Following Joy: Danei Cesario on Healthcare, Motherhood, and Career Wellness
By Julia Gamolina
Danei Cesario, AIA, NCARB, NOMA is the 333rd black female licensed architect in American
history. Hailing from Manchester, England, she became enamored at a very early age with the
intricacies of New York City and the buildings that contributed to its architecture. With over a decade of experience, she is currently an Associate at Array Architects, leading dynamic healthcare and wellness projects. Most recently, she has worked on multiple projects for the Mount Sinai, NYU Langone Health and New York City Health + Hospitals Corporations.
Beyond the office, Danei’s passion for architecture and advocacy has led her to mentor emerging design professionals. She is Chair of AIA New York’s Diversity & Inclusion
Committee and a constant contributor to the Women in Architecture Committee, the Beverly
Willis Architecture Foundation, Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and nycobaNOMA
Executive Board. As a core member of these groups, Danei is dedicated to fostering
Mentorship, Sponsorship and Leadership amongst the diverse design community in New York
City as they navigate their careers within architecture and beyond.
JG: How did your interview in architecture first develop?
DC: When I was about six or seven and we were living in London, I was walking home from school, and saw this massive church with a steeple. I became so interested, asking my mum who built it, how it got built, and why. My mom took me to the library to show me some older books and drawing to start answering those questions, and my interest continued to grow from there.
How did you get your start in the field?
I started working during university - my first job in school was actually at an expediting company. I was there for three years and the experience exposed me to contractors, engineers, architects, and owners. I was able to observe the varying degrees of investment in a project--design, monetary, social. I appreciated that experience because collaborating with different people gave me an understanding of what people are looking for in their drawings and the way you go about building, in general.
Then, my first job out of school was at an international Fortune 500 company. In a company of that magnitude, you learn a lot about business operations and how to navigate a corporate setting. All of this was happening as I was getting my hours for my license. I then worked at a few different firms in New Jersey, from one was fairly mid-sized to one was a small husband-and-wife-firm with a few employees and a posh cat. All of those experiences helped me establish the work settings in which I flourished and the ones I would gravitate towards in the future.
How did the focus on healthcare come about?
I’ve spent the past four years or so working in healthcare and feel like I finally found my niche. Array Architects is a healthcare-specialized firm. Prior to that, I was more in the institutional and transportation space; we were working on labs for universities and such, and there would be a healthcare component to it. We’d have to consult with healthcare architects across the office, and it peaked my interest.
Going far back, the first signs of my interest actually came in middle school! I went to a life sciences middle school in Queens, a school called Gateway to the Health Sciences. Part of your term, you spend three months working at a nearby hospital. I was keen on the technicalities and the elements of healthcare, but I realized it didn’t allow me to draw. At some point I wanted to be an OBGYN, but in the end, I couldn’t pursue it as a career because I needed to do something that would allow me to create.
What do you enjoy the most about this work?
Healthcare design still considers the formal aspects of architecture, but then has much deeper meaning for the patients. Healthcare architecture allowed me to bring together these two things I care about the most—wellness and design—though the opportunity created itself fifteen years after that middle school experience. It allowed me to bring more than the traditional standard of care within architecture to the patients and their families who are often experiencing the worst time in their lives.
You’re also a mom of two! How do you manage to integrate it into all that you do?
For me it’s the other way around – I integrate everything with motherhood. Your kids don’t really care who you are beyond being their mum. In their eyes, your whole existence is purely to serve them. An example that comes to mind is the day that I spoke to the NGO committee at the United Nations. I came home practically floating from the experience, but to my seven-month old was teething and really upset. Then, my three-year old had a bout of stomach flu at 3am. As I was standing loading the washing machine in my rubber gloves, I thought, “Well, this is humbling.” Motherhood forces you to keep both feet firmly on the ground.
Family life is really demanding and all-encompassing, but I think it’s really important to remember and foster the woman that you were prior to all those responsibilities. For women especially, it’s important to keep the fire in our bellies and do the things that ultimately bring us joy because that joy is what you will bring to every aspect of your life, especially your home.
How do you make sure to maintain that enthusiasm?
I’ve learned in this past year that there is no way to keep a strict balance – everything shifts based on the needs of all of your responsibilities. My energy is rooted in the fact that I love all of my roles, and that each one offers a dynamic experience. Managing everything is a bit like riding a jet ski. Sometimes you might have to lean one way more than the other. It doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture which way you have to lean on the day-to-day, as long as you stay on the jet ski [laughs].
Where are you in your career in this moment?
