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May 13, 2024

Blending Your Passions with Tiffany James

Blending Your Passions with Tiffany James

This episode features a conversation with a friend and former mentee, Tiffany James. She shares more of her story with me and discusses her journey from UVA to Baltimore, her work in the nonprofit sector, and her passion for writing. She shares her excitement for writing a novel that incorporates architectural elements and explores the impact of the built environment on storytelling.



Bio: Tiffany James is a writer and content marketer who brings a storytelling approach to the strategic marketing collaborations she forms with nonprofits and cause-driven social entrepreneurs. Since graduating from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s in architecture, Tiffany served three years as an AmeriCorps volunteer, tackling issues in the home improvement sector and early literacy development. With more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, she currently works as an associate director of strategic communications for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and earned a master’s in writing from Johns Hopkins, where she was awarded the 2021 Women’s Voices are Important Fellowship. 


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 I'm always big. as a writer on showing how the built environment impacts the story and the characters. I kind of feel like setting is always a huge component of writing and stories, but we don't necessarily always acknowledge that architecture is at play there. And So those are things that I like to explore in my writing. 

Welcome to Tangible Remnants.  I'm Nikita Reed, and this is my show where I explore the interconnectedness of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it.  Welcome back.  And this week's episode, I got to reconnect with a friend and former mentee, Tiffany James. 

In this episode, she shares more of her story with me and discusses her journey from UVA to Baltimore, as well as her work in the nonprofit sector and her passion for writing. Before talking with Tiffany, I didn't realize how much writing really was one of her passions. And she shared how excited she is to be writing a novel that incorporates architectural elements and explores the impact of the built environment on storytelling.

Tiffany also mentions a number of books that have inspired her and offers advice for various design students. So be sure to check out the show notes to links to some of those books throughout this episode. I was feeling just super proud of Tiffany for advocating for herself and for finding ways to blend her passions so that she can spend more time doing what really lights her up. 

And it was just so cool to have her on the show and hear more about her journey after UVA. And before we reconnected, because it really is wild to me that we've known each other for about 20 years. Time really does fly by to provide you with a little more context on the conversation. Here's her bio. 

Tiffany James is a writer and content marketer who brings a storytelling approach to the strategic marketing collaborations she forms with nonprofits and cause-driven social entrepreneurs.  Since graduating from the University of Virginia with a bachelor's in architecture, Tiffany served three years as an AmeriCorps volunteer tackling issues in the home improvement sector and early literacy development. 

With more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, she currently works as an associate director of strategic communications for a nonprofit in Washington, D. C.  She earned her master's in writing from Johns Hopkins, where she was awarded the 2021 Women's Voices are important fellowship.  This really is another fun one.

And hopefully, this will help many other multi-passionates out there who are looking for ways to blend what they're doing so they can stay in their zones of genius.  So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this conversation between me and Tiffany James today. I am excited to be able to have a conversation with Tiffany James.

Tiffany and I met. Oh my gosh, like 20-some years ago. It's been a little while, but we met when we were at UVA and I was her peer advisor when she was a first year. And so UVA had a peer advisor program where they would pair upper-class African American students with incoming first years to help ease that culture shock and transition into college a little bit.

So Tiffany, welcome to the show. How are you? Thank you. I'm good. And I always say that.  We met in person at UVA, but we were pen pals the summer before, writing each other letters and stuff, yeah.  That's so true. It's also wild to me that was already over 20 years ago. The time moves so much faster. Faster than I thought it would.

I'm like, that seems like it was yesterday and not at all.  I know. Yeah. And I love how small the world is because we reconnected recently, uh, in Baltimore where you were for a little while. And you're also working with the Baltimore Architecture Foundation on Doors, Open Baltimore. The Baltimore Architecture Foundation is one of the nonprofits that I'm president of this year.

