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Designing justice: Graduate aims to break barriers in architecture field

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Rayven Cannon graduates this May with her master’s degree in architecture.

Only 22% of licensed architects are women, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. About 9% are non-white and 0.4% are Black women. The number of licensed Black female architects in the United States just hit the 500 mark last year.  

These facts fuel Rayven Cannon’s drive for success in the field. 

“I’m a first-generation college student. I’m Black. I’m Native American. And I’m white,” she said. “Going into this profession, I did not know that the numbers were very low and that the numbers were stacked against me. Knowing that and knowing that I’m very competitive, I want to win. And I want everybody around me to win.”

Cannon, who graduates this May with her master’s degree in architecture, harnessed that passion to find her voice and to amplify the voices of her fellow classmates.  

Last summer as the Black Lives Matter movement gained more momentum, Cannon said an alumna of The Design School asked if she and other students were using their voices. 

Cannon said they weren't – and she set out to change that.  

She and her classmates met with the alumna, brainstormed ways to make their voices heard and surveyed students in The Design School for input on what they wanted. The group outlined 14 action items they wanted to see from the school’s administration and drafted a letter. This was the beginning of Design Justice, an initiative Cannon co-founded.

Design Justice demanded The Design School “declare a position of anti-racism and actively decolonize design education curriculum and pedagogy, ensuring radical transformation within institutionalized academia.” 

“We started the letter because of everything that was happening with Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the LGBTQ community,” Cannon said. “We needed to make sure we were being heard. We wanted to be respectful, but we also wanted to be understood.”

Some of the action items included restructuring all courses in The Design School to include BIPOC, female, Latino and LGBTQ voices; establishing a stated review culture that is constructive, inclusive and dynamic; hiring BIPOC faculty, staff, administration and guest speakers; mandating diversity and inclusion training; and recognizing financial privilege and establishing transparency in financial obligations, including addressing all additional costs associated with being a student.

Cannon said Design Justice also provides a platform for the students to work in partnership with the school as it continues through its redesign process. 

A few hours after sending the letter, Cannon said Phil Horton, interim director of The Design School, reached out to set up a meeting. 

“It was really positive, and we were not expecting that right away,” she said. “We had a lot of faculty support us and students were supporting us. We’re currently working on just being more transparent with the faculty and being able to have a seat at the table as students. And Phil Horton has actually been really good with that. We’re being invited to faculty meetings and being able to be a voice for the students.”

Cannon said while she was destined to attend ASU and to study architecture, she had to wait for the right time. 

“It’s actually really cheesy — so you know how in high school they make you take those tests like what are you good at? So architecture was in my top three.” 

But, as an athlete, she always thought she would go into sports medicine. When she lost a scholarship to play softball in Oregon after a shoulder injury, she walked on to the team at Scottsdale Community College, where she realized sports medicine was not her calling. 

“I think I was a sophomore and a basketball player snapped his shin while I was there, and I was like, ‘No way,’” she said. “I would probably pass out. I was like I think I’m going to stick with architecture.”

In her last season at SCC she was recruited to Lyon College on an athletic scholarship.

“I had never even been to Arkansas before, so I researched the school and prayed about it and the perfect sign came,” Canon said. “They offered me my lucky jersey number — No. 17. Within a couple weeks my mom and I packed up my car and drove over 1,000 miles to Batesville, Arkansas. I had never lived anywhere outside of Arizona, let alone without my family. It was a huge culture shock, but one of the best experiences I have ever had, and I met some of the best people.”

She earned a BA in business administration finance from Lyon College since the school did not offer an architecture degree, and then she discovered that the Master of Architecture program at ASU had a three-year program. 

“I joke about this with my mom – so, I felt that I was kind of bred to go to ASU,” she said. “All of my coaches growing up, they all played for ASU. My catching coach was the catcher for ASU, my coach was the second baseman for ASU, my SCC coach was the hitting coach for ASU. When I was younger we went to the World Series and ASU actually won the World Series when I was there. It was always in the destiny to be a Devil.”

And now, Cannon will leave a legacy at ASU with the Design Justice initiative, but she also has plans to leave a legacy in the architecture world. 

“My dad didn’t go to college, my mom didn’t go to college — so it’s very important for me to succeed, but not only for my family,” she said. “I think it’s beautiful when I see other women like me in the field talking and just being brilliant and putting their knowledge out there. It’s amazing, and I can’t wait to be that person for the children out there.”

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I always was really close with my coaches, but at ASU I built bonds with my professors. I am a first-generation college student and it’s just my mom and I, and we’ve always navigated college just her and I figuring it out. I always had a lot of questions, and I didn't know how to figure it out, so coming to ASU and especially being older, I discovered building bonds with your professor is very important and networking is very, very important, and becoming a professional. Especially meeting people like Phil Horton and Brie Smith and Jose Bernardi and (Marc Neveu). You have to be able to connect and be able to present yourself well in those atmospheres. Taking that and becoming a professional is something that I've learned that you need to do, and I've appreciated that, especially in the studio setting.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Brie Smith, for sure. She’s the person I probably connect with the most. I remember before studio night I was having probably a mini panic attack. I went to her office, unannounced of course, and I just went and sat in her office, and she gave me the best advice — telling me to be confident within myself and present myself well. I remember she was one of my first professors in the 3+ program, and she always challenged me to be my best self that I could be. And seeing a woman within the profession was just so amazing. I didn't realize at the time how rare we are, and every time I see her she just gives me a piece of advice, and she always challenges me to be my best self and to always step outside of my comfort zone and just be on my A game and always, always speak my mind. I respect her tremendously. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My best piece of advice is that you are your own advocate. You are your own cheerleader. At the end of the day, you choose whether you succeed or not. You are paying thousands of dollars to be here and you make the best of your situation. You have to put yourself in situations to succeed because nobody else is going to put you in situations to succeed. And I know I personally didn’t until Design Justice … You are paying to be here, so why not take advantage of these brilliant minds of people who are teaching you who have already been through the process and are willing to distribute their knowledge. And so, at the end of the day, you need to take full advantage of their minds and what they want to give you. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: Our studio. I love sitting at the table with everybody. I really miss the studio. Especially our cohort — we had 65 students I want to say, and so just hearing everybody talk about what their project was, where they are or complaining or laughing. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I actually do have a couple of trips planned – I need to travel. I sparked a huge interest in science and technology within architecture so I’m hoping to get a job within that sector, but hopefully getting licensed soon and studying for licensure. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would put it towards our education system. I feel it’s very stagnant, especially towards our lower income neighborhoods. With emerging technologies that we have now that are readily available to us, especially being online, the crisis that everybody went through – in the lower income neighborhoods it was literally a crisis. A lot of kids didn't have laptops, a lot of kids didn’t have Wi-Fi, and so they were not receiving the education that they deserved. I don’t know exactly what I would do with it, but I would definitely contribute to their minds the way that they deserve to be contributed to, because they are our future, and we are not catering to them the way that they deserve to be catered to. And they are not growing the way that should be growing. And our teachers deserve way, way more than what they are getting. It’s now just a system where students are being funnelled through and they are being tested rather than their minds being supplemented, and it’s very sad. So I don’t know how I’d do it, but definitely the education system needs to be fixed. And I would love to be able to be a part of that solution. 

samccar5@asu.edu