget. “Equity, diversity, and inclusion” may seem like buzz words, but for so many in the architecture profession, it really is personal.

And to my mind, this is where organizational leadership comes in. Stephen Curry is a unique and inspiring man, no doubt. He’s a leader on his team and in the sport of basketball, but he leads in the context of two professional organizations, the NBA and the Golden State Warriors, that encourage their members to “speak their truths,“ as Steph does here, and as Kevin Love, LeBron James, Gregg Popovich and others have done in the past on issues ranging from the mental health stigma to invitations from the White House. The NBA doesn't stifle strong opinions; it celebrates and supports those who share them. 

My frustration with the AIA, is that it seems to be a homogenizing body. Even divergent views, once they make their way past the many levels of bureaucracy within the organization, run the risk of coming out the other side in tepid, palatable form, stripped of the burrs and edges that made them so irritating, yes, but also engaging. Though I know that the AIA works hard to accommodate a variety of voices, I think we should work harder. I would love to see an AIA that is more spirited and less polite, an organization that invites provocation, welcomes debate, and doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. More like the NBA, if you think of it. Because those players fight like hell on the court and occasionally throw in some trash talk for good measure. But when it comes to mutual respect, when it comes to the things that matter, these athletes have each other's backs. 

Here’s Steph’s essay. If you’re not already a fan, maybe you will be once you read it.