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Impact and empowerment

For more than a decade, RIDING THE VORTEX (VORTEX), a collaboration of African-American women representing the entire spectrum of practice, had endeavored to increase the number of people of color licensed to practice architecture in the U.S. Following its 2007 launch at the AIA Conference on Architecture in San Antonio, VORTEX has directly responded to Whitney M. Young Jr.’s observations on the disheartening history of American architecture. Even today, through the first quarter of the 21st century, entry, success, and progress in the profession remain dominated by white men, something VORTEX works tirelessly to change.

VORTEX’s key collaborators are architects and design leaders Kathryn Tyler Prigmore, FAIA; Kathy Denise Dixon, FAIA; Katherine Williams, AIA; and Melissa R. Daniel, Assoc. AIA. Barbara G. Laurie, AIA, was a critical member until her passing in 2013. The collaborators’ primary engagement medium, Riding the Vortex: African-American Women Architects in Practice, was a prime-time program when it debuted at the AIA Conference on Architecture and repeat performances occurred in 2008 and 2009. It was also a crucial element of NOMA’s 2008 conference in Washington, DC. The rise of digital pathways has allowed the collaborators to increase the frequency of their interventions through virtual programming across the country.


“The VORTEX collaborators have endured many challenges set forth by our profession—one that is steeped in centuries of Western European traditions and male-dominated values,” wrote Cheryl McAfee, FAIA, in a letter nominating VORTEX for the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. “Through VORTEX they can channel much of the strength they found in overcoming the adversity they have encountered into an interactive collaboration forum for sharing life and professional lessons with others of similar backgrounds.”


Everyone involved in VORTEX’s programming, whether they are a collaborator, panelist, or audience member, has emerged from the experience with a unique blend of intellect, creativity, and aspiration that empowers them to move confidently through the profession. Many often find support through the connections they make, allowing them to better respond to all aspects of practicing architecture and better balance their professional, personal, and service lives.


Perhaps the greatest contribution VORTEX has made thus far is its direct impact on the increased number of African-American women architects, which from 2007 to 2020 has risen from approximately 175 to more than 500, according to the Directory of African-American Architects. When participants gain insight and advice from collaborators and panelists who have successfully navigated the maze of architecture education and licensure, it often helps keep them on the path to achieving their own goals.

The number of practicing African-American architects had been a stagnant 2% in recent decades. In the early 1990s, there were just 1,800 licensed African-American architects in the country, and only 30 of them were women. As of the summer of 2021, those numbers have grown to 2,435 and 533, respectively, and VORTEX has been a major catalyst in the 254% growth in African-American women architects.

“Black women are becoming licensed at a higher rate than most other groups, and Riding the VORTEX has played an indisputable role in moving that needle forward in the right direction,” R. Steven Lewis, FAIA, wrote in support of VORTEX’s nomination. “Aside from the work of their collective, each member provides mentoring and support to architecture students, emerging professionals, and all others for whom their presence is beneficial. These women have enlisted in Whitney Young Jr.’s army and are leading us forward to a place where their talent, courage, lived experience, and unyielding determination to practice architecture deserves to be lifted up for all to see and appreciate.”

VORTEX’s core program format allows for both creativity and a collaborative process in developing discrete but cohesive sessions. It features presentations by five women, ranging from emerging architects to design professionals at the apex of their careers, who discuss their entrance and progression through the profession. In 2009, VORTEX began including panelists from the region where the program is being hosted. Many of those panelists went on to establish their own programs that provide girls and young women with opportunities to spark an interest in architecture.

“Two words come to mind when I think of VORTEX: impact and empowerment,” R. Corey Clayborne, FAIA, executive vice president of AIA Virginia, wrote in a letter. “VORTEX has twice been a part of our annual conference, which boasts nearly 600 participants. Each time, they engaged local African-American women architects in various career stages to tell their professional stories. Immediately, these stories ignite a dialogue on race in architecture that leads to a culture shift focused on inclusivity of all. The most impactful part is that local VORTEX participants become empowered to lead in our state.”

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