“Designing Success – My journey as a Black Woman”

Contributor: J. Patrice Brown, MFA, Assistant Professor George Fox University

Originating from a family of creatives, my mother (a floral designer) and father (a furniture designer) worked together as educators by day, and creators at night. I learned creativity was a hobby that supplemented income. I often thought education was their path, but not mine. At a young age, I was certain design would be my career. As a child born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, summer days consisted of drawing cars and houses. Another passion was playing with upholstery at my father’s workshop and designing floral arrangements for weddings.

I attended Tuskegee University to study Architecture. However, six years of apprenticeship was not appealing. In hopes of a prosperous salary, I graduated with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering. Entering the Midwest and a white male dominated industry was a challenge. My goal was to become the first black woman to redesign the Ford Mustang! Instead, I designed powertrains for eight years at an International Truck company. The downturn of the automotive industry led me to my second career, training engineers on the manufacturing plant floor.

Although training was short-lived, I obtained skills in project management, organization, and public speaking. Those skills served me well as a certified Six-Sigma Blackbelt. I became the Training manger for a large radiator manufacturer in the Carolinas. I loved the South, however, there were many uncomfortable situations where black employees feared white management. The reality of working in the South and the effects of systemic racism had become real.

Corporate layoffs became a common thread during this time and my third career change occurred. I discovered interior design and after two years, left engineering and training. After attending school part-time at night, I received an A.A. degree in Interior Design. My reality became learning the ins and outs of Commerical interior spaces.

Working as a corporate space planner for 12 years in Atlanta, GA did not always provide prosperous opportunities. Many of my white colleagues received “high-profile” projects, mentors, and NCIDQ assistance. I began to see this as a “white woman’s” industry and there would be many difficulties ahead. I often felt demeaned to take “grunt” work projects, although asking for more. “Grunt” work became the foundation of creating my own opportunities. I would often ask in-house construction trades to teach me how building systems operated. These skills led me towards my most recent and rewarding career.

While in design school, my dean asked me to pursue an M.F.A. in teaching Interior Design. She mentioned, “As a single professional black woman, you have a lot to share. You will always be in demand and will encourage other black women to walk in your steps.” I accepted that challenge. I received my M.F.A. from Brenau University, taught three years at George Fox University and recently joined Western Carolina University, as Assistant Professor of Interior Design in Cullowhee, NC.
I have been fortunate to accomplish many things as a professor, one is becoming the first black woman to create a new B.F.A. Interior Design program at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. I am grateful to God and ASID for this time to share my story.