Ready to Launch: Jha D Williams on Fulfilling a Legacy and on Saying Yes
By Julia Gamolina
Born and raised in Boston, MA, Jha D received her B.S. in Architecture from Northeastern University, taught for two years at the Boston Architectural College, and then pursued her M. Arch I at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, she returned to her home city to continue curating and co-hosting her monthly open mic, 'if you can Feel it, you can Speak it' Open Mic Movement, and began working at Sasaki.
As a spoken word artist and event organizer, Jha D exclaims that there is pure art is speaking your own truth, and is dedicated to creating spaces for artists, particularly those that are of the LGTBQIA communities of color. As a designer, she urges that design and the built environment are vehicles for equity, justice and social change. In February of 2018, she joined the non-profit organization MASS Design Group where she currently works as a Senior Associate. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Jha D speaks about belonging and creating opportunities for herself, advising young architects to say yes often and to diversify their professional experiences.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
JD: The interest developed in two ways. The first is stereotypical - as a child, I played with Legos and Lincoln Logs all the time. At that point, I was more interested in being a construction worker. One doesn’t necessarily see the Architect on a construction site, so as a child I thought construction workers were the ones solely responsible for the buildings. One of our good family friends was also a construction worker, and that’s what I thought that I wanted to be.
I had no idea what the architecture profession was until I was a high school senior. Unfortunately, my experience was such that I didn’t fully understand what college was - I didn’t know I needed to choose a major let alone a school. This was frustrating, and humiliating, because I was an Honors and AP student, but also a first generation college student. Fortunately, my guidance counselor suggested I apply for architecture school after I expressed my preference for math and science, and my interests in art and traveling. I went to the library to look up what architecture was, applied to schools that didn’t require a portfolio, and landed at Northeastern University in Boston!
What did you learn there?
My undergraduate experience was where I learned and understood what being an architect meant, the social impact that it could have, and that it was indeed something I wanted to pursue professionally.
You took a few years before going to graduate school. What did you do?
I took two years off to perform and teach. Burn out in undergrad is a very real thing, so I needed some time to breathe. In that time, I learned that I did not stop loving architecture, I just needed a break. I took time off to perform, come back to myself, and generally realign.
I also taught at the Boston Architectural College, and learned that you don’t fully understand how much you do or don’t know until you have to impart knowledge onto others. I learned where my strengths and growth opportunities were through two years of teaching design studios and drawing courses.
What did you learn from your time at UPenn?
At UPenn, I struggled a little because things felt so theoretical. I remember being frustrated that what we were doing in school we could be doing anywhere - we weren’t treating the city of Philadelphia as a lab, and we weren’t solving the social issues in Philadelphia that could be addressed with the built environment in our design studios.
What I learned then, was that I had to seek out the type of work that I want to do, instead of expecting it to come to me. I started intentionally choosing electives that focused precisely on the issues in the city, such as the vacant lots and lack of appropriate affordable housing. I realigned my education with my interests, and learned the type of architecture that I was interested in practicing.
What did you do out of school?
After I left Penn, I came back to Boston. I wanted to get back to my open mic community - I was missing them for the three years that I was in Philly. I had continued to host my open mic night from grad school - I would get on a bus to Boston after studio on a Thursday, get into Boston around 9 o’clock, host, perform, and run the open mic night, and then get on the 5am bus to Philly to be back for class on Friday morning [laughs].
I also just generally had this attitude that Boston is where I’m from, it’s where my family is from, and everything I had learned in Philadelphia or during my studies abroad in Rome and London, I wanted to bring back and apply to Boston. I feel like so many people are transient here - they come, they learn, and then they leave, or they grow up here, go elsewhere for college, and then never come back. I didn’t want to do that.
Your first job was for Sasaki. How did this come about?
I struggled for a bit trying to find a job - I'm sure I'm not the only person to experience that [laughs]. Luckily, a friend of mine was an Ironworker on a the Bolling Building by Mecanoo & Sasaki in Dudley Square, which is the heart of Roxbury here in Boston. I had driven past it, and thought, “I’ve never seen construction happening in this area in all of my time growing up in Boston!” The area of Dudley has been completely ignored for quite some time in terms of development and investment, so when I drove past it, I needed know who was designing it.
The friend of mine told me to come to the topping off ceremony for the project. I showed up with my portfolio and resume in hand, ready to find the architect. Bless the people at Sasaki and this woman named Meredith [laughs] - I harassed them for about two weeks before they could find time to interview me and eventually get me there. I worked at Sasaki for four years.
From those four years, what have been the main takeaways?
The biggest was being able to shift scale. At one point I was working on a 700-bed dorm and master plan for a university, as well as working with a small local organization on renovating a historic Boston home.
