February 2, 2022Reading Time: 8 minutes
Interview with the AIA’s “Next to Lead” Levitta Lawrence-Gathers, Associate AIA
by Erin Sharp-Newton, M. Arch., Associate AIA
Levitta Gathers-Lawrence, Associate AIA, a designer in architecture at NK Architects, has been selected for AIA Next to Lead, a two-year program developed by AIA National for ethnically diverse women in architecture that teaches essential leadership skills to up to 16 visionaries each year.
The need for a program such as this is obvious. AIA New Jersey membership data shows, out of 2000 members who participated in a recent poll:
Knowing Levitta’s unique and inspiring story, I sat down with her to share it with a larger audience. Below are excerpts from our discussion:
Erin: I have known you since 2017 when you joined NK Architects, and I have been consistently impressed and inspired by your kind spirit, inner strength, sensitivity, intelligence, and talent. I have seen you, as an emerging architect, and as a black woman, work through challenges with grace, while gently keeping those close to you in line. So, to start, I have to ask, what made you get into architecture, to begin with?
Levitta: I wish my pursuit of architecture began as some inspirational romantic epiphany, but I would be lying. I chose architecture as a major in college because I have always been a creative person who enjoyed all art forms. But I also came from an immigrant family who did not think “Art” would pay the bills. So, I chose architecture because (in my mind) it fell within the spectrum of creative and technical, and (in my parents’ minds) is a respectable profession. It was not until after my first year in college that a light went off in me. I learned how architects craft the built environment. How we as designers can inspire change within communities and around the world. How space can invoke emotion and passion within its user. Architecture is powerful and I wanted to be a part of this group of individuals who did these amazing things.
Erin: Tell me about your experience as a student in architecture.
Levitta: My experience as an architecture student was just as any other student’s, long nights in the studio, learning to have thick skin, exploring the limitless possibilities of design. It was at times painful in terms of the workload, but I did enjoy the challenge. I saw myself as any other student, but then one day something shifted in my perspective: in my junior year of college, I won a design competition and as a result, an article was released about my win and the entire process. Shortly after the article was posted someone wrote in the comment section, (in what I imagine to be a sarcastic tone):
“Wow…. a black female aspiring architect…. it’s a UNICORN!”
And for the first time, I realized that I had almost forgotten about my complexion and that I was the only black woman in my graduating class. I realized I did not have a blueprint for the journey I was on. I had not met any other black female architects or anyone even remotely with the same background as me. So as my peers seem to be outraged by the comment, I embraced it. Yes, I am a unicorn and I want to inspire other unicorns to live in the real world.
Erin: I understand you have been accepted into the AIA National Next to Lead program. Can you explain more about what this is and what this means?
Levitta: I’m excited. It’s a totally new program, so it is still in development. The focus is on equity and on giving “us” a voice — “us” being women who are ethnically diverse within the profession of architecture. The program is provided to underrepresented women who want to make an impact within, not only the AIA, but the whole world of architecture. It aims to give us a voice. I also think that they are gearing towards overall professional development and providing the support of other similar people in the system.
Erin: What do you hope to get out of the program? What are some of the anticipated outcomes or goals that you have for your experience?
Levitta: It’s amazing because I have struggled to find people who look like me and who have been through situations like mine. Studying architecture at NJIT made you part of a special group. We were in our own little world. The culture of architecture, being totally consumed in studio, working long nights, created a sense of camaraderie, but then there would be moments where a situation would happen and I would realize I’m a part of this society of thinkers and creators, but still different. NJIT has a lot of different people from all over the world, and everyone seemed to find their own tribe, but for me, it was hard to do that. Although I have met amazing people who are different than me, I am hoping to find some camaraderie in this program. I would also like to be a stronger leader. I think this program will help me to be more assertive, more confident.
Erin: What value do you think this kind of advocacy, through AIA programs, brings to the profession?
Levitta: I think it will help people like me to feel equipped to deal with the “imposter syndrome” which is very common among ethnically diverse people. This is something I have had to deal with after giving it a name in recent years. I hope that it will bring awareness to a lot of things that have been going on in our profession in terms of diversity and inclusion. As I told them in my interview, the subject of inclusion is way beyond race — it is about making sure everyone has a voice, rather than being exclusive to certain individuals or groups, that everyone is heard, represented, and has a chance to shine and bloom. Training us to lead will help us to implement programs that are valuable to our communities, as well as to mentor and help other young professionals.
Erin: I’ve heard you speak about breaking the glass ceiling. Tell me more about that: what does that look like to you?
Levitta: I don’t want to be recognized just because I am black or something like that. I want to be good at what I do. I don’t want to be defined by my race or gender, but I also don’t want to be blocked by it. I want to be notable for what I can produce.
Erin: Do you want to talk about your family? Role models? Examples?
Levitta: Well, I am an only child and I feel like only other only children know what that means. It’s like your life is under a microscope with your parents. There was a lot of pressure on me growing up. Neither of my parents went to college. They were working to support an extended family of five people, and it put a lot of pressure on me to achieve everything I have done, and was very nerve-wracking at times, though it was a good thing. It pushed me to be a go-getter. We didn’t have much, so I had to learn how to adjust and to work under pressure, which are qualities in terms of the profession of architecture.
