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Michelle Obama speaks to A’17 on the impact of design

May 5, 2017

Michelle Obama and Thomas Vonier, FAIA, engage in a conversation on diversity, equity, and working with architects.
Michelle Obama and Thomas Vonier, FAIA, engage in a conversation on diversity, equity, and working with architects.

In a special conversation with 2017 AIA President Thomas Vonier, FAIA, the former First Lady underscores the urgency of diversity, gender, and equity issues in architecture and beyond

Former First Lady Michelle Obama made one thing clear to AIA Conference on Architecture 2017 attendees: She chose A’17 to be her first post-White House speaking engagement for a reason. During a lengthy conversation with 2017 AIA President Thomas Vonier, FAIA, Obama reinforced the need for all professions to embrace fresh, diverse voices from all walks of life, especially a profession as important as architecture.

In an interview that touched on Obama's past, present, and future, she made it clear that, though her time in the political world may have ended, she sees more of an opportunity than ever to focus on inequality and improve the lives of those in need.

"One issue that I'm excited to keep working on is to help young girls around the world get an education," Obama said. "Education, to my mind, is key to giving women the voice, the structure, the strategy, the tools to improve their conditions. Because if you change the life of a woman, you change the life of a community, a family, a nation."

Closing the gender gap

Along those same lines, Vonier asked Obama what the quest for better work-life balance from the female perspective has meant to her.

"It's not easy," she said, "and it's never going to be. The one thing I can say to working mothers out there: Don't beat up on yourselves. What you are doing is hard, and we still don't live in a society that supports it."

She noted that workplace policies like maternity and paternity leave still haven't been implemented on a wide scale, forcing progressive employers to pick up the slack and employees with influence to fight for what they deserve. She shared a story about potentially returning to her job at the University of Chicago Medical Center after having children and asking for what she felt she deserved, including a larger salary and a flexible schedule. When her employer agreed to her terms in full, she quickly realized that she would have to go back to work; progress for her as a working mother would, in part, be progress for women as a whole. "If you have leverage, you have to push for the women who don't," she said. "We have to start asking for what we need, and then we need employers to be more open to what work-life balance can actually look like."

Building a diverse profession

Turning to the larger question of diversity within architecture, Vonier admitted, "Our ranks do not resemble the American population,” and asked Obama about her perspective on balancing imbalances and empowering underrepresented groups.

"That's not just the field of architecture," Obama replied. "Look at law, look at science, look at so many professions. The struggle is still real. You can't start recruiting from a pool that doesn't exist. You have to build that pool, and you have to start at a young age."

"So many kids don't even know what an architect is," she added. "They don't think about how buildings are built; they don't know anything about developing or planning. I know I didn't, and I was an educated kid. You have kids growing up in communities where people don't even work, period, let alone as doctors or lawyers or architects."

"But that's where all of you come in," Obama insisted, asking the architects in the room to make an impact wherever they could. "You need to go to schools, neighborhoods, communities, any place where underrepresented minorities exist, and start talking. Start small. Make a friend."

The Obamas and architects

When asked by Vonier, "What's it like working with an architect?" Obama praised the efforts of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects on the design of the Obama Presidential Library. "I don't get to work with them often but our architects are so much fun," she said. "The creative process—space, time—they think about things that we wouldn't ever think of. We're also closely considering the exterior, how it will relate to the community. The architects we're working with are phenomenal; they're listening, they're doing their homework, they're researching and starting to understand the South Side of Chicago."

The crowd, some 5,500-strong, erupted into cheers after Vonier reminded everyone that Michelle’s husband, former President Barack Obama, once wanted to be an architect.

"Barack is an artist," she shared, "though he tries to downplay it. He's the kind of guy who says, 'I don't care what the living room looks like,' and then has a thousand questions and opinions about everything. He's someone with ideas, he's someone who thinks big. That's what architects do too, right?"

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at AIA.

Image credits: Todd Winters

Company: AIA (American Institute of Architects)

Of: Steve Cimino