The Only One in the Room: A Conversation with Lucy Baraquio

Voices and Perspectives is a series from CallisonRTKL to elevate the perspectives of our people. We are grateful for their commitment to facilitate and celebrate equality, diversity and inclusivity in our firm and beyond. Today, we’re talking to Vice President Lucy Baraquio about her experience as a queer woman of color in the AEC industry.

Lucy Baraquio AIA, LEED AP

Vice President; Regional Office Leader

A leader in the retail sector, Lucy Baraquio has an extensive international background in commercial design and brand implementation. As a licensed architect with more than 25 years in the industry, her experience in developing teams across diverse cultures and markets informs her collaborative approach to design and business leadership.

 

What did your life look like before becoming an architect?

I was born in the Philippines and raised in Hawaii from a very early age. I’m part of a big family—the third child of ten— and in our house, we were always laughing or playing or fighting for our parents’ attention. I don’t know when exactly the “designer” switch turned on for me, but I know I always loved drawing and making things like forts and tent cities when we played make-believe. Growing up, I enjoyed and excelled at academics. I went to a private Catholic school from K-12 grades and was the valedictorian of my high school graduating class. I received a merit-based scholarship to the University of Notre Dame and ultimately decided to major in architecture.

I didn’t spend my childhood dreaming of being an architect necessarily, but I found my passion for design and architecture at the intersection of science and art. My family is very musical, and I was a skilled pianist, so I considered majoring in music…but architecture seemed to be a more stable way to make a living than music (that turned out not to be entirely true)!

I also really was fascinated with the way architecture plays a huge part in defining our lived experience. It shapes people’s impressions of our communities and the personality of our urban environment. These days, I don’t do much hands-on architectural design—besides the retirement house I recently designed for my parents in the Philippines, my projects in the past 10 years have been in collaboration with the lead designers on my teams. I lead some significant retail practice accounts and enjoy working on developing high-performing teams across regions and functions. I appreciate the opportunity to bring together diverse groups of people to work on projects that focus on equity, inclusion and social justice to create a better-built environment for all of us.

It can be difficult for women in a historically male-dominated industry—especially women of color—to reach level ground. How have you faced the challenges you’ve encountered on your path to getting here?

Besides being male-dominated and historically white, architecture as an academic discipline in the US has a very Western focus. When I was in school at Notre Dame, I spent a year in Rome learning about only Western architecture—and I didn’t even think this was an issue because living in Italy was so impressive in itself. It’s hard to understand the global context of architecture and the built environment when you only see it through one lens.

At some point, I realized I was always going to be a minority in my field. When your professors are predominantly white men from fairly privileged backgrounds,  their ability to provide relevant career mentorship or evaluate your work is a bit limited. But I’m accustomed to being the only woman of color in the room. I remember in my early days of licensure being on the job site with interns or consultants who happened to be male;  several times, the contractor would automatically assume that a male in the group was the architect. They were visibly surprised to find out that I was the project architect and team leader. It happens much less often now, but I’m quite aware that being a female architect is still very much the exception, and I’m doing all I can to change that reality. I focus on engaging with my peers in substantial efforts to improve diversity in architecture and am mentoring other women architects who are just starting on their career path. As the saying goes, women often have to work twice as hard to get half as much as their male peers, and it’s a lot to navigate. So I hope that my experience can help their journeys be even a little less challenging than mine.

I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunities my parents and education have afforded me. Still, I’ve also worked extremely hard to get to this point and have been very deliberate in the life choices I’ve made. When you don’t have generational wealth, you simply don’t have as many options for education and career support. When I was a high school senior exploring different colleges, I knew that if I didn’t get a scholarship, I wouldn’t be able to afford the education I wanted. After college, I also knew that I’d need to work for a firm that would provide financial support for taking the exams for architectural licensure.

I’m very conscious about working for and with organizations that promote inclusion, diversity and equity. Along with being a woman of color, I’m also a part of the LGBTQ+ community. I was initially married to a man (a fellow Notre Dame Architecture graduate) soon after graduating from college, and we went on to have three sons together. When we eventually divorced and I became a single mom, I had to quickly learn how to balance my career with my increased parenting responsibilities. I didn’t have any family nearby, so I had to either pay excessive amounts for childcare or avoid career opportunities that would keep me away from my young kids too much.

