This Black Woman Architect Boldly Honors The Past While Mentoring A New Generation

Noah Willman/courtesy of NMAAHC

Zena Howard is one of the visionaries behind the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. She's also committed to mentoring women of color because they bring a perspective that’s lacking in the area.
Tanisha A. Sykes  Nov, 16, 2018

Anyone who visits the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., knows two things: The awe-inspiring nearly 400,000-square-foot space is exquisite, and take a good pair of walking shoes.

What you may not realize is Zena Howard, FAIA, principal and managing director at Perkins+Will’s in Durham, North Carolina, was the senior manager on the project. “It’s the first time that the African-American story has been told in a holistic manner,” says Howard, 52, an award-winning architect and educator.

RELATED: These Tech Co-Founders Are Diversifying The Industry and Training Black Professionals To Find Dream Careers

RELATED: Solange Is Helping Send Houston Kids to the Smithsonian's African-American Museum in D.C.

When the architecture bug bit: “I’ve always liked to draw and sketch, and my parents nurtured any desires their five kids had,” she says. However, when she was growing up, she wasn’t aware of role models in her area of interest. Watching the 1970’s sitcom The Brady Bunch clarified things.

“The lead character, Mike Brady, wasn’t my ideal mentor, but it was the first time I had heard the term ‘architect’ and saw one,” she says.

RELATED: #WakandaForever: ‘Black Panther’ Costume And Props To Be Placed In National Museum Of African American History And Culture

What her role entails: Her firm designs projects for cultural, science and health care institutions, among others, and Howard travels the country overseeing plans. One assignment is the construction of an outdoor museum in California.

“I’m all over, but on Mondays I’m with my leadership team reviewing artist proposals and finalizing material samples for our builds,” says Howard.

Why this industry needs us: There are currently just over 400 licensed African-American women architects in the country. Howard is committed to mentoring women of color because they bring a perspective that’s lacking in the area.

“Some bring the experience of dealing with housing inequities or being the dominant parent in a household,” she says. “When you understand how the built environment impacts your social existence and quality of life, you can make a difference, and I love that.”

Learn more about Black women working “dream jobs” in the November issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands everywhere now!