A conversation with Keristen Edwards and Malachi Pursley, two of the inaugural cohort of NOMA Foundation Fellows at Ennead about the fellowship program, their transition to full-time staff, the evolution of their professional paths, and the start of an Ennead NOMA group:
- Let’s begin with a little background on NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) and the Foundation Fellowship. What is its mission?
Keristen Edwards: NOMA is a collective of architects, designers, activists, and educators committed to equity within the built environment. The NOMA Foundation Fellowship started a few years ago in partnership with the AIA Large Firm Round Table as a national initiative to create mentorship opportunities for students across the country to broaden the pipeline of minority designers within the field of architecture. The program caters to those graduating from architecture school and is a stepping stone to a professional transition and support system through architectural licensure.
Malachi Pursley: The beauty of NOMA is that it is not just about racial minority, but also gender and ability. Entering the field as any kind of minority, it offers a community of individuals who can experience things together and encourage each other in our journeys. Even if you aren't within a minority, it's a great organization that allows you to gain a wider perspective of the design profession.
- How did the pandemic impact your fellowship experience?
Keristen Edwards: Graduating from architecture school during COVID was challenging, as many firms couldn't hire new team members. To know that NOMA supported us and had our back going through this experience was pivotal, as was the fact that Ennead stepped up its commitment to the NOMA Fellowship program and increased the number of fellows the firm accepted.
Malachi Pursley: It was encouraging to be pursued by a firm and to have that opportunity persist through such a hectic and uncertain time.
- What was your NOMA fellowship experience like at Ennead?
Malachi Pursley: I had the opportunity to work on different aspects of the design process throughout the office and get involved with Ennead Lab, working on a proposal for a Harlem wide art intervention called “Uncovering History” that would do storytelling and placemaking for the community in a positive way. It was cool to spearhead a proposal and explore something that is a passion of mine: what can architecture do beyond a building?
Keristen Edwards: Yes, working on “Uncovering History” was a staple of the fellowship for me as well. Malachi, Gabriel Castro-Andrade (the other NOMA Fellow in our cohort), and I lead this research project together in addition to our other project work. The research-centered design strategy aimed to make the neighborhood's history accessible to all residents and provide an organic way for community members to add to the collective memory of their neighborhood. Ennead is excellent at supporting grassroots research. As soon as I started here, I was already doing work I loved. I had the opportunity to work and learn with a fantastic team on the Alta Community Center project. In addition to thinking through Alta's unique sustainability challenges and goals, our team explored how we might rethink the community engagement processes when COVID-19 separated us physically from our community partners.
- Both of you have transitioned to full-time Ennead employees. What has changed? What advice would you offer future fellows?
Keristen Edwards: My technical skills have improved remarkably, and I now have more of a platform to research and advocate for design equity issues that are important to me. My advice for future fellows would be to stay curious and never be afraid to start something when you can't see the end. You might not have all the pieces, but with the right partners, everything comes together. As an emerging professional, people are eager to help you, so take advantage of the resources being offered.
Malachi Pursley: I think the fellowship did a great job at preparing me for the transition to full-time work, which can be a fast train. My mindset as a professional has changed, as has my design thinking. I have been working on a lot of large-scale projects internationally. Designing with different cultures in mind has made me a more thoughtful designer – thinking about users that come from a different place than you. My biggest piece of advice to future fellows is to be secure in your own path and find value in that path as you explore opportunities and propose ideas.
- An Ennead NOMA group has started within the office. How did that come about and what are the goals?
Keristen Edwards: Ennead has had a long and beautiful relationship with NOMA. In addition to the Foundation Fellowship, NOMA has a professional development program with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in which Ennead participates. One thing I noticed while working here is that there were a lot of individuals in the office already participating in NOMA or being a part of our local NYCOBA NOMA chapter, but there was no real office collective. So, when we were thinking about what we wanted the Ennead NOMA group to be, it was essential for us to be intentional about fostering a supportive and visible community for designers of color and other minority designers within our office. We are committed to outreach, building relationships within our professional community, and promoting accountability in our office's work around justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We want to support and inform those efforts and be a part of daily work within our office and communities.
Malachi Pursley: I agree, and that was similarly one of the launching points for Ennead’s Environmental Justice Cohort, which looks at the correlations between social equity and equity within the built environment. It is about acknowledging the agency that you have and the agency that can be given to others. How can we increase our reach? What is changing and how can we push that change further at all scales?
Learn more about the National Organization of Minority Architects, the Foundation Fellowship, and support NOMA programming and initiatives here. NOMA’s mission, rooted in a rich legacy of activism, is to empower local chapters and membership to foster justice and equity in communities of color through outreach, community advocacy, professional development, and design excellence.