Beating the Odds: The Education of a Black Architect
I’m an inner-city kid through and through, and if I had listened to all the dissenting voices, I should have been a statistic. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, surrounded by constant violence during the height of the war on drugs, in a neighborhood full of kids teeming with talent and potential but constantly having to outrun the shadow of hopelessness. I saw so much talent unfulfilled, stifled by the lure of fast money and even faster downfalls.
As a Black male:
- I was MORE likely to go to prison than to graduate high school.
- I was MORE likely to see the grave than to see age 25.
And unfortunately, for a number of my friends, these things became realities. I was in the sixth grade when I lost my first friend. Sadly, he wouldn’t be the last.
Fortunately, I had a strong mother who pushed me hard and refused to let me become a statistic. She was fully aware of all the potential pitfalls waiting for me and knew that she had to do whatever was necessary to keep me away from them. At times she worked two jobs so she could provide me with opportunities, like attending summer camps. We didn’t have the means to move from the neighborhood, but she didn’t want the neighborhood to be all I knew. She would always tell me that school was my job because she knew education was the key to opening any locked door that would block possibility.
Growing up, I loved playing with Legos. I could spend hours on the floor, lost in worlds of my own making. I would create and recreate cityscapes, imagining changing my neighborhood from drab and monotonous public housing to something more engaging and hopeful. I vividly recall having a conversation with my mom when I was 10, telling her how cool it would be to play with Legos for a living. It was then that she told me about architecture. It was my lightbulb moment. That’s what I wanted to do!
Academics came easy for me. And because of that, and with the help of financial aid, I went to one of the best schools in Newark: St. Benedict’s Prep. It’s a boy’s private school run by Benedictine monks in the heart of downtown. It’s in the middle of the city, yet so far removed from the harshness outside its doors. My neighborhood was 100% Black, but St. Benedict’s was diverse, with a mixture of students coming in from the suburbs and as far away as South America. From my first time walking the halls, the phrase painted above one doorway—“Whatever hurts my brother hurts me”—struck me as something altogether different and would stick with me throughout my life.
As a 12-year-old seventh grader, I convinced the faculty at St. Benedict’s to let me take the 9th-grade architecture history and drafting class. I received an A, and architecture hooked me. Even though I had never met an architect, I was determined to become one. I was determined to reshape the environment where I grew up to create a better future.
I chose Temple University because it was in Philadelphia, and I wanted to be someplace that felt familiar, someplace that felt like home. Being an architecture student quickly taught me that nothing was familiar to me. Unlike my neighborhood or even the rest of campus, when I crossed the threshold of the architecture school, there were not many familiar faces.
As a first-generation college student, even with a scholarship, I had to work in addition to going to school. And being in the honors program meant I also had more challenging classes to deal with, along with my architecture studio. This was new for me. I had graduated in the top 10% of my high school class, but now I was falling behind.
I went to my professor for advice and possibly a project extension because I was struggling to keep up with buying all the materials needed for the project and my books for other classes. And I’ll never forget his response: He told me that maybe I should wait until my classmates discarded their scraps in the trash; then I could retrieve them and use them. To say I felt small would be an understatement.
That was a pivotal moment, and it almost made me consider dropping architecture. If the rest of the studios were going to be more of the same, I had no idea how I’d be able to afford it. If my professors couldn’t relate to me, it would be much tougher to succeed. There were no Black professors, and we didn’t learn about a single Black architect. It was like being on a quest for a unicorn or trying to find Bigfoot.
Instead of dropping, though, I decided to work even harder. I wanted to show that professor I belonged and was just as talented as anyone else in the class.
As a Black student in architecture, I carried a considerable weight. I had an honor to uphold. In my first years, the Black students in my class dwindled from 10 to four. But I refused to be another statistic. I remembered how hard my mom had worked to help me get to that point and how my family was cheering me on (along with my cousin), to be the first college graduates of our generation. So, I buckled down, with work and all, and by the time graduation came, I was one of two Black students in a graduating class of 25.
I thought the most challenging part was over, and I was on a high, but I had the misfortune of graduating the spring after 9/11. At that time, I had been interning for a firm working on K–12 and church projects. I loved the work we were doing and the people I worked with. Unlike school, at the firm I was the only Black employee. And even though my coworkers were great, I still felt lonely sometimes.
And there I was in the spring of 2002, and there was nothing. My internship had ended. There were no jobs. No one was hiring—at least, they weren’t hiring me.
Did architecture have a place for me?
I had to do something different. So I did something I considered drastic. This inner-city kid packed up everything and moved to Texas. My mom and stepdad had moved there a few years earlier, so I figured I could try it. An Eagles fan, moving to Cowboys country.
After a few months of working in retail, I got my first full-time architecture job. Of course I was excited. But over the next 15 years, my relationship with architecture would be a roller coaster. I was trying to find my place and space and something familiar.
It was here in Dallas that I met my first Black architect. And it amazed me how Black designers naturally gravitate toward one another at AIA and other professional events. It’s because, in those small collectives, we felt welcomed. We felt seen. It occurred to me that as designers, we have the opportunity to create places and spaces for people to experience comfort, joy, and freedom, ensure well-being, and protect their health, safety, and welfare. But what about the welfare of those who create that space?
I’ve spent most of my life trying not to become a statistic. But the truth is, I still became a statistic: 2%. It’s the number of licensed Black architects in the country. Two. Percent.
This number is why I push hard to expose the next generation of minorities to this complicated yet amazing profession. They can only aspire to what they’re exposed to. I can’t let equity, diversity, and inclusion become the latest buzzwords that dissipate like the wind when the new it thing comes along. It’s what compelled me to write an article after the killing of George Floyd on camera because I’m Black and an architect. In my work with local organizations, I focus on summer camps and individual mentorship because I’ve experienced firsthand how they can make a difference.
Although I continue to live a dual reality, the two worlds aren’t mutually exclusive—they are interconnected and intertwined. They are both a part of me. I have to be able to bring my whole self to work and just be me. As a Black architect, I’ve often felt the weight of being the representative for my race. I had to outperform everyone else, so those coming behind me would have an open door to walk through and not experience so many bumps on the roller coaster.
Two percent is too few. So I’ll spend the rest of my career advocating and opening doors. And I will make our profession more reflective of the communities and clients we serve.
Featured image courtesy of LPA.