SmithGroup’s Tiffany Brown Is Breaking Down Barriers in Architecture

Sept. 9, 2020
By tackling institutional racism and exclusion head on, Brown is paving the way for a new generation of black female architects in the field.

Tiffany Brown isn’t one to skirt difficult or uncomfortable issues. In fact, the project manager for SmithGroup and Executive Board Member for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) has built a design philosophy around addressing inclusion by facing exclusion head on.

It’s a viewpoint that’s been forged through personal experience during her upbringing and along the path to her now illustrious career.

Photo: Tiffany Brown, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, project manager for SmithGroup and Executive Board Member for the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), is paving the way for the next generation of black architects by tackling exclusion in the industry head on. Courtesy of Jeremy Cranford Photography

“I ended up in a career that may not have been meant for me because of resources I did not have access to,” Brown explains. “My expertise stems from first-hand experiences of environmental injustices and social issues.”

Brown says the challenges she faced in being excluded were meant to be teaching tools for her to use professionally and in academia. As a result, her work and approach to projects today include asking questions like, “Have everyone’s ideas been heard? Who has access? Is this environment safe for everyone to feel like they belong?”

“A design approach should start from a heartful place and then move into a calculated effort to solve a problem,” she observes. “A shift toward an inclusive workforce in the future of design can be a catalyst to end the cycle of socially unjust cities. This approach leads to good social design, which in turn is a strong predictor of lower crime rates, better performing schools, and gains in other measures of quality of life.”

Overcoming a Lack of Diversity

Brown, Associate AIA and NOMA member, is no stranger to the difficulties of growing up around urban blight. Her hometown of Detroit where she was born and raised has seen factory closings, race riots, white flight, poor city planning, financial crises and bankruptcy—you name it—which has required a sense of exceptional resilience of its residents. Her roots proved to serve her well in an industry which is still tainted by a lack of equality and diversity.

“I credit my background and upbringing in the city as the source of my thick skin, which helped me navigate my way through the male-dominated professions of architecture and construction—an experience that has had many challenges,” Brown recalls. “I eventually switched sides of the table to become a designer of the built environment and use my experiences to make change. I strive to be everything my ancestors could not. As a survivor of racist city planning, I am in a position to do my part to create equitable spaces and experiences,” she adds.

Unfortunately, the hurdles of racism still exist in the architecture and design profession because the systems and barriers set in place many years ago have seeped into the policies and procedures of the profession. Those who developed these systems still have the power to control who has access, whether it be at firms or at universities, Brown notes.

She recalls how at the 1968 AIA Convention, Whitney M. Young Jr.’s keynote address chastised architects for failing to support civil rights. “I believe these issues still exist because little to no action was taken after his speech—and here we are,” she says.

In the wake of global protests over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, et al, and the subsequent removal of Confederate monuments across the country, many feel the country is at a tipping point toward racial reconciliation. Of course, the dismantling of physical icons erected during the Jim Crow era is a step in the right direction but will be merely symbolic if the underpinnings that placed them there in the first place aren’t addressed.

“The removal of racist monuments is slight progress, but the actual work will come when we are removing racist systems,” Brown suggests. “When that happens, I believe we will see a tipping point in equality and reconciliation.”

She notes that this generation has its work cut out for itself, as many have not come from a solid foundation “and are building from scratch on a very shaky one. Most of us don’t come from inheritances, connections or parents who are college graduates,” Brown says.

It should be a common practice to provide opportunities for minorities to lead, individually and in joint ventures, she says. Society should revisit systemic barriers in promotion policies and companies should diversify their Boards of Directors. Universities should diversify those who are considered scholars as well as their notions of scholarship. Brown also recommends bringing in professionals to train leadership, professors and employees on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.

“The future of diversity in the profession rests with architecture firms themselves, which we know are historically dominated by affluent white males,” she says. “They are currently in most leadership roles and should promote diversity by seeking out and employing a diverse workforce.”

Photo: Brown works with participants of the 400 FORWARD program she helped co-found at a workshop for Design Core Detroit. Courtesy of VW Photography

From Mentee to Mentor: Paying It (400) Forward

Brown credits her interest in architecture, which developed through her love of art, to her parents. As a child, she would watch her mother draw self-portraits “shadowed to perfection,” while her father made cartoon flipbooks within a matter of minutes, of a man doing a backflip in a book he was reading, for example.

“I’ve always loved every aspect of art, creative writing, even my woodshop class, not realizing they would all be the vehicle to a career I was never exposed to,” she recalls.

[Related: Here’s Why the Design Industry Lacks Diversity and How it Will Change]

While in 12th grade, a recruiter from Lawrence Technological University came to Brown’s high school to talk about architecture as a field of study. She became a student there the following fall where she went on to receive three degrees—an accomplishment that may have seemed unlikely for a “disadvantaged youth” from the west side of Detroit.

