Getting to Know the 2% – Carmen Vann


“When you deal with diversity, sometimes it’s not comfortable, but it’s not an attack on anybody. It is a call for the greater good of the industry.” Carmen Vann

We spent a few minutes speaking with Carmen Vann, chair of this Thursday’s event, Overcoming the 2%: Seeking Equity and Diversity. We dove right into her passion behind chairing it, and how to drive diversity in the architectural industry.

Photo: Carmen Vann, Chair, Overcoming the 2%: Seeking Equity and Diversity in our Built Environment

What made you decide to chair this event?

I was asked, and it was very easy to say yes! I think this is an important conversation. And I felt that it was an honor to be a facilitator of such an important conversation in this industry. There’s so much work to be done, and for us to begin the work, it requires some honest discussion and dialogue, and I hope that that’s what we find ourselves having on May 13th – some transparent, honest, and open dialogue. And I hope that those who participate come with open hearts and minds as well to understand experiences. Some intentionality behind the change needs to happen if we want to see these numbers alter.

What do you want to see come out of this event?

Enlightenment. I don’t expect things to change overnight in response to this, but it’s certainly my hope that this discussion sparks deeper dialogues in individual companies and individual workspaces. You gotta be willing to have those tough talks. You gotta be willing to get uncomfortable if we want to uncover the realities of the disparity in our industry. I’m in construction, and I’m certainly aligned with architecture and engineering – we see the same level of disparity across all building industries. Still, I hope people respond to this webinar and that this panel discussion sparks more discussions on the subject. I think the more people are open to hear perspectives and hear experiences, have compassion and empathy, incorporate ideas and thoughts, and understand what adjustments need to be made to see some change occur. If those discussions can start next Thursday and grow and snowball into more dialogue that leads to more intentional change and more intentional inclusionary efforts, I think we’ve done our part.

Why do you think it’s important? What would be your ideal outcome?

It takes intention to turn things around; it contributes to everyone’s success and ensures more diversity within work. The lack of diversity and inclusion isn’t a reflection per se of anti-minority sentiment or anti-minority posture. I think there’s just not enough understanding of the historical contributions to where we are right now. And it takes intention to change things around. Again, my hope is that we spark more discussions. But the companies, the management, the proprietors, the owners, principals, whoever participates next Thursday, I hope they listen with open minds – with ears of openness because they may hear some things that may not be comfortable. When you deal with diversity, sometimes it’s not comfortable, but it’s not an attack on anybody. It is a call for the greater good of the industry. Diversity in and of itself at the core is proven to bring about more profitability and more success overall because you have different perspectives – different ways of thinking things that are influenced by diverse backgrounds and experiences. That is what ultimately contributes to everyone’s success.

If we didn’t see diversity as just something to check in a box, but if we saw it as something that is an added value to every workplace experience, I think people would be more inclined to be intentional about ensuring that there is more diversity within their workspaces.

What personal experiences do you bring to the table as a person of color in the profession?

I’ll say not global, but certainly a national experience. I’m from DC, and I grew up from the time I was in fifth grade in a predominantly black neighborhood. I went to an HBCU, which is a Historically Black College and University. And my first job, my first opportunity in this industry, was with a family member who has a CM firm in New Jersey. I always knew the importance of – I hate to use the word assimilating, but that’s kind of what it is, right? It’s breaking into this mainstream industry, recognizing that I was going to be a minority. I’m not just a woman of color. I’m not just a woman, but I’m also a woman of color.

But I didn’t see that necessarily as a barrier, more so an opportunity to demonstrate that I could bring value as a woman and as a woman of color with work ethic and creativity. I wanted to break the mold, break the mindset, or mentality and cause people to recognize that we can incorporate and focus on diversity and know that quality individuals can bring value to our industry. We needed to make that a little bit more of a focus. And I think with my first company (I worked with a couple of small companies), my first major company, they were diverse in their recruiting. But there’s more work to do – not just bring people in but make room for them at the table; make people decision-makers, give them opportunities of influence.

In your view, what are the key challenges people of color, and in particular Black or African American women of color, face when entering the industry?

