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AIA Leadership Course Inspires HOK’s Tabitha Darko to Educate Young Voters

​Architect drew on lessons from AIA Kansas City’s Pillars Leadership Training Program to organize and educate her community on racism and inequities after the killing of George Floyd.

Tabitha Darko had just completed the AIA Kansas City’s nine-month Pillars Leadership Training Program when the world erupted over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. The incident prompted Darko to do something that would have been out of her comfort zone just a year earlier. She texted a group of friends and asked them to meet to discuss what happened to Floyd—and how they could prevent something like that from happening in Kansas City.

Three months later, Darko and her friends operate the Kansas City social media group “In the Know KC” (Instagram and Facebook) that seeks to educate their fellow Millennials about issues related to voting, justice and politics. Darko recently shared her experience with the Pillars program and why she feels a responsibility to engage the community.

Do you feel architects have an obligation to be civically engaged? Can they perhaps influence society more than other professions?

People in any line of work can find ways of significantly contributing to society. However, designers are privileged in that we are in conversations with clients and can use that privilege to influence the shape and direction of projects and investments. For example, we can offer suggestions regarding siting, programming or third-party partnerships that the client perhaps didn’t think of and could benefit the community. We also understand urban planning, which often has a direct correlation to so many inequities but also provides solutions. I would encourage us to use the platforms and connections inherent to our field to realize significant change.

Do you personally feel an obligation to give back?

As a Black female architect—one of fewer than 500 in the U.S.—I do feel a sense duty to let others know that this is a profession that is available to them. That is why I often speak to students about architecture through the AIA, NOMA and our Kansas City office.

Darko and her friends launched “In the Know KC” in July to educate their peers on election and social issues within their community.

Tells us about Pillars. How did you get involved and how would you describe the program?

I became involved after an HOK employee in Kansas City and AIA Pillars alumnus encouraged me to partake in the program. Chris DeVolder, managing principal in the Kansas City studio, helped launch Pillars after participating in a similar program through our chamber of commerce. The goal is to develop more well-rounded and civically engaged design professionals. Pillars is self-directed and includes people from other design and construction firms. In our first meeting we established a few broad issues we wanted to explore. I ended up leading a group looking at the needs of arts and culture organizations and participating in a group examining fabrication in Kansas City.

How did Pillars shape or influence the way you’ve responded to the racial justice movement of 2020?

The Pillars program required me to step out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if I would have had the confidence to reach out to my friends and organize a call for racial justice if I hadn’t spent the previous several months reaching out to strangers to see if they’d speak to our Pillars group. Pillars gave me the skills and courage to know that I can step into another realm and engage as much as I want to.

What would you say to your colleagues who perhaps want to be more civically engaged but are reluctant to for whatever reason?

I’d say that it is easy to get tied to a routine of working long hours on a project and then, when you have downtime, sort of unplugging and not being aware of the what else is happening in the community. But civic engagement also provides a community lens that architects and designers can bring to the table when discussing projects with clients. I’ve also learned that people will surprise you in their willingness to open up and discuss topics you might think are uncomfortable or off limits.

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