Around this time last year, when the 400th African American woman was licensed as an architect in the U.S., designer Tiffany Brown learned she was a finalist for a Knight Arts Challenge grant. A Detroit native and employee of SmithGroup, Brown is a passionate advocate for increasing diversity, focusing her energies on growing the numbers of African American women in the profession. Her initiative, 400 Forward, which won the award—a $50,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—aims to provide mentoring and support for the next 400 Black women to become architects. Brown spoke with RECORD about her work and the ways architects can promote diversity.
What first drew you to architecture?
In middle school, I was in a precollege engineering program, but it wasn’t something that sucked me in. Art, on the other hand, always had me by the arm. When a recruiter from Lawrence Technological University’s college of architecture [near Detroit] came to my high school, I was hooked. I ended up studying architecture there, and developing my interest in the built environment.
What was your transition to college like?
I had a tough time going from the public school system to a private university. I’m a first-generation college graduate, so I didn’t have anyone guiding me through the obstacle course. But I did it. I just kept telling myself that it had to be done. I earned my undergraduate degree and two masters—my M.Arch. and an MBA.
Did the demographics of your college classmates reflect the profession?
I had a lot of female classmates, but there was no diversity as far as race. I’m still close friends with many of the women I went to college with. Some work in architecture, but a lot of them don’t. It’s not a field that’s very inviting to women, let alone minorities.
And much of your work now revolves around making architecture more welcoming and accessible, especially to young African American women.
Yeah—it’s important to get in front of kids who may not know what they want to do when they grow up and introduce them to architecture. We need to focus on minority women, and African American women in particular, who represent less than half a percent of our profession, which is obviously not what our communities look like. I think that once we really get a concrete pipeline in place, to get kids interested and then make sure college students are successful and have the mentorship and support that they need, we will begin to see a change.
It’s the early days of 400 Forward, but you’re already connecting professional women with girls who are interested in architecture and want mentors. What other plans do you have for the future of the organization?
I can imagine us having chapters all around the country and coming together for conferences and different events to support each other. My dream is to partner with Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher and Let Girls Learn initiatives. I had the chance to meet her at the AIA convention last year in Orlando [see photo]—she walked right up to me and asked me my name and what I love to do. I gave her my elevator pitch about 400 Forward, and she signaled her assistants to get us connected.
What should architects be doing to promote diversity?
As professionals it is our duty to make sure that we are creating a proper environment for generations to come, and we can’t do that without diversity. We can’t create beautiful cities without diversity. We can’t serve our neighborhoods without diversity. Whether you’re a student or you’re an instructor or you’re a professional, it’s something that we should all advocate for.
What does that look like in practice?
Mentoring people who don’t look like you. Telling students who don’t look like you about architects who do look like them. We need to seek out diverse talent, and diverse student bodies, and we need to be supportive of their success.