My family is also heavily involved with the church and in ministry, so they deal with a lot of people. I’ve had so many people stay with us at our house, and that’s why I have a love and a passion for people in general. I think it’s so important to have empathy in architecture because we are building spaces for people, not just for beauty. And I’ve always held dear to my heart that people are at the center of architecture, and so they should be in spaces that are healthy, beautiful, and speak to their needs. This is something I’ve gotten from my family because even though we didn’t have much, we always created a safe space for anyone to come to be themselves or to come to us when in need.
My parents were a huge influence. My dad is a minister. When I was younger, we would have long talks and I would think “OMG another lecture,” though he imparted words of wisdom within me that I still hold dear. He worked hard to provide for us and the extended family all around us. I admire how he dedicated his life to people and to me. As a servant of the people, he was a dad to many others, “family members” who were not blood, that are a community of people I love. He has touched so many lives, and I hope to do the same. If I can at least touch one person, I’m good.
My mom is always showing and sending love and light. She’s more action than verbal. Her love language is “acts of service” and she would give her arm for us. I admire her strength. She has a smile on her face all the time.
Erin: Is there anything to share about your Jamaican influence?
Levitta: I wasn’t born in Jamaica, but my parents were, and the country itself is very beautiful. It struggles politically though. Being part of a migrant family comes with its own thing because you have the American culture and the Jamaican culture and the fusion between the two can create a very interesting household. I am very grateful for my Jamaican heritage. There are certain things that I hold near and dear to me, that really have built my character.
In Jamaican culture they have a saying “Manners will take you far,” such as saying “hello,” “good evening,” being respectful, respecting all adults equally, things like that, just having manners — treating people as you would want to be treated because people need kindness in the world. There are so many mean people, and I have seen that being kind and showing respect for others has taken me places I never thought I would be. Just being respectful gives you opportunity.
In places like Jamaica, your family is your retirement plan. You don’t have a 401(k). Your family is your lifeline. It’s your survival. My family came from Jamaica and my grandmother cleaned floors to get my father and his sisters here. She worked until she, unfortunately, passed away. The rest of the family did the same. They came here, they worked, they all lived together until they were able to stand on their feet.
Erin: What have been some of your challenges? What barriers do you aim to break?
Levitta: Well, I’m still on a mission to receive my architectural license. I think that is a barrier not only for black women, but for women in general, because there’s a lot that life throws at women, and we end up taking on a lot more responsibility than work.
Life pushes us off track when it comes to getting an architectural license. There is a level of support that’s not the same. I wonder if there’s an intense study as to why women don’t get licensed. I would like to see a study on this. We are pretty equal within the field itself, though not equally licensed amongst our male counterparts.
Erin: In closing, if you could imagine talking to your future self, is there anything you would like to say?
Levitta: I’d say “oh girl, you look so good, wrinkles and all,” and I would be keen to listen to what she has to say to me. Life takes turns, but you always end up where you’re supposed to be, so it’s hard for me to imagine what I would be like in the future. I have my ideas. I have my goals, of course. Only God knows and I’m excited to see what that looks like because I think it’s going to blow my mind. It’s not going to look like what I imagine. As much as I love architecture, I’m not architecture. If I can use architecture as a tool to make the world a better place, then I would be satisfied. I just hope my life is meaningful.
Erin: And lastly, talking to your younger self, is there anything you would like to say?
Levitta: I recently turned 30 and had a moment of epiphany where I realized in my 20s I thought I knew everything. I used to plan everything so obsessively and imagine my life to be a certain way at a certain age. And I found that that’s not true. I would say to my younger self, “don’t be afraid to ask for help.” I would say, “you don’t know everything. You are going to make mistakes — grant yourself grace.”
Read more about Levitta here:
Levitta Lawrence — NK Architects
Learn more about the Next To Lead Program HERE.
Interview conducted by Erin Sharp-Newton, M. Arch., Associate AIA, member of the AIA NJ Equity in Architecture Committee. Learn more about Erin HERE.
By Stacey Ruhle Kliesch, AIA, AIA NJ Advocacy Consultant | Posted in AIA Newark and Suburban, Diversity, Emerging Professionals, EquityInArchitecture, Women in Architecture | Tagged: #AIA, #AIABlackArchitects, #AIANJ, #AIANJEquity, #AIAWIA, #AIAWIANJ, #AIAWomenInArchitecture, #Blackarchitect, #BlackArchitects, #BlackArchitectsShowcase, #BlackHistoryMonth, #diversity, #EDI, #equity, #EquityInArchitecture, #ErinNewtonAIA, #Incusion, #JEDI, #Justice, #LevittaGathersLawrenceAssociateAIA, #NextToLead, #NJArchitects, #NKArchitects, #WIA, #womeninarchitecture, #WomenInArchitectureMonth | Comments (0)
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