Below are excerpts from Jane’s interview with Madame Architect.
You’ve recently ended your tenure as the AIA President. Tell me about how you started getting involved in AIA.
Because Beaufort is so small and didn’t have an AIA section, our first involvement was at the state level attending conferences. In 97, I did an intense week-long leadership program with the AIA National Leadership Institute. It was really good and spurred me on; in 1998 and 2000, I ran for congress.
In Beaufort, we didn’t have a voice because after the 1990 redistricting we were moved into a different district with a 30 year incumbent No one ran against him and he was completely out of touch with our city and our needs. One night we were bemoaning this and my friend suggested that I should run for congress. I said, “Ok!” The next morning the idea still seemed like a pretty good one. I called up the leading democrat in our town and said, “Harriet, I’m going to run for congress!” And she said, “You?!” [laughs] She ended up being a great supporter.
It was an unsuccessful run, but it opened a lot of doors. I don’t think I would have ended up being president of AIA if I hadn’t run for congress.
After the ‘98 run, the democratic governor put me on the architectural licensing board. I got more involved with NCARB and was on committees. It was really interesting because being involved in a small town and having my husband as my partner, I didn’t experience a lot of sexism. When I got involved with NCARB, these guys were just awful. They’d tell me I couldn’t run for a NCARB office, which wasn’t true. It was frustrating. Who are you to tell me what I can do and not do?
After serving on the licensing board, I was asked by the state AIA president to fill an unexpired opening on their board. I got tapped to start and co-chair the Small Firm Roundtable, which was the first national committee I served on. I worked my way up in AIA South Carolina and became state president. After finishing my term as AIASC President, I ran for regional director. I won that seat by just two votes. If I hadn’t won that, I wouldn’t have ended up being AIA president. You never know how your path will lead.
I joined the national board in December 2012, we repositioned and narrowed the board from 50-60 people to a 14 people. My board cohort served on the first Strategic Council. Next, I successfully ran for an at-large seat on the smaller board. I eventually ran for president, but it wasn’t something I had initially set out to do. My mother, who had dementia, lived with us. She died in 2017 and that is when I considered running for AIA President. Before she died, it would not have been fair to Michael to leave the burden of her care on him. I was encouraged to run, the timing was right, so I stepped up, was elected and became the 5th woman president.
What was your agenda as president? And how did that shift with all the changes 2020 brought?
It shifted a whole lot this year. The agenda was going to be climate change, climate change, climate change, climate change. All day. All year. That was our primary focus which had been mandated from the 2019 resolution that passed overwhelmingly on climate action. Even with all the unexpected events of 2020, we accomplished a lot toward climate action.
When Covid started, we realized the severity of what was coming. Travel stopped. We went remote. We postponed the AIA convention. As a board, we started having almost weekly phone calls. I started calling the component presidents around the country and really got a sense of the challenges they were seeing. I set up task-groups to address the issues.
One task group focused on developing guidelines to alternative facilities for healthcare: converting arenas and convention centers, for example. Another task group set up charrettes to make recommendations on moving back into space. What do you need to do for schools? For restaurants? For office buildings? They did great work on that. That third task force was coming up with business resources for our members. There was a lot of concern about how to keep our businesses running. We established resiliency grants that our components could apply for and get the financial help they needed. That will continue this year, too. Those grants serve beyond just Covid related impacts; For example, AIA Louisiana was hit by several hurricanes this last year and needed financial assistance. Because of this meaningful work the American Society of Associations named the AIA as one of the “100 Associations That Will Save the World.”
All great responses. Tell me about AIA’s response to the racial inequity that we witnessed in 2020.
After George Floyd was murdered, it really swung the focus on racial inequity. What is our responsibility there? AIA had developed the Guides to Equitable Practice, but it was not enough. We had been doing something, but it was not as focused as we needed to be.
What indicated that it wasn’t focused enough?
Did it saturate the entire organization? Did it saturate our awards program? Are we looking at how people are identified to even attempt to get an award? What is that process? That’s not equitable right now. That needs to be looked at and it is being looked at. Are we doing enough to promote minority architects?
This year we are starting a leadership program for minority women architects. We are also participating in the NAACP deep-dive study on the construction industry, which will give a report card for the entities, members, etc. I am sure we will find out things that are uncomfortable, things that we are not doing that we should.
We worked on developing our framework for equity, diversity, and inclusion. We also had joint conversations between the AIA and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) boards to discuss how to work better together and support them more fully, like the K-12 camps for architecture and helping Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) with scholarships and mentorship programs. I used my discretionary funds to establish a scholarship at each HBCU with an accredited architecture program. The former AIA presidents and I are in discussions with HBCUs to serve as mentors, guest critics, or in whatever capacities that will help their programs.
I love to hear all this work, especially with regards to really getting the message and practice of racial equity to saturate the organization. Summarize your biggest highlights and challenges of being AIA President.
The highlights are what we accomplished. The challenges were 2020.
And for your career, what have been the biggest highlights and challenges?
When we first started our firm, I was 29. People always commented on how young I was. Getting some gray hair was a celebration! Now the challenge is the opposite: the younger generation can consider me too old and too out of touch.
And the biggest highlight was being president of the AIA. That was super cool.
Why was that a personal highlight for you?
I was raised that because we exist, we owe society. We are part of society and so we need to give back. Being able to have a voice at the national level to talk about the importance of reducing carbon and how architects can do it, really gave me joy.
Where are you in your career today?
I was doing construction documents when you called. Typical for architects, we’re not retiring. We are doing our best work now. Being older is an advantage and you’ve had time to learn from your mistakes. You have a better body of work, an established reputation, and better clients. You also know how to lead your clients better.
Who are you admiring right now?
I really like Greta Thunberg! And the past female presidents of AIA have been mentors to me in meaningful ways.
What is the impact you’d like to have on the world?
To get architects at all levels to be responsive to the environment. I wanted to double the number of architects participating and reporting in the 2030 commitment. I didn’t quite get there while I was president, but we really got the numbers to jump up.