How Tiara Hughes Creates a Roadmap for Black Women to Succeed in A&D


Hughes Tiara, senior urban designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago, knew she wanted to be an architect from a young age. When asked to submit art for a sophomore project, she drew pictures of buildings she had seen in books and magazines. The following year, she remembers seeing her first set of shots. “I remember looking at them and realizing that someone had chosen where to put the doors, the windows, everything,” says Hughes. “I even remember the smell of the ink. One of my teachers said to me, “I think you want to be an architect. When she had the opportunity to take architecture classes in high school, she noticed that she was often the only girl and person of color in them that continued during her undergraduate studies. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it actually prepared me for what it would be like to work in the industry,” she says.

Hughes TiaraCourtesy of Tiara Hughes

After graduating from college in 2015, Hughes moved to Chicago to begin her career, believing the big city would provide her with a community of black women working in architecture and design. “It turned out to be quite a difficult task,” she says of this community of professional colleagues. “There was no centralized group for women of color on the ground.” She began to wonder why it was so difficult to find her fellow black female architects. “In 2017, I decided to start digging, and that’s when I discovered the astonishing disparity that, of the 115,000 licensed architects in the United States, fewer than 500 were women. black. I was like, ‘What? Less than 1%? ”It was this disturbing discovery that led her to found First 500, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the shortage of WOCs in architecture, providing resources to those entering the field. domain and the creation of a community for women who are already working in addition.

When Hughes launched the initiative in January 2018, its goal was simply to alert people to the astonishing disparity. She hosted a conference and toured the country, speaking about the issue at schools, industry events, and even major architectural firms like Gensler and SOM. In 2020, the outbreak of COVID abruptly interrupted his speeches, and then, in May, following the murder of George floyd and the subsequent push for the racial justice movement, Hughes knew it was time to expand the goals of the First 500.

“At that point, I felt like the world had kind of collapsed,” she says. “We were locked out, there was no sport, no entertainment, nothing to distract from what was going on. It prompted me to get hyper focused and think about the mission of First 500 and reshape my vision because I knew then that awareness alone was not going to translate into more black women becoming Certified Architects. .

She tapped into her growing network and, earlier this fall, assembled an executive committee of seven architects—Cadet Adaeze, Danei Cesario, Dawn David-Pierre, Kiwana McClung, Latoya Kamdang, Lisa Cholmondeley and Valarie Franklin. They are supported by an advisory board which includes Anzilla Gilmore, June To agree, Gabrielle Beef and Dina Griffin, all of whom were appointed to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows.

Hughes also decided to add two more pillars to the organization’s mission: building a visible community and providing resources to girls interested in pursuing architecture. Launching a website was key to reaching both, and First500.org went live last month. The website features profiles of board members and other prominent design professionals, including links to their social media platforms, making it easy to both get to know other women in the field and connection with them. The site also includes a resources section, with recommended reading and information on scholarships and design contests for school-aged girls and women. “Creating a roadmap for other women to follow was really important to me,” she says. “When I was in college, we didn’t read a single book by a black architect nor had a single black architect as a guest speaker in the four years. I want to make sure these resources exist for students in the future.

Going forward, Hughes envisions creating a First 500 foundation, which would include a more formal membership structure, as well as scholarships and more educational resources. “There’s this saying, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be,’” she said. “I want the next generation to see that they can follow this path and that they can be architects.

Front page photo: © Red Diamond / Adobe Stock


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