After completing her master’s degree in architecture from Drury University in 2015, Hughes wanted to be surrounded by a diverse group of professionals, so she headed to Chicago. Having access to black women in the industry was also a big factor for her, but she soon realized that there were no resources or networks available. This experience, among many others, ultimately inspired her to create the community she was looking for in 2008 in the form of the global FIRST500 platform. Hughes sees the venture as his “official step to challenge our industry and move towards a more equitable future.”
As founder and executive director of FIRST500, Hughes raises awareness of black women architects throughout history and their contributions to the built environment. “These women are an inspiration and motivation for black women graduating and completing their studies in architecture today,” she says. “I’m proud to have passed the milestone of 500 certified black women architects, but this is only the beginning. We have a lot of work to do to train the next 500 black women architects living in the United States and around the world.
From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?
The world of design should reflect the world we live in and all of the unique voices that occupy it. Design companies and the industry as a whole have discussed “equal opportunity” as a remedy for systemic racism in America. Equality is not the solution; many black employees have lived through decades of economic and emotional trauma resulting from redlining, policing, environmental exploitation, pay inequality, and more. They bring these burdens with them to the workplace, which ensures “equality” by providing employees with the same resources to succeed without acknowledging these prior burdens. The collective mindset of our country must shift from equality to equity. Equity means meeting people where they are and meeting their needs accordingly.
I wish there was more focus on empowering future black voice pipelines. This is essential to the survival and growth of our industry. Our voices are needed in spaces where decisions are made, policies are considered, and positions of leadership and power exist. We offer a different lens and perspective that these spaces often lack.
What advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know where to start?
When I think about what advice to impart, I often think about what I would say to myself younger when I was homeless in college, struggling to survive and get my architectural training, when my professors and advisors were continually telling me that this field and the industry might not be right for me. In addition to looking for resources like FIRST500 that exist specifically for you, I would say to younger myself and young people of color around the world: if this industry feels alone, you are not alone. If your ideas aren’t being heard, keep talking. If one door closes, three will open. Keep going and never give up. If there is no drinking well, dig until you create one!