As Agustina Rodriguez, Assoc. AIA, an architectural designer and public artist living in Austin, browsed her social media feed during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, she was struck by the lack of original commentary in her home city on the problems of minority representation within the architecture and design professions. “Everyone was just retweeting quotes from NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) National or NOMA Houston. There seemed like no leadership on the issues in Austin — we needed our own voice,” she said. Motivated to address a perceived vacuum, she reached out to the southwest region contact for NOMA about starting a chapter in Austin. Unbeknownst to her, efforts to do exactly that had already been brewing for a couple of years. Gregory Street, an architect at Overland Partners in San Antonio, was helming the effort, along with several others, including Donna Carter, FAIA, of Carter Design Associates and Ricardo de Jesús Maga Rojas, Assoc. AIA, a senior project coordinator at GFF, both in Austin.
The murder of George Floyd, along with the surge of activism and self-reckoning that followed, was the catalytic force that mobilized a loose association of like-minded minority architects in Austin and San Antonio into a formal steering committee, and then into a fully incorporated 501(c)3 organization early this year as NOMA of Central Texas. The mission of the chapter is to “sustain the legacy of NOMA’s founding members by deepening the visibility, support of, and solidarity of underrepresented people in the field of architecture and beyond.” At the time of publication, an inaugural donation drive was being launched to fund a series of activities in support of that mission.
NOMA Central Texas will be the third chapter in the state, alongside Houston NOMA, which was established in 2005, and DFW NOMA, whose 1989 charter was reinstated in 2014. The national organization was established decades earlier, in 1971, by twelve Black male architects. One of those was John S. Chase, FAIA, who, in 1954, became the first licensed African-American in Texas and who subsequently established an influential practice in Houston. Today, NOMA has a membership of over 2,000 across a nationwide network of 33 local chapters.
The initial meetings of the NOMA Central Texas steering committee in the summer of 2020 attracted well over 50 people. Though there were some established relationships between participants, many were connecting with each other for the first time. Sophia Razzaque, AIA, an architect at Lake|Flato, described the level of energy and shared purpose as “reminding me of the dynamic conversations in my early professional career in New York and London.” There was a collective feeling of a call to action and an urgency to effect change within respective professional settings.
Consensus was achieved by the steering committee on key aspects of the organizational framework. One was a recognition of the benefits of creating a regional Central Texas chapter, rather than distinct groups for Austin and San Antonio. This was driven by a pragmatic “strength in numbers” reasoning, as well as by the anticipated benefits of exchange between the cities. The other was the need to develop a unique value proposition for the chapter. Whereas NOMA chapters have traditionally focused on championing Black professionals, the agenda of this one would need to also reflect the strong representation of Latino and Hispanic members, particularly females.
Since the beginning of the year, the executive board has been filtering areas of focus for 2021 out of the broad conversations of previous years. Six specific initiatives have been articulated, some of which adopt nationwide efforts spearheaded by NOMA National, while others address issues of local concern.
Project Pipeline is one of NOMA National’s most well-established programs — a summer camp that introduces minority students to the field of architecture, with the goal of increasing the number of underrepresented licensed architects (for example, currently only 3 percent of licensed architects nationwide identify as Black and 0.3 percent as Black female). NOMA Central Texas aims to direct $10,000 of its 2021 fundraising efforts to implement this program in Austin and San Antonio. Likewise, the 50 x 50 Challenge is a NOMA National endeavor to ensure that there are 50 new licensed Black architects in 2021 as the organization celebrates its 50th year.
In terms of homegrown initiatives, the Empower Speaker Series will be a quarterly event focused on elevating the voices and showcasing the work of chapter members. The inaugural event was held in November 2020 and featured Donna Carter, Austin’s sole female Black firm owner, who established her eponymous practice in the city in the 1980s. Cited by many on the executive board as their “spiritual leader,” Carter laid much of the groundwork, as a practitioner and mentor, that brought the chapter to fruition. Also in the works are: a symposium focused on affordable housing that will bring architects in both cities together with policy makers and housing scholars; an architecture/construction industry resource directory where industry partners, potential clients, and employers can search for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) professionals; and an Advocacy Day, modeled on the AIA tradition, where NOMA Central Texas will educate elected officials on issues central to the organization’s mission.
Many of the inaugural executive board members are already active on committees within other professional organizations, including AIA, the ACE Mentor Program, and ULI. All of these groups have increased their own efforts over the last year to address racial inequality in the fields of architecture and construction. To that end, the Central Texas NOMA chapter aims to serve as a thought leader for these peer organizations, sharing knowledge, amplifying and expanding efforts, and identifying where the gaps are.
Most importantly, the chapter is a means to build camaraderie, common cause, and support networks. Many of those interviewed described a lack of professional mentors with relatable life stories in the early years of their career. As a result, all of these individuals are passionate about the chapter’s potential to provide a space of belonging for emerging minority professionals as they find and define their own voices.
Though the chapter is in its infancy, the executive committee is not lacking for bold visions of how the organization hopes to impact practice and the profession in the region over the long term in ways that include, but go beyond, increasing numbers of licensed architects from underrepresented groups.
Gregory Street, who is serving as president of the executive board, recalls his days as student president of the NOMAS (National Organization of Minority Architecture Students) chapter at UT Austin. “We were cobbled together and didn’t really know what we were doing, and part of that was due to a lack of professors in the department to mentor us or a local professional chapter to guide us.… Faculty would frequently tell me that they badly wanted to increase diversity in the department, but they just couldn’t find qualified candidates.” Street dreams of a program like Project Pipeline transforming academic environments for underrepresented students into ones that are rich in mentorship and diverse curricula. He sees a critical need for professionals of color who have the ability to bring lived experiences to the culturally specific circumstances of underrepresented communities, and to break from the “Eurocentric hegemony” that governs frameworks for design thinking.
On this theme, others imagined a NOMA-specific awards program that leads the way on critically expanding the criteria for what is considered award-worthy architecture. Ingrid Featherstone, AIA, vice president of the executive committee, aspires to build an increased awareness inside and outside the profession of the underlying policies that affect the built environment and how these can be influenced by community action. Sophia Razzaque, who is serving as the planning and activities committee director, referenced a panel at the 2020 TxA Conference in which a panelist asserted that diversity was overrated because everyone has access to equal opportunity. She said simply: “I hope that in 20 years’ time, someone could say that at a conference and it wouldn’t be controversial, because it would actually be true.”
Lucy Begg, AIA, is co-director of Thoughtbarn in Austin.