I Am: Elease Samms on Filling Gaps, Giving Back, and Being That Which You Wish to See
By Julia Gamolina
Elease Samms is a Louisiana native but grew up in Central Florida. She was one of the first graduates from Orlando's Support Our Scholars program, from which she headed to Cornell University's Architecture Program on a full scholarship. Graduating from Cornell in 2013, Elease is now a Project Designer at KTH Architects. Her primary interests in the field of Healthcare Architecture stem from growing up as a daughter of an Orlando Health, Pediatric Level 2 Registered Nurse, and from a desire to work primarily with local communities. Elease is currently enrolled in NCARB's Architectural Experience Program (AXP) and regularly mentors students of Orlando's Support Our Scholars Program, as well as students through COMPACT at Jones High School. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Elease speaks about filling gaps, giving back, and increasing representation, encouraging anyone interested in architecture to know that the field is always open to them.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
ES: My interest in architecture bloomed early. With two Jamaican-born parents who followed more “traditional” career routes for “islanders,” my parents did all they could to ensure that my brother and I could follow whatever dreams our hearts set us on. In elementary school, the one thing I knew for sure was that I loved art - my mom, though a registered nurse, was always a wonderful artist and was my go-to for anything creative. It’s from her that I knew, when I grew up, no matter what I did, it had to allow me to create.
I first set my mind on Interior Design; however that changed with the TV Show my Extreme Home Makeover Edition [laughs]. Having grown up in River Ridge, Louisiana for all my elementary and middle school years, I knew how critical designing a home that could stand the test of time - or at least hurricanes – and that could be affordable, would be to those who are not able to own homes easily. As no stranger to the troubles of the lower ninth ward, I knew that I wanted to not only makeover homes, but to build homes that could be responsive so that families would no longer have to be displaced or lose loved ones because of flooding. At the same time, I also wanted to create homes that were beautiful. Beautiful design is for everyone and should be unaffected by socioeconomic backgrounds.
How did architecture school shape your approach to and outlook on the field?
To this very day, I firmly believe that Cornell’s architecture program was truly the awakening I didn’t realize I needed. It took a total of three years, one failed studio, and many, many nights of being talked out of transferring schools - because not only was I homesick, but I also felt like I never truly belonged at Cornell, let alone in the architecture program - to realize that I was approaching everything wrong. I was burning myself out to keep up appearances – to “never let anyone see me break”, an old school affirmation ingrained in me – all for what?
As soon as I recognized that, I finally came to terms with the fact that I have to gain a new attitude and a new outlook in order to make the moves I needed and see the results I wanted. I needed to stop feeling like I had to carry the expectations others had of me – especially because I was black and female in a field that has less than a full 1% of black registered female architects. I needed to stop feeling like I had to be a “Black Wonder Woman” because there aren’t enough of us in the field to give other girls like me dreaming of a career in this field a face of hope. I needed to pursue architecture for me and me alone before I could focus on inspiring others. I needed to inspire myself first.
How did you find a way inspire yourself?
The summer after failing my first (and thankfully only) studio in my third year, I stopped listening to what others had to say about what I did and how I did it. I began to approach everything differently, not just architecture, and that approach would in turn affect my outlook on the field. I started to focus on “winning” for me, on my own terms. I put everything that makes me, me, back into my work and my life back into my work. I was proud of what I was doing. I’ve never been prouder of me until the day I graduated knowing that my last two and half years at Cornell were shaped the way I wanted them to be.
Tell me next about your first years in the field.
I spent my first year as a part-time intern designer, working mostly on interiors and small jobs, all predominately healthcare related. Knowing that I was in sector of the field that was very complex, I knew that if I could learn to master designing a hospital, then I could design anything. So, though a nervous wreck because I was taking part in creating such important spaces to promote the healing and nurturing of life, I did my best to take the bull by at least one horn. By year two, I moved deeper into interiors work as well as wearing many other hats required in working for a small firm. Though stressful at times, because you have to be a master of many things, I began to realize that I loved what I was doing. I knew though, that at some point, I would really have to grab hold of that second horn to really pivot my career.
What was this second horn?
I wanted to get really serious about my IDP hours and about pursuing licensure. Until this moment, I was really comfortable – but, being comfortable never fosters growth. During my second year, I had another mini-awakening, similar to the one during my time at Cornell. After a talk with my boss and the Senior Designer of the company I work with, an old flame was relit. I began, towards the end of year two to set up new goals for myself and take the first few steps in the direction I desired. By year three out of school, I was officially in stride - I began logging my IDP hours, I am currently in the final stretch of a year-long REVIT training course, and I finally set the personal goal of being licensed.
Alongside your work in architecture, you mentor as well. Tell me about this.
My main focus outside of architecture is close to my heart. I mentor young female students from disadvantageous socioeconomic circumstances through COMPACT and Scholars for Success, two organizations that played a major role for me in my high school and collegiate years when I was a mentee. Each provided a different scope of things, but the one common thread was a network. Both programs, before I realized it, were the foundations to a network of people who would later play a role in how I even got the job I have today.