I managed to get through those tough times, and I enjoyed life with just me and my boys… but then about 15 years ago, I met a woman through some mutual friends, and very unexpectedly, we fell in love. After a few eventful years of integrating this new relationship into my life with my kids, which turned out to be a beautiful process, we got married. We just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary this summer. My identity as a queer woman is very normalized amongst my friends and family now—though it was more challenging for some to accept and believe in than others. Coming out to my loved ones was such a learning experience for me, and although it wasn’t easy, it gave me a new perspective on queerness in a straight world; for that, I am truly grateful.  I think about my LGBTQ identity less in relation to my professional identity than I do my race or gender because it’s less visible– and therefore less of a barrier for me personally. However, it’s vital for me to be open about my queer identity. Not being “out” at work was never really an option I considered because I strive to be as authentic as possible in all aspects of my life.

Though I’ve faced many challenges – in my life and career – the arc of my evolution has been positive because of it. I learned to develop a very thick skin early on because I’ve had to live through some hurtful and offensive experiences of discrimination. Thankfully, I’ve had family and friends’ support and have also found some constructive ways to work through difficulties —  including my long-standing meditation and yoga practice. I’m proud to be a pioneer for queer women of color in leadership roles in the architecture world. I see things other people take for granted because of how the world is for them, and I can make a difference for other people like me. Now more than ever, I embrace the responsibility to highlight diversity and accessibility issues in the design process and the world-at-large. We often forget that even the simplest of things can contribute to inequality—like the words we use in everyday conversations, such as “we haven’t found the right guy for the job when the right person might not be a guy!  These little micro-aggressions of assumption towards a white, male prototype are so prevalent, and I hope that my presence in the conversation is helping to change that dynamic.

How does your experience support your ability to create more human-centric design?

First of all, I’m so glad that this has become an essential consideration. We didn’t use to ask ourselves these questions: are we representing our clientele? How about the communities we’re serving? Do we look like them?  What gives us credibility to design for them?

I believe my personal experiences have given me a storehouse of valuable insights that can inform the design process in interesting ways.  For example, before my parents bought their first home in Hawaii, my family spent a few years living in low-income housing. This gave me a perspective that many of my peers wouldn’t be able to offer in the process of designing low-income residential projects.  How can designers truly anticipate the needs of others without being able to relate to their lived experiences? It’s a matter of building trust with the people we want to serve. Diversity gives us at least an element of representation for traditionally underserved communities. But that doesn’t mean one representative is enough, either—I certainly don’t represent all interests of people of color, or working moms, or queer people everywhere. But at least I can ask questions in the design process that might not otherwise be asked. The inclusion of a broad range of perspectives can help spark design ideas and solutions that resonate more fully with our clients and end-users.

That inclusion needs to begin from the bottom up. I’m grateful for mentorship programs that allow disadvantaged high-school students to see that the architecture and design industry is a real possibility for them. Not only that, but the industry would benefit so much from their experiences and ideas. We also need to look at inclusion in terms of community disruption: how will a project impact the people who call that community home? Our firm strives to create places that better serve everyone who uses them. I’m happy to see that we’re taking meaningful steps to analyze the data, understand the scale of our impact on communities, and what it means to make a positive and lasting effect on the world.

We need to lead the charge in our industry to do better as a whole. As an architect and a leader, I want to create space – both physical and emotional —  that is welcoming and safe for people who might not typically feel accepted or acknowledged. By being in the room and by framing up conversations differently, I can help others rethink their bias or their fears toward people unlike themselves —and therefore help them better understand the broader communities and people we are committed to serving.

I don’t lead with my identity, but I do embrace it. I’m proud of everything that has shaped me. I’m proud of my parents for achieving their own American Dream. I’m proud of myself for making it this far without much of a road map. Most importantly, I’m proud of all the future architects who believe in themselves enough to try.

 

Clare Sausen

Clare Sausen

Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.
Clare Sausen