Tanya Hernandez says she gets the same reaction when she meets a new project team: “that surprised look.” Hernandez is the principal of Durham, N.C.–based HART Design Group, a lighting designer, an engineer, and a black woman. “People kind of look over me assuming I'm not the person I am. So I'm really good at introducing myself, with a smile.”
“When I go to a meeting, I am the only black person in the room,” notes lighting designer Edward Bartholomew, who runs the Integrated Design Lab in the department of architecture at the University of Washington campus in Seattle. “You're clearly aware of it, but you don't want to draw too much attention to it.”
“Sometimes I get over-welcomed because I'm this token of diversity,” says Carlos Inclán, a Hispanic lighting designer at Portland, Ore.–based engineering firm GLUMAC. While Hernandez, Bartholomew, and Inclán say they often are the only minorities in meetings, no one knows just how many minorities are employed in the U.S. lighting profession. “Maybe 100?” Bartholomew guesses. “That's just from going to Lightfair and looking around.”
DO THE RIGHT THING Lightfair attracts close to 20,000 people annually. If the hard numbers reflect the isolation these designers describe, the stats make a clear case for better recruitment of minorities. But no numbers exist because none of the industry associations track demographics. “The profession of architectural lighting is relatively young,” notes Marsha Turner, executive vice president of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD). “Ethnic diversity has not been an issue or concern because it's a fairly small niche profession.” Also, the IALD's membership is international, and “it's hard to talk about minorities without being U.S.-centric,” says communications manager Jennifer Jones.
Based in the U.S., the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America also defers from asking its members about race. “We have never tracked it. And I think that's a plus,” says executive vice president Bill Hanley. “I think it's politically correct not to ask people. It might have been more of a concern 20 years ago.”
But today's minority lighting designers might disagree. “I still feel like a pioneer, and I thought I wouldn't have to feel that way after a while,” Hernandez says. Aside from a sense of isolation, she and other designers voice concern over the viability of a homogenous field. “It's like having a limited gene pool,” Bartholomew says. “The same thing with ideas. As a profession we need to evolve. We can only evolve by having diverse ideas, diverse passions, interests, and values. It makes us stronger.”
“People from different cultures have different things to bring to the table,” notes Inclán, whose contributions as a Mexico-born designer range from a familiarity with the metric system to an understanding of how sustainability and economy work hand in hand—an especially valuable tool in an economic downturn. Rodrigo Manriquez is the lighting design studio leader at SmithGroup in Detroit and a Chilean-American. “I don't see my talents being what's valuable [about me as an employee],” he explains. “I see [my value as] my different way of looking at the same thing.”
ENCOURAGING PARTICIPATION Manriquez, who helps select new hires for SmithGroup's lighting studio, says few minority candidates apply. That's no surprise, given the demographics at the two U.S. schools that offer graduate-level lighting degrees. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 10 students are working toward a Master of Science in lighting; none are black, one is Asian-American, and one is Hispanic. And of the 45 students total in either the master's or Ph.D. Architectural Sciences programs with a concentration in lighting, one is black, one is Asian-American, and one is Hispanic. The numbers don't differ much at Parsons the New School for Design: Of the 38 students enrolled in the graduate lighting design program, none are black or Hispanic, and only three are Asian-American. In 2007, Parsons began an initiative to diversify its curriculum, improve financial aid, and attract a more diverse pool of high school students. “Our approach is comprehensive, so we see student recruitment tied directly to faculty recruitment, curricular shifts, teaching methods, and our relationships to communities of color in New York City and around the U.S.,” says Jesse Villalobos, coordinator of the Parsons Diversity Initiative.
One of the reasons that few minorities are drawn to the lighting profession may be that, in general, the profession is relatively unknown, especially compared with parallel careers in architecture and engineering. But Bartholomew points out that, because of its specialty nature, architectural lighting is “more stable” and “less rarefied” than those disciplines. “There are great career options in this field,” he says. “The IALD should step up. There should be a stronger effort to reach out, especially to historically black colleges and black engineering schools.”
Corporations and manufacturers also can help. For example, GE—whose total workforce in 2007 was made up of 24 percent minority employees—works with minority organizations to offer science and engineering scholarships. This February, a specialty public high school where GE employees teach opened on GE's Nela Park campus in Cleveland. The school's 82 students—72 percent of whom are black—study and work in GE's facilities, including the Lighting & Electric Institute.
Bartholomew, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, says that kind of early exposure can make all the difference. He recalls standing out as a good student and being encouraged to pursue a career in the post office. Today, he has a job that he loves and thinks about all the time. “It's important for students to see [people who enjoy their work]. It can be part of their life and [provide] the kind of passion they would normally see in a basketball player or a rapper. Having a job that's your passion—wow, that's beyond anything I could have dreamed of when I was growing up.”
Hannah McCann is an editor at large for ARCHITECT magazine.