An open letter from Kelly D. Powell, a 2002 Fellow in Architecture and President of the Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome.
Looking back at my fellowship at the Academy from 2001 to 2002, I always remember how my fluency in French improved long before I had a handle on speaking Italian.
My first connections in the Eternal City were with the Senegalese, who primarily lived around the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele roughly twenty years ago. Because many didn’t speak English, it was easier for me to communicate in French and answer their questions about my research in Rome and, in turn, pose my questions to them about their life in Italy. I was actively seeking out groups within Rome that would be considered “other” or existed on the margins of what was considered Italian society, to learn how their existence impacted the built environment. While this was the basis of my work in Rome, venturing to Piazza Vittorio eventually became my personal escape (in addition to encounters with Italians from Venice to Erice, Sicily) and a means of dealing with the isolation I often felt at the Academy, being one of two African American Fellows that year. I knew before arriving in Rome that Black women in Italy were often thought to be prostitutes, but being called “Chocolatina” (in addition to the open stares I received around the city) was somehow not as piercing as the microaggressions I dealt with inside of the Academy: “Oh, you’re one of the architecture fellows?!” or “How did you hear about the American Academy?!”
And now 2020…
The uprisings around the United States calling for an end to racial violence against Black Americans have ignited global conversations about systemic racism, human rights, and social justice. As the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, and as protests gained significant press and social media coverage globally, there has been a surge—almost an “urgency”—amongst major corporations and cultural institutions to immediately pledge their support and allegiance. That urgency found its way to the Society of Fellows Council, where, internally, many thought it was necessary to make a statement and/or donate funds to a specific cause. I persuaded the council to collectively pause. I personally felt that we might find more purposeful ways of confronting the moment, especially since the majority of those making public statements had no tangible record of either developing diversity and inclusivity initiatives, or building a racially diverse mix within their executive leadership or board of directors. Further, as alumni of an institution that, throughout its history, has been overwhelmingly homogenous and male, I thought it was important that we own that legacy and think about the future environments we want to build before throwing stones from our very own glass house. Ultimately, I emphasized that any communication to the AAR community should be introspective, meaningful, and, coming from me as an African American Fellow, personal.
As an outcome of our conversations, the SOF Council developed key goals we believed were fundamental in ensuring that the future faces and voices of the American Academy in Rome would reflect our shared humanity. I include the Call to Action with this letter. It highlights steps we plan to take within the SOF Council, through our own programming and initiatives and through our association with the Academy itself, as well as recommendations upon which we urge our members to act. These actions will be realized together, through the work of our committees, to drive greater representation and inclusion of People of Color within alumni activities, programs, promotions, and engagements. It is important that the SOF not only identify what we want to do, but also to clearly describe how we plan to enact each initiative, as listed below. I’m happy to explore these further with our membership.
I was very happy to see AAR take the tremendous step of releasing a statement of solidarity and I sincerely hope that comments I made during the Academy’s June 12 board meeting, regarding the institution of measurable actions supportive of diversity and inclusion, resonated with Trustees as well. I look forward to working with the AAR staff and Trustees as part of a special group examining and recommending how diversity and inclusion can inspire and create change at the Academy.
Despite the difficulties I encountered as a Black woman in Rome, those experiences along with many beautiful ones influenced the woman and licensed architect I am today. It is not lost on me that I am one of less than five hundred such Black female architects in the United States. Whenever I visit Rome and catch a glimpse of the Academy’s gates as I approach Via Angelo Masina 5, a smile comes across my face, because I know I am the recipient of one the most prestigious and well respected prizes an American can win, particularly within the field of architecture. My personal goal is to ensure that more people that look like me can have that same feeling.
With your active engagement and participation in the Society of Fellows’ Call to Action, I think it is more than possible.
Join us on this journey and contact us with your insights at sof [at] aarome.org!
ALL Black Lives Matter!
Yours in Solidarity,
Kelly D. Powell, AIA | LEED AP | NOMA | FAAR 02 Arch
The Society of Fellows
American Academy in Rome
Society of Fellows Call to Action
SOF Committee Actions
1. Develop a clear sense of the community that comprises the SOF by way of:
- Finalizing and disseminating the SOF SURVEY, in collaboration with AAR staff (currently underway, anticipated September 2020)
- Using the survey to establish a clear understanding of who comprises the alumni community (demographics, academic affiliations, interests, networking goals, etc.)
- Leverage the survey to solicit direct feedback from Fellows regarding their personal experiences in Rome, as well as at SOF events
- Gaining practical knowledge of the alumni experience to devise concrete measures to address real problems
2. Link alumni to professional organizations, academic/cultural institutions, and programs whose focus is People of Color (e.g., Historically Black Colleges and Universities, National Organization of Minority Architects, Studio Museum in Harlem, etc.).
3. Actively engage Academy alumni (especially Black/Latino Fellows and Residents) in addition to leaders within the greater arts and academic scholar community, to participate in or lead the development of future SOF programs or events, including:
- Readings and musical performances
- Ongoing online series of artist and scholar talks
4. Ensure that the work of Fellows/Residents who are POC is broadly highlighted and promoted across all SOF media platforms (website/Facebook/Instagram) in addition to highlighting activities that focus on the study on race, diversity, and social justice. Commit to maintaining such visibility in the SOF’s future.
SOF Committee Advocacy and Recommendations to AAR
1. We continue to support AAR’s efforts in recruiting candidates of color as Rome Prize Fellows, Residents, and staff (in New York and Rome, from American and Italian communities), building on the increased representation of Black artists and scholars at the Academy in recent years.
2. We support AAR’s continued emphasis on the diversity of Rome Prize juries and identify advisors and allies to assist Fellows with their lived experience in Rome. By aligning directly with Academy alumni who are People of Color to become advisors and allies for Fellows and Residents during their Fellowship in Rome, alumni can best relate to the Rome experience with empathy and direct experience.
3. Assist Academy staff with outreach related to the AAR Directory, so there is a visual record of who has been at the Academy and its changing demographics. Information about individual alumni and their work/affiliations will also foster greater connections and engagement back to AAR and its mission.
SOF Recommendations to Fellows and Residents
1. Take an active role in providing access for POC to professional firms and academic institutions to which Fellows and Residents belong.
- Establish/promote pipeline programs aligned with AAR disciplines in the arts and humanities
- Support the recruitment and promotion of POC in academic/professional roles—specifically executive leadership and tenure.
2. Nominate POC for Rome Prize Fellowships; engage personal and SOF network for suggestions of candidates.