28 MAR 17 | grassroots

finding our voices

I have had the opportunity over the last year and a half to serve on the Colorado North AIA Board as the Associate Director (2016) and now the President-Elect (2017). Every year, the President-Elect and President of each region travel to Washington, D.C. for the annual Grassroots Conference, an AIA leadership event. Grassroots brings together AIA members from around the country to talk about the most pressing issues we face within our communities and how architects can take leadership roles to create healthier, more sustainable architecture that will improve the built environment for all. It was an eye-opening, inspiring three-day event that will have a lasting impression in my mind for years to come.

Several B I G picture items came to me on this trip (and it’s not all about architecture):

  1. Exposure to diversity is key to combatting fear. In this political climate of fear, diversity is key.
  2. I have a voice. I have an opportunity and a responsibility to use that voice.
  3. We really are stronger together.
  4. Spend time with your loved ones whenever you get the chance.


Lesson 1: Exposure to diversity is key to combatting fear: Public transportation is an amazing way to expose yourself to diversity. It provides a means for every walk of life to get from point A to point B. When you are put into situations where you are in close proximity to those whom you do not know, you are more likely to understand that he and she are actually quite similar to you. While traveling to D.C. I witnessed a few situations like this: a Mexican man and a European man striking up a conversation about their pasts and similarities, a Muslim airport worker leading a blind man onto the tram, and a train security guard helping out two homeless people on the train. Watching people of varied backgrounds show each other compassion and understanding re-affirmed that all is not lost– and that public transportation rocks! Icon credits: Oksana Latysheva, Irene Hoffman, H Alberto Gongora, Ted Grajeda, Matthieu Mercier and Vonn Weisenberger.


On the first day of the conference, we had the chance to sit down with members of Congress to discuss federal issues that are important to our AIA Members and our professional community. Stacee Kersley, the North President, and myself sat down with Congressman Jared Polis’ Senior Legislative Assistant, Blaine Miller-McFeeley, to discuss ways in which young architects can help serve their communities in exchange for student loan assistance. It was a successful and rewarding conversation; and a great experience for me as a young designer. After visiting Congressman Polis’ office, we sat in on both the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate. It just so happened that the very day we were visiting Capitol Hill was also International Women’s Day. As I walked across the US Capitol lawn, I stumbled upon a women’s equal rights protest. It was awesome– free speech! It made me proud to be a woman, a designer and an American- with a voice. Lesson 2: I have a voice. I have an opportunity and a responsibility to use that voice.

Washington DC
A few photos from my trip from top left clockwise: at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, inside one of D.C.’s metro stations, “Healthcare is a Human Right” sign outside the Capitol, inside the National Gallery of Art, amazing woodwork, headed down the longest escalator into the metro at Dupont Circle.


The second day of the conference was the official kick-off. We spent the day getting to know the AIA National Board, learning about what professionals are doing around the country to better their communities and gaining skills to become more effective leaders.

“We can choose to live where we will have the lightest urban footprint.”

Jeff Speck Cities
Photo credit.

Jeff Speck, City Planner and Urban Developer of Speck and Associates, blew me away with his lecture on “Walkable Cities”. Check out his new book “Walkable City” here. TED talk here.

“We can’t consume our way out of the problem.”

Jean Carroon, Principal at Goody Clancy, reminded us of the importance and value that existing buildings have in contributing to our future urban fabric in her lecture “Heritage Cities”. She stated that there are thousands upon thousands of square feet of existing buildings waiting to be re-used. And that “Old is the new, new”. Check out her book “Sustainable Preservation: Greening Existing Buildings” here. One of her lectures on historic preservation here.

100 Cities
Photo credit.

“Urban resiliency is the ability of a city to withstand disaster… not just the immediate shocks.”

Michael Berkowitz, President of Resilient Cities and Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation, spoke about the necessity to equip cities around the world with tools to be more resilient against the physical, social, and economic challenges we currently face.

Next City
Photo credit.

“The best way to make America great again is to address climate change.”

Tom Dallessio, President, CEO & Publisher of Next City, Philadelphia, challenged architects to think critically about what a 21st Century City is and how architects have the ability to shape our cities in positive ways.

And all this was before noon. The rest of the day focused on leadership workshops and gave everyone the time to connect with like-minded professionals. Throughout the day as I connected with more and more people, I realized that we are all working towards the same goals and had similar outlooks and hopes for the future. I felt as though I was a part of this big national team of designers, all pushing forward with support from each other. Lesson 3: We really are stronger together.

The third day focused on leadership workshops such as “Speak Like a Pro” and “Managing Cultural Differences.” The final keynote speaker: Catherine Pugh, Mayor of Baltimore, spoke of the unique capability architects have to create change for the better.

“Because the built environment is not simply buildings,” Pugh said, “but the potential to solve real-world problems through design.”

AIA Colorado
Overall, the 2017 Grassroots Conference was incredible. I am thankful to the AIA Colorado for this experience and to WORKSHOP8 for supporting me throughout my AIA Board roles.

Emily and Mom
Lesson 4: Spend time with your loved ones whenever you get the chance. My family lives in Raleigh, NC and the time we get to spend together is far and too few in between. My mom was able to take the Amtrak train up to Washington, D.C. and spend all three days with me. We drank wine every night and giggled and watched tv. It was awesome.


Emily Axtman, Project Manager / Architectural Designer
28 March 2017