At the American Institute of Architects’ (AIA) annual convention in 1968, Whitney M. Young Jr. delivered an earth-shattering speech about diversity in the architecture profession. Five decades later, the institute and philanthropic partner the Architects Foundation have curated a new exhibit featuring the late civil rights leader.
The exhibit, “Fifty Years after Whitney Young Jr.” highlights Young’s impact on the profession. It debuted at the Octagon Museum (1799 New York Ave. NW) on Thursday, April 26 and explores how his keynote speech, in which he challenged others in his field to do more to address civil rights and social issues, has affected the profession of architecture today.
“I was actually a student at the Pratt Institute in New York City studying architecture in 1968, and what was happening in June 1968 when Whitney Young came to the [AIA Convention] and spoke to us was [that] our world was falling apart,” recalled current AIA President Carl Elefante. “Our heroes, many of them, had literally been gunned down before our eyes. So the world that he came to talk to us about was not in a moment of celebration. It was a moment of regrouping.”
Young’s speech, which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., focused on the absence of Black architects in the field and the profession’s silence concerning relevant issues of the time.
Young, then-executive director of the National Urban League, pointed out that the lack of diversity in the architecture profession denied the field a full range of human creativity and led to whole communities being unable to chart their own destinies, as the urban poor would face a profession that neither looked like them nor understood their unique challenges in urban planning.
“The impact Whitney Young asked us to have is an ongoing challenge to us,” Elefante said. “We can always do better, and we have to be committed to that as an institute.”
Young’s message set in motion AIA evolving its understanding of diversity. Convention resolutions spoke to issues raised by Young and the organization hired staff specifically tasked with addressing them.
Following his speech, the institute established the Whitney M. Young Award to architects and organizations that take on active roles to address community issues such as affordable housing and inclusiveness in the profession. In 1970, AIA also created the Diversity Advancement Scholarship, which provides financial support for minority students studying architecture, and two years later named the award in honor of Young.
“More 2,300 scholarships have been awarded to underrepresented minority architecture students since the early 1970s,” said incoming AIA President James A. Walbridge.
AIA recommitted to their scholarship effort in 2016 after receiving a gift of $1 million.
“The first round that funding is being committed as we speak to 20 recipients, which is a landmark year for us,” Walbridge said.
In 2016, they only awarded one scholarship, but in 2017 they awarded five.
Founded in 1857, AIA has more than 200 international, state and local chapters. Members adhere to a code of ethics and conduct developed after Young’s speech that they say ensure the high professional standards, as they banned discrimination based on race, sex, creed and national origin in 1970, the disabled in 1977 and members of the LGBT community in 1992.
The institute also engages government leaders to find solutions to community issues, advocates for public policy that promotes economic vitality and public well-being, as well as assists its members with building their careers and businesses.
Through its scholarship programs, the Architects Foundation aims to attract and cultivate diverse architects. It also preserves the historic Octagon building and seeks to keep its legacy alive through exhibits and educational programs.
The Young exhibit will run until Nov. 24.