So it's exciting to see things come full circle.  So how about we start with whatever you would like to share about your journey between UVA to Baltimore, you know, in that 20-year span highlights, if you will, because I know we met in architecture school, but you're not doing architecture directly anymore.

So what would you like to share?  Uh, yeah, well, after I graduated, I went back home. So I'm actually from Baltimore.  Went back home. My family was going through some things, like my grandmother had recently been diagnosed with cancer, so I kind of just spent that year after graduation. Really just trying to be there and supportive of her and the family.

And unfortunately, she passed away not too long after that. And I kind of was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. She was very much involved in the community and she was very much, uh, I don't want to say a mentor, but I, you know, I admired her and she inspired me in so many ways. So once she passed, I was thinking about.

Oh, should I try and apply or find a job at an architecture firm?  Or should I try and find opportunities to kind of give back to the community and kind of follow in her footsteps and try to do good, uh, in a way that I could actually see it.  And so I decided to join AmeriCorps and it, yeah, I did AmeriCorps for two years with a nonprofit in Poughkeepsie, New York,  so I packed up my car and  To, uh, Poughkeepsie, New York.

I'd never been to the state of New York. So that was like a new adventure for me and the nonprofit that I was serving with was called Rebuilding Together. And I thought that would be a great fit for, you know, my architecture background and, you know, Essentially, Rebuilding Together's mission was to, well, they get, they do free home repairs for low-income families, veterans, and disabled homeowners, and so I was their program manager or program coordinator. 

And I was overseeing their safe at-home program, which essentially was doing repairs for elderly and disabled homeowners who have mobility issues, doing home repairs, like installing grab bars, constructing wheelchair ramps, things like that. Anything that would help them stay safe. Within their home and not have to leave the place that they considered home because of their mobility issues.

And it was a very fulfilling opportunity for me. I absolutely loved it. I made some great friends. And To be honest, I feel like it was one of, because I've worked with quite a few nonprofits and I feel like the board was so involved and engaged and that was inspiring because the board members were volunteers and they would, you know, put on there, their work boots and go and, Demolish cement pathways and staircases, and then, you know, reconstruct new ones for homeowners.

And it was just great seeing how involved they were. So  I just love that experience. If they could have hired me, I probably would have stayed there. If the kids in New York, you know, nonprofits, part of the reason why they get AmeriCorps volunteers is they can afford to hire a full-time staff person. So after that, I moved to New York City and was trying to make it there for a few years.

Did some customer service, but then also started doing some freelance AutoCAD work for Roberta Washington at her architecture firm in Harlem. Yeah, Roberta Washington. Yes. I know. Yes, she is awesome. And the funny story is that Before I applied to UVA when I was trying to figure out if architecture was the right major for me, I wanted to talk to a black female architect. 

And I don't even remember how I found her because Like the internet was not, was not that, not what it is, not the thing that we know it is today. We did not have LinkedIn at that time. Right, exactly. But Roberta definitely is one of the, like, trailblazing Black women architects in the country. Who really did a lot of research on black women architects and the legacy?

And I know she used to also, was she a parliamentarian for NOMA? She did a lot of research also when she was heavily involved with NOMA. So anyways, she definitely is like the godmother of black women in architecture in terms of let's document and tell our story. Yeah. I found her phone number Somehow don't use the phone.

Okay, And we had a phone conversation and she was so like Kind and generous to just talk to me. I was in high school just trying to ask her about her experience as a black female architect and And yes, I always remember that and I don't know if she remembers that But it stayed with me. So it was kind of cool to kind of Come full circle when I was in the city and be able to work with her for a bit.

Yeah, that's awesome. And one of the things that I love about your journey is that you still stayed connected to doing work within the built environment and within helping people giving back. But you were like, well, how can I leverage the skills that I have? From architecture school without necessarily having to just work for a form and doing all of the detailing and kind of some of the things that young designers typically get pigeonholed into before they can get licensed and all that. 

