Of the 116,000 licensed architects in the United States, only 2,300 are Black, a number which has not changed much since 1968. This means that the number of those entering the field has not outpaced the number leaving. Further still, Black female architects make up only one fifth of that number. Last year, the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), in partnership with the AIA Large Firm Roundtable, introduced the 2030 Diversity Challenge, which aims to increase the number of Black architects from 2,300 to 5,000 by 2030, an increase from two percent to four percent of all licensed architects, and an important step, even though Black people represent 14 percent of the U.S. population.
This year is the 50th anniversary of NOMA, and as part of the larger diversity initiative, the organization has launched the 50 X 50 Challenge, which endeavors to recognize 50 newly licensed architects at its annual conference in Detroit this October. The organization has partnered with Black Spectacles, an NCARB-approved ARE-prep provider to offer up to 50 members a month a discounted rate for a range of services, including full access to video lectures, study guides, practice exams, and more. We recently interviewed several licensure candidates about their motivations, challenges, and sources of support. We also talked with NOMA members who are firm leaders about their experiences and advice for those going through the licensure process.
The licensure candidates we spoke with are all passionate and highly motivated. NOMA member Ricardo de Jesus Maga Rojas, Assoc. AIA, who was born in Cuba, is a senior project coordinator at GFF Architects in Austin. He has three exams left. His biggest motivation in getting licensed was the lack of Black Cubans in the field. “I didn’t have any role models in the field I could look up to,” he says. “That will always be the reason to push myself.” Similarly, Zhetique Gunn, a designer and diversity champion at Perkins & Will in Houston, mentions that, along with the support and enthusiasm her family had for her chosen career, she was inspired to pursue licensure by the lack of Black women architects. “I was just shocked to know that [at the time] out of all of the professionals in our field, there were only 417 licensed black women,” she recalls. “It was a daunting number. I was going to have to bring that around, to be a part of raising that number.”
Both emerging professionals have demonstrated a commitment not just to their own success, but to helping others overcome the same challenges. Maga Rojas was named the Texas Society of Architects Associate of the Year in 2020 for contributions promoting diversity in the profession, including establishing a scholarship to help financially disadvantaged students at his alma mater, the HBCU Tuskegee University. Gunn is the NOMA Houston professional development coach heading up the chapter’s ARE study groups. She says she began facilitating study sessions for fellow EPs to provide support, but also to help raise the numbers “in a way that was tangible and also could provide accountability.”
Another factor encouraging licensure is its perceived necessity for advancement in the profession. “Other architects will hold you back if you are not licensed,” Maga Rojas says. “Getting licensed will be a way to say ‘I have done this,’ and will be a way to open doors. Others will say, ‘If he can do that, then he can do this as well.’” Traci Murray, who took a circuitous, nontraditional path and now works as a project manager for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas and is working with Lake|Flato’s Joseph Benjamin, AIA, on the San Antonio Federal Courthouse from the client’s side, echoes this sentiment. She says that once she found her niche in the industry, she became motivated to take her exams. “Not because I necessarily wanted to be the best designer, but I wanted to be the best project manager. And I knew it was what everyone likes to see — a credential, you know; it just kind of comes with the territory. It’s like someone being a doctor, you know?”
All three of the licensure candidates identified the lack of time to study and to take the exams as their biggest challenge. Taking the exams makes a serious demand on a candidate’s energy, and throughout the process, the desire to feel supported and have conversations about their needs becomes paramount. Firm support makes all the difference. Being able to manage project commitments with their team — knowing they’ll be given dedicated time off to ensure they are well prepared and well rested — has been helpful, as has been time to decompress afterward. “You should not be expected to go back to the office after a five-hour exam when your brain is fried,” says Maga Rojas.
The financial burdens, too, can take a toll. Says Gunn: “Just applying to be able to take your exams has a fee associated with it, and then renewing it every year has a fee, and then when you get your license, there’s other fees…. It is just a constant barrage of fees. And that is very difficult. When we look at how Black women are paid and, whether it is race or gender, we tend to be underpaid. And so that is a big hurdle for us.” Some firms, like Maga Rojas’, provide study materials and pay for exams passed, and to supplement the Black Spectacles offering, the Houston NOMA is providing reimbursement for exams when a member passes at least two in a year, which Gunn describes as “a nice incentive and kind of push to get it done by our 50th anniversary.”
Firm leaders, AXP supervisors, and mentors can all remember when we committed to taking the exams, and the energy and conviction it required to complete all of them. Wenguel Yohannes, originally from Ethiopia, is an associate principal at Page in Dallas. She recalls the challenges she faced when trying to complete her ARE. “During that time, I had a lot more responsibilities than, let’s say, someone that was fresh out of school,” she says. “I had people relying on me or reporting to me for work. So, it was not something that I could just put off to the wayside and focus on testing.” She postponed her last exam time and again because she was intimidated, as it was one she had previously failed. When the exam date fell on a work deadline, she was ready to postpone yet again, but her mentor and project manager refused to allow it. “He was like, ‘Take the whole week off. Go study. Deadlines will happen. We’ll make it work.’ I don’t know how many people get that kind of an opportunity.” She completed and passed the exam.
Now a firm leader and mentor for emerging professionals, Yohannes offers the following advice for licensure candidates: “What I always tell them is that it’s a sacrifice in time. That’s kind of a blip in your overall life and career. I think it’s always good to remind them that the earlier they take their tests, the better off they will be, because the longer you wait … the more responsibilities you have, the harder it gets. So it’s better to prioritize testing.”
Joseph Benjamin is an associate partner at Lake|Flato. He discussed the types of support his firm provides to EPs going through the licensure process. The company actively encourages licensure, provides study materials, pays for passed exams, promotes study groups within the office, and provides a stipend once a license is received. “I think from a firm leadership standpoint, it’s always, you know, trying to be empathetic to other people’s challenges when they are going through that process,” he says. “I don’t feel the need to punish the following generation just because I had it hard. I think the right thing is the right thing, and it should always be the right thing, even if you experienced the wrong thing.”
So, firm leaders, revisit your motivations and talk to your staff about how you can support them in their success. Time and money are needed to take the exams, but once passed, they are a huge turning point in a candidate’s career. If you have any Black staff in the process of taking the exams, let them know that you are aware of the NOMA 50 X 50 Challenge and that you want to help them finish before the conference in October. This would reinforce your support and commitment to their future in the profession. Anything firm leaders can do to help support Black licensure candidates will help all licensure candidates. Consider this your Call to Action.
Sophia Razzaque, AIA, is an associate at Lake|Flato Architects in Austin.