We all have a responsibility to lend a helping hand to those coming up behind us, writes Satish Jassal

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Source: Satish Jassal Architects

Satish Jassal

I grew up in Sparkhill, Birmingham, in the 1980s, an area recently made famous by the Peaky Blinders and Citizen Khan shows. But in the 1960s and 70s it was a landing point for many immigrants and still is.

When I was around eight, my sister asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I replied, “a singer, a magician or an artist”. She chuckled back to me, “they’re not real jobs,” and in jest said, “you should be an architect”.

I did not know what an architect was at the age of eight. All I knew was that I enjoyed sketching. It was a cheap pastime. To find out what an architect was and how to become one, I travelled the treacherous walk from home to Sparkhill Library to look it up in an encyclopaedia.

The reference book stated that architects designed buildings and had to study for seven years. They were required to have high grades, and A-levels in maths and art were an advantage. I thought to myself that seven years was a long time, but I also believed I could achieve it.

The term mentor was alien to me growing up

There started my dream of becoming an architect. What the encyclopaedia did not tell me was the importance of a mentor to guide me through the even more treacherous journey towards joining the profession.

The term mentor was alien to me growing up. In my working-class Indian community, there were no architects and no real networks of professionals that I could speak to. There were maybe a couple of teachers who gave me insights during my journey but never any real advice or direction.

Much later in life, I realised how a true mentor could move you forward with your career and connect you with others within their networks. But a typical working-class immigrant attitude is that you must just work harder to succeed, if possible, on your own terms.

Fast forward quite a few years later, and I managed to qualify as an architect against all the odds. I was working on a few high-profile projects for prominent architectural practices.

I realised I was suddenly in an advantaged position as a diverse architect

I sat in project rooms which were mostly filled with people who were not like me. I had been conditioned not to raise this as an issue and understood it was best not to talk about it openly. Nevertheless, I made it into those project rooms, to the benefit of my employers and their clients.

I eventually set up my own practice. I could see that underprivileged diverse students were struggling to complete the mammoth task of architectural education. Dropout rates are highest amongst diverse students, women and students from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds, who probably, like me at the time, did not understand the magnitude of the task ahead.

With little guidance and support they must ask themselves, “is it worth it?” Many never become qualified architects. I realised I was suddenly in an advantaged position as a diverse architect. I should at least try to make a difference by supporting students from similar backgrounds to me. To try and help them get into those project rooms.

That epiphany led me to discover the Built By Us Fluid Diversity Mentoring Programme created by Danna Walker, who leads award-winning diversity and inclusion programmes. The programme connects volunteer mentors and mentees from across the built environment.

I was quickly paired up with a mentee

Built By Us prioritises mentees who face intersectional barriers to success, including women, people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, disabled people, LGBTQIA+ people and people who face socio-economic disadvantages. The programme lasts for 12 months, and the time commitments are flexible and agreed upon between the mentor and mentee. Built By Us monitors the insights through conversations and evaluations during the process.

Once I had submitted my application, Built By Us carried out an interview process to find out if I was a right fit for the programme. I was quickly paired up with a mentee. She was a British Part 2 architectural student with a Ghanaian background. I initially spoke to her over the phone and then arranged a meeting at my office. She was interested in urban design and would eventually like to work in Africa.

When we met, I sensed she was a little apprehensive at being paired up with an Asian man who ran a small architectural practice. In some ways, our backgrounds were very different, but in other ways very similar. I started to think about how I could connect with her. I thought to myself that if she did not relate to me, then maybe she would with people within my network.

I contacted two leading black female architects I knew and asked them if they would be willing to speak to my mentee and give her some of their insights. They kindly gave up their time and talked to my mentee about some of the challenges they faced in their journey towards the profession and how they overcame them.

Mentor and mentee must feel that they can challenge each other’s assumptions

Both were truly inspiring and spoke eloquently about their determination to make it in the profession. They had to work harder than others to prove themselves to be successful and be in the prominent positions they are in now. This sense of determination came across strongly, and I could sense my mentee starting to refocus her efforts once she met these role models.

We continued to talk over the course of the programme, and I was able to help her with preparing her CV, interviewing techniques and focusing her efforts on practices that worked in the areas she was interested in. I am glad to see she is still in the profession.

One of the key insights I have learned mentoring a number of students over the years is that it is vital for both parties to listen to each other. Mentor and mentee must feel that they can challenge each other’s assumptions, behaviours and actions and suspend judgement about each other.

Being able to reach out and give some guidance, no matter how big or small, can be of huge value. This is particularly the case for people who are not privileged enough to have their own professional networks to support them. It is an essential way to diversify the built environment professions, helping to make them more inclusive and innovative.

If the whole profession spent just a small amount of time mentoring each other rather than constantly competing, we would all benefit. I have found that I have learned as much from a mentee and their experiences as they learn from me.