And so then I know from there you continued your nonprofit work and then also got into some writing. And so how did that evolution happen? Yes, yes.  You know, doing the freelance work with Verda and then doing like a temp opportunity with an engineering firm.  I was interviewing and going that construction route and applying to architecture firms in New York. 

And then I kind of just had a pause and I was like, your passion is really writing. Like my passion had always been writing.  And like, even when I went to UVA, it was kind of, I was torn. Should I do like writing or should I do architecture? And So in that moment, I was kind of like, you know what, let's, let's go back home.

Cause you know, my, my dad, he was, I think he was 86 around that time. And I was like, Oh, I've been away for a while. So let me come back. Cause I've been in New York for six years at that time. And so I did a third year of AmeriCorps when I came back to Baltimore. Cause I was thinking, well, you can't serve. 

In, you know, in New York and not serving your own communities. I did a, uh, one year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with a literacy nonprofit teaching young children,  I think they were like third grade to fifth grade, helping them get to. reading level.  And then at that point, I was kind of like, well, how am I going to get my foot in the door of writing or a career in writing?

I was doing their social media and I was really enjoying that. And something that was really my strength while I was in that 30 years of AmeriCorps was talking to the volunteers and getting their stories. about why they get involved, why they think it's so important to work with the children and help them get to reading level, and  And those were the most engaging social media posts was those stories capturing that and so I was like, oh, maybe  Maybe I can like Do something along this line and that could be my foot in the door of like a career in writing Even though it's funny that I didn't acknowledge that that was me, right writing interviewing people and writing social media posts and articles about that, but yeah, so I  actually started my own business at that point.

It kind of Was  I didn't really, I call myself an accidental entrepreneur because I kind of just did it to be like, Oh, I'll do this until I find a full-time job. And then it became bigger than I thought it would landed my first client three months later, after starting my business, which was the American Institute of Architects in Baltimore and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation.

And I had pitched to them. That I would love to talk to the volunteers who were involved in Doors Open Baltimore.  And, and write social media posts and articles for that, and they hired me to interview a few volunteers from the previous Doors Open, and they liked it so much that they brought me in as the event planner, and I was able to collect stories of the sites, and the volunteers, and write posts.

Help write articles on the sites. And what was huge for me when I got that opportunity was I was like, Oh, I finally found a way to merge my interest in architecture. With writing, because I was helping, I was using my writing to help tell the story of these buildings, of the people who were helping to preserve these buildings and take care of them, and things like that, the historical stories behind them. 

And I was like, wow, this is like a full circle moment for me. Yeah. So,  yeah, that's great. And I, I love that you were willing to take that pause and pivot and really be like, well, what am I doing? Because actually writing is my passion and I guess architecture is there, but being able to really leverage your true desires.

Cause I think a lot of us sometimes stay in a position or Keep doing something. Cause like, well, I have to, I went to school for this. So this is what people expect of me. And kind of sometimes we tend to ignore that voice. That's telling us, Hey, listen, this, this isn't what you want. You know what you want is over there.

Go do that. So I'm just, I'm excited that you pivoted and you still found a way to merge more aspects of yourself into really what you're looking to do.  And of course, and so then, you know, we were all very sad when you left Baltimore, but I'm glad that you are still doing what you want to do. And so what are some of the projects that you're working on now, or even that you're thinking of transitioning to that are getting you excited? 

Yeah. Well,  during the pandemic, well, actually it wasn't, it was right before the pandemic hit in 20, 2019. I  joined a grad program. with Hopkins to pursue writing. So I got my master's in writing.  And so now the next projects that I'm really excited for,  especially this year, this is going to be like, I'm committed to this.

I'm making time for it is to work on this novel that I have been dreaming about writing since I was a young kid. Yeah. It's a,  Like people always ask me. Oh, what genre is it and I'm like, uh, I guess fantasy I feel like uh, speculative fiction is a genre that's uh growing so I guess I would also Fit it into like a speculative fiction type of thing as well And and architecture is very much at the center  It's the forefront of the writing that I do and the writing that I want to do for this novel.

