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10 Black Women Changing the Architecture and Design Space

After completing her master’s degree in architecture from Drury University in 2015, Hughes wanted to be surrounded by a diverse group of professionals, so she headed to Chicago. Having access to Black women in the industry was also an important factor to her, but she quickly realized that there weren’t any resources or networks available. This experience, amongst many others, ultimately inspired her to create the community she was looking for in 2008 in the form of the global platform FIRST500. Hughes considers this endeavor as her formal “step in the door to challenging our industry and moving towards a more equitable future.”

As the founder and executive director of FIRST500, Hughes raises awareness about Black women architects throughout history and their contributions to the built environment. “These women serve as inspiration and motivation for the Black women getting licensed and completing their architecture education today,” she says. “I’m proud of meeting the milestone of 500 licensed Black women architects, but this is only the beginning. We have a lot of work to do to cultivate the next 500 Black women architects living in the U.S. and the world.”

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? 

The design world should reflect the world we live in and all of the unique voices that occupy it. Design firms and the industry at large have discussed “equality of opportunity” as a remedy to systemic racism in America. Equality is not the solution; many Black employees have experienced decades of economic and emotional trauma stemming from redlining, policing, environmental exploitation, pay inequity, and more. They bring these burdens with them into the workplace, which ensures “equality” by providing employees with the same resources for success without acknowledging those previous burdens. Our country’s collective mindset has to shift from equality to equity. Equity means meeting people where they are and addressing their needs accordingly. 

I would like to see more focus on empowering the future pipelines of Black voices. This is critical to the survival and growth of our industry. Our voices are needed in spaces where decisions are made, policies are considered, and positions of leadership and power exist. We offer a different lens and point of view that’s often missing from these spaces.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know how or where to start? 

When considering what advice to pass along, I often think of what I would tell my younger self when I was homeless in college, fighting to survive and to get my architectural education, when my professors and advisors continuously told me this field and industry may not be right for me. In addition to seeking out resources like FIRST500 that exist specifically for you, I would tell my younger self, and to young people of color everywhere: If this industry feels lonely, you are not alone. If your ideas are not heard, keep speaking. If one door closes, three will open. Keep going and never give up. If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one!

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