HKS Employees Discuss the Importance of Black Professionals in the AEC Industry
From the days of courageous architecture pioneers Paul Revere Williams and Norma Merrick Sklarek until today, Black professionals have long made significant contributions to the Architecture and Design industry. But for many of them, being a Black person in the field — whether as an architect, designer, engineer, or other professional — brings about unique challenges.
As part of HKS’ Black History Month celebration, three of our Black colleagues — Michael Pruitt, Shantee Blain, and Chandler Funderburg — discuss their thoughts on what it means to them to be a Black professional in the AEC industry, and why they believe that’s important.
Design Professional in Technical Resources Group/Quality Management
Number of years in the industry: 25
Number of years at HKS: 17
It is extremely important to me to be a Black man with a career in architecture because it gives me the opportunity to show young Black boys and girls who look like me that there are many more careers that they can choose in life other than sports and entertainment. I grew up in the small Northeast Texas town of Clarksville. One disadvantage of growing up in a small town that is two hours away from the nearest major city is that I was never exposed or introduced to a lot of different career choices, and especially not architecture. Without proper resources and guidance, it has made my career journey a little harder than many of my colleagues. I sincerely feel that my purpose is to be a good example and inspiration for Black children who may have no idea what architecture is, and also let them know of the various possibilities and career opportunities that are available in our field.
A good friend of mine was a schoolteacher in a predominantly Black elementary school in Lancaster, TX, and each year she would invite me to present during the school’s career day. I participated in several of the events and they were something that I looked forward to each year. Our HKS marketing department would provide me with a projector along with a cd containing slideshows and videos of the many different projects the firm has designed over the years. It was always amazing to see the children’s faces light up as they watched those videos. The questions that they asked, and the newfound curiosity that they displayed, were priceless. Those interactions that I had with them are the exact reasons why I love what I do, and they are also the reasons why, again, it is so important to me to be a Black man with a career in architecture.
Shantee Blain, AIA
Washington, DC Office Director/Vice President
Number of years in the industry: 18+
Number of years at HKS: 18+
Being a Black Architect…
…means fulfilling a promise to my dad that I would be a great architect, one he would have wanted to collaborate with on the construction sites he managed. He told me, “I’ve worked with some bad architects, Shantee. Couldn’t answer questions. Wouldn’t collaborate. Hell, some couldn’t read their own drawings. If you’re going to be an architect, Shantee, be a great architect.”
My uncle was an architect. He taught me that a construction drawing is a work of art.
My grandfather was a master builder. He taught me to take pride in my work.
Being a Black architect means continuing a family tradition, setting an example for the next generation and taking a vested interest in another’s story and supporting them.
Being a Black architect means never thinking about being a Black architect until asked to. Or until you’re identified specifically for being Black. I wasn’t taught to be a Black architect, but to be an architect. The education I received at my HBCU, Florida A&M University, wasn’t for a future Black architect, but for a future architect.
Being a Black architect means sometimes being seen for the color of your skin before your ability or the position you hold.
Being a Black Architect means instead of measure twice, cut once, one must think twice before speaking once. Think about your tone. Think about your words. Speak calmly. Think about your audience. Think about perception. Speak safely. [Repeat]
Being a Black architect means finding your mantra; “Don’t apologize for your passion, lest you seem apologetic. Don’t apologize for correcting someone, lest you seem compliant. Don’t apologize for wanting more, lest someone forget your worth.”
Being Shantee, architect means being passionate about each project, feeling excited about the art of the drawings, and empowering the next generation of future architects.
Knowledge Manager with GKS and Structural Engineer
Number of years in the industry: 5
Number of years at HKS: 5
Representation has always been important, not just now. Much of America’s historic architecture exists because of the unpaid, unacknowledged labor of Black Americans, both enslaved and free. And yet we have been systematically barred from access to spaces where our ingenuity could flourish, leading to the exclusion of Black people from strategic involvement in the decisions that impact our communities.
To change course, we must overcompensate for the lack of diversity in this profession. The myth of meritocracy and the belief that diverse populations just ‘haven’t worked their way up yet’ has contributed to the exclusion of Black professionals for far too long. Look around in your important decision-making meetings and ask yourself how many Black people are sitting at the table with you.
Without intentionally elevating Black and other People of Color (POC) voices in architecture, we will inevitably miss the opportunity for innovation and improvement — in our design work, processes, and office cultures. Rather than asking Black people to prove or explain that their voices add value, let’s ask our leaders and non-POC colleagues how they can promote Black input in spaces where it is notoriously onerous to be heard.
HKS has zero Black individuals on the executive committee, four Black Principals, and one Black Partner. With our emphasis on being industry leaders and influencers, we should strive to be the exception. No more obscure ideas, initiatives, or sentiments — we need zealous participation in changing the landscape of the profession, and only then can we attain the level of unparalleled design that we are capable of reaching.