It's pretty much going to be set in a fictional city that I will be designing from, you know, the ground up. So yeah, part of. Yeah, so part of me is like, Oh, should I get like some, I got some sketchbooks and like design the buildings and how they're going to look and, and how the streets flow and things like that.

And part of me is being a little ambitious and be like, Oh, maybe you should even get like a 3d, like. Cat or, well, I don't even know if we're still using cat, but like, it's like, I don't, like, do we use rhino now? I don't know. But one of those 3D You got options.  Exactly. To kind of like create some 3D imageries for the architecture in the city and, and I'm, I'm always big.

as a writer on showing how the built environment impacts the story and the characters. I kind of feel like setting is always a huge component of writing and stories, but we don't necessarily always acknowledge that architecture is at play there. And so those are things that I like to explore in my writing. 

Yeah, that's exciting. And such a good point, because When you're evoking whatever the setting is going to be, the buildings really do play a big part in how the feeling of this place is, and even kind of the ideas of safety or, uh, you know, is it deferred maintenance or the broken windows? Are there vacant buildings or in terms of safety?

How safe is the or safety? And so, in addition to the buildings, then it's also how populated are the streets. Do people actually want to be in certain areas? Because it's more And retail, more apartments, more whatever. So it's kind of like the different vibes that you can create. And I love the idea of you reframing it.

So it's like, you're writing this book and you're like, well, I'm going to design the city from the ground up as I'm writing like, Oh my gosh, yes. I love that. That's so cool.  I love it.  Yeah, that is very cool. And so then are there any, as you're thinking about writing your own novel, are there any books or authors that have inspired you along the way? 

Yeah, yeah, like one book that I always seem to to bring up is a book by  Rian Amilcar Scott, and he's a black writer, pretty sure he's also a Hopkins alum, and we read his book called Insurrection during my writing program. And what's so unique about the book is it's  I forget if it's like a collection of short stories But each chapter essentially is exploring a different resident in this fictional city in Maryland.

Oh cool, and what you know a big component about the history of this city is that it's supposed to be the only city that  Had a slave revolt that was successful in the u. s Oh. And yeah, so the book explores how having a city with that type of history impacts,  you know, the spaces, the people and residents who inhabit it, the people who preserve these spaces.

And, and something that I really loved is the city itself and the monuments and buildings always. Played or had a strong presence in each of the characters' stories and so like there was a flooding in one of the characters' stories and the only structure that you could see rising up from the water was the the muzzle or the nose of a horse from a statue that was in the town square so that was kind of like the landmark of where you were in the boat because it was rising up in the water.

Things like that. So I really liked how he uses space and weaving it throughout each character's storyline. And so that's something that I, I try to keep in mind, but then also like popular culture books. Like I recently had read Stephen King, The Shining.  There you go. Yeah. And after reading his book, I did like the movie.

I had always liked The Shining, but after I read his book. Now I can't watch the movie the same again because the book is just way better. Oh, interesting. It is way better. Okay. So horror movies aren't my jam, but I've never actually considered reading the book. So I was like, Oh no, it's going to be too scary.

So I'm like, Hmm. All right. If the book was way better. Okay. Maybe I'll consider it. Okay. Exactly. Exactly. It was way better. At this point, it's probably considered a classic. I mean, I don't know. It's getting there maybe. I don't know. I think we could call it a classic. Yeah. And I had been like, I'd never read it before.

So let me just read it. And, and then I found myself like,  Coming up with this, uh, challenge of, Oh, well, can I find more haunted houses type books just to kind of see how other writers will utilize houses and structures as a tool to create tension and tension. and horror and you know, things like that. So,  so yeah, I'm kind of just exploring at the moment and appreciate books like that that take the built world and see how they utilize that in a story and sometimes even use the built world as another character in a main character in a story. 

