Citizen Architect Profile: Steve Kenat

Steve Kenat

Steve Kenat, Board Member, Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, LISC, ULI Cincinnati, and YWCA Cincinnati

Firm and Role: GBBN, Director of Community Development

What is the purpose of the organization/committee that you are involved with? 

There are several organizations for which I serve on Boards and Committees, and their missions have a significant overlap in the realm of creating equitable opportunities for people. The Over-the-Rhine Chamber of Commerce, LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation), and ULI Cincinnati each share a focus on responsible development in urban areas, specifically in core neighborhoods of Cincinnati. YWCA Cincinnati has a mission of eliminating racism and empowering women, which is broader but also highly relevant in our city, and to me personally. 

Why did you choose to get involved? 

In every case, the mission of the organization is what I found personally compelling to get involved, and I’ve always been appreciative of GBBN for the encouragement and flexibility to do so. I enjoy working with organizations like the OTR Chamber, ULI, and LISC that align with my interest in creative urban environments, and working with residents and entrepreneurs who are passionate about their own neighborhoods and cities, to make them more equitable and sustainable. I fell in love with OTR and its historic fabric when I arrived in Cincinnati as a DAAP student, and I love exploring cities and their stories. 

Supporting others’ efforts to bring neighborhoods together around their strengths and a shared vision is very rewarding. I enjoy working with diverse professionals to make that happen; learning from crazy-smart people in business, finance, development, planning, policy-making, and community-organizing. Perhaps most personally, I wanted to get involved in the YWCA as the father of an adopted daughter from Guatemala, because I didn’t want anyone to limit her potential as a girl, or by the color of her skin.

How does your experience as an architect contribute to the organization? 

Architects are often sought after first in the realm of facilities and construction. We also bring needed design and experience-focused perspective, and are strong collaborators and consensus-builders. 

In the case of the YWCA, we design for trauma-informed care for survivors of domestic violence, to rebuild their dignity and independence with our shelters and programs. 

Understanding and curating the urban environment is much broader. The OTR Chamber attracts and retains a vibrant mix of businesses to activate the neighborhood. We review business plans and provide grants for minority-owned businesses who may struggle with access to investment capital, so business ownership in the neighborhood can better reflect the residents of the neighborhood – making the streets more engaging for businesses, residents, and patrons. That’s similar to the work of LISC’s mission to support affordable housing, help entrepreneurs build businesses, and better serve neighborhoods. ULI has excellent local thought-leadership, and like AIA, broad national perspectives and resources. I appreciate the opportunity to be involved in these teams because they are so cross-disciplinary. 

How has serving in this role benefited you as an architect? 

There’s a tangible impact to the neighborhood in our work. As a downtown resident, I see the benefit of these organizations as a patron of OTR and other surrounding neighborhoods. Understanding the challenges of mission-based organizations has also been a valuable lesson in empathy that I apply to my work, especially with GBBN’s not-for-profit clients. I’ve learned a lot from industry experts in each organization, not to mention the remarkable friendships beyond the architectural profession. 

How much time and effort does your role require? 

Every organization is different, and many Boards only meet quarterly or every other month. But the real work is often done at the Committee level, and my experience is they meet more frequently around more specific initiatives, but that’s also the most rewarding and tangible. 

Would you encourage other architects to get involved in similar organization? 

Absolutely! Before someone can be a good designer, they need to be a good listener. As designers, our goals are rooted in the goals of our clients and understanding the communities in which we practice. I’m definitely a better architect for the skills I’ve learned volunteering in these organizations. I like to believe it’s been mutually beneficial towards advancing Cincinnati as a more equitable and vibrant city. 

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Are you interested in getting more involved with your community? Check out AIA Ohio’s Finding Your Voice advocacy series or come to one of AIA Cincinnati’s Local Advocacy Working Group meetings (second Thursday each month at 8:30 am on Zoom).

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