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Kimberly Dowdell builds equity in architecture

Kimberly Dowdell looks down at her iPhone, which blasts red app badges and notifications from a cluttered screen. She has thousands of messages, e-mails, and calls that beg her attention, but she merely smiles at them and closes her phone case. The 36-year-old architect and director is used to it by now.

Dowdell is a senior principal at Chicago’s HOK architect firm, where she is settling into her new role as the director of business development, which began last May. Her life is bubbling with many other firsts, too: she is the first millennial president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), started two new programs under the organization to boost diversity, and led its largest conference in history that saw a 60 percent increase in membership. She is a new cochair of her company’s diversity advisory council and in February, she won the Young Architects Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for her leadership and contributions in creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive industry for women and architects of color. It’s her career’s mission, and it’s reaching new heights in 2020.

“It’s a real honor to have received that award,” Dowdell says. “I didn’t apply for it in an effort to make myself feel good about the work that I’ve done. It was more so because [I am] NOMA president. I really wanted to elevate the organization and promote what we’re doing.”

Dowdell started at Cornell University, where she cofounded the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network in 2005 during an internship with the chief architect of the General Services Administration. Then she worked at HOK in New York City from 2008 to 2011. Since taking over as NOMA president in January 2019, Dowdell has created the NOMA President’s Circle, a team of diversity, equity, and inclusion consultants who work with firms wanting to expand their diversity, a request that has come to Dowdell from many, she says. She also founded the NOMA Foundation Fellowship, which starts this summer and provides internship experience to students in leading firms around the country.

“We really need to create greater pathways into the profession and greater access to our K through 12 students, our college and graduate students, our licensure candidates, [and] support them through that process,” she says.

These are part of her big goals for the nearly 50-year-old organization, which has 1,400 members as of 2020—but Dowdell’s aim is to reach 2,000 more members and 3,000 new students by October, when NOMA hosts its annual conference. Dowdell has no time to mess around, and that’s the way she likes it.

“We’re a serious organization that is committed to increasing diversity in the profession, and we need help,” she says. “We need everyone to join us.”

The architecture industry, predominantly white and cisgendered, is slowly changing. AIA has increased its representation in members in recent years, and the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), a community of architects, educators, and experts, reported in 2019 that 50 percent of new architects working toward their license were women and 46 percent identified as an ethnic or racial minority. Two in five new architects are women, and the racial and gender divide closes more in early-career stages than before, per the NCARB.

That’s good news for Dowdell, but it’s not enough. With only about two percent of Black architects in an industry of 115,000 U.S. architects, the “needle needs to be moved” on the representation to accurately mirror the community it serves, she says. NOMA and AIA have partnered to fix that problem by creating the 2030 Diversity Challenge: to double the number of licensed architects who are African American by 2030.

“Creating access to the profession for people who are generally less positioned to enter the profession makes it better for everyone,” she says, referencing her own career.

Dowdell is known in the architectural community not only for her NOMA involvement but also with work that goes back more than a decade. SEED, the network she formed in 2005, is now a global movement that sets standards for economic, social, and environmental justice for design projects and has more than 2,000 pledged members today. She also started HOK IMPACT in 2010 when she worked at its New York City office, one of the profession’s first corporate social responsibility programs.

During her time in NYC, she met Natalia Lombardi, her friend and colleague who joined the firm’s diversity advisory council shortly after it began in 2013. Lombardi, who has known Dowdell since 2008, says while she has seen progress for women in leadership in her own firm in her 17 years at HOK, the industry still lacks women of color in senior roles. “For women to feel encouraged and stay in the workplace, they need to be able to see women like them on that path ahead,” Lombardi says.

She calls Dowdell a “phenomenal example” of a leader filling that gap. Dowdell’s honesty, sincerity, and openness to challenges are what draw people to her leadership style, Lombardi says.

Dowdell’s efforts in making the industry more inclusive have left her with little time to explore Chicago’s neighborhood culture. However, she got to know Little Village through a recent study by HOK aimed at spurring economic and commercial development with community partners in the neighborhood, a nod to the design skills that began her career. She hopes to have more time for similar community projects but is also happily challenged with what’s on her phone notification list to keep her busy.

“We’re excited about the growth and the energy people have about increasing diversity,” Dowdell says. “Literally our student population looks like the United Nations. It’s really refreshing that these young people from all over the country, even the world, are all-in for NOMA.'”   v

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