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Alum Patricia Joseph on Becoming First Black Woman Architect Licensed in Colorado

Patricia Joseph (M.Arch 2 ’15) is a designer in Cuningham’s Grow Studio in Denver, Colorado. She earned her M.Arch 2 at SCI-Arc in 2015. After graduation, she helped found The National Organization of Minority Architects’ (NOMA) Colorado chapter, where she serves as President Elect. This past year, she obtained architecture licensure in Colorado, making her the first Black woman architect to be initially licensed in the state.

We spoke to Patricia about her historical achievement, its inherent challenges, and how she hopes the field of architecture can be changed for the better.

Well, first of all, thank you very much for speaking with us today. Congratulations on this incredible accomplishment. Can you elaborate on the process and what it entailed, and what else has driven you to this point in your career?

I am a licensed architect in the state of Colorado now, which puts me as one of three Black women who have a license to practice architecture in Colorado—that we know of—and the first to initially be licensed in Colorado. So that is the achievement we are finally celebrating. I'm going to be celebrating this every day.

The process of licensure has felt really long. And I say it felt that way because I've gotten insight that my path to licensure didn’t take as long or compared to others wasn’t as long. For me, it started off as something I knew I needed to do, whether it was the dream of having my own firm or the driver for going back to school after undergraduate studies. Being an architect is what I've always wanted to be. I wanted to be able to call myself a capital-A architect. For all of those reasons, I started off in the unknown, to the tune of, "Okay, I'm going to try what I can. I'm just going to do what everyone else is doing. I'm going to study. I'm going to sign up for the exams."

I find that when I started, I did not directly have a lot of people supporting me from within my professional network. There wasn't instantly someone holding my hand through this process, so there were a lot of things I had to do on my own—a lot of research using online study communities and architecture communities, trying to meet anyone who passed, asking them all about their process. For me, it started off really, really rough. I think the first three-six exams, I failed. The experience of testing is really shocking and also confusing because we all start off with this one book to cover the ARE, which is a great resource that in a way, encapsulates everything, but that's all I had for a while and I was failing. It was very discouraging, since the book cost a lot of money. I did end up taking a lot of pauses from the studying process because of attempting and failing without any direct guidance. When I would get discouraged or just confused, I would say "Let me take a step back. Whatever I'm doing is not working." And what I really learned was that I'd tend to assume that everyone else knew what to study for, could study very little, and would do great.

So, my strategy to pass became identifying the next tool to use, I'd get closer to another reference, another resource. And I had to really read those resources, read from the books directly. That powered me into passing the two first exams in the series, pre-COVID. And then COVID came and in a way, I thought, "Oh, this is my chance, I'm not doing too much right now. So maybe I can study." And so that was how I could get through testing mentally, constantly just trying to see how far I could get until it was accomplished.

I was also fortunate to be cofounding the NOMA Colorado Chapter in the midst of studying. While doing so, I was able to meet a lot of mentors, and they were very encouraging. It became easier to sit for a test, as far as confidence, which I was striving for the whole time. Being confident enough to sit for an exam became a huge goal, co-founding NOMA Colorado helped with that.

Lastly, my most important drivers were the influences in the background that I could always rely on. Dreaming of designing for my family, my spirituality, my parents setting examples of breaking barriers as they immigrated from Haiti. All of those elements mattered and kept me going to get to this point in my career. When you are attempting to do something that hasn’t been done yet, having drivers is key.

There are some challenges that you've faced not only in this licensure process, but in your architecture training in general. You mentioned a report that was released by NCARB, “Baseline on Belonging,” that you came across as you were studying for your final ARE, which presented some staggering findings.

This last exam I took was one of those exams where if you failed too many times, you’d have to wait a year to take it over, so this was like the arch-nemesis of exams for me. And likewise, in studying for it, and prepping for it the week of, is when I came across the report [Baseline on Belonging: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Architecture Licensing] stating that it is, in fact, a hard exam for a Black woman to pass.

And that was very shocking, even very deterring. But I gave myself some reasons to test anyway, one, I had already paid for it, so I didn't really have time to lose money on this. And two, I had to give everything I could. I've had to be honest with myself that I studied as much as I could. I had the resources that I had available to me to do it, and I passed that last exam. It was even more of a triumph and even more of an achievement to know that 17.9% of African American or Black women passed that exam, which is the lowest pass rate—where on the other end, there's white women passing at about 44.7%—huge disparity there. And no one right now knows why. The hard, scary part is the question of what do we do and how do we fix that?