Oh, I love that. I am so glad. This is one of the reasons I love talking to you because you just reframed the, I have never thought about the way that architecture is used to evoke fear or tension or things like that. For me, it's usually like I'm thinking of the music or like the soundtrack, but you're absolutely right.

Like the way the space is out there and then are they, Claustrophobic. Is it dirty? Is it clean? Is it like Victorian, you know, like, Oh my gosh, Tiffany. I love it. I love the way you're talking through that. I'm so excited for you to bring this book into the world. It's definitely something that sounds like it's needed.

Yes. Yes. I got to just get it out there. So there you go. Stay tuned. Stay tuned.  Yes. I love it.  So a lot of my listeners turns out are actually university students. And so are there any things that you would. Want to share with design students or even just your younger self that you think would be helpful when I was looking for Architecture programs.

Well, actually I I wasn't I wasn't as actively  I would do looking for a college totally different now after, after the fact, you know,  in hindsight, I definitely was not like comparing and contrasting the different architecture programs to see if one school would teach me a certain type of architecture versus another.

And  I definitely think as a high schooler looking for  Architecture program, I probably would have paid closer attention to that because I was when I went into architecture, the architectural program, I wanted to learn about the architecture of so many different cultures like Japanese African architecture, you know, like, all that type of stuff.

And I kind of, I don't know if you would agree or not, but I kind of felt like it was UVA was very much the European architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright and all that stuff. I think we just had Japanese architecture. That was at the time that I was there and that was it. Yeah. Based on the education at the time, you would have thought that But only Europe and Japan had architects and there's some Americans did some, some things.

But aside from that, the rest of the world, just walking barefoot, doing nothing. That's what you would have thought.  So I guess I would just,  advice I would give, well, I guess this is for high schoolers, but just pay attention to the type of architecture that you're interested in. explore different types, like, like explore, like the works of Spanish architects and, and, uh, African architects and, and just, because I, I feel like there's a lot of creativity out there.

That we don't see that's well beyond what we know of European and, and just that those are sources of creativity and inspiration and right. Yeah. No, that's helpful. And I, yeah. And I think it's just also for your path. I like that you have embraced the pivot and figured out what to do and also kind of kept taking the next right step.

To get to where you're trying to go, even as you were figuring it out, which is what we're all doing. We're all making it up. I don't know.  Like, yeah, but I love that. You've gotten to the point where you're blending your passions.  Yes, I definitely think that there is, there is always opportunities to blend passions.

It might not be easy to find at first because I even, when I graduated from UVA, that was one of the questions that I had asked one of my studio instructors. I was like, Oh, what type of opportunities are out there that I could be looking for that merge architecture and writing? And  I'll never forget my, uh, the instructor paused. 

And I was like, huh,  that's a good question because most architects are not good writers. Yep  Okay, that's not helpful for me  But yes, I still found a way to find opportunities that Blended not only my interest in community service and helping You know merging architecture and renovation Interaction with people nonprofits and then again pivoting and finding a way to merge my interest in writing with architecture.

So there's opportunities out there to merge and blend passions and, and even if there aren't, there's always room to create new opportunities, create your own opportunities.  Thank you so much for listening. Links to amazing resources can be found in the episode's show notes. Special thanks to Sarah Gilbert for allowing me to use snippets of her song Fireflies from her debut album, Other People's Secrets, which by the way is available wherever music is sold. 

If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to the show.  And now that Tangible Remnants is part of the Gable Media Network, you can listen and subscribe. to all network partner content at gablemedia. com. That's G A B L media. com.  Until next time. Remember that historic preservation is a present conversation with our past about our future.

We don't inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children. So let's make sure we're telling our inclusive history.  I saw the first fireflies of summer, and right then  I thought of you.  Oh, I could see us catching them and setting them free.  Honey, that's what you do.  That's what you do to me.