Empowering African American Female Architects and Students: In Conversation with Tiffany Brown, Founder of 400 Forward

A pioneer for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession of architecture, Detroit native Tiffany Brown is the founder of 400 Forward, an initiative that seeks, inspires, and mentors the next generation of women designers. Named in light of the licensing of the 400th African American woman architect in 2017, the program aims to familiarize young girls with architecture, giving them tools to address social injustice issues.

Pushing forward the presence of African American women in the profession of architecture -currently standing at less than 0.3% in the U.S- 400 Forward also provides scholarships and tuitions for study material and licensing exams for African American women in architecture. In order to learn more about the initiative, ArchDaily had the chance to talk with founder Tiffany Brown about the program, diversity in the field, and empowering female architects and students.

Courtesy of Tiffany Brown, 400 Forward

ArchDaily (Christele Harrouk): What was the initial need that led to the conception of 400 Forward? What was the purpose and mission of this initiative?

Tiffany Brown (TB): In 2017, I realized the 400th African American woman became licensed, which is how I came up with the name 400 Forward.  That is not a milestone for the last 5, 15, of 25 years, but of all time. This means African American women represent .3% of licensed architects. Through this initiative, I will make it my goal to seek the next 400 with an underlying focus on African American girls. The purpose of this initiative is to bring awareness to this to these numbers, and 400 Forward's mission is to uplift girls by giving them the tools they need to address social issues created by the unjust built environments of our inner-city communities.

AD: How is this initiative contributing to the empowerment of female architects and students? What are the programs you are introducing? 

TB: 400 Forward is contributing to the empowerment of female architects and students through mentorship, innovative programming, and financial support. 400 Forward was launched after winning a $50,000 matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The programs, support, and multi-level scholarships provided by 400 FORWARD aims to position Detroit's youth to realize their talents in STEAM, and grow the presence of African American women in the profession of architecture through the incorporation of artistic excellence.

AD: What does the future hold for the 400 Forward initiative? 

TB: I envision 400 Forward becoming an initiative with ambassadors, mentors, and partnerships worldwide committed to justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in architecture and urban planning. A network of women in leadership making sure the design profession reflects the communities it serves.

Courtesy of Tiffany Brown, 400 Forward

AD: Can you give us a brief introduction about yourself? 

TB: Born and raised in Detroit, MI where I still live, I am a pioneer for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the profession of architecture. I am an educator and public speaker. Raising awareness on how representation in design makes a significant social impact on firm practice, culture, and education is what drives my career. My expertise stems from first-hand experiences of addressing environmental injustices and social issues.

AD: How do you think your position influenced women in this sector?

TB: I think my position has influenced women by encouraging them to stay focused on a goal despite their obstacles and to always display strength in a male-dominated field. I have seen female colleagues of mine cry because a contractor yelled or tried to discredit them at a meeting. We are always expected to be emotional or even incompetent, and more of us are entering a profession where our male counterparts feel we do not belong. We must support each other. I surround myself with highly successful women who are in positions where I aspire to be.

Construction Administration happens to be my favorite part of designing the built environment. Because of my experience there along with two master’s degrees, I was promoted to Project Manager. It is important to me in this position to do my part in developing women in leadership the same way my colleagues have done for me.

AD: What are your biggest achievements and proudest moments?

TB: My biggest achievement is overcoming extreme social and financial barriers to make it where I am today. Architecture was not a likely career path for someone like me. It brought me to many full-circle moments in my life, like studying art in Paris and overseeing construction at the public housing development where I grew up. Being able to provide financial assistance to girls with the same experiences I've had has become my passion. At times I can't believe this is my life.

One of my proudest moments was when I witnessed my 9-year-old daughter win a first-place all-around state championship in gymnastics. Making sure she has opportunities that I didn’t have as a child is important to me. I wasn’t exposed to architecture until the 12th grade, but Brynne knows architects and engineers personally. The personal strengths that she displays always remind me of what my purpose is. More on my journey is outlined in a recently released documentary "Design For All." Produced in partnership with Target, it is now streaming on HULU.

Courtesy of Tiffany Brown, 400 Forward

AD: How do you think architects worldwide should promote diversity in the field? And how do you predict the future of architecture?

TB: The future of the profession rests with architecture firms themselves, which we know is historically dominated by affluent white males. They are currently in most leadership roles and should promote diversity by seeking out and employing a diverse workforce. Providing opportunities for minorities to lead, and not setting them up for failure the way we often see happen. We need to invest in programs like 400 Forward now so we are not in the same position statistically, again, in for the next 50 years.

Being intentional with these efforts will give firms the upper hand in the industry and will provide a way to bring unheard voices into design conversations. We will have project teams with a broader range of problem-solving abilities, and that will give architects the opportunity to make lasting changes to neighborhoods, cities, and the larger social fabric of our country.

AD: Final thoughts for girls who want to venture into this field?

TB: The lessons I've learned throughout my career have become the 7 pillars that girls venturing in this field should remember:

  • Know yourself. To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom. Learn to understand your identity. You'll feel stronger and won’t fold into what someone else thinks you should be doing. Acting on self-knowledge will drive you and lead you to your calling.
  • Know your field. Do the proper research and understand what it takes to get there. I didn’t know about the licensing exams for architecture until my third year studying architecture. Keep learning.
  • Be confident. This is important beyond the workplace and can take some time and practice to get there. Overcoming self-doubt will take you places you couldn’t even imagine.
  • Be Professional. Always. Especially when faced with adverse situations. Integrity and self-control display a high degree of emotional intelligence.
  • Be Present & Active. Sit at the table. Physically and figuratively. Take part in the discussion. You won't make it to the top by being in the shadows.
  • Never Back Down. There will always be someone who challenges you or questions your abilities. Be sure to stay focused and stay calm. Remember what you're capable of.
  • Show them it cannot be done without you. Make yourself a valuable team member.

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Cite: Christele Harrouk. "Empowering African American Female Architects and Students: In Conversation with Tiffany Brown, Founder of 400 Forward" 08 Jul 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/943321/empowering-african-american-female-architects-and-students-in-conversation-with-tiffany-brown-founder-of-400-forward> ISSN 0719-8884

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