So I am, in general, facing a ton of unknowns and constantly reminding myself why I am doing this. Looking at other people passing doesn't really help. Hearing their stories about how they overcome does help, but the strongest thing is to know why you want to be licensed and what it's going to mean to you once you are.

Of the raw data presented in the report, namely, the cost, lack of support contributing to a lack of representation of nonwhite individuals in the discipline, what do you see as the most glaring challenges among those, for yourself and in general?

I think of glaring challenges that I've discovered, have read about, and have resonated with me would be the support that you get in the office. It could be that because most white individuals passed [licensure exams] easily, the attitude towards exams is taken so lightly. That could be a reason. But for the most part, minorities don't feel supported on the path to licensure. As I would try to study in the office, the support would vary. Some people would just kind of lightly say, "Well, yeah, you should do that. You should study. You should get your license. That's a good idea." There's never really been, at least on a firm-wide base or at an institutional level, a huge push, huge encouragement for underrepresented individuals to pursue their license. I think there are many times where I felt like my emotions, my anxiety, my worries were not really given time of day or else were taken very lightly. And that is a huge part of taking these exams —unfortunately, is just the confidence to sit through them. A second way is hypervisibility within the office—everyone is watching you and pretty aware of what projects you're working on, how often you're working, how long are you staying at the office. And that can play into how much time do I have to study: how much time and energy do I have left to study for this exam when I am supposed to show up 110% at the office?

Those are the kinds of things that are attracted to minorities, right? Things we can't seem to avoid, like that hypervisibility. Microaggressions. If you're facing a microaggression in the office and you're supposed to go home and knock out four hours of studying, there's no motivation. You're most likely healing or processing the microaggression that you've just experienced. I don't want to say it makes sense and I don't want to say I'm surprised, but it's evidential of systemic racism and inequities within the industry. I believe, all of those things could be tied to why pass rates are very different and vary from race to gender.

With this report and your experiences in mind, what are some things, either specific or abstract, that you would like to see shift or change as a result of the kind of awareness being created?

I think specifically because the exams are coming out to be so differentiated with pass rates by division, that more investigation needs to be done per division. Because the divisions are grouped in certain ways according to the practice of architecture and the questions grouped per division, that's a place to start to look at why we see a disparity. For example, if we all tested the same across gender and race and maybe we could just look at the test in general—maybe it's the test centers, maybe it's that they're too far from where we're living—but now it's in planning, or targeting, or aiming at the division. I would like to see more investigation into why the divisions showed so much disparity within the report.

After that, I think we should be looking for an equitable way to support people throughout licensure, kind of how we look at loans, right? Someone’s whole financial profile gets looked at for a loan. What if that was an idea that we looked at for financial support for studying? The report revealed that African Americans and Latino and Latinx individuals spend more on materials than their white counterparts. Well, then these people would need a little more money, right? Especially if the data is showing that in our industry women and minorities are historically known to be paid less. It’s a long cycle that's very connected and needs to change.

While I was going through studying for my exams, I remember feeling desperate; wishing there was support that would be catered more to that individual process. I know paying for architects to study is really nice thing and a great benefit that most firms do have and offer. Maybe there's a way to look at that as part of your education, as part of that whole matriculation through architecture school. Something to alleviate the cost, I think, would be a huge thing for a lot of people.

What do you think the ongoing role of exams and licensure is and should be going forward, as they have been shown to be a barrier to entry for underrepresented communities in architecture?

I think everyone should have an opportunity to be taught and to learn. And who knows anyone's potential, how dare anyone say they know someone's potential. And as far as licensure in practice, I respect the call, right, the duty to protect the health, welfare, and safety of the public. I understand that because we do build structures that have a potential to be harmful. I completely understand that. But maybe that's all the test needs to be about. And maybe that means we start to break down types of licenses.

