(A multipart reflection on fellowship written by Lira Luis)
“Everything that happens only once can never happen twice. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”
-Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist
Part 3 – The RSA Fellowship
Just imagine receiving a nomination to join the Fellowship of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) at the height of the pandemic this summer. It’s a global Fellowship that is awarded to exceptional individuals worldwide who can demonstrate that they have made significant contributions to social progress and development through serving society in important ways within the Arts, Manufacture or Commerce, and support the mission of the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). When I learned about the nomination, I bet most architects are a bit like me, especially if you’re BIPOC (Black/Indigenous People of Color) or AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) — you’ve been told many times in your career you’re not the “right” (fill in the blank) or you don’t have the “right” (fill in the blank) for a successful outcome. It can be tempting to give in to that impostor syndrome.
Being elected FRSA came on the heels of my election as 2020 Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (FRIBA) at the onset of the pandemic.
I was already happy and content with the one I received from a global architecture community. Who wouldn’t be? I was fortunate to be in fellowship with the 2020 Pritzker Architecture Prize (the Nobel Prize of architecture) laureates and 2020 Royal Gold Medalist for architecture, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects!
While a second Fellowship was a welcomed bonus, I needed a better reason to work towards another one so I contemplated on its value. “You start with Reasons, and from those Reasons you select specific Results you seek to achieve. From those results you develop Processes or Methods”, explains organizational psychologist Benjamin Hardy PhD on why you don’t apologize for success and when it begets success. I also sought the advice of Chicago architect J.J. Tang who already achieved two Fellowships himself (from the Society of American Military Engineers and American Institute of Architects) and he advised, “It depends on what you (want to) focus on and if that fellowship is aligned with what you do”. I took this to heart.
First, I studied what the “FRSA” is all about. Founded in 1754, it is one of the oldest and most prestigious learned societies in the world with a global network of 30,000 Fellows (a small fraction of the world population achieve this Fellow status). Past and current Fellows include leading activists, artists, architects, engineers, writers, journalists and former politicians who have made significant contributions to their fields. Some of them are Stephen Hawking, Charles Dickens, one of America’s Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin, and two-time Nobel laureate Marie Curie to name a few. Plus I’m a big fan of the latter two.
Its strengths include engaging a diverse network, tapping into many skills, identifying great ideas (in other words they have an ability to spot and curate powerful new ideas), promoting and sharing, and testing and growing. These gave me reasons to work towards the Fellowship: The values they uphold, such as how they “value other people’s work and wisdom, treat them with respect and do not attack or steal the work of others. (The Fellows) judge (themselves) by the contribution they make to society — not by the benefits they gain as an organization”; and how they “value the quality and rigor of ideas — not where they come from” (or born and raised). They are gate facilitators and not gatekeepers for enlightened thinking and collaborative action in service to society.
Lastly, I evaluated my work and submitted this: I amplify minority perspectives, connect diverse communities, and capitalize innovation to bring quality architectural solutions for the benefit of the underserved and vulnerable. And at the core, I help those impacted by extreme climate and inequities. It demands overcoming preconceptions. While these were the attributes that met the FRIBA criteria and led to my election as Fellow, they were similarly recognized as significant contributions to social progress and development in my election as Fellow of RSA.
The positive contributions to architecture demonstrated in my submission — from working with poorer communities in my own country, to designing infrastructure abroad, and the desire to support, influence and affect change, were equally celebrated by both the RIBA (a global architecture community) and RSA (a world community known for service to societal progress and development).
There’s a saying, if something happens once, it’s highly probable that it is a fluke. But if it happens a second time, there is a high probability that it has merit and indicative of a likely pattern to produce similar outcomes. Repetitions are solid evidence of merit manifested in those repeated outcomes. This “two” and/or too, is a welcomed bonus:
The RSA has had an immense impact on the world that included recording the first use of the word ‘sustainability’ in an environmental context (RSA Journal 1980) and offering rewards for the reduction of smoke emissions (1770), to name a few. “No matter how great our past has been, we believe we can have an even better future, and Lira Luis is now part of that story,” writes RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor.
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