It’s certainly preconceived notions. Somebody put it to me this way: Look at your life for the passion and ask yourself how many times there has been somebody opposite your race in your front seat? Because that deals with relationships. And when you are not in a relationship with the community, it leads to discomfort with that community because you don’t know the people. So, my encouragement is to get beyond your comfort zone. So, for me, what I felt was my biggest disadvantage was those unconscious biases, and that’s being a woman of color. But those unconscious biases – when it’s time to get a group of people and go to lunch, you’re more comfortable with people that look like you. That’s just human nature, unfortunately.

 And so, if you – as a leader in your respective company –  if you spend more time with a certain group of people because that’s where your comfort zone is, when it comes time for promotions and to elevate people, you elevate those you have the strongest relationships with. We tend to have the strongest relationships with the people in our circle that look like us. So, it’s not necessarily an attack against a group of people. It is those unconscious biases that everybody deals with. Those unconscious biases can unwittingly lead to disparity in diversity within your company. And so that’s why a lot of the conversation has now shifted to the biases.

But I think in general, if I had to paint a broad brushstroke, it’s really about how those unconscious biases develop because we relate to people that share our interests, share backgrounds, share something. And a lot of times, in African American and Latino communities, the backgrounds and shared experiences may not align with some of those experiences with our white counterparts. When you don’t have the intention of breaking down those unconscious biases, you find yourself repeating the same actions over and over again. And that’s why we don’t see a lot of change in our industry.

What do you think can be done about these challenges?

I can start with identifying those areas of disparity. I have an excellent relationship with my current company’s Director of Diversity Inclusion. She is in charge of doing everything humanly possible to provide opportunities for diversity. She also recognizes that there needs to be the intention to recruit and provide these opportunities and make sure to provide a safe space to have these conversations. I can say things to her that may be uncomfortable. But I’m being real when I ask when we will companies start recruiting with the National Society of Black Engineers or the National Society of Latino Engineers? When is that going to become a focal part or focal point of our recruiting effort? When will we set that intention in a place where it’s not just casting a large net again, the same pool we always cast in? When are we going to be intentional about the reality of wanting to have diverse candidates or even come into our pool or a boat to talk? It’s just not going to happen organically. There has to be intentionality, but I can have those tough conversations with her.

So, I encourage people to be empowered, to have those tough conversations. I’m not saying do it rudely, but people just don’t know half the time. There just isn’t a recognition because no one has had those hard conversations. It has to start there and then holding people accountable. If you have a group within your company that’s focused on diversity inclusion, there needs to be sponsorship. There needs to be a relationship between leadership and management. And then there needs to be some accountability holding with those individuals.

If you bring together a group to hear, you can make your company more diverse, more inclusionary. There are ideas, there are thoughts, there are options. Now I need somebody to hold that person accountable to make sure those ideas are fully vetted – where they will be incorporated. It just can’t be a think tank where nothing comes out of it to, again, effect change in that corporation. But it starts with individual responsibility all the way around. As I said, I take responsibility for being a voice for having the tough conversations and putting out a work product that can set the stage for individuals behind me that look like me to be successful. But it all starts with personal responsibility all the way around.

What advice would you give to the next generation of people of color entering your profession? / a profession in the built environment industry?

I tell people this all the time: You can’t be afraid. You have first to find value in your voice before expecting anybody else to find value in your voice. It starts with you, so be the change that you want people to see. Work hard, value yourself, find your voice. I tell people the worst thing that can happen is getting put in a position you’re not prepared to succeed in because that failure will stick with you. So, prepare your voice, prepare yourself for growth. It takes a little more than just doing the status quo every day and speak up.

So I would tell young ladies and young men that are the minority, keep fighting. Change is not going to come overnight. And the responsibility is not just to yourself at the moment, but it’s to those who are coming behind you. So, keep pushing, keep having the tough conversations, find value in your voice, speak your voice, place a demand on having spaces where your voice will be heard and honored. And keep pushing for that change that you want to see.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule!

Thank you for having an interest, having just a heart to hear, and put it out there in written form is a type of advocacy. We need people to tell our stories; a lot of people just don’t know. And that’s how I know it’s really about reaching people where they are and just bringing them some truths and hope.


Hurry and sign up for tomorrow’s event before it’s too late!

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