Once perceived as "intimidating" by her colleagues, the principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will went from following the rules to defining them.This op-ed appeared in the December 2019 issue of ARCHITECT. On Dec. 12, 2019, The American Institute of Architects announced Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, as the recipient of the 2020 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award.
Big change can come from people who never expected to become change makersâ€”from people who frequently second-guessed themselves, who look different from everyone else, and who never jumped the line. The tortoises, not the hares.
I had always been a rule-follower who stays the courseâ€”an idealist empowered by personal ambition and my motherâ€™s encouragement. When I decided to become an architect, I pursued design with little fear of failure. Looking back, I realize that harnessing my own naive bravery was the best thing I could have done.
My formal training in architecture began at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1979. I knew I had earned my seat there, but, deep down, I continuously felt â€śless than.â€ť I didnâ€™t anticipate that Iâ€™d be the only black woman in my classes, or that Iâ€™d have to find my tribe outside of architecture, among other students of color. Suppressing feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and invisibleness, I focused on working my ass off.
The architectural jargon was foreign and unintelligible, and I struggled to understand what the professors and critics were saying. I realize now that this was very much the egocentric, starchitect era of design education. This was their platform to shine, and they commanded it.
Recognizing that this was part of the game that would lead me to success, I worked even harder to learn their language. Once I grasped the concepts, I no longer felt inadequate. I even felt empowered to break the rules I had struggled to understand.
In 1984, I became the second black woman ever to graduate RISDâ€™s architecture departmentâ€”and with Aâ€™s no less. After 21 years in the profession, I was tapped to be managing director of my firmâ€™s Los Angeles office. I was flattered, scared, and surprised, but with encouragement from my tribe, I became the first woman and first African American to hold that role, firmwide.
Once I grasped the concepts, I ... felt empowered to break the rules I had struggled to understand.
As a woman with a direct communication style, I learned over time from peers that some colleagues and staff perceived me as â€śintimidating.â€ť Though I was the leader of my office, my requests, statements, and directives were met frequently with resistance. Self-reflection, coaching, and soul-searching occupied a good deal of my time; realizing what you can adapt while remaining true to yourself, and recognizing and addressing gender or racial bias are strategies Iâ€™ve had to develop throughout my design career.
While not dismissing the existence of unconscious biases, I chose to modify my professional style not only to keep my hard-earned seat at the table, but also to ensure my voice was heard, and, ultimately, to become the leader of the room. I mastered the rules to win the game.
In 2013, I was ready to make my next move at the firm. After completing several international projects and taking stock of my own experiences, I had cultural competency on my mind. I wanted the profession to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive. I believed that we could change what we design by changing who designs it.
With the agency I had earned, I chose to develop a firmwide diversity and inclusion program, which I now lead. All my academic and professional experiences, advancements, and challenges have brought me to this point in my career.
Calls to diversify the complexion and cultural makeup of the design profession to better mirror the society we serve have become louder and more intense, with many more voices chiming in. But we have a long way to go. To women and underrepresented groups, I say harness your inner strength, find your tribe, and then use your voice. Being the only one in the room can be your platform to shine.