Tradition Spring 2021
Tradition Spring 2021

Kimberly Dowdell ’01

Distinguished Alumna 2021

Distinguished Alumna Kimberly Dowdell ’01, Builds for a Better Future for Others

When architect Kimberly Dowdell ’01, sees a problem, she does not hesitate to address it. That instinct was there when, as a child growing up in Detroit in the 1980s and 1990s, she saw the deterioration of buildings and neighborhoods around her. “I remember the old Hudson’s department store downtown and seeing it boarded up,” Dowdell says. “I remember this distinct moment, thinking ‘I would like to fix this building.’ That was the genesis for me.”

Today, Dowdell is the marketing principal for the global design firm HOK’s Chicago studio, where she helps guide large-scale projects from vision to fruition. Her past work includes an airport and corporate headquarters, while HOK designs a wide variety of project types, including sports, recreation and entertainment facilities such as Detroit’s own Little Caesar’s Arena.  One simple yet expansive vision guides her work—“to improve the quality of life for people living in cities,” putting into practice a desire to build in ways that really help a wide variety of people.

She has incorporated that belief system into nearly every aspect of her professional life, serving in leadership roles that have allowed her to engage others in addressing issues of racial, social and environmental justice as they relate to architecture, design and community building. 

Dowdell recently completed a two-year term as one of the youngest presidents in the 50-year history of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), where she was also the fourth woman president. Dowdell helped the organization amplify its voice this past summer after the murder of George Floyd and along with the uprisings that erupted in protest of racial injustice all across the United States and around the world. 

“We were able to make a powerful public statement on behalf of NOMA and it was almost like a turning point for our organization,” she says. She encouraged not only members of NOMA but all citizens, neighbors and colleagues to “be BRAVE—an acronym standing for “Banish racism. Reach out to those who are grieving. Advocate for the disinherited. Vote in every American election. Engage each human that you meet as YOU would want to be engaged.” 

The response was overwhelmingly positive. NOMA’s membership grew by nearly 200 percent during Dowdell’s tenure, during which time she also helped the organization earn recognition among the world’s top architectural professional organizations. 

Inequality and its broader effects are issues that Dowdell works to keep front and center for architects and others engaged in the work of city planning and related legislation. “Architecture is a context in which we live our lives,” she says. Another part of that context entails asking critical questions. “Why aren’t Black families building wealth or experiencing health outcomes on par with other racial groups? It’s a very complicated set of issues.” 

For example, the approximate median net worth of a White family is $120,000 while the median net worth of a Black family is about $1,200. “A lot of that is linked to decades-old policies surrounding the availability of mortgages and the overwhelming lack of access to capital in the Black community,” Dowdell explains. Another metric to look at is life expectancy. 

“In Chicago, there’s a heat map that shows life expectancy. In the areas on the north side that are mostly White that number is 90 years and on the south side which is mostly Black, that number is 60 years. That’s what we need to talk about—quality of life and quantity of life, in year. Equity means working toward a goal of creating as much access as possible to healthier outcomes for everyone.” 

Dowdell began trying to address these issues during her first years out of college. In 2005, she co-founded the organization Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED), a principle-based network of individuals and organizations dedicated to building and supporting a culture of civic responsibility and engagement in the built environment and the public realm. It was designed to act like LEED certification does in environmental design and helped shine a spotlight on the need for social and economic considerations in building design and real estate development. 

Dowdell’s leadership was clear during her four years at Cranbrook, where she was a boarding student and became head resident advisor for her dorm at Kingswood. “It was cool to support the younger girls as resident advisor and coordinate with my fellow RAs to ensure that everyone was having an optimal experience,” she says. 

She was also president of Gold Key, the student group that shows interested families around the campus and was co-captain of the softball team in her senior year. Dowdell was also a highly dedicated and successful student, who favored art but committed to excellence in all aspects of instruction. 

“I enjoyed all of my art classes,” she says. “That was part of my draw to Cranbrook. It exposed me to so many different ways to express myself creatively.”

After graduation, Dowdell enrolled in Cornell University’s prestigious five-year architecture program, earning her professional license seven years later. Shortly after she completed her bachelor’s degree, she was invited to serve as a national board member at NOMA and was at work on developing the concept for SEED. From 2008 through 2011, she did her first stint at HOK in their New York office.

In recent years, Dowdell was been named a “40 Under 40” honoree by Crain’s Detroit Business and Crain’s Chicago Business, which called her a “change agent disguised as an architect” and recognized her promotion of healthier cities and equity in the design profession. In 2020, Dowdell earned the prestigious AIA Young Architects Award and was honored for her activism with Architectural Record’s Women in Architecture Award.

