The NOMA Foundation Fellowship is a two-month internship program designed to increase the number of minority architects in the United States. ZGF is one of several host firms. We brought together two of our most recent Fellows, Carl’Drail Cannon and Will Collins, for a conversation about mentorship, what NOMA means to them, and what gives them hope for the future.
Carl’Drail Cannon is from Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. He grew up playing with Lincoln Logs as his creative outlet. After graduating from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2018, he pursued a dual Master of Architecture and MBA in 2020. He participated in the NOMA Fellowship last summer, working remotely with ZGF’s LA office, before coming on board full time. On the side, he’s a small business owner of a custom bow tie company and recently authored a children’s book—all by the age of 24.
Carl’Drail’s dream job was to become an architect because “there isn’t a limit to what you can do with the knowledge and skills,” he says. “I’ve learned that I can explore different aspects of the industry, whether interior design, furniture design, or even set design for movies. This is a great dream to have because I’m not stuck doing one thing—I can do anything.”
Growing up, Will Collins was captain of his high school football team in Daytona Beach, Florida. With two parents who were urban planners and a childhood love for Lego, Will followed in his mother’s and father’s footsteps graduating from Florida A&M University with a Bachelor of Architecture in 2020. He participated in the NOMA Fellowship this winter, working remotely with our DC office. Outside of work, he enjoys creating digital art on his iPad and recently started a YouTube channel to inspire people to live a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle.
Architecture appeals to Will because of the impact it can have on social and environmental justice. “You can’t have one without the other,” he says. “How can we make the world more sustainable for future generations? What are we leaving our children, and our children’s children, to look forward to? I want to inspire society to take up this initiative full force.”
ZGF: Carl’Drail, tell us about your NOMA Fellowship and what it was like to then join ZGF as a fulltime employee. What have you been working on while at the firm?
Carl’Drail: “I spent my Fellowship researching African and African-American architects and designers who, I feel, haven’t been recognized enough for their strides in breaking down barriers so people of color can see themselves doing the same things.
I was surprised when I was hired full time. There were doubts running through my mind telling me I wasn’t good enough or didn’t have enough experience. But I had great mentor in Steven Lewis. He made me feel comfortable and confident that I can do the work and how good of a job I was doing.
Since then, I’ve been working with some amazing and talented people on a project for California’s Department of General Services, the new California Air Resources Board (CARB) headquarters. They’ve helped me realize how much there is to learn and what it takes to get where I want to go.”
ZGF: Will, how did you feel finding out you were selected for the NOMA Fellowship? What topic did you research?
Will: “I was very excited to get the Fellowship. I knew it would be my first real-world experience outside of architecture school, and I was ready to jump in headfirst. ZGF turned out to be the best firm I could have worked with. Having access to different resources and networking through my mentor Otto Condon, as well as Steven Lewis, is something I treasured and will take with me into the future.
My research project focused on urban design and social justice. I created a roadmap of the major players and events throughout history, looking at what set us back from economic equality, how policy and urban design were historically used to suppress minorities, and what is being done today in the social justice movement. Instead of doing a PowerPoint presentation, I wanted to differentiate myself with a TED Talk-style video leveraging my editing skills.”
ZGF: What was the highlight of your Fellowship?
Carl’Drail: “Definitely the mentorship with Steven Lewis. We still talk to this day about my progress. Before this fellowship, I never really had a male role model engaged in my career or someone to talk to about architecture.”
Will: “For me, it was seeing the projects Otto was working on—his thought process, ideas and methods. I realized that a lot of what I learned in architecture school can be applied to what we’re doing in urban design.”
ZGF: What does NOMA mean to you?
Carl’Drail: “NOMA means progression. It means opportunities. Before the Fellowship, I applied to several firms and went to lots of career fairs. I thought I would never land an internship or a job. Through NOMA and the connections that I made, I was finally able to take the first step toward my dream job.”
Will: “NOMA’s mission is exactly what the architecture profession needs. The fact that only 2% of licensed architects in the U.S. are Black is baffling to me. NOMA is one of the leading organizations combating this issue. As soon as I got in touch with someone at NOMA, they matched me up with a mentor. This experience has given me a new perspective on the impact I can have in architecture.”
ZGF: With everything going on in the world right now, what gives you hope for the future?
Carl’Drail: “Young activists speaking up for people who have a voice but aren’t being heard. The younger generation isn’t afraid to step outside the box and think differently. Looking back 10, 20 years, we knew things weren’t going as well as they should be. Fast forward to today and we’re still dealing with the same issues, now magnified by COVID, which has become both a blessing and a curse in terms of opening people’s eyes and forcing us to deal with everything. Now the whole world is seeing what people of color have been going through and are fighting for real change. That’s exciting.”
Will: “I’m both an optimist and realist. I know it’s possible for people to change, but I also know people are afraid of change. I still have hope because of the new wave of communication and personal connection that’s possible now with tools like Zoom and social media. We can connect with people who don’t have the same background and learn from their perspective. I think this will create more empathy and encourage people to do better, both personally and environmentally.”
ZGF: What advice would you give other architecture/urban design students following in your footsteps?
Will: “Make it a habit to continually learn from everything you can possibly learn from. It can be as simple as a conversation with a stranger, learning a new skill that can provide a passive income for yourself, or growing your own garden and your own food. Even if it doesn’t relate to architecture specifically, learning how to create something for yourself can inspire and teach others.”
Carl’Drail: “Work hard, but not too hard. Take personal time for yourself. For minorities specifically, don’t hold the weight of your race on your back. It’s a lot of pressure to not only feel like you’re failing yourself and your family but also ‘your people.’ Just focus on being the best person you can be, and that will in turn reflect on your people. You have great ideas, hopes and aspirations that can make a difference in your community and the world—you just have to believe it.”