Mentors open pathways for others, and outreach is key to achieving firms’ diversity and inclusion goals.
One of the most enjoyable and rewarding things in my life has been my time as a mentor. Outside of my parents and late grandmother, I never had a mentor who I felt I could reach out to until I entered the workforce.
In his song “Evolution,” one of my favorite hip hop artists, Joyner Lucas, said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m learning as I’m growing.” This lyric really speaks to me. Throughout high school and college – and even at some points during my career – I felt like I did not have a goal, but as I progressed through life, I was constantly learning. I am continuing to learn to this day. My own track in life has led me to see the importance in mentoring younger people. I believe that the youth are going to run into their own challenges, so why not provide insight using my own experience so they can easily maneuver through those issues while tackling new ones? In my mind, I should be trying to be the person for them that I needed at that point in my life.
I believe outreach and mentorship are key when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the AEC industry. Over the past few years – and especially after 2020 – I have noticed companies and organizations placing an emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion through mandatory trainings; new hiring and promotion requirements; and developing or updating their diversity statements. I applaud all of that, but how do we truly achieve diversity and inclusion within our organizations when our industry itself is not diverse? How do we diversify our industry? I think we have to understand some of the reasons why our industry is not diverse, and then do some outreach and mentoring to open pathways for others.
If we think about our nation’s history and how Black people were at a disadvantage because of slavery and segregation, and then again because of redlining, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs – it isn’t hard to see how we still feel the effects of that today. Because of this, Black people started out behind – behind on education, financial literacy, and with creating and sustaining generational wealth. This is why outreach and mentorship are important when we speak on diversity and inclusion, because, just like generational wealth is a cycle where wealth is passed down and used to generate more wealth, these disadvantages get passed down too. We need to be able to step in, educate, motivate, and guide.
We perform outreach because a lot of underrepresented schools lack the capacity to be able to educate students on technical career paths, and we can open their eyes to a world they may not have known existed. We mentor and guide because after a student decides they want to pursue a career in science or engineering, they will face many challenges and obstacles. These challenges are typical of someone on the path to a STEM career, as well as those who are byproducts of that cycle of disadvantages. Without a mentor or guidance, these challenges are often so great that they derail their goals. I believe that through outreach and mentorship, we can get a more diverse group of people entering the pipeline for STEM careers.
Now, one could say, “C’mon Kev, Black people aren’t the only ones who deal with these obstacles.” And I would agree. But I would add that our nation’s history increased our chances of not being able to have access to a good education system, of not being able to benefit from generational wealth, of growing up in a broken family, of being the victims and perpetrators of gun violence, of being discriminated against today, and thus, has played a role in many of us not making it into the pipeline. My intent isn’t to make anyone feel guilt or pity, but to bring awareness to a topic we all find hard to talk about. I understand there are many groups that are underrepresented in our industry, but I wanted to focus on Black people because, as a Black man, I have faced some of these challenges and overcome some of these obstacles. Even though I haven’t experienced some of the challenges other groups face, I do firmly believe that outreach and mentorship are transferrable. While the approach may be different, it can and should be applied to other underrepresented groups.
When it comes to outreach and mentorship, I do not believe we should solely focus on the underrepresented – I simply believe we should diversify our outreach efforts. I understand that it may be challenging because it’s outside of the comfort zone of some or is difficult to connect to, but we in the AEC industry literally solve challenges every day. I plan to continue to diversify my outreach and mentorship efforts and challenge others in the industry to do the same. I think this is how we collectively achieve diversity within our companies and organizations. An outreach program – the ACE Mentor Program of Greater Philadelphia specifically – is the reason that I have the career I have today, and it has been important to me to continue mentoring through this organization. I have mentored many students over the years, and my employer has hired two of my previous high school mentees. They are now full-time employees with us. I am living proof that outreach and mentorship work. I would like to see more people in the industry who are invested in diversity and inclusion supporting these programs.
Kevin Brown, PE, is a transportation construction manager at Urban Engineers. Contact him at email@example.com. Urban Engineers is showing its commitment to outreach and mentorship through its annual donation to the Kevin Brown, Jr. Scholarship with the ACE Mentor Program and the annual Edward M. D’Alba Leadership Award Scholarship. Learn more about the firm’s diversity initiatives here.