Wanted! The next 400 female architects

400 Forward
United States (Detroit)

The current face of architecture is not an accurate reflection of what our cities look like. One woman in Detroit is seeking to change that.


Growing up in Detroit’s inner city as a young artist interested in drawing and cartooning, Tiffany Brown didn’t see many potential job options. Today the architectural designer is an advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion, working tirelessly to improve upon one shocking statistic in particular… that of the 0.3 percenters.

400 Forward founder Tiffany Brown | Photo: Marcus Lyon

As recently as 2017, the 400th African-American woman was licensed to be an architect in the United States. She wasn’t the 400th that year, but the 400th among living, licensed and practicing architects – of all time. Women represent 20 percent of licensed architects, and Black women only 0.3%.

“Throughout my career, I have noticed that there have been very few people who look like me.”

It was that 0.3 per cent stat that shocked and inspired Tiffany to try to shape the future of design. She wanted to build a more accessible road for the next generation of Black female architects and urban planners. In 2017, she created 400 Forward to try to influence the next 400 female architects, with an underlying focus on African American women. 

400 forward atlas of the future

Tiffany grew up in Detroit in the 1980s and 90s in unsafe neighbourhoods and public housing complexes. She studied architecture at Lawrence Technological University, in Michigan, and now works at international architectural, engineering and planning firm SmithGroupJJR in Detroit. But she remembers being referred to as a ‘disadvantaged youth’.

“I didn’t like the way that that made me feel, like there was a limit to the opportunities that were out there for me. So today, when I go and speak to kids in inner city schools, like the ones where I grew up, I always make sure that I don’t refer to them as that.”

400 forward atlas of the future

An initiative of the Urban Arts Collective nonprofit organisation that she co-founded to promote alternative science and engineering education for underrepresented groups, 400 Forward is a comprehensive programme which introduces young girls to architecture, provides scholarships and pays for study material and licensing exams for African American women in architecture.

The Detroit native champions Black girls and actively seeks out and mentors the next generation of women designers – aiming to position young women to realise their talents in STEAM and artistic excellence. The NGO also helps with financial assistance, uplifting girls by giving them the tools they need to address social issues created by the unjust ‘built environments’ of our inner city communities. 

The 400 Forward vision has picked up substantial support, such as a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation via its Knight Arts Challenge.

400 forward atlas of the future

For Tiffany, the future will only be in good hands if we rethink architecture education for the traditionally underserved by raising awareness on how planning and design makes a significant social impact in urban communities – and its impacts on culture, behaviour and health. That’s why she seeks out “those kids who need to be designing those spaces”. She feels that the people designing spaces should be the ones that use them. “These students have the opportunity to design a liveable city, they just don’t know that yet.”

The successful architect knows how important it is to have support when the odds are stacked up against you as a woman. Even today on construction sites, workers ask her if she’s there to clean up, not realising she’s there to check up on their work of her designs.

Tiffany add that she wants girls to know that their obstacles can be used to their advantage. “I like to remind girls of a quote that I learned from an actress named Yara Shahidi that says, ‘You are the anomaly if you succeed and the expectation if you fail’. I learned that the obstacles I faced in my life are meant to be tools for me to teach others. And that’s what took me to 400 Forward.”

Tiffany with Michelle Obama and architect Stuart Coppage at the 2017 AIA Conference

AtlasAction: Contact 400 Forward here about partnerships and sponsorships or just to learn more.

Read more ► 400 Forward was mapped by artist Marcus Lyon in his Human Atlas: 5 stories from Detroit

Written by

Lisa Goldapple, Editor-in-Chief, Atlas of the Future (21 November 2020)

Project leader

Tiffany Brown, Founder


This project has been selected as part of CultureFutures, a new storytelling project that maps creative and cultural projects with a social mission – and the artists, collectives and entrepreneurs behind them.

Atlas of the Future is excited to join forces with Goldsmiths Institute of Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship and the British Council Creative Economy.

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