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News > Context Winter 2024 > Feature: Becoming a Citizen Architect

Feature: Becoming a Citizen Architect

Advocacy, Politics, and the Architect’s Role

By Stephen Swarmy and Amal Mouraki, AIA PA 

When the Context editors asked us to write an article about advocacy and the role of being a Citizen Architect, our response was an unequivocal “yes.” Advocacy, politics, and the significance of civic engagement have always been subjects close to our hearts. As the Executive Director and Director of Legislative Affairs for AIA Pennsylvania, our daily activities revolve around external interactions. We invest a substantial part of our time conversing with legislators and their staff, illuminating the role of architects, their indispensable contributions, and why their voices carry weight, especially in matters of legislative proposals before the General Assembly. 

However, this article is not about us; it’s about you. It’s about the convergence of politics, advocacy, and architecture and why these elements must remain intertwined, regardless of the ever-evolving political landscape, be it in Pennsylvania or across the nation. 

THE CRUCIAL INTERSECTION OF POLITICS, ADVOCACY, AND ARCHITECTURE ARCHITECT 

First, a note about AIA Pennsylvania. We are one of the few components in the country to have a strong political infrastructure. Two in-house registered lobbyists, a government affairs committee, several sub-committees covering specialized topics from building codes to school construction, a political action committee, an outside lobbying firm, a political action consulting firm, a leadership position on the AIA Pennsylvania executive committee, a sophisticated electronic legislation tracking service, and, as one of our board members from AIA Pittsburgh so eloquently borrowed from Star Trek, “advocacy is our prime directive”. 

Political involvement and advocacy must start with the why. Why do we do this? Why is it important? Why should I lend my time and talents to something that lately is divisive and distasteful? Simply put, because it’s important and it matters to you and to the profession. Think about it this way, there is no other group that advocates for the interests of architects. If you (we) don’t do it, it won’t get done. Every profession advocates for that group’s own needs. Whether it’s passing good legislation, stopping bad ideas, or making sure you can run your business as effectively and efficiently as necessary. Everything you do is potentially impacted by local state and federal entities that don’t have the expertise that you do. Every group is jockeying for a place in line to have THE say in legislation, etc. As the cliché goes, “if you don’t have a seat at the table you’re likely on the menu”. 

All that said, politics can be exhausting, particularly in the present climate. Many describe this era as one of unparalleled polarization in our nation's political history. Yet, even in such a divisive atmosphere, politics hold the key to an architect's success and the protection and preservation of public health, safety, and the environment. Despite the apparent challenges, architects possess the power to effect change in this landscape. The "how" of advocacy is as pivotal as the "why." Success hinges on relationship-building, effective communication, and active civic and political involvement. Don’t look at politics as distasteful or below the dignity of the profession. Look at it as a noble cause for fighting for the right things for the right reasons.  

THE ROLE OF CITIZEN ARCHITECTS 

One avenue to meaningful engagement is by embracing the honorary title of “Citizen Architect.” But what exactly does it mean to be a Citizen Architect? At the core, all AIA Pennsylvania members are architects or are on their journey to becoming one and are citizens of Pennsylvania.  

AIA National defines a Citizen Architect as the driving force behind AIA’s advocacy endeavors. A Citizen Architect utilizes their insights, talents, training, and experience to meaningfully contribute to community and societal betterment, remains informed about local, state, and federal issues, advocates for higher living standards and sustainability, and actively engages in civic activism, potentially serving on boards, commissions, or in elective government positions. The ask for you to become a citizen architect as defined might initially seem daunting or unrealistic given your busy schedule. Many might picture Citizen Architects as prominent public figures, however, Citizen Architects can also work behind the scenes, serving on committees or testifying in front of legislative bodies, contributing significantly to advocacy efforts. For instance many AIA Philadelphia and Pennsylvania committee members have actively engaged with legislators, presenting on behalf of AIA Pennsylvania and advocating for positive change.  At its core, this means doing a few small things consistently and constantly. Building relationships with legislators, understanding, and shaping AIA Pennsylvania legislative agenda (shameless plug to fill out the bi-annual legislative survey), and engaging with your communities to help inform the public about the importance, effectiveness and triple-bottom line of good and sustainable design. 

ENGAGING WITH AIA PENNSYLVANIA FOR GREAT IMPACT 

AIA Pennsylvania offers numerous opportunities for architects to get involved and influence the greater good through their work and design. Committees and subcommittees within the organization are dedicated to issues that profoundly impact architects’ daily work, such as government affairs, building and zoning codes, school construction, public procurement, and more. Active participation and sharing of your experiences with local legislators are pivotal in ensuring architects’ success on a statewide basis. 

TAKING THE FIRST STEP: DISTRICT DAYS ADVOCACY EVENT 

One practical entry point for architects looking to dip their toes into the world of politics is AIA Pennsylvania's advocacy event called "District Days." This event, held in the fall, provides a unique opportunity to meet with your state senator and state representative personally and professionally. Members are encouraged to engage in discussions with elected officials, shedding light on the architect's role and its impact on the community and constituents. Past District Days initiatives have advocated for various causes, including reducing the statute of repose for architects, school construction funding, affordable housing, high-performance buildings, and mandatory continuing education for architects. Many participants have walked away from these interactions with a newfound understanding of how legislative offices function and have established themselves as valuable resources when critical legislation is introduced. 

A CALL TO ACTION: JOIN US AND BECOME A CITIZEN ARCHITECT 

As you know, the best projects start with good communication early and often. Translated to advocacy, this means staying informed and giving your opinion early, and recognizing that politics is a process and not a quick fix. As good as our lobbying is, we cannot pick up the phone and fix all issues in a day. While it has happened, it is the exception and not the rule. Understand that it is always easier to weigh on issues early in the process rather than at the end. This requires just a little forethought and communication on your part. You want to be able to offer suggestions and input before things go wrong instead of making a call and lamenting about why something bad has happened. We try to make this process as easy as possible for you.  

In conclusion, consider this article a call to action. Become a Citizen Architect, advocate not only for yourself but for your entire profession. Architects shape the world around us, and it is imperative that policies and regulations facilitate your ability to fulfill this role to the best of your abilities. Furthermore, these policies should strive to create an equitable environment that safeguards the health, safety, and well-being of every citizen of this commonwealth. 

In a time when political discourse may appear overwhelming and exhausting, remember that your voice and actions as an architect can be the catalyst for positive change, both locally and on a larger scale. By embracing the principles of being a Citizen Architect, architects can ensure that their invaluable contributions continue to elevate communities and enhance the human condition.  

Don’t turn on the news and lump advocacy into what you are seeing and hearing. Focus on having a strong voice and lending your expertise to people (legislators) that need and want your input. YOU are an important part of what we do and YOUR voice rings louder than ours because you are constituents and the experts. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to hear a legislator say, “I didn’t know that because I’ve never heard from architects before”. Rather than dwell on that, we look at it as an opportunity to change that perception and we have made great strides on that front. A few short years ago, legislators thought AIA was an insurance company. Now they call us regularly for input on all things related to the AEC industry. Think of the impact we could have if even more members embraced the Citizen Architect title. 

So, let's join hands, engage actively, and advocate passionately for the profession and the greater good. Together, we can build a better future through design and advocacy. 

CREDITS: 

Legislative Priorities Graph. 2023-24 AIA Pa Legislative Insights Survey  

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