Architecture is a passion I developed at a young age. Since I was 8, I knew I was going to be an architect. I was always drawing buildings and asking my parents to take me to see the newest structures in town. I would model dream buildings with my Mega Blocks and present the floor plans to my sisters.
One day, my dad gave me language to define my passion. That’s when I learned what an architect does, and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do.
The journey to becoming an architect took different directions, as I had multiple occupations that helped support me through my education. This unique path gave me the ability to become a multifaceted and resourceful individual.
After earning my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design, I had an internship at the Pentagon, which was a great experience as it provided mentorship and support for me to continue my education, leading me to complete my Master of Architecture at Southern Illinois University. A few months later, I started working at RS&H, my first firm.
One of the things I noticed was the lack of diversity, so being someone that has often experienced a similar environment, I wanted to be part of a change. In my field of work, of all registered architects in the country, only 0.2 percent of those are black female architects. I am pursuing licensure to eventually become one of those women.
Last year, to celebrate Black History Month, I researched historic black architects and published a few stories on them on our company’s intranet. But given everything that has transpired over the last year, this February I wanted to do something more. I wanted to talk to some of RS&H’s Black leaders to get their perspective on their careers, the industry they work in, and the trails they are helping blaze for young and minority professionals like me.
Different Times, Same Story
Over the last month, I talked with Daveitta Knight, who leads our Atlanta office and has spent the last quarter century as a transportation engineer, project, and program manager. I also talked with RS&H Vice President Don Glenn, who oversees our transportation infrastructure offices at the firm, and Kellen Baker, who joined RS&H last year as an established human resources leader.
I couldn’t help but see my story in theirs. They know what it’s like to be the only person that looks like you in a class, project team or office. They understand that, beyond the injustices we see on the news, there are challenges Black people have to endure every day.
Daveitta, Don and Kellen have all faced times when they weren’t sure if they could carry on in our profession. There are pivotal times in our life when we need people to keep pushing us forward. That’s why it’s important to have people who look like you, who can relate to you, to keep you moving ahead.
Conversations Are the Key
Talking with Don, Daveitta and Kellen gave me a lot of insight and inspiration for my own journey. To see how successful and dedicated Don has been, to see the perseverance and the wisdom of Daveitta, and to see how bold and authentic Kellen is, has inspired me to grow and learn even more.
For the architecture, engineering and consulting industry, we face a long road to becoming a more diverse industry – something that is very much needed. With progress, we will have a better understanding of how best to serve the communities that make up our cities. We will be more equipped to solve the problems we face now and on the horizon.
To get there, we have to be more persistent with the information we share with the industry. I think it starts with consistent conversations about diversity and change. The more people in our professions can relate, the more mindful they will be. The more relevant we can make content to people, the more I hope people are open to understanding our differences.
This past summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders and the protests that followed, I love that people here at RS&H reached out to me to see how I was doing. The truth is, at times, I was working in tears.
I mean, how are these injustices still happening? Why do these older professionals have the same stories I do?
In the last year at RS&H, we’ve started having these conversations and examining these questions. These informal but consistent opportunities to connect have been an important way for all of us to grow closer together and understand each other a bit more.
The more we can expose and be honest and transparent about how things are, the greater possibility that change can transpire.
What I Learned
Forerunners like Don, Daveitta and Kellen have shown that leadership and excellence can be achieved despite challenges. Their paths have hardly been easy, but they have stayed their course to navigate their careers.
I think about what Daveitta told me of how she seriously considered leaving the engineering industry. She could have taken her skill set to a different field time and time again, but she persisted.
“Because of the lack of visibility of Black women in the field, I actually feel an obligation to the next generation,” she told me. “Not that I’m a trailblazer, but I’ve been in a lot of environments where, yes, I was the only Black woman at the table or the only Black person in the room.
“And you know, I owe it to others to use my platform and to help influence those that are coming up, graduating and looking to enter the industry. I enjoy knowing that there will be some great project and career opportunities that I will get exposed to, and that I could help other young Black women enter this field, mentor them, and help them throughout their career as well.”
Don has a similar point of view. Being vocal about his experiences has not been the most comfortable for him, but he has so much wisdom to pass down and share.
An impactful quote came from my interview with Don: “It doesn’t come to me naturally...but it’s my responsibility.” That’ll stay with me for the rest of my life.
Echoing Don and Daveitta's sentiments, one of Kellen’s best sentiments came in the form of a question, something he asks everyone, “What are you doing to be inclusive?”
It’s a question we should all think about. It definitely made me stop and think about my own actions.
What I gained most after all of this is that I have to learn how to endure and get through difficulties. I can’t back up or diminish myself because of challenges. I must persevere with boldness and courage, confident there is always a way to get things done.
One day, someone else who looks like me is going to come along, and I can pass that knowledge and wisdom off to them so they can make better decisions. I’m hoping other minority and younger professionals are able to take away the same valuable insight and encouragement that I did from this series.