Joseph Kunkel ('09) to Receive Elaine Johnson Coates Award

By Maggie Haslam / Apr 21, 2021 / Updated Apr 26, 2021

Joe Kunkel

Watch a video of 2021 Elaine Johnson Coates Award Recipient, Joseph Kunkel.

The University of Maryland Alumni Association has selected architecture alum Joseph Kunkel (M.ARCH ’09) for the 2021 Elaine Johnson Coates Award. The award recognizes Kunkel’s work to build resiliency for Native American communities across the United States through design, education, planning and multi-agency collaboration.

A 2009 graduate of the University of Maryland’s Master of Architecture Program, Kunkel has dedicated the past decade to engaging tribal communities and developing creative approaches to sustainable housing. A member of the Northern Cheyenne tribal community in Montana, but raised in New Jersey, Kunkel’s work began first during his thesis year at the University of Maryland, borne out of a desire to reconnect with his heritage and address the inadequate housing on his tribe’s reservation. Along with adjunct professor and alumnus Alick Dearie (B.S. Architecture ’99, M.ARCH ’04), and with the support of Professor Madlen Simon, Kunkel organized a three-week summer program for a group of UMD architecture students to study housing at the Northern Cheyenne reservation. The experience resonated deeply with his classmates, said Dearie, and set into motion Kunkel’s tenacious and innovative design work for Indigenous people.

“Joe has figured out a way to use his professional pursuit as an architect to do impactful things,” says Dearie. “I don’t think there are a lot of architects, particularly Native ones, doing this kind of work. Most reservations really need improved housing strategies and he’s a welcome person. I get the feeling he’s just scratching the surface.”

Read about Kunkel’s efforts to rethink emergency housing in the era of COVID-19

Kunkel went on to establish the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative—now SNC Design Lab (part of MASS Design Group’s global, nonprofit design platform)—a Santa Fe-based organization that helps Indigenous communities marry cultural values with design to create environmentally sustainable, vibrant development. As part of MASS, he leverages the traditions rooted in his culture to inform community planning and design on tribal lands and has leveraged millions of dollars in private/public funding to advance Indigenous housing and development across the country. The innovative and engaging set of best practices he has established working with tribal communities shows clear applications for any group that is inherently underrepresented.

Kunkel is a 2013 recipient of the Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellowship and, in 2019, was granted both the Obama Foundation Fellowship and named an inaugural fellow of the Civil Society Fellowship, a partnership of Anti-Defamation League and the Aspen Institute. When he’s not working, Kunkel volunteers his time—along with Dearie—as a long-time basketball coach to tribal youth at a yearly summertime basketball clinic on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, a project they started together nearly ten years ago.

 “Joe Kunkel’s dedication to his heritage, his tenacity and ingenuity as a practitioner, along with his drive to bring his expertise to advance a mission bigger than himself is the embodiment of what we teach at the University of Maryland and a great source of pride for our school,” said Interim Dean Donald Linebaugh. “I am confident this is just the beginning for Joe.”

Named for Elaine Johnson Coates, the first African American graduate of the University of Maryland, the award recognizes individuals who has made significant contributions to fostering diversity and inclusion nationally and globally. Kunkel will be presented the award in person at A Celebration of Terps: Featuring the Maryland Awards, the alumni association’s marquee event in College Park on April 23, 2021, in a welcome return to in-person, yet socially distanced, celebrations. A quiet and unassuming person, Kunkel isn’t one to advertise his achievements; Dearie, who is now a close friend, learned about Kunkel’s Obama Fellowship in the news, rather than from Kunkel himself. But Dearie will be at his side when Kunkel receives his award, an honor that harkens back to that first trip to Montana.

“I am so proud of Joe,” he says. “Ever since I’ve been supporting him, he was just following his heart and this deep-rooted need to give back to his community, and it’s amazing that he’s expanding it into something that reaches all the Indigenous nations in this country. The fact that he’s found the perfect way to do that in advising and supporting is powerful. He’s just out there trying to do good stuff.”

Watch the ceremony virtually by registering here.  

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