It gives a firm more credibility because they have licensed architects designing, so the probability of having something that's not to code or not in line or something they haven't studied showing up in a building design is lower. It's a great insurance policy as well. Perhaps there's better ways to check for that, better ways to confirm if someone is qualified to do a specific job and to execute that job. It should get refined down to what is the most important part of these licensure exams, because it is a little hard to say that someone can't start their own firm or run a firm. I think those things are really limiting. Also, that limit shows up in the workplace, it shows up in the office. This can create a culture of pedestalization: wherein you have both a licensed architect, who is respected and can do certain things, as well as someone unlicensed but with the same years of experience, the same amount of exposure, and neither of them are stamping or issuing drawings, but the former is highly revered.

This happens a lot, and it negatively affects project teams. I think it's also a scapegoat to keep minorities from advancing in architecture. I believe in safety first, so I see the need there, because we are just creating drawings, and maybe that goes more into when a building goes up and who's actually constructing it as well. That's not what our licenses are for. But I think there's an opportunity for a better spectrum of the licensure exams and thus licenses. For example, we could be licensed to just manage an office, which is a whole different area of the industry that looks very different from stamping drawings. I would think that a lot of people would even drift towards that than being licensed to construct or design a building only, so maybe what we need are different types of architecture licenses.

How did you find yourself at SCI-Arc and how did being at an institution like SCI-Arc influence your decision to become licensed?

I discovered SCI-Arc luckily, because I was chasing the dream of getting NAAB accreditation, so I could get a license in the shortest amount of time, honestly. When I looked at SCI-Arc's coursework all the way from the east coast, comparing a lot of different programs, I really felt that if I was going to go back to school, I need to make that time useful. I went to a very traditional undergrad [program] and I struggled to harness my creativity and to express myself in a way that would fit the traditional lens. My curiosity and just seeing the work being done at SCI-Arc, and wanting to be like that, is how I got drawn to the school.

While there, it was just so eye-opening as well. I always tell people that being around the diverse group of students really was positive for me. My parents are Haitian immigrants, so I grew up listening to different languages, hearing different accents. And even in high school, I had so many friends from different cultural and national backgrounds. That was normal to me, that was natural. So I naturally felt at home at SCI-Arc studying with so many international and national students of first generation immigrants, like me. Undergrad was very white and that affected me. I did not do well there. My GPAs are very different from those two schools.

At SCI-Arc, I noticed there's a different kind of culture around architecture and around who says what architecture is. There's not this colonizer mind about architecture at SCI-Arc. Everyone can come to the table and create and stand up for the designs that they believe in. Seeing people of all different backgrounds being able to just be together for architecture was very good for me. I was very successful as far as grades and things like that. They were way better. I almost forgot that the whole reason why I went to SCI-Arc was so I could have this NAAB accredited degree so I could be a licensed architect.

One of the best examples that SCI-Arc has is our instructors, our professors and teachers who also have their own practices, and so being able to be that close and working with them was very revealing. It showed me an opportunity, and it showed me something I could do one day for myself in my future, thus putting me back on the track to being licensed. I like to say, if it wasn't for SCI-Arc, I probably wouldn't be in architecture anymore just because of the space, the culture. For me, SCI-Arc represented the freedom to speak your mind without risk and not be put in any kind of boxes.

Moving forward with this phenomenal achievement, what goals do you have both for your own practice and in architecture as a whole?

Getting through the exams you really do spend time thinking, "What is this really all for?" I think part of being an architect is listening to people, helping your client have a voice to create and to design. I learned that I too have a voice. I used to say that I wanted to just pretend I'm not this Black woman in architecture, but I am. That also has been an identity I'm developing, I'm more confident in, and I can't ignore it. All of those things are influencing what I think is going to be the next step or what I want to do with this newfound freedom, this licensure.

I really believe that I want to be able to offer a service, an opportunity to work with people who need design solutions and who need something specific for them and someone to listen to them about what their solutions could be. I think it's really important to explore, understand, get to know who you're designing for. Cuningham, where I currently work, has a huge motto in the Grow studio—our education studio—which is: “designing with, not for.” That really has been a strong chord with me, because it shows up everywhere else in life—as far as your government or where you live, who your friends are. You don't want to have things done to you, you want to do things with. So that is a huge desire to do architecture for people who need it and who have a unique situation. That would be where I would like to have a practice focus in. Also, to just be able to be myself; to be able to be myself in architecture. If anyone also resonates with that, that's definitely a high goal.

What a wonderful way to end. Thank you so much, Patricia.

Thank you so much.