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From Intern to Executive: Career Pathways for Black Designers

Jessica Bantom

As Black History Month celebrates , including architecture and design, I reflected on career journeys.

This year I joined as an executive team member, focused on activating an equity strategy and accelerating the firm’s ongoing equity work. Over the past few months, I’ve collaborated with firm leaders and completed a listening tour that will help me to establish and promote a consistently equitable, diverse, and inclusive design culture.

One of the stories I heard was about Kaelyn Bowers. This past summer we hosted Kaelyn, an emerging professional, as a National Organization of Minority Architects Foundation Fellow. Following her internship, Kaelyn joined the firm as a New York-based designer on our planning team.

Her story highlights the talents and necessary presence of Black designers at every career level at , from intern to executive. This prompted reflection on how the industry has changed across my career, and the ways it will continue to change because of our actions as individuals and as a company.

Jessica Bantom profile head shot, left, and Kaelyn Bowers profile headshot, right, at

Principal and Global Leader of Equity, Diversity, and Belonging Jessica Bantom, (left); Designer Kaelyn Bowers (right).

This Black History Month, I would like to honor all the Black design pioneers whose names we’ll never know because they existed in times and spaces where their accomplishments went unnoticed or unacknowledged. I call attention to their commitment and love for a profession that did not love them back and I thank them for making space for me and other Black designers of my generation and future generations.

Kaelyn shared that, “as a Black female designer and planner, it can be rare to see myself reflected in the profession. I find inspiration from architects like Norma Merrick Sklarek who have trailblazed a path for me.”

Like Kaelyn, I honor the icons in the making who are navigating spaces where they’re the first, the only, or one of few like them. Even today, just 2% of licensed architects and interior designers and 4% of professional engineers are Black. This represents a gap not only in representation but in perspectives on the lived experience of a significant segment of the public we serve through our work as designers. What are we doing to change this?

Our engagement in the NOMA fellowship program – which led to Kaelyn’s placement – is one way we are acting on the AIA Large Firm Roundtable’s goal to double the number of architects who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color by 2030. The NOMA Fellowship pairs architecture students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities with opportunities at AIA Large Firm Roundtable firms. According to Kaelyn, “the fellowship provided me with the unique opportunity to gain experience in a large firm, working on a variety of projects from HBCU campus plans to healthcare. My passions and interests have been encouraged as I’ve stepped into the roles of equity champion and climate champion in our New York office. I look forward to continuing to pursue my interests in climate justice while encouraging the passions of other young diverse designers.”

Our engagement with NOMA doesn’t end with the fellowship program. Omaha-based Designer Lewis Culliver helped found the Nebraska Chapter of NOMA, and from NOMA pinups in Portland to 22 colleagues representing at NOMA’s annual conference, we are part of an exciting surge of new Black voices in the industry.

In July, employee-owners from our Dallas office partnered with industry leaders to bring Hip Hop Architecture Camp to Dallas-Fort Worth. The week-long immersive design and music-centered experience empowered middle school- and high school-age students to learn about 3D modeling, placemaking, and urban planning through lyrics and rhythm.

And this past fall, Designer Isheanesu Tendayi presented the results of her professional development grant – Voiced Amplified – to principals, part of which included candidly sharing her experiences as a female Black designer.

From middle school to college and on into design professions, new career pathways are being forged, explored, and claimed. This Black History Month, remember that we’re in this together and our voices, perspectives, and contributions matter.

Read more about our Equity actions and Career opportunities.

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Jessica Bantom
Connect with me to start a conversation ➔ Jessica Bantom, Global Leader of Equity, Diversity, and Belonging

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