Modeling justice and equity featured on the design summer camp drawing board

Contact: Margaret von Steinen

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Sitting at the same drafting tables used by students in Western’s interior design and architecture program helped 24 local middle and high school students of color imagine how they could shape their careers and communities. Through Project Pipeline, a three-day summer design camp held in July, the youth were challenged to address a design need in their community while considering how social justice plays into the built environment.

Participating in summer camps on campus while his father worked on the renovation of Waldo Hall in the early 1990s inspired local architectural associate Hayward Babineaux to bring the national Project Pipeline camp to Kalamazoo six years ago. At the unusually young age of eight years old, he had already identified his passion for architecture and its power to address social inequities. 

A portrait of Hayward Babineaux.

"My mission with this camp is to spread the word about architecture to our youth," says Hayward Babineaux.

“I wrote a book report in elementary school in which I said I wanted to design buildings for low-income families and people who look like me,” says Babineaux, of Byce & Associates. “That has always been my passion and it is still my goal. My mission with this camp is to spread the word about architecture to our youth.”

A crew of volunteer mentors Babineaux recruited through the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Southwest Michigan, including Western faculty specialists Dustin Altschul and Kim Buchholz, planned and facilitated the no-fee camp held at the Richmond Institute for Design and Innovation. This year, campers created plans and built scale models for a community center at Charlie’s P.L.A.C.E., a youth recreational and educational program on Kalamazoo’s North Side.

Buchholz says the camp curriculum aligns well with WMU’s degree program, which underwent a name change earlier this year to include architecture. 

“The new name more accurately reflects the significant impact made by architects teaching in the interior design program throughout its multigenerational history,” says Buchholz. “The program heavily focuses on design as a form of agency to address social, economic, environmental and cultural issues in correlation with the built environment and its comprehensive building considerations.”

The Project Pipeline curriculum, developed by the National Organization of Minority Architects, provides a hands-on overview of the design process, including research, site visits, interviews, diagramming, drawing and building models. Local professionals guide the campers through exercises and share information about their work in the field, specific career paths, scholarships and other resources.

“The way the pipeline works is we want to meet youth in middle school and high school,” says Babineaux. “We also expose campers to the impacts of redlining and disinvestment in communities of color as part of the urban planning process. In our recruitment efforts, we focus not only minorities but also on young women.”

Models of buildings and trees made from construction paper.

Project Pipeline participants built scale models for a community center at Charlie's P.L.A.C.E., a youth recreational and educational program on Kalamazoo's North Side.

Underrepresentation of African Americans and women in the field motivates Babineaux to mentor these future professionals and offer the youth summer camp. Black men and women represent just 2% of the nation’s more than 121,000 architects. Women represent just over 23%.

Nadine Rios-Rivas, an architectural project coordinator at 7 Generations Architect + Engineering, says limited diversity at local firms, including in leadership roles, can be addressed by supporting young people of color in their quest to become professional architects and designers.  As a woman of color, Rios-Rivas has experienced a dual layer of challenges in the white male-dominated field.

“I didn’t meet an architect until I was 20 years old,” says Rios-Rivas. “The first time I visited a firm, I met with a young female architect and she explained her love of problem-solving in the built environment. This was the moment I was able to envision myself in the industry. I am active with Project Pipeline so I can inspire others to see themselves in this profession.”

After conducting the camp virtually during the pandemic, Babineaux was ready to find a space in 2022 to host the camp in person. Through his affiliation in AIA Southwest Michigan, he connected with Altschul and Buchholz, who welcomed the opportunity to give campers a peek into a possible future as a Western student designer.

“It’s a great opportunity for young people to ask questions about the best schools and the differences between career paths, like urban planning and industrial design,” says Altschul. “The social connections campers make with their mentors help provide professional experiences and opportunities that are essential in the process of becoming a licensed architect.”

To help build campers’ confidence and self-esteem, the camp concludes with a public presentation, at which each of the campers speaks about the model developed by their Project Pipeline team. But the commitment of Babineaux and the other mentors doesn’t end there. 

“We stay connected with our campers throughout the college experience,” says Babineaux. “Once they graduate, we help them find work and welcome them back to camp as camp mentors.”

Planning for 2024 Project Pipeline Kalamazoo is already underway.