There are just over 500 registered female black architects out of approximately 120,000 registered architects in the United States. As the 233rd registered female black architect, Tiffany Millner has a perspective on what it takes to be part of a rarefied group. Tiffany’s career, which has spanned the worlds of practice and service, has recently led to a leadership position at the AIA where she is Managing Director of Knowledge and Strategies. Her journey in architecture, mostly centered in Philadelphia, is both inspirational and informative.
A career in architecture is often predicated on a turning point. As a high school student in Linden, New Jersey, Tiffany was interested in art and problem solving. She was also a musician in the school marching band when the drum-major said she wanted to go into architecture. Tiffany thought the idea of architecture sounded interesting and cool. Fortunately, a guidance counselor in her suburban high school suggested she take vocational classes including CAD. Positive experiences in those classes, led her to enroll at Temple University.
Transitioning to architecture school, particularly studio culture, was a culture shock. At school, Tiffany found that many women and minorities lacked connections to summer jobs in industries related to the built environment. To counter this, she forged friendships with other architecture students of color, forming an informal group called Aspiring Black Architects. Those social ties helped her manage the challenges of architecture school since the National Organization of Architecture Students (NOMAS) was not on campus at the time. In hindsight, Tiffany wishes she knew more about opportunities, like internships, she was missing and how to build a network sooner.
During her final year at Temple, Tiffany was fortunate to land an internship with VITETTA, working in their healthcare studio. After graduating, she worked for two more years as an architectural designer at the same firm, which entailed its own form of culture shock including a shortage of diversity. Work at a large firm was siloed, so she transitioned to a younger mid-sized firm now named JKRP Architects. The firm offered a wider variety of project work and the familiarity of graduates from Temple. Some projects were small enough that Tiffany was able to see them through from beginning to end. She grew quickly as an architect, including developing relationships with clients.
JKRP was involved in the ACE Mentor Program for high-school students. Tiffany signed on and became a Team Leader. Each of the fifteen weeks of the ACE program focused on a different phase of a project. Students might theorize a project, like in design school, or reimagine a project that was already happening in an office. Design-build projects were also created and funded. This provided experiences, and most importantly an opportunity for students to develop networks. They also learned soft skills that helps them engages with intimidating situations.
While Tiffany progressed in the firm and management responsivities piled up, she became increasingly distanced from the activity of design. As the project manager for a commercial client, she developed the relationship and trained others to manage parts of the portfolio. The client insisted on working with one project manager, not Tiffany, and the firm obliged. (There was little dialogue about EDI at the time.) She ultimately realized a culture of delegation took her away from what made her most satisfied in practice. Following a long tradition of moonlighting in architecture, Tiffany founded the design consultancy AUX Collective, and decided it was time to leave employment in practice.
The next phase of Tiffany’s career involved a full-time move to ACE Mentoring in Philadelphia. A couple of months after leaving the firm, the position of ACE Executive Director opened up and she was hired. As Director, Tiffany developed relationships with firms, schools and champions within the schools. The effort was complicated by the fact that many schools in Philadelphia lack guidance counselors and that some students have after school family obligations. Working at ACE in a leadership role gave Tiffany freedom and allowed her to become a role-model. It allowed her the opportunity to apply what she had learned as an organizer and problem solver. The position also provided access to connections across traditional built environment disciplinary boundaries.
Throughout her career, Tiffany learned that architecture is slow to accept diversity compared to other fields. This has prompted her move to AIA National, where she is focused on developing pathways to the profession. Tiffany supports leadership preparation, development and retention at the local, state, and national levels. This includes working with identity based affinity groups and other partners to curate the tools that have been already created, but are underutilized. She is also currently looking at how to find synergies that exist between EDI and climate action. Looking back, Tiffany believes in the value of an architectural degree, augmented with more professional exposure and networking experiences at school, as a foundation for fulfilling careers such as hers.
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