THE POWER OF COMMUNITY IN UNCERTAIN TIMES: A LETTER FROM CHAPTER PRESIDENT CYNTHIA WILLIAMS

I hope that this note continues to find you and your loved ones safe and healthy while weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. Right now, we’re hearing a lot about concern for the wider community. Most of us, thankfully, are healthy. But the virus has affected us all, from causing feelings of stress, anxiety, and concern, to new routines of donning face masks and participating in Olympic levels of handwashing. As we protect ourselves, we are safeguarding our community in equal measure. A mask shields us as much as it does others, folks we may have never met. The virus has laid bare our connectivity and visualized our interdependency anew. 

Each of you is a part of many different communities, from a family to a neighborhood, to a professional organization like the AIA. What does it mean to be a member of the AIA community?

For many years, I was a member of the AIA in name only. I heard about the AIA in graduate school and joined the organization as a young architect in I. M. Pei’s office. It wasn’t a choice; it simply came with the job. When I left Pei’s office and started my own firm as a sole proprietor, I hesitated to renew my membership. As a working mother, I had no time to attend meetings or events. Moreover, at that time, most of the AIA programming focused on commercial architecture; I primarily did residential work. “What’s in it for me?” I wondered. But I felt, somewhat innately, that the professional community indicated by the letters behind my name was worth it. So I continued paying dues, although I was unable to attend events or meetings at that time. 

In 2005, the predecessor of AIA Cincinnati’s chapter of the Custom Residential Architects’ Network (CRAN) was born. Finally, there was a subset of members that shared my professional focus. Month by month, through CRAN “lunch and learns,” I got to know other architects doing residential work and felt a greater connection to the CRAN community. During the Great Recession, we shared the burden of the economic downturn. As a group of “friendly competitors,” we each vied for the next commission. Yet, we celebrated each other’s success because it meant as a community our collective economy was improving. In 2009, with extra time on my hands due to the work slow down, I volunteered to be part of the leadership of our CRAN committee. Little did I know that it would be what saved my business a year later.

In the summer of 2010, I sustained a serious fall while hiking. I suffered numerous injuries including broken bones in both of my arms that required surgery and a year of physical therapy. I couldn’t hold a pencil, or even drive, for several months; my livelihood as an architect was threatened. About a month into my recovery, a fellow architect who knew me from the CRAN committee reached out to offer support. Through shared office space, computer training, and assistance with visits to job sites, I was able to continue my work. My colleagues’ care and concern for me, another member of the AIA community, made all the difference for the continuation of my practice. 

My personal experience of uncertainty in 2010 crystallized for me the value of being part of the AIA. As COVID-19 puts us on unstable ground yet again, I urge you to remember the safety net that community can provide. The future is uncertain, in ways both good and bad. You never know what your community—what this community—may be able to do for you. 

Stay in touch and take good care.

Cynthia Williams, AIA 

2 Comments
  • Lifespan Design Studio
    Posted at 10:28h, 05 May

    Cynthia, nicely put. We all need to stop now & then and realize that there are more people out there who care about any of us than we realize each day. Stay safe.

    • Cynthia Williams
      Posted at 12:53h, 05 May

      Thanks, Doug, I appreciate the kind words.