A ‘life-changing’ meeting between four women has grown into a community of more than 200. Ella Jessel meets the founders of Black Females in Architecture
Selasi Setufe doesn’t hesitate when asked about the long-term goals of the Black Females in Architecture (BFA) network she co-founded last year. ‘Not to exist,’ she says.
‘If we get to the point where diversity isn’t an issue, our group won’t be needed,’ explains the 28-year-old architect who currently works for Elsie Owusu Architects. For now, however, it very much is needed.
The architecture industry’s glacial progress on improving diversity is well documented. The sector is 93.7 per cent white, according to the most recent data release from the Office for National Statistics, while this month’s AJ100 survey reveals the proportion of BAME architects among the top 100 practices has actually dipped – from 12 to 11 per cent.
And those who do succeed in entering the profession face discrimination. Nearly a quarter of BAME respondents to a 2018 AJ survey said racism in architecture was ‘widespread’, compared with 9 per cent of white respondents.
However, there is still no comprehensive data on how many black female architects there are in the profession. Of the 40 per cent of RIBA members who choose to state their ethnicity, 4.7 per cent are from a BAME background and 0.6 per cent are black women. The ARB also only holds partial figures.
It was incredible to see four young black women in one event space. We had a moment of feeling we were not alone
One of BFA’s principal goals is to improve visibility of black women in the profession. The network was born after Setufe; Akua Danso, an architectural assistant at Scott Brownrigg; Alisha Morenike Fisher, a Public Practice programme officer; and Neba Sere, an architectural designer at Penoyre & Prasad, happened to meet at an architecture event in Clerkenwell last year and realised just how rare an occurrence that was. ‘Life-changing’ is how Danso describes it.
‘It was incredible to see four young black women in one event space,’ adds Setufe. ‘We had a moment of feeling: we are not alone; there are other people that can relate to me.’
They got chatting, exchanged numbers and set up a WhatsApp group, hoping to remain friends. They began adding others they knew and it grew organically. A month later, the network was born.
Today, BFA has almost 200 members and is still growing. It is not limited to architects, also including engineers, landscape architects, interior designers, curators, artists, urbanists and planners.
It is, however, only for black women – an ‘exclusivity’ the group’s founders say they initially faced criticism for. They decided to stick to their guns and ‘brave it out’ to ensure they were keeping to the network’s original goals. ‘The reality is: the experience is specific,’ says Setufe.
As well as tackling issues of visibility and access, its priorities are to help establish black women’s careers through opportunities, as well as simply being a support network for sharing experiences and concerns.
It does this by hosting social events, including its ‘Living Room Sessions’. These intimate get-togethers, held in each of the co-founders’ living rooms in rotation, allow small groups of members to meet in private. Meetings are themed around topics such as ‘education’, ‘quarter-life crisis’ and ‘the biological clock’.
In September, BFA will be holding a members’ CV speed-dating workshop in partnership with the RIBA’s east London group. The network is also on the lookout for collaboration, sponsorship and – the ultimate aim – to complete a ‘BFA build’.
Q&A with Akua Danso and Selasi Setufe
Why is a black female architecture network needed?
Akua Danso In general, as a black woman, life is going to be that little bit harder for you in many ways. In the built environment, you just don’t see other black women at network events or at architecture schools. When we first brought BFA together, we did face criticism. There was a fear we were being too exclusive from the beginning. We had to be brave and delve into why we need to be exclusive.
Selasi Setufe We debated this for weeks. There are already groups for women and there are already groups for BAME professionals. This is no criticism of the groups for women, but those groups are predominantly white women. The reality is the experience is specific. It also goes both ways. How would we represent [the interests] of another group?
AD We wanted to create a safe space where we can talk about our experiences in an environment where it wasn’t going to be overshadowed. We want to be able to speak, without people telling us ‘It’s not really that bad’. I’ve had friends challenge me on this, saying what about women from other BAME groups?’ We decided that if people want to criticise us for being exclusive, fine. We braved it and the support we’ve had since has been amazing.
