SPEAK-UP 2016 CONFIRMS NEED FOR ARCHITECTS AS POLITICAL ADVOCATES FOR OUR PROFESSION

F. Michael Ayles, AIA, NCARB

F. Michael Ayles, AIA, NCARB

From July 13-15, the AIA brought together about 150 architecture students, emerging professionals, and practitioners to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural SpeakUp event, an intense 2½ day workshop and mock campaign challenge to teach legislative advocacy regarding issues related to architecture and the built environment. Ultimately, this new event was an interactive “part two” to AIA’s annual Grassroots Conference – “part one” of which was held in February in Detroit, and covered government policy and legislation topics.


When members of the Center for Civic Leadership (CCL) heard about SpeakUp in late 2015, we debated our participation in the event as we weren’t quite sure how there might be mutual benefit with our involvement. It was clear after I attended how beneficial this new format and initiative could be for AIA members in the future as “Citizen Architects”, a role that the CCL has promoted and encouraged since its existence.  Also in attendance from the CCL were James Yankopoulos and Eric Pempus, and I imagine they would have the same reaction to the event.

It certainly helped that just prior to SpeakUp was the Knowledge Leadership Assembly, where leaders from over 20 knowledge communities and advocacy groups (including the CCL) met to share knowledge, best practices, and leverage collaboration between groups to create extraordinary resources for AIA members. With several CCL members and AIA staff liaisons in attendance, an entire morning was dedicated meeting to discuss, strategize, and plan the next six months of the CCL’s efforts … and beyond. At the conclusion of this meeting, there was a fantastic one-on-one discussion with Russ Davidson, FAIA (current AIA President) and Thomas Vonier, FAIA (2017 AIA President) – it is clear that we are all on the same page about ‘architects as leaders’.


So … back to SpeakUp. Although many attendees met with their House and Senate representatives to discuss the critical AIA issues, nearly all had the opportunity during the event to use their existing, or newly-learned, skills to work as a team of 30-35 to develop a legislative campaign for a hypothetical green-schools bill that would make schools 50% more efficient than current code.  Participants were divided into four teams, each representing a different region of the country, and had to create a campaign to get their local representatives to vote in support of the new bill.

As attendees planned their team campaign periodically throughout the event, educational workshop sessions were held revolving around five key elements of a successful campaign and/or advocacy effort – 1) building a strong legislative strategy, 2) message development and communications, 3) forming allies and coalitions, 4) using elections and political action committees, and 5) organizational growth.  These workshops were led by key AIA Advocacy staff, AIA local chapter leaders, state senators, public affairs and government relations executives, and legislative attorneys – no shortage of advocacy expertise!

One of the more interesting discussions occurred at a 90-minute breakfast session of roundtable and report back discussions focused on what key issues and challenges participants and their components faced regarding 1) unstaffed components, 2) getting more students involved with advocacy, 3) advocating in “blue” or “red” states, 4) policy issues, and 5) how to get more members engaged in politics when many are frustrated with the process. Needless to say, I selected to participate in that last topic and I’m happy to report that answers shared among the event attendees included more leadership training programs, mentor pairing (AIA member to legislator), and getting more AIA members to win local elections and actively seek/share their experiences. The session’s final collective answer to the phrase “By 2025, the AIA’s advocacy efforts have led to ____” was for “architects to be recognized as leaders!”

On the last morning of SpeakUp, the four teams presented their developed campaign plans for review by a jury comprised of the AIA’s chief of staff, the managing partner of a government relations firm, a delegate to the Maryland General Assembly, the president of a presentation consulting firm, and the senior director of engagement for the Democracy Initiative. James Yankopoulos and I were both on the same campaign team and were selected to speak as part of our team presentation – which was quite an honor when you look at the government affair and advocacy firepower in the room. Though we did not win “best in show”, the knowledge that was gained by the 150 attendees was impressive.

For my final thoughts of SpeakUp, I must commend the AIA Advocacy staff in creating such an intense, organized, and educational event. Though I initially wondered why I attended and how I could take back what I learned locally to my chapter, I seemed to learn more about myself as a local elected official. I also realize that I have many years left as an AIA member and can hopefully use my newfound understanding of the issues behind the scenes of a legislative campaign … before I need to attend SpeakUp again and get re-trained. That said, I truly hope SpeakUp continues for many years to come – it is outstanding that 150 AIA members and staff gained this knowledge, but we need hundreds more to participate and get involved in their local communities.

And hopefully AIA Leadership Institute 2016 will be the inspiration needed to get AIA members involved in the next SpeakUp!