Earlier this year, the Texas Society of Architects’ board of directors, committee chairs, and local component leaders met in Austin for our annual leadership retreat. This year, we expanded the list of participants for the event in order to collectively look at our goals and strategies, and to foster an atmosphere of not just working together but belonging together. During the retreat, we took part in an unconscious bias workshop led by Dima Ghawi, a speaker, leadership coach, and guide for diversity, equity, and inclusion business strategies. She walked us through ideas surrounding what it means to have unconscious biases, how we can understand them, and how to manage them.
First, she clarified that everyone has biases — we all do, as part of our brain’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response when threatened. Biases don’t make us bad; they are part of what makes us human. It is how we act on them that matters. Ghawi guided us through several scenarios, not telling us the “right” or “wrong” way to respond, but instead illustrating her own biases. She bolstered the idea that we are not alone in our reactions, and that once these are better understood, they are something we can work on together.
Recognizing our own biases is a significant step toward addressing the goal of equitable practice. The AIA has published the “Guides for Equitable Practice” (available in the “Equity, Diversity & Inclusion” section of aia.org) as part of a long-term commitment to making our profession as diverse as the communities we serve. Taking a hard look at our profession, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us. Issues including recruitment and retention, community engagement, justice in the built environment, and equity in education all impact the collective voice we have traditionally expressed as architects. So where do we start? It is helpful to shift our mindset, no matter our starting point, to one of curiosity — becoming more self-aware, questioning our own assumptions, and, ideally, arriving at a place where we can more quickly recognize that our own perceptions may not be the same reality for others.
One of the many ideas that Ghawi highlighted was that of office culture. For example, when we are hiring, do we focus on finding someone who would be a “culture fit” or a “culture add”? Frequently, we surround ourselves with people like ourselves because that is what we find most comfortable. We tend to prefer people whose backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and beliefs are similar to our own. Unfortunately, this often excludes those who don’t align with our expectations, despite what their unique skillset or perspective may be, and despite what they could bring to our collective problem-solving table. We need to recognize that these other perspectives should not just be at the table, but that they should be welcomed and made to feel that they belong there.
Equitable practice is an issue that individuals at all levels of the profession need to acknowledge. The “Guides for Equitable Practice” make moral, business, ethical, and societal cases for embracing progress. They are a framework that we can use to understand that this is not solely about who practices within our profession, but also whom we practice for and how we go about doing it. Ultimately, all of us — as friends, neighbors, and members of our immediate and global community — need to take this on. Working toward a better future — toward safe, beautiful, and sustainable environments — we are, without a doubt, going to be better and stronger together.
Nicki Marrone, AIA, is a principal at Alamo Architects in San Antonio and the 2023 president of the Texas Society of Architects.