Online mentorship programs between Boston-area architects, grad students and high schoolers are creating new connections designed to increase the industry’s racial diversity.

As architectural firms switched to work-from-home models in early 2020, executives worried about lost opportunities to ramp up racial equity programs in an industry where Black employees comprise just 2 percent of the workforce. 

Instead, the Zoom era has delivered unexpected benefits in fostering new connections, including those between graduate students and high schoolers considering an architectural career. 

“It actually helps because we can bring a lot more people into these conversations,” said Brooke Trivas, a principal at Perkins+Will in Boston. “While we’ve been working virtually since March 16, it has allowed us to be open and provide really good content in a broader way.” 

Perkins+Will has been hosting a series of Friday afternoon forums since mid-February, bringing together architects, local high schoolers and Harvard Graduate School of Design students online. The Black in Design Mentorship program includes a new twist on the industry’s attempts to attract and retain Black talent, by encouraging direct connections between high schoolers and the Harvard GSD students. 

Students Linked with Professionals 

For Trivas, the inspiration was a way to honor one of her own professional idols, National Museum of African American History and Culture designer Phil Freelon. She floated the idea with Harvard GSD representatives at its 2019 conference on Black Futurism held shortly after Freelon’s death, and the program took shape with the goal of architects mentoring students, and students forming their own connections. 

“Our designs are better when we have more Black voices, and they better reflect the communities in which our projects serve,” Trivas said. “We aren’t just talking about it. We want to embrace these students and give them a chance for future success throughout the firms across the country.” 

Gensler is in the midst of its own virtual mentoring program in Boston, part of its ongoing global diversity initiative designed to increase the number of its Black employees in the U.S., who currently make up about 3 percent of its stateside workforce. 

The firm has partnered with ACE of Greater Boston since 2007, which sponsors afterschool programs introducing local high schoolers to jobs in the architecture, construction and engineering industries, and the National Organization of Minority Architects. As the mentorship program shifted online last fall, approximately 35 high schoolers from Greater Boston and their parents participated in an online forum where college students discussed paths into the industry. 

“We’ve found that it’s been really well-attended, and the virtual format has given us more opportunities to broaden the audience,” said Jeanne Nutt, a Gensler principal and co-managing director. “Even if you consider yourself a person who wouldn’t typically go into this industry, we’re trying to make sure we have appropriate mentors and people of color who have been successful in pursuing careers.” 

BSA Targets Systemic Barriers 

Programs by firms such as Gensler and Perkins+Will are evolving as the Boston Society for Architecture is set to launch its most ambitious diversity program to date. The goals: to increase diverse representation in the local industry, and to use architecture to break down institutional racism in communities. 

The society is set to release a request for ideas and host a mid-year symposium on racial equity in the built environment, with the goal of selecting concrete action plans by year’s end. 

“The vision is this platform will be an incubator and accelerator to solve systemic issues in the built environment, with a racial equity lens,” said Natasha Espada, the BSA’s 2020 president and principal at Studio Enee. 

Steve Adams

Last year’s Black Lives Matter movement prompted BSA to host a series of town hall meetings on race and architecture, including the role the profession can play in breaking down racial barriers through design. Now the society is coordinating partnerships between the minority- and women-owned architect and engineering firms so they’ll be better prepared to team up while responding to development opportunities offered by Massport and the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance. 

Espada’s firm was part of the Lincoln Property Co.-led team that was selected by Massport in January to develop a $590 million office-lab complex on its parcel H in the Seaport District. Massport sought teams that included strong minority- and women-owned firms, and Studio Enee is partnering with Arrowstreet and the Black-owned Moody Nolan on architectural services. The team’s proposal includes a 15,000-square-foot career academy that will prepare local students from underrepresented communities for jobs in the tech and life science industries. 

“How do you start to create the pipeline for workforce diversity? It has to come from the top down,” Espada said. “Real change is coming.” 

Zoom Opens Doors for Diversity in Architecture

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min