Another big takeaway from Sasaki was that it was interdisciplinary, which was great professionally and personally. You could be in the office kitchen and catch a conversation about an urban planning project, a landscape project, or a civil engineering project, and you could insert yourself and ask questions and learn jargon that you otherwise wouldn’t. We had landscape architects in house, urban planners in house, civil engineers were in house - I was able to learn by sharing space with these other design professionals.
Tell me about MASS Design Group.
I came to MASS because I wanted the conversations about the social impact of the built environment to be a constant in my design work, as opposed to a rarity or something that I had to defend in meeting rooms. As a non-profit organization, MASS’s business model affords us the opportunities to work on projects with partners that are mission-aligned, and to be at the table for pre-design phases such as immersion and visioning. In other places I’ve worked, the work felt project focused, whereas here at MASS it is people focused; my architecture now feels like activism.
I also appreciate the variety of projects that we work on. In the short nine months that I’ve been here I’ve worked on a genomics center, a public library, a memorial and two master visioning plans.
What have been some milestones at MASS?
The first was being able to attend the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The project is such an important contribution to the built environment as this country takes inventory of memorials as a typology and how African-American history is honored. Being there, with my co-workers and my family, was inspiring, encouraging, and reaffirming that I had made the right shift by coming to this firm.
The second was our being selected as the architects for Oasis at Bartlett, a 15,000 square foot outdoor arts plaza and performance venue in the heart of Roxbury. As a spoken word artist and community organizer, it’s serendipitous that I get to design a space that I might one day be able to perform in.
The third milestone is that I’m working with a co-worker on developing a Fellowship here at MASS that will focus on social justice, diversity, and creating entry points into the design profession for communities that have been historically underrepresented in the field.
Where are you in your career today?
I feel like I’m at a launching point - I’m solidifying my interests in what architecture can and should do, I’m defining the position that I’m going to take, and I have more access to people and resources and mentors to achieve the things I want to achieve in design work.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges so far?
One of the biggest challenges for me was believing that I belonged. I was a METCO student, so I was part of this program where I was bussed from the inner city to the suburbs to go to school. I had become accustomed to being one of the only students of color in a classroom, but when I got college that experience became isolating and discouraging.
I was the only black woman in all of my design studio courses, and when I say all of my studios, I literally mean all five years at Northeastern, and then all three years at UPenn. So reminding myself that I belonged, that I was capable, and that I had a perspective that was valuable and that could contribute to the conversation, was a constant battle and something that I was always overcoming. Add to that the frustration of not having mentorship, or professors and practitioners who looked like me or shared my experiences.
On the other side, what have been some highlights and what are you most proud of?
[Laughs] The thing that I’m most proud of is the same thing that has been a challenge for me –being a Black woman in architecture. I’m extremely proud that I am here, that I’m still here, that I continue to thrive, that have two degrees in architecture, that I went to school on full scholarships, that I’ve been able to work at amazing places such as Sasaki, that I’ve taught at the Boston Architectural College, and that I’m now working with MASS Design Group.
Some specific highlights have been studying at the AA in London, winning the Building Trust International's MovedToCare design competition with my partners Patrick Morgan and Simon Morgan, and meeting Zaha Hadid!
What has been your general approach to your career?
It’s very simple and also very personal - it’s that I have a legacy to fulfill. When I say that, I mean that most of the things I’ve done in my life and that I will continue to do in my life have been to build a legacy for my mother. If I’m ever having a hard time through something or feeling challenged or feeling like I want to give up, I remind myself that I’m not just doing this for me, I’m doing this for my mom and I, so that she can have a legacy, so that she can say “My daughter did this, we as a family did this.”
My mom is a very accomplished woman; she was a police cadet by the time she was eighteen, a police officer by the time she was twenty-one, she has been living on her own since the age of twelve or fourteen, did not go to college, so for me, I’m picking up where she has left off and going above and beyond. I always tell myself - “Do it for your mother - and everything will be fine.”
What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
The first piece of advice is that you can keep choosing. You can choose one path, but you don’t have to be stuck with that one path - you can choose again in two years, and again after that. What you do for work is second to how it makes you feel; make sure that you’re choosing to be aligned with your passions.
I would also advise to diversify your portfolio - I sound like a financial advisor [laughs]. Diversify your experiences as much as possible, meaning that yes, I was an architecture major but I was also a spoken-word artist and was very intentional about performing at least once a week that I was in a different cafe once a week, because I needed to talk to different people outside of architecture and I wanted to be multi-stimulated.
Also in terms of diversifying experiences as a theme, say yes to as much as possible. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing yet or how you’re going to get it done or the people doing it, say yes, figure it out as you go along, and opportunities will present themselves to you. Just say yes, and continue to say yes.