Black females in architecture is the IRL social network the design profession needs
At an architecture networking event in London last year, Selasi Setufe, Alisha Morenike Fisher, Neba Sere, and Akua Danso found themselves in an all-too-familiar scenario: They were the only black women in the room.
The four, all in their 20s and at various points in their design careers, quickly became engrossed in a deep conversation about their experiences and what a long and often lonely journey architectural certification can feel like for a young, black professional. Something clicked between them. “By the time we looked around, everyone had left the building,” Setufe remembers.
The women exchanged phone numbers and created a dedicated WhatsApp group to continue their discussion. A little over a year later, that WhatsApp thread, Black Female Architects (BFA), quickly bloomed into a full-fledged organisation to support and promote black women in the design profession, a network that today consists of 200 members and counting. BFA’s unique proposition? Rather than relying on the profession to play catch-up in its lagging quest for equity, the group is acting as its own support system, mentorship program, and PR machine for black female designers across the U.K. and beyond.
“We’re a network and we want to provide support to our members,” Setufe, BFA’s co-director and project manager, explains. “But the overarching agenda is to increase visibility for black women in architecture and to create opportunities for them.”
As BFA outgrew its WhatsApp group, Setufe, along with Morenike Fisher, Sere, and Danso, got to work establishing subcommittees and creating a mix of programming. Today, the organisation offers professional workshops (it’s hosting a CV- and portfolio-building session with the Royal Institute of British Architects next month), hands-on craft sessions, meet-ups, and a recently launched book club. During “living room sessions,” each of BFA’s four co-founders hosts members in her home for an afternoon of hanging out and frank conversation about everything from education to studio culture. These intimate, candid conversations are critical to BFA’s mission. “We don’t often have spaces where people can feel free to discuss certain issues,” Setufe explains.
Sometimes, those issues can be as straightforward as helping out a younger BFA member with a design problem. Other times, group conversations can confirm insidious realities, like being passed over for an interview because of your name. “You tell yourself, ‘Oh, no, it can’t be true,’” says Setufe, “but if you have a roomful of women of all ages and all experiences telling you the same thing, it helps affirm.”
Part of BFA’s potency is that it serves as an essential voice of encouragement in an industry where such voices can seem few and far between—especially during design school. In the United States last year, for example, just 4% of students who attained a B.Arch or M.Arch were black, according to the latest data released by the National Architectural Accrediting Board. In the U.K., meanwhile, just 2.7 percent of those who completed the third and final part of their architecture exams (or Part III, as it is known) were black; their white counterparts, meanwhile, made up nearly 88 percent, according to RIBA’s most recent education statistics. Setufe, who completed her Part III exam earlier this year, attributes such attrition rates to high tuition, low pay, and “lack of opportunities, access, and support. It starts to slowly not make any sense to remain.”
Part of BFA’s mission, therefore, is to provide that celebratory, motivating force to laud not just the end result but also the hustle along the way. BFA’s social media feeds are peppered with bright, emoji-laden shout-outs to promote its members. “Wonder women taking over,” reads a recent Twitter post celebrating BFA’s recent architecture school graduates, followed by an ebullient emoji of a black woman doing a cartwheel and a party popper. “Inspired by you,” reads another commending an award nominee.
Millennial-facing grassroots organisations such as BFA serve to reach a different audience than the internal diversity committees set up within large membership-based organisations such as the AIA or RIBA, says architect and BFA adviser Danei Cesario, “It’s a lot more friendly and there are fewer barriers in many senses.” According to Cesario, who grew up in Manchester, England, and is now a senior associate at a New York–based firm and founder of WALLEN + daub, “organisations like BFA allow you to hear other voices. It’s not just the architects, it’s people who are early in their career or have just graduated—people who are walking the walk right now.”
BFA hopes to grow alongside its members. The group recently launched a dedicated website and, in coming months, seeks to generate more support and build its network by teaming up with different professional organisations, firms, and even recruitment agencies. “Part of building value is in defining who we are and what we aim to do,” says Setufe. “I think by now we’ve defined a lot of that. Hopefully, going forward, people will buy into that.”
Given BFA’s growing following, that shouldn’t be difficult to achieve.
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