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Two weeks ago, over 1,250 architectural professionals gathered, both virtually and in-person in Nashville, for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) 51st annual conference. The event, with the theme “Unplugged,” offered in-person education and networking sessions, along with opportunities to explore the city and allow attendees the chance to unplug.

The conference’s first day, Thursday, October 27, offered a variety of sessions, with justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion woven throughout, and many of courses showcasing the projects and profiles of notable architects.

Kendall Nicholson, director of research for the Association of Collegiate School of Architecture (ASCA), outlined the current state of the profession when he presented demographic statistics based on data from ACSA and other sources. Nicholson left the audience with a charge to consider counter-narratives beyond the statistics and to explore how one’s culture can be valued in the profession. In an ACSA survey, for example, respondents had been asked, “What does your culture value that you do not see valued in the profession?” The answers included family; multi-generation interaction; care for community; and respect of elders.

Other Thursday sessions covered decarbonization and zero carbon policy efforts that audience members could incorporate into future projects. Podcast hosts Melissa Daniel, Saundra Little, and Nakita Reed shared their motivations in featuring architecture and design stories in their programs.

The largest Black-owned practice in the U.S., Moody Nolan, capped off Thursday with a keynote moderated by NOMA president, Jason Pugh, celebrating the office’s honor as the 2021 AIA Firm of the Year. Firm founder Curtis Moody and his son Jonathan reflected on how they got into architecture and discussed the challenges they have faced in the 40 years since the firm started.

Friday’s sessions included an overview by NOMA Foundation leadership describing their assistance to such programs as Project Pipeline, which introduces youngsters to the world of architecture through workshops and summer camps; several scholarships on offer to study architecture; and the NOMA Nashville coloring book project, which shares architecture with kids. Later, Detroit Collaborative Design Center’s director of landscape architecture, Charles Cross, and public interest design fellow, Stephanie Onwenu, presented their work remediating racialized urban policy. Cross and Onwenu are not only tackling such policies through their work, but they also are bringing exposure to students in their design classrooms at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Taking a different tack, Saturday’s keynote presented local entrepreneurs Clint Gray, E.J. Reed, and Derrick Moore of the Slim & Husky’s Pizza Beeria restaurant chain. The three Nashville-native businessmen described how they fostered a friendship in college that led first to a successful moving company and eventually a restaurant venture with their fast-casual pizza operations.

Local food and music were central to the “Unplugged” theme—and you can’t experience a NOMA conference without going to at least one party. The event kicked off on Thursday night with a music-themed Host Chapter party, in which attendees were asked to dress in outfits from their favorite musical era. There were 1970s hippies, jazz-era outfits, and ‘90s hip-hop costumes (including a Bad Boy records contingent of conference attendees). Saturday night’s '20s themed Bros Art Ball bought out many a sequined dress and dapper suit.

Barbara G. Laurie Student Design Competition's winners from Tuskegee University.

The Barbara G. Laurie Student Design Competition winners from Tuskegee University.
Photo courtesy NOMA

The weekend also included a more formal gala on Friday that celebrated the Barbara G. Laurie Student Design Competition participants and the winners, who were from Tuskegee University. The Phil Freelon design awards, in honor of the late architect who was a lead designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also were presented at the gala.

 The evening’s program concluded with the passing of the ceremonial staff from current president Jason Pugh to incoming president Pascale Sablan, a senior associate at Adjaye Associates, who outlined her aims to guide NOMA onto the international stage while strengthening its current initiatives. 

As its title suggested, the conference was interspersed with informal meetups in the host hotel lobby and over meals in local restaurants as attendees gathered with colleagues. Many also had a chance to chat over cards with June Campbell, widow of NOMA founder Wendell Campbell and a regular at NOMA conferences. The weekend ended with an opportunity to unwind during a meditation and sound bath session, again geared towards the event’s “Unplugged” theme.

Since 2009, NOMA has left each host city a little better than it was before, by inviting attendees to join in a day of service just before the conference begins. This year, more than 100 architects and designers signed up to tour the neighborhood landmarks and beautify the general Clinton B. Fisk Park by painting a mural on the neighborhood’s basketball court.