Equity by Design: Mentorship Re-defined

I met my sponsor through the Architecture + Education Program in Buffalo, NY - The founder of the program, Kelly Hayes McAlonie, saw me speak and asked me to interview for a job within her group.  Kelly and I both have a passion for public outreach, especially with children. I got the job and Kelly continued to be a mentor, and eventually a sponsorto me. Kelly has
encouraged me to take on larger projects or awards, she has multiple times advocated on my behalf for work and non-work related items. She is the true definition of a sponsor - she is someone who goes the extra mile to make sure that I am succeeding in my career.



I recently participated as a thought leader at the Equity by Design Symposium, Metrics, Meaning, & Matrices.  Along with Prairna Gupta Garg, AIAPatricia Romallo, AIA, and Mia Scharpie, we lead a session entitled:  Hackathon - Mentorship Re-designed.  

Mentoring is important for professional growth at any career stage, from learning the ropes to navigating choices later on. Unfortunately, mentorship can reinforce inequity as mentors and mentees are often drawn to people of similar ethnicity, race, and gender. Mentorship can also be too limited in scope, restricted to advice when the mentor can be most powerful as champion or sponsor, advocating for the mentee when promotion or hiring decisions are made. In this session we will ‘redesign mentorship’ through hands-on exercises and small group discussions. Together we will create a tool to provide effective professional development for everyone.

We started the session with discuss what doesn’t work in mentoring?

  • Forcing or chasing a relationship
  • Forced Pairings
  • Passive Approach
  • What's in it for me mentality
  • Being so busy that mentorship takes a back seat
  • Assuming that your manager is your mentor
  • Programs that are overly structured

Define Mentors vs. Sponsors
Mentor:  Offers advice, shares wisdom, often a passive role
Sponsor:  Advocates on behalf of the sponsoree, takes an active role


The first part of the session was based on identifying the qualities needed for individuals, the relationship and the experience.

What are the qualities in good Mentees/Mentors/Sponsors?

  • Listening
  • Asking questions
  • Enthusiasm
  • Understanding the mentees personal/professional goals

What qualities have you noticed in a successful mentorship relationship?

  • Setting up regular check-ins
  • Asking for constructive feedback
  • Sharing your life goals early on; etc.

How do you create the experience and/or guide people to give them a realistic sense of mentorship and sponsorship?

  • Mentor is not just one person - Build a Network of Sponsors, Mentors and Strategic Alliances.
  • You can't build a network when you need it-do this early and often. Set out your goals and prepare to have conversations.
  • Be prepared when you come into a mentor relationship. It's not that people don't want to help you, but they need to know what you need.


The second half of the session was based on re-designing how mentorship works.  

What beyond traditional mentorship programs should we be thinking about?

  • Meeting with peer groups, safe space for feedback
  • Using social media to connect
  • Join mentoring programs outside of architecture
  • Passions = Networking = Mentorship

What are the ways to establish equitable mentoring in your firm?

  • A published study reported that 64% of men at the level of VP or higher are hesitant to have a one on one meeting with a more junior woman.
  • “If women try to cultivate a close relationship with a male sponsor, they risk being the target of workplace gossip. If women tr to get to the top without a sponsor’s help, their careers will often stall.”
  • Breakfast or Lunch only policy - to create a more equitable workplace

How do you build your very own mentorship network ?

  • Reach out, show interest in another person, offer help.
  • Take advantage of tools like LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • Take inventory of your network today: people you currently work with and you’ve worked with in the last two years. People you know in different organizations, industries, roles, social groups, and even family. Consider how these type of relationships can influence your future “destination”.

Important Resources for Mentoring:

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg

  • Women are told that they need a mentor to climb the corporate ladder, and research shows that those with a mentor are more likely to
  • Do not force a relationship
  • If you have to ask if someone if they’re your mentor, they aren’t.
  • Be mindful of your mentor’s time, and be prepared with questions and advice

 How Remarkable Women Lead, Susie Cranston and Joanna Barsh

  • 1 Sponsor, 5 Mentors and 25 Strategic Alliances
  • Finding the Sweet Spot:  High Level of Influence and High Level of Comfort

Gender Intelligence, Barbara Annis and Keith Merron

Youth + Family Workshops

The Buffalo Architecture Foundation, in partnership with the Darwin Martin House Complex, provided Free Youth + Family Workshops for the citizens of Buffalo and the greater WNY area. The workshops were held at the Delavan-Grider Community Center, and The WASH Project.

Our first workshop theme was Designing Skyscrapers Using Patterns. The kid participants constructed their very own 3ft tall skyscraper – measuring with a ruler, marking with a triangle and scoring with an exacto knife (with volunteer help of course!). We discussed scale and proportion by comparing the sizes of humans to buildings. Once our skyscrapers were raised, we compared the size of us to the skyscraper, and then we compared the size of a 1/8” scale figure to the skyscraper. We realized that through the eyes of the 1/8” scale figure, the skyscraper we made was really tall! To decorate our facades, we worked on different patterns using lots of colorful objects and materials!

Our second workshop theme was Designing for Buffalo’s Waterfront.  Kids and families constructed models to represent their ideas for Buffalo’s waterfront. Our imaginative participants created a school, an aquarium, a tower, a ferris wheel, carnival swings and even a reimagined skyway!

Our third workshop theme was Exploring the Martin House using Shapes. With the Darwin Martin House education team, participants designed their own art glass windows using nature as inspiration. Using transparent shapes, kids and families created representations of things found in nature such as plants, animals, fruits, the sun and landscapes. Volunteers from the Darwin Martin House were on-site to offer their expertise in Frank Lloyd Wright’s art glass windows.