“I never imagined I’d be studying architecture in Paris and visiting the Louvre,” she says. “I never thought the paintings I’d so eagerly read about, five inches tall in my textbooks, would soon be physically before me in museums we visited while there.” Brown remembers feeling overwhelmed with emotion as she grabbed a moment by herself in front of Monet’s massive “Water Lilies” on a private tour with her class at Musee de l’Orangerie.

Of course, Brown wasn’t alone along her journey. She is grateful for amazing friends and mentors she surrounded herself with who embodied where she aspired to be. “In this moment, I have spent a lot of time talking to my mentor, Gabrielle Bullock, who has guided me on pushing through recent situations that have affected me in ways I didn’t expect,” she explains. “I’ve had very emotional conversations with my good friend Kimberly Dowdell, and together we are creating solutions to change the world. I have the support of Dina Griffin and Jane Frederick, and they are helping me to see good in people as we fight for better systems and structures in design. Also, Kat Holmes, a pioneer for inclusive design, has helped me dig deep and address things I’ve subconsciously suppressed.

Photo: Ford Mobility City: One Challenge community engagement workshop. Courtesy of 400 FORWARD

“I’ve gone from feeling hopeless to feeling optimistic,” she continues. “I admire these women because of their incomparable strength. They have reminded me that a reckoning is on the horizon.”

Drawing on the inspiration of her mentors, peers and personal experiences, Brown is leveraging her position and influence to affect the next generation of black female architects and designers. In 2017, she created the 400 FORWARD initiative, which aims to seek out and support the next 400 licensed women architects with an underlying focus on African-American girls through exposure, mentorship and financial assistance. 400 FORWARD was named in light of the 400th living African-American woman becoming a licensed architect in 2017.

Out of over 116,000 total licensed architects in the U.S. today, there are only 488 licensed female African-American architects. This number does not represent those obtaining licensure within the last five or 15 years, but of all time. In fact, Black women only comprise .3% of the profession.

400 Forward’s mission is to uplift girls by giving them the tools they need to address social issues created by the unjust built environments of inner-city communities through the incorporation of artistic excellence. After winning a $50,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Brown and company have partnered with local and national entities like the American Institute of Architects, Ford Mobility, Mismatch Design and Design Core Detroit to help achieve this goal—and you can help.

“The architecture and design community should make conscious efforts in supporting recreational programs like 400 FORWARD, things that empower our neighborhoods,” Brown urges. “Do not be afraid to mentor someone who does not look like you. Make financial commitments to advance the efforts of exposing youth to our field,” she continues. “We need to invest in the pipeline now, so we are not in the same position statistically, again, in the next 50 years.”

Photo: Students seen sketching during the Ford Motor Company Sketchoff Event at Michigan Central Station. Courtesy of Makerhouse

Brown says being intentional with these efforts will give firms a head start and provide a way to bring unheard voices into design conversations. As a result, project teams will have a broader range of problem-solving abilities, which in turn gives firms a real chance to make lasting changes to neighborhoods, cities and the larger social fabric of our country.

[Related: Where Are Design’s Women Leaders?]

Celebrating Milestones, Inspiring the Next Generation

Looking back on her career, Brown says her biggest achievement is overcoming extreme social and financial barriers to make it where she is today. “Architecture was not a likely career path for someone like me. It brought me to many full-circle moments for me,” she recalls. “Being able to provide financial assistance to girls with the same experiences I’ve had has become my passion. At times I can’t believe this is my life.”

As an architectural designer, Brown has had the opportunity to work on projects for the Detroit Public Schools from the design phase through construction administration; on Detroit’s City Hall as a project manager with SmithGroup; and most importantly, overseeing construction of the housing development where she grew up after it sat vacant for 10 years. She had gone off to college, graduated and got a job at a firm within that time, and it was the first project she was able to lead—a special milestone in her career.

Projects that focus on ending the cycle of socially unjust environments in our cities are most important to Brown. Through community projects, she focuses her work on creating good, social design, which she says shows as a strong predictor of lower crime rates and high-performing schools. These are developments that improve the quality of life for the Detroit’s long-time residents.

Looking forward, Brown’s hopes for the future involve doing her part to redesign a system that was designed to oppress. “As a professional, I care most about how the built environment forms our experiences in society. As a mentor, I’ve found my calling in empowering the leaders of the next generation to reverse this view on oppressed people,” she says. “Society has to take the time to learn from those of us who have experienced a high degree of discrimination, unequal systems and exclusion. We have to face how we got here.”

Today, Brown asks herself a question we should all ponder: How can we visualize the future we need—the future America needs—and find our way to liberty and justice for all, once and for all? To that end,

she is preoccupied with creating ways to strategize, organize and mobilize, and plans to continue to use her energy to come up with solutions that lead to justice and change.

“I want to work with our profession on doing the work to make it all happen,” Brown says. “The time is now for us to use our platforms to speak up and end systemic injustices.”

Read Next: IIDA’s Leadership Discusses the Importance of Diversity in the Design Industry

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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