NOMA President-elect Speaks of Opportunity
In October 2012, Kathy Denise Dixon, AIA, NOMA, will become the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Her firm is in Upper Marlboro, Md., and her professional education spans from Howard University with a professional degree in architecture to UCLA with a master’s degree in urban planning. She explains the professional and personal advantages of being active in NOMA, the AIA, and the breadth of her education and practice.
Inform: What is NOMA’s reason for being?
Dixon: The evidence that there are so few minority architects out there would begin to make you question why and to strive to increase the number of minority architects. NOMA was started for that reason as well as to get more work for minority architects who are out there doing business. The founders felt they were not on a level playing field and that they were not getting their fair share of work. They were being overlooked and they realized there is strength in numbers. That was in 1971, so we’re coming up on our 40th anniversary.
Inform: One of the great minds in architecture has just past. Do you have any memories you could share with regard to Norma Merrick Sklarek?
Dixon: We’re all deeply saddened at the passing of Norma Sklarek. I was honored to have met her when I was a graduate student at UCLA and was awarded a scholarship there. She was a wonderful woman and a role model, and I’m really sad to hear about her passing this past week. [A word in memory of Ms. Sklarek from AIA President Jeffery Potter, FAIA, is included below.]
Inform: What drew you to Howard and then to UCLA?
Dixon: When I first came to Howard, I had grown up in the suburbs just north of Baltimore. So the urban experience at Howard was a change. Not only did I get in, but I got a full scholarship. So that sealed the decision. But when it came to graduate school, I ended up on the West Coast because there was a student there who recruited me and strongly recommended the UCLA planning program. Getting an urban planning degree was also a matter of my wanting to have a broader and more marketable background, both academically and with a more broadly based East Coast/West Coast experience. It helped me be a more rounded person.
It is, in my opinion, a matter of the combination of the disciplines. Architecture deals with the buildings. Urban planning is the context around those buildings. So I thought I’d be a better architect if I knew more about the community and context of what shapes the entire town or city beyond the buildings themselves. The curriculum was different in that there was much more group work in graduate school. UCLA has a wonderful program, so I wouldn’t change anything.
The Howard program was a five-year program, but it is a competitive industry, and I wanted to be more competitive. I felt that I would be more competitive with a graduate degree that was not another architecture degree. One thing I certainly learned at Howard was the importance of being involved in the community. So my involvement in NOMA is an extension of that.
Inform: How would you say NOMA is different from the AIA?
Dixon: NOMA has a focus on mentoring. We have a large number of students come out to our conferences. There is a great relationship among individuals. People are very accepting of the mentor relationship at our meetings. That’s why I think people enjoy attending the NOMA conferences.
I’ve been most actively involved since about 2000. My term starts in October, and I’ll be president for the next two years. There are a number of reasons to be involved. The economy is still somewhat down, and I know several people who have created relationships by networking within NOMA, which gives one the opportunity to move around the country and navigate one’s career more effectively. There is also the opportunity to give back and make sure there are increasing numbers of minority architects. We have the Project Pipeline, for example, which is an architectural summer camp to teach children about a career in architecture. There are a number of reasons to be involved with NOMA, for example, as I’ve mentioned: giving back and developing your own career.
Inform: Do you see a benefit to your being in a leadership position?
Dixon: Certainly. I had not met a black woman architect until I was out of the program at Howard. You need to have someone who can encourage you that way.
An Open Letter From Jeffery Potter, FAIA:
On behalf of the members of The American Institute of Architects, I want to send my condolences on the passing of a remarkable professional, teacher, role model, and human being. As I do so, I want to share my gratitude and the gratitude of my colleagues for the example of Norma Sklarek’s life.
At the Institute’s Washington headquarters, there are several conference rooms named after famous architects, among whom are Gropius, Jefferson, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Norma Sklarek has her own room on the main floor. It looks out to the Corcoran Art Gallery and beyond to the National Mall. The windows frame a clear picture of the Washington Monument.
When I first walked into that warm, sunny space, I thought how appropriate that it honored Norma—art, architecture, the expanse of blue sky above the city, and in the distance one of the most recognizable monuments in the world.
Norma Sklarek was in her way all of these—sunny, bright, and a hero of consequence who made a difference. She will be missed, but what she has achieved will live on.
Jeffery Potter, FAIA
2012 AIA President