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Michelle Obama to Women and Minorities: “Keep Pushing to Change the Tide”

Why equity in architecture was a hot topic at AIA 2017

This is part two in a continuing series on equity in design. Click to read part one

Michelle Obama reflected on the need to address racial and gender inequalities in the field of architecture, telling a crowd of architects, designers, and contractors at the American Institute of Architects conference, “You can’t be an architect if you don’t know that architects exist. That’s where all of you come in.”

Last week’s keynote in Orlando marked her first public appearance since leaving the White House.

While conversation topics ranged from advancing women and minorities in the workplace to the importance of girls’ education and her plans for the future, Mrs. Obama also focused on how urban planning factors into opportunity.

“Cities are a complex, big, messy enterprise and they’re expensive,” she said, reflecting on what it costs to run a city like Chicago.

She spoke about when you think of the nation’s capital, visions of the Monument, the White House, the Smithsonian, and the National Mall come to mind—“and that’s one D.C., but the other is places like Anacostia,” and the same goes for crime-ridden Chicago areas like Ingleside.

“When you run out of resources, who’s the last to get the resources?” she asked the audience, answering that it’s the kids who live outside of the inner circle. “And you architects, you know when your neighborhood is beautiful and when it is not,” she added.

“When you don’t invest in kids: they know it, and they’re mad. And what do they do? They take it out on each other,” Mrs. Obama explained, saying this ultimately disadvantages them and keeps them from considering pursuing ambitious careers in many realms, including architecture.

She also extended the discourse to women working in architecture and design, highlighting the need for a more progressive work-life balance, and the challenges of pay inequality and advancement of leading female architects at firms. Mrs. Obama remembered giving birth and bringing her daughter to the University of Chicago Medical Center, where she considered returning to her job. She was asked what it would take to get her back to work.

“I said, ‘you’re going to have to pay me a lot of money,’” Mrs. Obama laughed.

“The one thing I can say to working mothers out there: Don’t beat up on yourselves. What you are doing is hard, and we still don’t live in a society that supports it.”

She continued, “The women in this room can do a lot with a little support… don’t undervalue or underestimate yourselves. We have to keep pushing to change the tide.”

The conversation doesn’t stop there. This is part two in a five-part series of Hunter Douglas Architectural’s coverage of Michelle Obama’s message at AIA and those of other speakers and thought leaders who are also working to crack the code behind equity in design. Join the discussion with @FluentinDesign.

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