From student leader to design advocate: AIAS alum Stephen Parker
shares his journey
Architect and planner Stephen Parker, AIA NCARB LEED AP BD+C, based out of SmithGroup’s D.C. offices, is an architect, planner, community designer and advocate who writes about community-driven issues and equity. Stephen serves as the AIA’s Young Architects Forum National Advocacy Director & co-founder of the AIA’s National Design Services Act (NDSA) Coalition. He is a recipient of the 2018 AIA Young Architect Award and was recently elected to the AIA’s Strategic Council as its youngest At-Large Representative. Parker spoke at this year’s AIAS Grassroots Leadership Conference 2018 on inspiring the next generation of engaged leaders in architecture. In his own words, here are his impressions.
Each summer, nearly 300 eager, emerging leaders from architecture schools across the nation and beyond descend upon Washington, DC to learn, connect and grow as leaders during the AIAS Grassroots Leadership Conference.
As a long-time alum of the AIAS, it’s been an energizing experience to touch base with the next generation of student leaders who will one day make their way out into the professional world of architecture as an increasingly diverse class of aspiring architects. The conference presents both speakers and students with the opportunity to share stories and reflect on what lays ahead for the evolving profession. The camaraderie and enthusiasm is palatable. Among the crowd of service leaders, many find their like-minded “tribe” and actively build robust networks of future colleagues and collaborators.
To delineate clear and relevant paths for participants, the conference had previously begun organizing the agenda by offering a number of tracks. This year, there were six tracks in Service, Design and Leadership covering Practice and Theory, a reflection on the values and programs of interest to both the AIAS and the 100+ architectural programs represented amongst the attendees.
I’ve participated in the AIAS Grassroots Leadership Conference in many capacities, from speaking as a student, to joining a panel as an emerging professional, to offering help and expertise as a tour guide and reception host. This year, though, I was asked to share my leadership journey during the general session. Along with other emerging leaders, such as 2018 AIA Associates Award Recipient Yiselle Santos, the Advocacy Director for the AIA’s National Associates Committee, and established leaders like HKS Senior Vice President Shannon Kraus, we shared our service leadership lessons. I broke down my story into a series of overlapping anecdotes centered around lessons I learned along the way, detailing the triumphs — and the failures. Afterall, for college-level, student-led chapters, there can be a steep learning curve towards making a robust organization function well for its members.
I began with relaying my foray into architecture: as young high school student I asked a local architect for the opportunity to work in profession. While he was gracious enough to take a chance on an inexperienced kid, my mentor, Greg McFarland, AIA, was the first of many who opened doors after I took a chance and simply asked. For students, I found that finding the confidence to simply ask is a switch that helps activate their accelerated passion for the profession.
Beyond finding the courage to simply ask, another crucial, though admittedly less thrilling, aspect of chapter leadership I touched upon is financial planning. To that effect, I shared a few strategies that worked well, including serving on local alumni, AIA and student government boards to advocate for funding. Collaborating with other organizations such as USGBC, and construction management or landscape design students can also help share the burden of fundraising and executing events and programs.
Collaborating is a key component of the successful Freedom by Design program at the AIAS, a student-led design-build initiative that helps disabled individuals make their homes more accessible. The program was kick-started at Clemson University, where I served as chapter president. Here, I saw what a difference we could make by beginning with the act of sharing resources and expertise. The program leveraged the building skills of construction students and the horticultural expertise of landscape students in order to help a client, who was bound to a wheelchair, enter her home unassisted for the first time.
It’s inspiring stories like these that erstwhile student leaders can impart to the generation that follows, and I believe it’s the duty of alumni to assist however they’re best able. As attendees experienced firsthand at the Leadership Conference, it’s an impressive hallmark of the AIAS that so many alumni are motivated to stay involved and connected. I’ve benefited from many great peers and mentors, and it’s always rewarding to help build leaders who will far exceed their predecessors in shaping a more prosperous, sustainable and value-driven profession.
Catch Stephen Parker’s next speaking engagement at AIA Nola’s Conference on Architecture, where he’ll be running a Practice Innovation Lab, a YAF initiative to promote innovate practice by redefining purpose in the profession.
Photos: Courtesy of Tim Matthews, AIAS Creative Director