Equity Work Mentoring

Lacking Polish

Imagining an Inclusive Professional Culture

The profession of architecture prides itself on its professionalism. Architecture students in my generation were implicitly taught to speak (and dress) in ways that matched the expectations of architects. Our professors and mentors, largely from a homogeneous socio-economic group, modeled the expectations. After 20 years, I now understand how much I internalized these unspoken expectations – there was an established professional culture and we were meant to assimilate.

I work with architecture students whose backgrounds don’t match those after whom professionalism was modeled. Among people my age, we sometimes use the word “polish” to discuss whether a student is ready to transition to the profession. It is a catch-all term to reference their composure and diction. There is a pretty specific affect that we are trying to guide the students towards to meet the professional expectations for how one carries oneself. We help students become “polished” in how they present themselves and their work so that they can land their first architecture jobs.

I hadn’t thought of the word “polish” in a while until I was startled to hear it recently. Startled because of the recognition of how much the word connotes a specific socio-economic upbringing.

Architecture has been a very elitist profession – though there are clear signs that this is changing. Both in the profession and in the academia, the message had been to keep people out. Accreditation processes of architecture schools and the professional licensure requirements are both quite onerous. This path is not for those who aren’t fully committed or who lack financial support.

It takes about 12.7 years to attain licensure for the most dedicated and well-resourced among us. It took me about 13 years from the first year of college until licensure in the State of NY (where I was living at the time). After my family relocated, it was an additional 3 years before I was licensed in California. The amount of time that most states require for licensure has not changed much in the past 20 years. It takes an enormous amount of perseverance and financial means to become an architect.

A few years ago, as an undergraduate assistant director, I worked behind-the-scenes to get our architecture school accredited by NAAB. As a relatively new and untested school, we worked very, very hard to achieve the accreditation status. It was an intense process. The message received was, “We want to discourage people from becoming architects.” The accreditation landscape is changing to be less oppressive and to offer alternate paths to architecture though not without disputes.

The profession is undergoing changes that many hope will be paradigm-shifting. Because I am one of them, I am sitting with the dissonance between the expectations for “polish” and the inclusivity we say is important to the profession. I grew up with a parent who had a decades-long professional career. I understood “polish” even if I was clunky at it. It was familiar to me and I could recognize it. Many of the students who could diversify the profession, didn’t grow up with it. They are trying to absorb in a few short years what people like me had a lifetime to internalize.

I am pressing pause because I can’t reconcile “polish” with inclusivity. The very students who lack “polish” are the ones who need to enter the profession to meaningfully diversify it. Are we going to continue to ask architecture students to assimilate to the hegemonic professional culture? When we ask students to be “polished,” what are we losing? At the very moment that we are trying to listen to more diverse communities, we should take a hard look at the “polish” that we associate with the successful applicants who get hired.

In the Pathways to Equity class, I learned that in order to change, one must first unlearn. Unlearning is a disorienting experience. I tell my students that if you are not disoriented then you are probably not learning anything meaningful. It is hard to imagine what the profession would look and sound like if we stopped only hiring “polished” candidates. I know it will be something that we don’t usually encounter in our profession. This unease tells me that this could lead to a real change. Meaningful diversity in the profession means imagining a very different professional culture. We should pause and consider what we could gain by breaking with the tradition of “polished” professionalism.


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