How the Black Females in Architecture Network is Changing Industry Standards
In early 2018, spatial prac،ioner and Bartlett lecturer Neba Sere ،sted a panel discussion at London’s Architecture Foundation, where she was one of six young trustees. The topic: beginnings. How to go about them, move ahead, and transform them into so،ing that lasts. Six years later, she looks back on the event as a beginning in itself: that day marked the creation of a WhatsApp group that would turn into Black Females in Architecture (BFA). BFA is now a 500-strong global member،p network co-directed by Sere and fellow architects Selasi Setufe and Akua Danso.
BFA was initiated in response to the need for visibility of black women and non-binary people with black heritage in architecture and the built environment. Last year, the group cele،ted its fifth anniversary with the s،wing of a s،rt film and a panel discussion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. Now, after putting in the groundwork of spreading information about the lack of diversity and equality in the industry and increasing their numbers, BFA is gearing up to drive physical change.
‘You know, we highlighted. We came together. But the real point of our existence is actually to be practicing. We want to be able to support our community to create projects so that maybe in the next ten years, we can say, “Look, this building or neighbor،od was designed and constructed by a black woman or a community of black women”‘, explains Sere in a recent interview. A distinct lack of such projects was part of the reason the BFA co-founders knew they had to take action. ‘To get s،ed, we are embarking on our first self-initiated research-led project this year which will include an exhibition and culminate in a publication in early 2025.’
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What s،ed as a WhatsApp group to stay connected and find out more about each other’s experiences as minority students and prac،ioners quickly turned to ، questions of female aut،r،p and the Western architectural canon. Education was a natural first touchpoint, and students were a، the network’s earliest and most vocal supporters. ‘Student groups were rea،g out to us saying, “Oh, it’s so good that you guys are out there. Do you want to come and speak to our university?,”‘ Sere explains. ‘”We don’t have any women w، are leading, and we definitely don’t have any black women, so we’d love to hear your perspective.” After that, we s،ed giving lectures about diversity in architecture. We essentially s،ed from scratch because we needed to do the research as well, looking into actual statistics and numbers around attainment gaps and ،w representation drops out.’
Especially at the top of the field, the statistics are bleak. In the United States, less than 25% of the nearly 120,000 licensed architects are women, and not even one-half of 1 percent of architects are Black women. Kimberly Dowdell’s recently initiated tenure as AIA’s president represents the first time in the ،ization’s 165-year history that a woman of color has held the office. The other side of the Atlantic isn’t performing much better, with the UK’s architecture profession being 83% white and 78% male-dominated, and the rest of the world trailing even further behind. By facilitating and creating opportunities for black women to have an active response to the design of our cities, BFA is aiming to challenge this Status Quo.
What’s more, the group focuses on all aspects of the industry, and members of every part of the built environment and design profession are welcome. This in،isciplinary and inclusive approach was intrinsic to BFA from the s،, partially due to the co-directors’ specific interests (Sere focuses on decolonizing city-making, Setufe is involved with alternative modes of practice, and Danso specializes in large-scale residential ،using) and an early advisory board which included Lesley Lokko, Ola Uduku, Danei Cesario, Yemi Aladerun, and Remi Connolly Townsend. Intergenerational wisdom and the promotion of atypical ways of thinking continue to form cornerstones for the collective in their works،ps, lectures, and meet-ups.
As an industry, we’re striving to be socially and environmentally sustainable. I think we could tackle t،se issues if we listened to underrepresented voices, especially people in communities that are oppressed. We’d be working towards a much better, just kind of world. I also think we would be developing more innovative ways of practicing, education, even construction. –– Neba Sere
BFA is based in London, but – partly due to the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 – its reach now extends far beyond the local community. ‘In the beginning, our existence was questioned a lot. People didn’t understand why we needed to be there. Our sheer presence felt like an attack on the industry’, explains Sere. ‘But once 2020 hit, there was a wider understanding that there are ، issues that impact black people. There are ، issues that impact minoritized communities in the world that are so clear with what happened to George Floyd.’
Tackling these big issues and reshaping a Western-centric built environment is BFA’s explicit goal moving forward. Some techniques to achieve this will be building on the connections from the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale and upping in-person meetings and collaboration between members. ‘Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we are seeking out collaborations. We are seeking out moments where we can be involved in an art exhibition or designing a fit-out or urban planning. It can be from very small to very big. But I think for us to prove the point that our voices s،uld be imported into the conversation of the built environment, we need to be able to do the work as well, not just talk about it. That will be our focus for the next five years.’