I learned the importance of mentorship through these programs - having guidance beyond just that of your parents or peers. Getting the best of both worlds, through COMPACT I gained a male mentor and an architect, Mr. Geiger, who instilled in me the purpose of architecture. Through Scholars for Success, I gained a female mentor, a lawyer, Katrina Guensch, who allowed me to grow and to bloom at my pace. Both my mentors changed me and I knew even from then that I would want to do the same thing for someone like me.
How do you feel now being the mentor instead of the mentee?
Being a mentor has brought so much joy into my life and has been the wisest choice I’ve made -everyone needs just one person in their corner telling them that they are great. My three mentees have given me more than I could ever ask for. I imagine this is how parents feel when they see their kids succeed, because I cannot put into words the emotions I had when my mentees graduated from high school and have gone on to college. To know I played a small role in helping them believe in their own skills brings me a joy like no other.
This is also how I view any project I work on. At the end of the day, I play a small role in designing facilities that foster and promote good health. I feel like I am giving to so many people all at once. It’s a beautiful thing. I truly couldn’t ask for anything more because my dream was always to give back – at first, in the form of homes – but this is just so much bigger.
Where are you in your career today?
I am most excited to see the fruits of my labor. It is always an amazing feeling when a project gets done. However, what’s more exciting to see is the growth within my own self. Working on myself for myself and by myself and it hasn’t always been easy. This current year has been a year of discomfort. I am seeing that in order to soar, I’ve got to start going to places that scare me. I have come to terms with the fact that I’ve got to always be the best version of myself in all circumstances - in my friendships, relationships, family, you name it. Putting forth the best version of me will in turn reflect in the work I do. I am really excited about my own personal growth and stepping outside of my comfort zone, because that affects every other aspect of my life.
What has been the biggest challenge for you?
My biggest challenge in my career goes back to a personal issue. I have never been one to speak up for myself. Humility, though a great quality to have, is stifling. I don’t like to feel like I’m shining too brightly, or being braggadocios, so I struggle constantly with asking for the things I need. And even though the fear of being told “You are not good enough for what you think you deserve,” also looms, it is not what stops me most. I am my biggest roadblock. I am now trying to figure out how to best overcome my own self-limitations. It’s daily struggle, but lately, some things have fallen into place career-wise that are opening my eyes to what’s next. I feel like I’m currently in my cocoon stage, and that changes will happen – maybe slowly at first, but certainly surely.
On the other side, what have been some highlights?
A big highlight was when my boss hired a woman to be the BIM Manager for our office. She is a woman that is bold, strong, and takes the bull by both horns, always. She is the type of woman I aspire to be because she always speaks her mind. She is the cheerleader in her own life and in others’. She is always telling me and my other colleagues how proud she is of the work we are doing. Because of her, I’ve managed to get a much better understanding of document production as well as a better understanding of how things go together during a construction process. Because of her, I see the power of women in the field. Because of her, I am starting to see why I need to overcome my own roadblocks and be my own cheerleader. So, I am happy for her being here as a colleague and manager because she is inspiring, a force to be reckoned with, and the type of woman I want to be.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Today, I find that my approach is more and more defined by my gender and race. I find myself increasingly drawn to people of color. Our narrative – my narrative – in the field is invisible. The continued lack of representation is disheartening. The lack of black professors in architecture – especially the nonexistence of tenured black female professors in architecture – was always something I noticed but kept to myself. In a country that prides themselves on progress, it’s shameful how within so many professional fields, the color of my skin could still deter me from reaching certain aspects that seem to be easily attained by those who don’t have to deal with the stigma of being black.
The question I have is: Why? Why is there not more of a focus on the reshaping and rewriting the narrative for the field in today’s century? Why is the lack of representation as abysmal as it has always been? Why is everything I’ve been exposed to in the narrative of architecture – from the histories, the methodologies, the notable starchitects - been very “Eurocentric”?
The moment in time when the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. was designed and built by people of color – with one of their lead architects being a black man – was a moment of beauty and honor. However, beyond the representation of black people in the field, I desire to see more black women. As a black woman in a field dominated by white males, I don’t have a plethora of notable black architects who are women to look up to. We are few and far between.
How do we move forward?
My goal now is to show representation – to be the face of the invisible in a field that is marked by visibility. Then, I’d love to start an initiative to inspire young black girls to be designers and architects. Young black girls now don’t have much desire to be designers precisely because of this lack of representation and I want that to change. I want to work, and for girls to be able to work, under the wings of strong black minds and of women. I want girls, and in particular, black girls, to know that the field of architecture is not closed to them - it is absolutely there for the taking.
Finally, what advice do you have for those just starting their careers?
My advice would be to, first and foremost, believe in your own self. Without that, it won’t matter whether others believe in you or not.
Secondly, do not give up when faced with mountains that appear unmovable. Instead view it as ninja warrior training [laughs]. Those lowest moments are there to make you stronger so that you can move that mountain. And last, but certainly not least, be what you want to see. If you don’t see yourself in the field, then be exactly that person that you want to see. Create the representation, fill the gaps and make yourself visible. This is such an amazing field but with anything else in life, you’ve got to do the work and make it work for you.
To wrap this all up, I end with one of my favorite quotes from a noteworthy, Jamaican Black Nationalist, Marcus Garvey: “I am... and with no apology.”