Architecture aims to alter recruiting to reach underserved populations

· 7 min read

Architecture aims to alter recruiting to reach underserved populations

Jeremiah Brown
Jeremiah Brown

Jeremiah Brown has been the creative type for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve always loved to draw,” Brown said. “But it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I got interested in buildings.”

A Kansas City native, Brown grew up in apartments his entire life, which fueled his fascination with houses in particular. When he heard that his high school, Park Hill, was offering an architectural design class, he jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the field.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna actually try and expand my knowledge in it,’” he said. “I took that class and loved it — just the spectrum and knowledge encompassed in that class was really fun. So, I said, ‘I think this is something I really want my life’s journey and goal to be — to be an architect.”

The next step was choosing a college. While attending a college convention during his senior year, he noticed a University of Nebraska–Lincoln recruiting booth. A wrestler in high school, Brown decided to follow in the footsteps of someone he admired who had gone to Nebraska.

“I thought, ‘Oh man, that’s where my favorite wrestler went, so I’m going to go talk to them,’” he said. “I was talking to two guys (who) were actual wrestlers too on the team. It was just a coincidence.”

One of them mentioned Nebraska’s College of Architecture. It seemed like fate to Brown.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, man, the university actually has a really good architecture program, so we strongly encourage you to apply,’” Brown said. “I did, and I got in. I visited the campus and I just fell in love with it. I’ve been in love with that campus ever since.”

What Brown most appreciates about the College of Architecture is what he describes as “the exponential growth and personal ascension” that students are able to reach. Although the college is among the smallest and most intimate on campus, its rigorous program packs a punch. Students are known for spending most — if not all — of their time at Architecture Hall, tirelessly working on studio projects and collaborating with their peers.

In fall 2020, Brown was working in the studio of Salvador Lindquist, assistant professor of landscape architecture. For his Architecture 410 Collaboration Class, he was tasked with reimagining a selected site in South Omaha, which is home to a large Black and Latinx population and has been rapidly changing in recent years.

“That area had really been gentrified,” Brown said. “A lot of businesses were pushed out. For that project, me and my group were really trying to bring back the old and revitalize that area so the whole community could reconnect to what it used to be and what it’s becoming.”

Brown and his group mates created a social condenser — a technical term that’s essentially a community gathering space. Often, these social condensers are intentionally built in and around vacant terrain.

“It’s usually a place that is meant to bring the community in and (encourage them to) interact with each other,” he says.

For Brown, the project underscored the real world implications of architecture and design. It’s not just about creating functional and aesthetically pleasing buildings — it’s also about factoring in how people will engage with them in their day-to-day lives.

“It was probably my most challenging studio,” Brown said. “Because you have the two sides of architecture: your physical and your metaphysical, which is more conceptual. And that’s what his studio really was. It was more conceptual but taking that conceptuality and really using that and pushing that to create a difference in communities.”

South Omaha is just one example of an area gentrification has affected. The landscape of historically Black and minority-majority neighborhoods is shifting nationwide. One recent study from Stanford researchers finds that these populations are often left with fewer options of places they can move to compared to their white counterparts.

This phenomenon makes it more critical than ever for the next generation of architects to reflect the communities for which they’re designing and creating. The industry, however, remains relatively monolithic. According to a 2019 Membership Demographics Report from the American Institute of Architects, the makeup of AIA members is 67% white, 2% Black, 5% Hispanic or Latinx, 6% Asian, and less than 1% Native American, with 18% not reporting.

“It is no secret that our professions have historically underrepresented minority populations and we as a culture, as a society and as a profession, need to do better,” said Katherine S. Ankerson, executive vice chancellor and former dean of architecture. “It starts in elementary school with outreach and exposure to introduce the exciting and impactful professions affecting the built environment, talking to young people from all backgrounds to ignite interest.”

Over the last two years, the college has reassessed the role it plays in changing the industry at large. As part of its strategic plan, the college aims to increase diversity by 5% in student demographics by making changes to recruitment and enrollment strategies that allow for greater flexibility, accessibility and recruitment of underserved populations to College of Architecture programs.

“Especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, our faculty, staff and especially our students were motivated to make a real difference for substantive change,” Ankerson said. “We have several bloggers and student mentors representing diverse backgrounds, and those individuals have said they are excited to serve as role models in their communities. It’s important that the next generation of students can see themselves, here, making a difference.”

Brown is one of those student bloggers. It’s an opportunity he welcomes not just because he can be an example for prospective students, but also because it provides him with a platform to share his work.

“There are so many studios, and to be able to showcase what project you’re working on is a good feeling,” he said. “Everyone else can see how you’re trying to make a difference with your project.”

The college is also home to a local student chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Like all student organizations at the college, NOMA has a representative on the Student Advisory Board, which provides a conduit for students to voice their concerns and a place where students work collaboratively on solutions. The college frequently sponsors student trips to attend NOMA’s national conventions. Pre-pandemic, NOMA student members attended the National Career Fair in Chicago, where they answered questions from potential students at the university’s recruitment table.

“Our recruitment and retention efforts are expanded with financial support aimed at supporting a diverse array of students in our college as they pursue degrees in architecture, planning and design,” Ankerson said.

Programming at the college is also evolving. The longstanding Hyde Lecture Series incorporated diversity and inclusion into last year’s lecture series theme, “Building Justice: Design and Planning for a Just Society.”

“Knowing that our professions have long excluded people of color and underserved groups in both process and outcomes, the committee decided to take a deep dive and confront many of the issues that have long plagued the industry by inviting a selection of lecturers who believe that design and planning should be explicitly engaged with fostering a just society,” Ankerson said. “By engaging in dialogue and exploring these issues, it is an act of hope requiring not only an awareness of true inequity, but also a compulsion to refute it in its many forms.”

While architecture — like countless other professions — isn’t a level playing field for all just yet, Ankerson said the architecture community at Nebraska U is doing its part to make lasting, sustainable change.

“It is our hope that the next generation of architects, designers and planners will work in a world where equality, equity and social justice are commonplace,” Ankerson said. “Where everyone in every community has access to affordable housing, clean air, dependable transportation and a quality of living better than what came before them, and where job opportunities are inclusive and equitable for all.”

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