Emerging Architectural Leaders Change Lives
Have you ever wondered what local resources are available to design professionals to hone their leadership skills? Well, look no further. The Dallas Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA Dallas) is the organization’s seventh largest chapter. AIA Dallas has 2,200 members who embrace AIA National’s mission, which is to create more valuable, healthy, secure, and sustainable buildings, neighborhoods and communities. The Chapter further enhances the national effort by empowering regional architects to excel and to effectively impact their practice, profession and the community throughout North Texas. One way in which they accomplish this mission is through the highly acclaimed Emerging Leaders Program (ELP).
Created in 2009, the ELP’s thrust is to teach young design professionals key dimensions of leadership effectiveness to enhance both their professional and personal lives. A key component of this mentorship program is service; so, each year the ELP takes on a community-focused project to support and empower an established, local not-for-profit organization. “It’s all about mentoring our young professionals to grow into leaders who will consistently make a positive difference for our community,” says AIA Dallas Executive Director, Jan Blackmon, FAIA. “It’s about preparing young architects to assume increasing responsibilities in firm leadership and community reciprocity.”
The Emerging Leaders Program allows leaders from local architectural firms to annually nominate up-and-coming professionals within the ranks of their organizations to participate in the ten-month curriculum. The selected individuals, typically no more than 24 each year, dedicate one Friday afternoon every month to come together and gain insight into leadership topics through example, practice and theory. Keynote speakers and panelists complement a series of dialogues directly related to leadership, problem solving and management of professional relationships.
In addition to presentations by influential leaders of locally based firms, the participants also gain consistent insight from program instructor Peter DeLisle, Ph.D., Hon. AIA Dallas. “He breaks down complex and dynamic workplace-related situations into leadership lessons that give a greater understanding of human behavior,” says Blackmon. “The lessons are heavily driven by group participation and he [Peter] helps participants examine professional trends and the factors contributing to individual and organizational success.”
Since its inception, AIA Dallas’ Emerging Leaders Program has built a powerful reputation for its regional impact through its community outreach component. The following ELP class projects are important case studies that show how a group of devoted design professionals has successfully impacted its communities.
A Place to Play
In 2012, the ELP participants designed, fundraised and built a new playground for kids living in a subsidized apartment complex in downtown Dallas. The building itself, known as CityWalk@Akard, was a once-vacant, mid-century midrise office building, converted into apartments in 2010. The apartment homes include 200 subsidized units, 50% of which are allocated for the formerly homeless and to those who are at risk of homelessness.
Due to the urban location and the constraints of the site, the children who live there have a very limited play area beyond their own apartments and no public playground nearby. The ELP participants studied the situation and then designed a playground to be located within an unused loading dock area. The tall, linear and enclosed space lends itself well to a phased concept, with the play area for the youngest residents closest to the building and then gradually transforming into more of an open, basketball court area for the older children near the street level. The playground opened in September 2016.
Chris Owens, a 2012 ELP participant and class project leader, says, “The indoor playground has created a safe and accessible place for kids of all ages to explore, release energy and simply be kids after a long day at school or on the weekends. The residents are from different walks of life and the playground helps build a sense of community between the neighbors as they all enjoy the shared space together.”
In a similar case, the ELP class of 2013 took on a special project for Promise House, an organization that helps homeless, runaway and at-risk teens. The ELP team provided fundraising, design and construction for space for an additional eight to 12 teens. The result? Over a dozen young people were off the streets and into safe shelter as soon as the renovation was complete.
Two Years to Create Something New
In 2014, the ELP took on a very different challenge. Bonton, a southeast Dallas neighborhood, just minutes from downtown Dallas, is classified as a “food desert,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. This term refers to a geographic area where affordable and nutritious food is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile. Food deserts usually exist in lower-income communities and there is much research that links the residents of these isolated areas to diet-related health problems. This is definitely true in Bonton.
This story began when a Bonton resident, Daron Babcock, purchased the vacant lot adjacent to his house and planted a little garden. It was he who provided the original vision that ELP helped bring to fruition. Today, Bonton Farms is a thriving urban farm. It serves its community by providing fresh produce and has become an economic generator to bring jobs to an area where thriving businesses are nowhere to be found.
“It’s all about mentoring our young professionals to grow into leaders who will consistently make a positive difference for our community.” Jan Blackmon, FAIA, Executive Director, AIA Dallas
It was no easy task to help create this community, nor to build a farm within a city on 10 vacant lots, all residentially zoned. However, the ELP participants were instrumental in not only providing the drawings, but also the expertise to convince the city to allow this non-conventional architectural solution.
The next year, the 2015 ELP class continued the effort, producing a schematic design package for a community center to serve the Bonton neighborhood. Today, the Bonton Farms Market is a multifunctional gathering space where the neighbors can meet for community group time and enjoy cooking demonstrations and other outdoor events. It also includes practical amenities, such as a small office and retail space and much-needed restroom facilities for those weekends when more than 100 volunteers come out to help in the garden and participate in neighborhood restoration projects.
As one program participant puts it, “I think I speak for the ELP class when I say this project may just be the biggest leadership lesson we have learned and it shows each of us how critical it is to put the right team together to get a task accomplished.”
At the request of the client, the 2014 ELP team calculated that their class, and several engineering and legal volunteers, donated more than $135,000 of in-kind professional services over the eight-month project.
Next on the List…a Park with Video Game-Type Stimuli
The 2016 class of the AIA Dallas Emerging Leaders Program recently completed the conceptual design for a children’s playground within Fair Park, a 277-acre recreational and educational complex best known by many as the site of the annual Texas State Fair.
The playground will engage with the local community and bring more people to the Fair Park area. It is being created using the “free play” concept of video game design, yet applied to the programming of a physical space. It leads children through a series of physical activities, culminating in the reward of a carousel ride. The video game concept will translate through the ground cover patterns and play areas and increase in complexity in terms of imaginative play to engage a variety of ages.
The team also created a temporary installation at Fair Park, called the Spark Park. Drawing from Jason Roberts and the Team Better Block initiative for inspiration, the team demonstrated the possibilities of a better park via guerilla-style urbanism, bringing the entire community together to explore park options.
“Each year, we challenge our program participants to lend their expertise to community issues,” comments DeLisle. “Fair Park is an ideal setting for them to put the strategies they explore throughout the year, including community activism and public service, to good use.”
Walter Humann, Hon. AIA, is a prominent international businessman and public servant best known for creating the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system and helping desegregate Dallas schools. He has also been a supporter of the ELP and has spoken at the kick-off session of each class for the past eight years. In one session, he succinctly described a valuable vision. He said, “As architects, [you] are uniquely qualified to help solve complex problems, not just design things, but lead. Not just be a great architect, or pull city planners and city residents together. Your potential is so much broader than that and you should dedicate yourself to a dual career. Make time for community service, get involved and stay involved! The punch line is that it can make more difference in your life than it can in the lives of the people you seek to help.”
Blackmon concurs. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The ELP does so much more than train up future architectural leaders. Sure, it makes a difference in the lives of people within the North Texas community; but it also changes the perceptions and values of the architects who participate in the program. When we serve others, we learn a lot about ourselves in the process.”