The most surprising thing about AIA’s inaugural SpeakUp event in July was the majority presence of emerging professionals, who came to learn about effective advocacy principles and tactics. Of the roughly 150 attendees, more than half were newly licensed architects (less than 10 years) or Associate AIA members on track for licensure—all with a sharp interest in keeping architects at the center of legislation and policy decisions that will affect them and the generations to come.

“Many of us are looking for something deeper than running a firm or collecting a paycheck,” says Sarah Killingsworth, Assoc. AIA, SpeakUp attendee and a designer at SBWV Architects in Houston.

“Architecture is omnipresent,” adds Matthew Gaul, Assoc. AIA, a designer at BAR Architects in San Francisco who also attended the three-day advocacy and action gathering, “but architects aren’t.”

Getting involved, no matter your age

The work of architects impacts almost everyone, but that authority doesn’t always extend to other realms. While they’ve always been successful at lobbying for changes in laws that impact them, the profession is far from reaching its fullest potential in exerting influence. And for the uninitiated, getting involved in the policy process at all can prove daunting.

Yet it’s something that a rising wave of young professionals—including Killingsworth, Gaul, and hundreds like them—are gearing up to pursue.

“I graduated when things were getting a little better economically,” Gaul says, “but many of my peers were immediately faced with a lot of the world’s problems. And when they’re confronted by problems—be they social, economic or cultural—people of my generation see a need to do something.”

“Because we’re younger, less established, and have fewer resources,” Killingsworth says, “we see the necessity for collaboration.”

A common perception is that more senior architects—firm leaders who recognize the impact of laws and regulations on the practices they run—have a greater interest in advocacy, and the time and resources to connect with powerful policymakers. And SpeakUp was indeed populated with veterans who’ve made advocacy a key part of their careers. But if ever there was a barrier that stopped young professionals from engaging with lawmakers and government officials, it’s becoming a thing of the past.

Finding the right place to be heard

Today’s emerging architects are finding their voices in arenas where they’re likely to be heard: AIA chapters, city councils, and other groups that don’t make advanced age or experience a prerequisite for contributing to the larger conversation.

“The best place to start is locally,” Killingsworth says. “If you’re looking to advocate, start in the place you know best, where you live and work.” She takes her own advice to heart, serving as the president of the University of Houston’s alumni association for the Architecture and Design school. “We’re the voice of the alumni to the school,” she says, “and it’s a great opportunity to represent—and find common ground among—what multiple parties find important.”

Gaul, on the other hand, serves as an associate director on the AIA San Francisco board but has yet to find an outlet for his advocacy efforts. He came to SpeakUp to figure out exactly how to get involved, and make contacts who have already gotten their feet in the door. Part of this desire to pledge time, he hypothesizes, is a built-in need to go above and beyond what’s expected.

“I grew up in a generation where you had to have extracurricular activities to get into a good college,” Gaul says, “and most were of a volunteer, giving-back nature. It was always about being involved, outside of my normal commitments and for the benefit of others. Advocacy is just a natural extension of that.”

A new generation of advocates

Regardless of the reason, there’s no doubt that such fresh blood is a major boon to the future of architecture and its place in the grand scheme of things.

“We’re young, and the world is our oyster,” Killingsworth says. “We have a lot of energy, and there are issues out there that we’re realizing we can affect.”

One of the lessons she took away from SpeakUp, and interacting with architecture’s leaders in general, is that “leadership doesn’t necessarily mean advocacy, and vice versa.” The AIA took action on this very idea by breaking SpeakUp away from the Grassroots leadership conference for 2016; while both require professional passion, the people underneath aren’t necessarily similar.

“Architects at all stages of their careers have so much to contribute to the policy and political process,” says Andrew Goldberg, Assoc. AIA, managing director of AIA government relations and advocacy. “That’s why it was so gratifying to see so many young architects at SpeakUp working side-by-side with their more experienced peers, not only building their advocacy skills but leaving the event ready to put them to use in their communities. We are creating a whole new generation of advocates for architecture.”

“Every advocacy effort needs facilitation like SpeakUp,” Killingsworth says. “I don’t think it can work without that leadership. And you can’t force people to care; provide the tools and help direct them, and then you can get effective advocacy. It has to come from an individual’s passion, rather than a top-down mandate.”

Steve Cimino is the digital content manager at the AIA.