Last night I attended an event at the American Institute of Architects Arizona (AIA Arizona) office in downtown Phoenix celebrating my friend Gary Nelson, a fellow architect who won the AIA Arizona Chapter Medal a few months ago. Gary is the first Black person to win the medal since it’s inception 47 years ago. His goal is to make sure he’s the first of many.
Historically, the AIA Arizona Medal has most often been awarded to a much-lauded designer, usually a white male. Gary, by his own admission, isn’t first and foremost a designer. He’s more of a designer of community. His greatest achievement, he says, is being a dad. When you talk with Gary it soon becomes apparent that he’s a family man before he’s an architect. He likes to say “Architecture is what I do, not who I am.”
But Gary is no slouch when it comes to being an architect. He was the architect for the Bank One Ballpark, a $50 million project and other large sports facilities around the country. He’s licensed in 20 states and has an impressive resume, including owning his own firm and being a principal of a large office.
However, during the interview last night, it seemed that all of his accomplishments in architecture weren’t the most important thing to him. Besides his family, one of the things Gary is most proud of is founding the National Organization of Minority Architects Arizona (NOMAaz), which is how I first became familiar with him. Gary created NOMAaz to be a “home where everyone in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry could come and feel comfortable.” Being a proud member of NOMAaz and having been involved in it for three years now, I can tell you that he’s achieved this.
Attending the event last night reminded me why I stopped being involved in the AIA. Events at the AIA always made me feel insecure. I felt like I was never going to be one of the “cool kids” – the ones who are lauded and lifted on a pedestal by the architectural community. Moreover, I felt that I had to fit a certain mold to be accepted and welcomed to that space – perhaps the mold of the typical stereotype of an architect who only wears black and who only cares about design.
Refreshingly, being who I am with my colorful and patterned dresses and comfortable shoes, was exactly what was required to be welcomed into NOMAaz. I fit right in and belonged instantaneously.
Revisiting the AIA last night did bring back pangs of the insecurity I’ve felt before. But I also felt pangs of connection and camaraderie with old friends I haven’t seen in over a decade. I realized that the AIA is made up of people just like me and, often, others may feel insecure too! I realized last night seeing old friends that I can show up as myself and be welcomed warmly at the AIA.
Last night was the first major collaboration between NOMAaz and AIA Arizona. It was a coming together of organizations and world views that at one time were separate entities suspicious of one another. Gary Nelson being awarded the AIA Arizona Medal signals a healing taking place of the rift between the two organizations. I personally feel the healing within myself too, who have been estranged from the AIA in the past as well. I look forward to the vibrant, nourishing and inclusive community that will be created with the two organizations working hand in hand.