How One Association Handled a Difficult Conference-Location Decision

The National Organization of Minority Architects faced pushback for hosting its annual conference in Nashville this year. Candid statements and on-the-ground action helped.


In June, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling invalidating Roe v. Wade, the National Organization of Minority Architects faced a challenge. NOMA was going ahead with its annual meeting in Nashville in October, but the high-court ruling—which triggered a Tennessee law banning abortion in the state—was a direct challenge to NOMA’s organizational values. 

“The Dobbs ruling was a unique concern for our organization because our members could be penalized for taking on projects that include women’s health clinics where these reproductive healthcare needs take place,” said NOMA National Executive Director Tiffany D. Brown. “Architects are responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of the public, and those spaces include these healthcare facilities.”

NOMA had already faced some criticism among members for holding its conference in a conservative state, Brown said; some chapters had declined to fund travel there. But the Dobbs ruling demonstrated a need for further action.

The first step was acknowledging the challenge many members were facing. “We really wanted to highlight the importance of meeting our members where they are, making sure that we’re serving everyone no matter where they are, whether you’re in a progressive state or not,” she said. With the NOMA board and a public relations consultant, the association released a statement announcing a charitable donation to a social-justice organization in the state, and noting that Nashville has played a central role in civil rights history and in the history of the association. 

The statement didn’t persuade everyone, Brown said, but the public acknowledgment of concerns mattered. “We did have some folks who weren’t completely satisfied, but they appreciated that we addressed their concerns,” she said.

NOMA also took steps during the conference to address members’ concerns in terms of attendee safety and around the social-justice issues raised by the Dobbs ruling. In response to attendee concerns, Brown said, “we did step up security at our social events—just making sure that we had more control points throughout the hotel, getting access to events and seminars.”

And at the conference itself, NOMA included sessions that directly addressed discriminatory concerns, including “Place Driving Equity: A Guide for Action,” “Bringing Justice to Communities of Color through Sustainable Design,” and a session on how NOMA and American Institute of Architects chapters have worked to address systemic discrimination in the profession. 

The conference was a success—Brown said it drew approximately 1,000 attendees, well above its estimate of 700. Going forward, Brown said NOMA still has plans to think about how it handles site-selection discussions for its future conferences, making room for more input.

“I’m learning that as executive director, site planning and selection is more of an operations path. Historically that’s been a president or board-of-directors decision, and for better planning ahead, it should be in the hands of those managing the organization,” she said. “And we’re really happy to continue to have that conversation as a group and to make sure that we are listening to our members and asking for their feedback as we make those selections.”

(JuSun/iStock/Getty Images)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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