Architect Spotlight: Tiara Hughes and the First 500
Tiara Hughes is the Founder and Executive Director of FIRST 500, a global platform dedicated to celebrating the work of Black Women Architects and their distinction.
Tiara always knew she’d grow up to be an architect. When she saw her first set of blueprints, her life plan seemed to be sketched out in front of her. But becoming an architect wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In her first architecture courses in high school and then at Drury University, Tiara noticed she was the only Black student in her classes.
When Tiara started her career, she realized the entire profession had the same white male makeup as her education. At the time, just over 400 Black women were licensed architects and she set out to change that.
Founded by Tiara in 2018, FIRST 500 is a network that connects the barrier breakers like Tiara and those that came before her with future generations to inspire them throughout their pathways to licensure and success. Since starting her advocacy, the number of licensed Black women architects living in the US has for the first time surpassed 500 and Tiara is determined to increase that figure infinitely while celebrating the accomplishments of Black female architects and the built environments they give us.
We sat down with Tiara to talk about her journey, her work, and the value of representation in the architectural community. Continue on for our full interview.
Meet Tiara Hughes!
What was your journey into architecture and urban design like?
I was accepted into a gifted arts program in second grade. Each year we had a fundraiser where we created artworks of our choice and the proceeds went to providing gifts for every child in the school. For my contribution, I drew buildings from books and magazines. The following year, I saw blueprints for the first time and although they aren’t around anymore, I will never forget the smell of the ink and feel of those prints. Understanding how to read a blueprint was unheard of at my age; the person who designed my experience of space was the person I wanted to be when I grew up.
The following year someone connected the dots for me when they said, “Tiara, you want to be an architect.” With a continued curiosity and passion to influence the built environment around me, I held on to that dream.
When did you first experience the lack of diversity in your field?
I definitely noticed in high school considering I was the only student of color and the only girl in all of my classes. College was not much different. Additionally, our curriculum and textbooks did not include the work of Black architects. I assumed all of these experiences were due to living in less diverse cities, so I relocated to Chicago. I naturally thought a more diverse city meant easily meeting Black women architects– this proved difficult as well.
Can you tell us more about FIRST 500's mission? What have been some of the high points of what the organization has accomplished since you first founded it in 2018?
My personal experiences in the industry along with my passion for advocacy led me to establish a global research initiative called FIRST 500 in 2018. As the Founder and Executive Director of FIRST 500, I travel the country to raise awareness of Black women architects throughout history and their contributions to the built environment. These women serve as inspiration and motivation for the Black women getting licensed and completing their architecture education today.
I’m proud of meeting the milestone of 500 licensed Black women architects, but this is only the beginning. We have a lot of work to do to cultivate the next 500 Black women architects living in the US and the world.
How do you think diversity in architecture benefits society at large?
More focus on empowering the future pipelines of Black voices is critical 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 are given. We offer a different lens and point of view that’s often missing from these spaces.
We realize that contributing to initiatives like the Diversity Advancement Scholarship is just one part of working towards representation. What can design leaders do to help build equity and inclusion in the industry?
Design firms and the industry at large have discussed “equality of opportunity” as a remedy to systemic racism in America. Equality is not the solution; many Black employees have experienced decades of economic and emotional trauma stemming from redlining, policing, environmental exploitation, pay inequity, and more. They bring these burdens with them into the workplace, which ensures “equality” by providing employees with the same resources for success without acknowledging those previous burdens.
Acknowledgment has occurred to an extent following the murder of George Floyd, but our country’s collective mindset has to shift from equality to equity. Equity means meeting people where they are and addressing their needs accordingly. This includes but is not limited to:
Addressing Blackness in Academia
- Black Lectures, Jurors and Professors
- Recruitment Efforts
- Outreach Opportunities
- On-boarding Process
- Role of Advisors (i.e. Mentorship & Critique of Students)
- Retention Efforts
- Studio Projects & Topics
- More Inclusive Education
- Diversify Curriculum (i.e. Project Scale and Facets)
- Industry Shift - Attention on EDI
- Firms’ Evaluation Process of Students
In your advocacy work around the country, what advice do you give to aspiring Black women interested in architecture?
When considering what advice to pass along, I often think of what I would tell my younger self when I was homeless in college, fighting to survive and to get my architectural education; when my professors and advisors continuously told me this field and industry may not be right for me.
I would tell my younger self, and to young women everywhere: if this industry feels lonely, you are not alone. If your ideas are not heard, keep speaking. If one door closes, three will open. Keep going and never give up. If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one!
Any projects coming up in 2022 that you're excited about?
We are excited about launching our interview series via IG Live recordings with various Black women architects and students. We have also begun our Profile Spotlights on our social media platforms as well! Lastly, we are looking to launch our fundraising and merch this year too so stay tuned. Proceeds from those endeavors will help further our mission of elevating and celebrating Black women architects and strive to raise awareness about their distinction through an excellent central community. FIRST 500 aims to inspire Black women and girls to infinitely increase our licensed representation in the industry to better reflect the environments we serve.
Ready to join Tiara in the fight for equity for Black women in architecture? Donate to our Diversity Advancement Scholarship for Black Women and help spread the word!
Don't forget to follow FIRST 500 on social media to keep up with Tiara and all the progress!