For our first three workshops, we had:

  • 60 kids total in attendance
  • 10 volunteers
  • 12 hours of instruction time/volunteer time

Design Share Workshop

Through a mutual contact, Dr. Anne Taylor, of the University of New Mexico the Buffalo Architecture + Education committee was connected with the “Architecture and Children’s Network of Sendai,” a group that educates children about architecture and design concepts at an early age.

In 2011, Sendai, Japan was devastated by a Tsunami.  On behalf of the Architecture + Education (A+E) Program, the Buffalo/WNY American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chapter contributed funds to support the group’s rebuilding effort within their community.   As an expression of gratitude, the group of 10 architects from Sendai, Japan visited Buffalo to share their experiences of the Tsunami, and their continuing rebuilding effort.  

The Buffalo Architecture Foundation hosted a “Design Share Workshop” for the two groups to discuss ideas, interesting projects, and how local children are being involved with the rebuilding efforts in Sendai.  Indicative of unique language that architecture can be, the workshop bridged all language and communication barriers without aid of the group’s interpreter. 

The workshop activity focused on repurposing Buffalo’s Grain Elevators and mirrored one of lessons plans used by BAF’s A+E program. Each team of participants was given the challenge of designing a portion of a grain elevator into their own personal condominium. The models were then joined together to create a mega-structure of cylindrical condominiums.

The day ended with the Whirlwind Tour of Buffalo, on the Open-Air Autobus.

During their time in Buffalo, the Japanese Group also enjoyed chicken wings and other local fare from Gabriel’s Gate, a visit to Niagara Falls, and a wonderful tour of the Martin House Complex.

The Architecture of Heritage

While accepting the Diversity Recognition Award at the AIA National Conference in Denver, I was invited to participate on a panel discussing Social Justice issues within Architecture.  I sat among colleagues of many races and backgrounds, including a Native American architect.  I was bragging proudly about the positive effects that our program has had with a diverse population in inner-city Buffalo, when this particular architect interrupted with a question that would forever change my outlook on outreach and diversity.  He asked what programs we provided to Native American students, considering our geographical location ... I was speechless.  I knew the facts.  Native American architects make up the least amount of professional architects, and he was correct in saying that the Western New York region has a large population of Native American communities mainly from the Seneca and Tuscarora tribes.

After returning from Denver, I worked to create a program that would bring a Native American architect to our region to provide programming to Native American students.  Our first program was held in 2015, and will be run annually, growing in capacity each year.

Encouraging Diversity in Architecture

A few years ago, after joining the American Institute of Architects National Diversity and Inclusion Council, I learned a statistic that I would like to share with you.

Less than 0.5% of AIA members are Native American and less than a handful are Native American women architects.

I found this statistic shocking.  Shockingly unacceptable.

We are fortunate in the Western New York region to be geographically located near many Native American communities. We have the opportunity to reach out into these communities to provide programming to children and adults who may not otherwise have opportunity to learn about architecture and design.

Tamarah is one of only a handful of Native American female architects, and because of this, she often does outreach into Native American communities to encourage more Native Americans to pursue careers in architecture.  Even in her own firm, Tamarah has long been committed to hiring and mentoring junior Native American staff and students. 

However, educational outreach is not to only inspire future architects, but for students not interested in architecture as a profession, we are educating future clients and building occupants about the power and benefits of good design and architecture.   

Teaching Culture in Architecture

“Yá'át'ééh!” proclaimed Tamarah.  This translates to “Hello” in the Navajo language.  Each of the 30 participants, 28 of which were female, exclaimed this greeting followed by an introduction of them.  Some of the girls were shy, giggling through their short introduction; some of the girls were confident and proudly expressed something that was unique about them.  The two honest male students admitted to being in attendance because of the free doughnuts, although fully participated in all of the workshop activities.

Navajo culture is rich with symbolism, and this symbolism affects many aspects of their culture.  The students were introduced to the ‘Circle of Life’ diagram and the Navajo Creation Story which are symbolic of lifespan - birth to death, sorrow and happiness, rich and poor, good and bad.  The Circle illustrates the personal power that people have within themselves that enables them to be whole, complete and balanced, something that all adolescents can connect with. 

Students sketched the Circle of Life and their interpretations of the symbols within each world covered in the circle.  Over three days, Tamarah described each of four worlds within the Creation Story and their meanings within Navajo culture.  Students were encouraged to go home and ask their grandparents about the Seneca creation story as a way for the students to connect into their own heritage. 

Many aspects of the Navajo culture are affected by this symbol and story – including architecture, design and community planning.  Tamarah illustrated how the symbolism within the Creation Story guides the Navajo planning principles she uses within her practice. 

The traditional Navajo dwelling is a Hogan, which is a circular dwelling with a central smoke hole and an east facing entrance to welcome the rising sun.  The form of the Hogan, location of the entrance, and the path of which you navigate through the Hogan are all based on the ‘Circle of Life’ diagram. 

Each of the 30 students built their own log Hogans using thousands of popsicle sticks.  The participants worked hard to meticulously measure, cut, stack and glue hundreds of popsicle sticks together, similar to the building technique of the full sized Hogan.  Preciseness and architecture go hand-in-hand within all cultures.


Tamarah Begay, AIA visited Buffalo, New York to share her unique story of becoming an architect, and how her heritage has shaped the focus on her research, practice and outreach.

With funding and support provided by American Institute of Architects National Diversity and Inclusion Council, Tamarah Begay visited Buffalo, New York to work with Native American students from the Seneca Nation at Lake Shore Middle School in Angola, New York.  She also gave a public lecture at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning.
Tamarah is the first female member of the Native American Navajo tribe to become a registered architect and an AIA member.