She returned to HOK two years ago when the opportunity to help lead the Chicago studio came up. “I wanted to do larger and more impactful projects,” she says. “It’s been amazing working with an incredible leadership team and a wonderful group of architects and designers.”   

Dowdell will continue to work toward her life goal of using architecture to improve lives, a profession that can do so much to protect the health, welfare and safety of communities. With her ability to lead, she no doubt will inspire countless architects and other partners in the built environment to join her in the cause.

Rob Edwards ’81

Distinguished Alumnus 2021

Rob Edwards ’81, Tells Unforgettable Stories for the Screen

Six months in advance of his address to the Cranbrook class of 2021, this year’s Distinguished Alumnus Rob Edwards was already tacking notes for his speech onto the walls of his office—no surprise for an award-winning screenwriter entering his fifth decade in Hollywood. 

Growing up as a self-described “quiet kid who liked to read” and a “wise guy who liked to crack jokes,” writing proved the ideal career path for Edwards. He was a student at Cranbrook when he found his earliest writing success, taking a January term class on science fiction short stories. He wrote several of his own short stories that caught the attention of the instructor, who shared one with renowned author T. Coraghessan Boyle, who praised the work. 

The next year, Edwards taught his own January term class on movie making, “mostly so I could get a bunch of other kids to help me make a movie. It went to a couple of festivals and did well.” Soon after, Dr. Charles Geroux, former Cranbrook theatre instructor, invited Edwards to direct an Oscar Wilde play. 

“It was cool because there was no one looking at whether I was going to succeed or fail,” Edwards says. “They told me just to have fun, and I did. I thought, if there’s a way to do this as a career, then I want to do it.” 

Edwards came to Cranbrook as a seventh-grade boarder. “I think I proved that seventh graders were too young to be boarders because I was the last one,” he says, laughing. Because of all of the time he spent on campus, he became fast friends with faculty kids and their parents.  

“I got a unique viewpoint of campus because I saw teachers as human beings in their daily lives,” he says. He became very close to several faculty families, including retired Upper School teachers Prospero and Fran Dagbovie. “They basically became part of my own family,” Edwards recalls. “My parents were always inviting them over for dinner.” 

Upper School English teacher Dr. Jeffrey Welch took on a special role, encouraging Edwards to pursue his dreams. “As an African American student and the only one in seventh and eighth grade—and as a young person being away from home—it was easy to feel alone,” Edwards says. “Jeff believed in me. He is one of the smartest guys I know, and I wanted to be like him.”

He adds, “At that age, it’s a good feeling if you know someone is cheering you on. There was no one prouder of me than Jeff when I wrote to him and told him to turn on his TV on a Thursday night to see my name in the credits.” 

Following graduation from Cranbrook, Edwards enrolled at Syracuse University. Despite the clear trajectory that Edwards envisioned for his career, there was still one very important person he had to convince: his physician father who had long dreamed of working alongside his son in a family medical practice. 

When Edwards graduated from Syracuse, his father gave him ninemonths to find a job in Hollywood—or he would have to come home and go to medical school. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Edwards wasted no time in finding work. “I had to be working fast, and so I tried to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could,” he says. 

Tenacity and talent proved a powerful force and soon he was refining his natural talents on such primetime hits as A Different World, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. 

Working on The Fresh Prince “was the most fun I ever had because no one knew what the show was going to be but us—we knew it was going to be great,” Edwards says. “No one knew Will Smith or the rest of the cast, but we started writing for Will and realized there was nothing this guy couldn’t do. And (co-star) Alfonso (Ribeiro) had been acting since he was a zygote so they were just a great comedy duo.”  

Edwards later created his own NBC sitcom Out All Night starring Patti LaBelle and worked alongside Aaron Sorkin on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Edwards’s work in television soon led to writing for the big screen, amassing a lengthy list of credits including such latter-day Disney classics as The Princess and the Frog and Treasure Planet, both nominated for Academy Awards. He consulted, too, on Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled and Frozen, adding to a string of animation successes.  

With two films forthcoming in 2023, Edwards is adding to the rich history of Disney and now Marvel. “I’ve been wanting to do something in their world for a long-time,” he says of the superhero universe. “I’m very proud of both of these projects.”

When not working on his own projects, Edwards teaches screenwriting at Syracuse University. “Someone always had a niece or nephew whose script they wanted me to read and I’d see kids making the same mistakes over and over,” Edwards says. “Eventually I asked someone why these kids kept making these errors and they said, ‘because guys like you don’t teach.’ I realized it was time to put my money where my mouth is.” 

When it comes to sharing advice for aspiring writers and filmmakers, he encourages young people to “model success. Study people who are incredible and then work to fill those shoes, so when you get your chance, you’re ready,” Edwards says. “It’s like Steve Martin said, ‘Be so excellent they can’t deny you.’”