One member got an interview for a job in Switzerland. Upon seeing she is a black woman, they say: no, our clients wouldn’t want a black woman.
Did you have any role models?
SS There are very few. I wanted to go into architecture from pre-GCSE age. I had not once considered whether there were any role models. I was 13, 14, I wasn’t thinking about that. If we were to set the groundwork now, then maybe in a few years’ time career progression would be easier for those coming up.
You might find yourselves becoming role models for others. How comfortable are you with that?
SS My apprehension is about return on investment. Morally, I can’t go into a school and speak to a bunch of black girls, who might be from a single-income family like me, and try to push someone to go into architecture. If you’re going into architecture with the aim of being an architect in the traditional sense and you’re hoping to support yourself as well as your family, or at least contribute, it’s often not a viable option. I would want to paint a realistic picture. That wasn’t done for me.
Black female architects at work
What else would you tell them?
AD We need to stop using the word ‘dropout’. The critical thinking you learn in architecture school is incredibly valuable. It is on us that we haven’t found a way to make that value realised throughout the industry.
If someone decides to go on to another path after studying architecture and they are able to draw value out of their education, that’s fine. We want to encourage people to become architects but we need to remove judgement if you leave at Part 1 or 2.
What are the most pressing issues raised by your members?
SS Getting jobs. We’ve had multiple conversations about CVs, and how to get through the door. [For example] should we put photos on our CVs? If they didn’t tell by my name that I’m black, they will know by my face. I have a very ethnic name and I think it’s been a hindrance. It’s a theory; it’s very difficult to test that theory, but others [in the BFA group] have tested it. They say: ‘I have an English-sounding last name so I’m going to make that a bigger font’ and then they start getting calls. They anglicise their names, or shorten them. One [BFA] member, who is French African, got an interview over the internet for a job in Switzerland. Upon seeing her, they see she is a black woman and they say: no, our clients wouldn’t want a black woman.
There are many diverse communities where lots of regeneration is going on. But the people working on those schemes are not reflective of the people living in them
What action do you want to see from the profession?
SS The profession keeps saying: there is a diversity issue, what should we do about it? But they are not the diverse population. How do they possibly expect to be able to address the issue? By just sitting there saying there is an issue?
AD They need to bring us in and allow us to progress – simple as that. There aren’t enough of us in managerial roles.
SS There’s also a lot of nepotism [in architecture]. If you don’t have that access then how are you going to get a leg up and then be able to help address that? If we don’t have those networks then an extra effort is required from the people that are already in, to get the others in.
AD It’s a recognition that we are just as skilled as our white counterparts. We are here to work, we are here to create buildings and shape our city. It should be about that, not about colour. Someone should employ you on that alone, but it’s not happening.
SS It’s also problematic that there are many diverse communities, in London for example, where lots of regeneration is going on. But the people working on those schemes are not reflective of the people living in them.
I’m sure if you went there to assess if there are professionals you would find some who would have skills to assist. I feel like [regen teams] can see who the professionals are already and make an extra effort to bring them on board. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched.
Someone asked how many GLA contracts had been awarded to a BAME-led practice and the answer was none. They said they didn’t know where to look.
AD Practices need to go to recruitment agencies and say: we want to diversify, and they need to approach groups like us and we can put girls forward.
SS We’re out there, making ourselves known. Saying you don’t know where to look is not an excuse anymore; maybe 10 years ago. This is why we exist – to be visible so that this is no longer an excuse.
The BFA was founded by Selasi Setufe, architect at Elsie Owusu Architects; Akua Danso, architectural assistant at Scott Brownrigg; Alisha Morenike Fisher, Public Practice programme officer and co-founder of 3.09 design collective; and Neba Sere, architectural designer at Penoyre & Prasad Architects and co-founder of design collective Wuh Architecture.