I’m in a good place – I’m in this nearly-ten-year-out-of-school space, where you’ve paid some of your dues – definitely not all of them, but a good portion – and you’re wanting to work on projects that you can truly invest your talents in and be proud of. There’s a definite paucity of women in architecture and even more so, women of color in architecture. When people in the profession like you and I look around and see what senior leadership is looking like while you’re wanting more leadership opportunities for yourself, you begin to think: how am I going to approach my profession for the next ten years? That’s the mindset that I’m in.
What have been some of your biggest challenges?
There’s the age old issue of being a female architect and being asked if you’re the intern, or being treated as such. I’ve realized in the past few years that it’s not a matter of proving the people that think that wrong. Instead, it’s an opportunity to prove to yourself that you can. Whatever it is that you think you can’t do, showing yourself that you can has been the best challenge. That proof is the strength that you bring to the next challenge, and you’ll be better prepared for any others that come along.
One of the challenges that my colleagues and myself in the AIA Diversity and Inclusion Committee are trying to work through, are the assumptions that come along with being female, a woman of color, a mother, and an immigrant. Those don’t necessarily go away unless people are enlightened, educated and exposed to more of people’s different experiences. There are so many over-generalizations that are made based on our apparent differences. For instance, that every single person that comes to live in America must be here because life was unbearable back home. Or that, as person of color, your experiences have only been of utter hardship, unstable familial situations, or that you’re the only person in your family who is educated. We each have our unique story as individuals, and it’s important that we each have an opportunity to share them without a projected bias. I have been blessed to come from two parents, who are still married, who both have Masters Degrees. Changing the narrative that’s been preordained for a person that looks like me has been an ongoing challenge.
What have been some highlights?
This year alone, being featured in five different publications within the architecture industry, including one of ENR’s New York Top 20 Under 40, has been a wonderful highlight. They just named me as one of the top 20 nationally! Speaking at the UN twice during Women’s History Month, as a voice in the architecture community and having my work featured in their Exhibit, has been another. More than anything though, a highlight has been the women who seek me out to ask me for advice. Forming and fostering those friendships and mentorships between women is so valuable to our success in the industry.
Also, realizing that all of my responsibilities – as an architect, a woman, a mother, a wife– draw on dynamic aspects of my experiences and my personality has been one of the highlights too.
Where would you like to go next?
I want to continue to work on impactful and innovative projects and to evolve the image of what healthcare is and what it should look and feel like. We’re in a time where there are a lot of people with chronic illnesses, illnesses that may not even be physical - there’s an entire DSRIP initiative on behavioral health that’s happening in New York City. I think we’ve realized that the way communities have been served in the past has not always taken into account the best approach for the full spectrum of wellness.
Array is brilliant at bringing innovation to the table. One of our service lines is data analysis on the community context, which provides an additional layer of a level of social empathy to the design. In some cases, unfortunately, medical facilities are people’s homes. Realizing that healthcare is not just for emergencies and procedures, but for people who may need continuous and sustainable care, is an approach that’s changing healthcare design. Healthcare today is much more about health maintenance.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned?
To know your value and what you’re bringing to the table and to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, or is keeping you up at night, you have to listen to the little whispering voice in your head that is raising a red flag. For women, I feel that this is particularly important.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the journey as a whole – my life has evolved way beyond the life I imagined as a six year old, as a sixteen year old, and then as a twenty-six year old. I’m most proud of and grateful for the people I have in my life, from my friends to my family to my colleagues.
Finally, what advice would you give young architects?
You may feel six month into architectural school, that you really hate this. I would say, that fire in your belly that I mentioned before, that is what you should always follow. You may not always feel it, and it’s your responsibility to keep the fire burning. That is what will keep you engaged and excited and its possible that you are not going to find that at your desk or your drafting table - you might have to leave for a bit and go out into the world, do some searching, and do your homework to see what you’re about to get into. If you still do feel that fire for architecture, be strong enough to see it through. I think all of us that have graduated from architecture school have had moments of crying in the bathroom [laughs] - it’s part of the process. But if you love it and even though it’s hard, you still want to do it, after you do your big boohoo in the bathroom, dust off the tears and the sawdust and go back to it.
Also, be humble enough to listen and accept when you’re wrong. Everyone will encounter someone, in school, or at their first internship, that will say something not in the nicest way. It’s part of the process and there’s still something you can still learn. Try and whittle down the point of what they’re saying, no matter how they say it. We all have our dues to pay, and our predecessors have knowledge to impart to us. Remember what you hear and everything that you learn and put that in your tool kit to become better and a stronger architect.