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400 Forward wants to train the next generation of black women architects

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Only 0.3 percent of licensed architects are black women. A Knight Arts Challenge grant winner led by Tiffany Brown wants to change that

“These students have the opportunity to design a livable city, they just don’t know that yet.”
All images courtesy Tiffany Brown

This past August, the 400th African-American woman was licensed to be an architect in the United States. She wasn’t the 400th this year. She’s the 400th, period, among living, licensed, and practicing architects.

The career path women of color take to become architects has traditionally been blocked by exclusion, discrimination, and a series of historical and structural inequalities. Tiffany Brown, an architectural designer from Detroit, wants to do better, and build a more accessible road for the next generation of black female architects and urban planners.

“These students have the opportunity to design a livable city, they just don’t know that yet,” says Brown.

Tiffany Brown

Yesterday, Brown’s vision picked up substantial support. Her proposal for a program to support the education and career development of the next 400 African-American female architects, 400 Forward, received a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation via its Knight Arts Challenge, which picked 29 programs focused on Detroit.

Brown herself is an African-American woman who grew up in Detroit, and she aims to show students from her hometown that someone who comes from the same city, attended the same schools, and defeated the same odds they face—can become successful in the field of urban design.

“A young actress by the name of Yara Shahidi once said, ‘If a child grows up never seeing themselves represented as successful or as the hero, they are the anomaly if they succeed and the expectation if they fail,’" Brown says. “I use this phrase as a tool for motivation whenever I work with kids in those neighborhoods.”

The grant funding will allow her to organize workshops to introduce kids at inner-city schools to architecture and urban planning, run free art and architectural summer camps, and promote student work at festivals and design summits. The aim is to encourage and support future designers all the way from kindergarten to the day they obtain their license, to help expose students to and kickstart their interest in the subject, and provide financial assistance for those planning to pursue degrees.

Tiffany Brown working at a public housing site.

Rethinking architecture education for the traditionally underserved already plays a large role in Brown’s career. The Detroit architectural designer co-founded Urban Arts Collective, which runs programs that promote alternative science and engineering education for underrepresented groups, and runs Hip-Hop Architecture Camps with Michael Ford, which use music as a means to inspire conversations about the impact of the built environment. She’s seen how those classes and conversations open students’ minds to new ideas and ways of thinking, how designing a school can bring creativity out of a student in that classroom, or how the layout of a neighborhood can impact safety.

Brown’s vision for 400 Forward comes from her own experiences as a young artist-turned-architect. Growing up in Detroit, she was interested in cartooning and drawing, and in middle school, took a woodworking class. But while those interests and experiences would impact her later career, she wasn’t directly exposed to architecture, or presented that as an option.

“Growing up in the inner city, I just hadn’t been exposed,” she says.

Once Brown became an architectural designer after studying at nearby Lawrence Technological University (she still needs to pass some licensing exams to be a fully licensed architect), her work in and around her hometown, both for Hamilton Anderson Associates and a construction manager, on public housing, hospitals, and developments near where she grew up, instilled a sense of responsibility to give back. With Detroit in the midst of so many new development, which have attracted out-of-town investors and designers, she felt the people designing these spaces should be the ones that use them.

“My passion is to inspire the next generation of designers who will be the creators of Detroit's future,” she says. “I know there's great talent in the kids here that sometimes just has to be realized and nurtured. Detroit is where I was born and raised, and where I still live. It will always be my focus. Great things are happening here and our youth should be part of it.”

She’s also experienced firsthand the challenges of advancing in a profession where only 0.3 percent of licensed practitioners are black women. The hurdles pop up at every stage: Some high schools lack computers and computer programs, and architecture isn’t explored as a possible career path. Brown has had college professors tell her she won’t get more than a C or D in class.

Even now, when Brown steps on construction sites, workers have asked her if she’s there to clean up, not realizing she’s there to check on the work of those on the site, who are working off plans she designed in her office. Having diversity and representation speaks volumes, she says, which is why it’s so important to her to teach STEM subjects to aspiring young architects.

“The odds are stacked up against you,” she says. ”It’s important you have support there to lead and guide you.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that only 400 black women architects have been licensed in history. While the total number of licensed architects who are black women is still woefully small, we neglected to include in this number now-deceased practitioners like Beverly Loraine Greene, who was licensed in 1942.