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Gensler architect and urban designer Jason Pugh is deeply involved in shaping neighborhoods. Now at the helm of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), Pugh outlines an important year ahead for the rapidly growing advocacy group.

By Michael Wood

What is the National Organization of Minority Architects?

NOMA is a network of individuals and local chapters striving to create more opportunities for the recruitment, retention and advancement of minority architects in our industry. The organization was founded by 12 African American architects in 1971 in order to fight against systemic racism and inequities that hindered the growth and success of minority architects.

NOMA soon has a big anniversary to celebrate. Can you tell us about that?

Absolutely. We’re pulling out all the stops for our upcoming annual conference this October in Detroit, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of NOMA’s 12 founders meeting at an AIA conference there. Some had never met before, but they came together to discuss how they might work to amplify their voices and galvanize efforts to create more equitable opportunities for architects of color, and fight against the discriminatory policies and practices they were experiencing in the industry at that time. We’re excited to return to where it all started. There will be lots of programming to celebrate our legacy and, fingers crossed, if the COVID numbers trend well, we’re hopeful to reconnect in-person with our extended NOMA family and friends.

How different are things today, among your generation of leadership?

There’s certainly been important progress in some respects. For instance, we are the inheritors and stewards of a very supportive NOMA community across the country, and grateful for the many progressive leaders across our industry who champion and share our vision. Unfortunately, with licensed minority architects still hovering at just over 2% of the national total, those are nearly the same flatline figures that existed when the NOMA founders met in Detroit 50 years ago.

If you look at the critical education outlets for young people here in Chicago, Lane Tech, for example, was a real powerhouse for years, pumping out future architecture students. Sadly, it’s now closed its architecture program. If anything, there are less opportunities for students to discover career opportunities or paths to becoming an architect. In that way, I think our job is just as difficult and demanding today as it was decades ago.

Also, when you look at our legacy of firms, there were actually more minority-owned firms across the country 30 to 40 years ago than we have today. Yes, we do have some larger firms and very successful national outfits like Moody Nolan, which is inspiring, but they’re the exception. In most cities, the number of minority-owned firms is dwindling. As the principals at those firms retire or slow down, there is no succession planning in place and no one to take the helm. We have plenty of examples of majority firms that have been around for 50, 70, 100-plus years, while minority firms seem to struggle to survive beyond their principal founders. There’s still a lot of work for us to do and a desperate need for us to connect with minority students to build a pipeline of diverse future talent for the design industry.

Speaking of pathways, do you recall your first encounter with an architect or with architecture in general? When did you realize it was something you wanted to pursue?

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. By middle school, I was enrolled in a public performing arts program with a focus in visual arts. I worked in mixed media and had a lot of amazing mentors who were local artists. I even sold my own artwork as a teenager at different art festivals around the city and the state, and my mom was my business manager, so to speak. Around ninth grade, I started to really look at my mentors, who were all great talents themselves, but definitely fit the cliché of “starving artist.” I was trying to find a career path that was a little more straightforward in terms of the next steps I would need to take towards a college degree, graduation and ultimately as a professional. My art teacher at the time mentioned architecture and for some reason it stuck. She planted the seed. From there, I knew I wanted to be an architect because it was both a respectable profession and a way I could utilize my artistic skillset in creative ways.

Other than your own personal efforts, do you credit any mentors for your success?

Absolutely. I’ve been blessed with many amazing mentors, but there are two that immediately come to mind. Edward Dunson, who was chair of the architecture department at Howard University, where I attended undergrad, and we’re still close today. He was the one who encouraged me to go to his alma mater, Columbia University, to get a master’s degree in urban design. In fact, I’m actually the first NOMA president to hold dual certifications, as both a licensed architect and a certified planner. It was Dunson who really set that target for me.

And then there’s the late professor Barbara G. Laurie. She stressed the importance of licensure, especially for minority architects, and encouraged me to get involved with NOMA as a student. Actually, she’s been such a noteworthy figure in our field that NOMA’s annual student design competition is named in her honor.

What will NOMA’s focus be under your leadership?

I’m going to be focused on the value of membership and raising the performance bar around engagement and programming for our student and professional chapters across the country. I want to expand our pool of partners with allied organizations and industry leaders, while extending our reach with engineers, developers, interior designers, product reps and more.

We stress being an inclusive organization, and not duplicating the same discriminatory policies minorities have long experienced when entering the profession. You do not need to be an architect to join NOMA and you don’t have to be Black or Brown, either. You just have to support a more just, equitable, diverse and inclusive (JEDI) industry where everyone can flourish. We encourage everyone to get involved and participate in local and national events and discussions. So, if you are behind NOMA’s mission, then we are behind you—it’s that simple.

Visit noma.net to learn more about joining and supporting the National Organization of Minority Architects, and follow @nomanational on Instagram.