by Karen E. Williams
Is the world ready for real talk? The better question is, am I ready for real talk?
No. No I am not. I am not ready to let the general practitioner know that I am vulnerable, when they have not earned my trust. I am conflicted to let past, present and future bosses know that I am affected by their perception of me, by their opinions. Sharing my obstacles in professional practice will not dissolve once posted on the internet. I fear that they will be public and follow me in my career. Yet I am drawn to share my experiences and perspective. My journey is my journey. And I hope that by sharing a piece of mine that I will inspire the people who really know me to be a courageous and resilient professional. We are a sum of all of our actions and I am continuing to learn from all of mine. The moments that I am sharing are past experiences that have helped me to grow in my journey of enlightenment.
Recognizing the obvious is not the focus.
Without my doing, I have intrinsic obstacles. External factors of race and gender that I can not change. Some other preconceived opinions of me vary based on the person’s perspective. Some of these include: Too young looking, over confident and too young to know what I am talking about. My parents are a combined 84 years older than me (one being 72 and the other 82). I grew up learning from their past experiences and learning from my siblings before I was anywhere near to having to make the same decisions. Growing up in Jamaican culture, children are seen and not heard. I heard everything and absorbed it all. Their journeys affected my decision making. Their obstacles made me mindful and somewhat conservative in my approach to some life decisions. Later, this knowledge I owned beyond my age. My current Principals would have parents who are the same age as mine. Obviously it's different based on when they grew up. The age of our parents does not put us on the same level of experience but sometimes overcoming the age bias is not impossible. I owned it and embraced it.
Though they are a part of my identity, my race and gender are not the sum of my value. I am more than #233 on the University of Cincinnati Directory of African American Architects. I am a teacher, follower, leader, mentor and professional. I seek to only be regarded for my knowledge capital applied to making great architecture. Intentionally I prefer to believe that people do not sum me up for my race; so that will not be a focus for me. I would much rather believe that we are progressing past the obvious identity traits.
Exhibit a proof of value. Having a voice is a means to opportunity.
When I came out of architecture school I was very timid. Scared. Small in speech and stature. Innocent. I was intimidated by all professionals, which was the direct opposite of who I was in school. In the professional arena I had to learn to be intentional in my speech. I had to illustrate through descriptive speech that I actually know and understand what I am talking about. People didn't just take what I had to contribute at face value. Their reaction concluded that I could not possibly know what I was talking about. My intentional speech led to me being considered a “know it all”. There was feedback surmising that I needed to ask more questions of other senior staff. Basically, I need to ask questions in order to prove to them that I wanted to learn and that I was learning. Looking things up to get my own understanding was not enough. Which then turned into not asking questions to which you already know the response. Frustrating. When did we get to the point where we are not allowed to be mentally independant? I am scared of many events that can take place in a career path. The one that scares me the most is not having the ability to speak. To vocalize is an opportunity to connect, collaborate and reach resolution. Communication is the key to all of our project interactions. My decision to stand up for what I believe in inspired me to use my voice as a commitment to supporting change. After all change is the only true constant. I will continue to grow through experiences, feedback and knowledge.
On my first project, my Project Manager openly listened. I was quiet, reserved and unsure about my place to speak. But his willingness to listen and the willingness of my team members (who were all 10 years in experience to me), to treat me as an equal at the table, made all the difference. My project manager nurtured my voice and my confidence. I will be forever grateful.
That dirty Ego.
Our profession is intrinsically egotistical. We exhibit control over each other. Create our own levels of hierarchy and determine each other's roadmap for professional growth through designed hierarchy. We rank ourselves by likability. We identify favorite characteristics and insert opinions to validate the system. This has a domino affect on how we treat one another professionally. Instead of showing support and uplifting each other’s qualities, we fight against one another to matter, to be seen, to be validated. When a person is not considered for their value, there is a ripple effect in their interactions with others.
On one of my past projects a team leader inflicted control and demand on me, when they were not recognized for their value. There was a breakdown in communication between the leader and manager. The leader had their own work plan in mind. The project manager had other goals and interests which he had assigned for me to complete. My ego got wrapped up in the drama too. I didn't help because I had my own issues. From this experience I learned to be more aware of my teammate’s obstacles. To connect on a human scale. In doing so, I came to understand my team member was being affected by outside circumstances: Family responsibilities and pressures. I needed to not be a part of the problem. Since then, we have reached a place of compassion for one another.
Our profession often makes us put the profession before our own needs and value. I want us all to get to a place of individual confidence and understanding of our value where we don't have to dismiss others in order to uplift our own light. The light within will shine just by each of us contributing to the team.
In the practice of yoga… we end each class with NAMASTE… loosely defined as…”I bow my head to you. May the light within me honor the light within you.”
My obstacles do not define me. They are a part of my journey. I am a part of the present 18%. We are growing in numbers, by trying, failing, admitting and growing.
About Karen Williams @karenewilliams3
Karen E. Williams is consistently working to educate people about the inner benefits of the architecture community. She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Oregon where she teaches Revit and Professional Practice. As a means to be professional example, Karen is on the AIA-SWO board and supports STAnDD a local student group. She joined PIVOT Architecture in 2014 as a Project Architect after practicing on the east coast for 9 years.
In a similar spirit of spontaneity of the Archimom's Everyday Moments of Truth blog series, we are excited to bring you EQxD Get Real: True stories of Challenges and Resilience from diverse perspectives of architects and designers. Each day we will feature the stories of each person's challenges in the profession and what they learned from those experiences to inspire action for equitable practice in architecture.