As we look to the new year and hope for better days ahead, I’m reminded of the opportunities and experiences from last year. While the pandemic managed to span the full calendar year and grab headlines, so too did a national conversation on equity. President Biden signed Executive Order 13573 on his first day in office, E.O. 14008 a week later, and then E.O. 13985 mid-year. Biden’s vision intends to address the economic disparities that have exacerbated cultural and social inequities. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act delivers equitable investments to modernize and repair our nation’s infrastructure with a focus on historically underserved communities, while the Build Back Better Act invests directly in human infrastructure to address inequalities in the U.S.
These legislative actions have had significant influence on the Architecture, Engineering & Construction (AEC) industry. We at Mead & Hunt are working to achieve numerous equitable strategies. We’ve built upon our Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria, instituted a company-wide commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, using an equity lens implemented an underrepresented group initiative as part of our historic preservation process, participated in the United Way’s 21 Week Equity Challenge, made commitments to AIA 2030 challenge, and augmented partnerships with Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) subconsultants that align with our corporate social responsibility.
These national and firmwide actions led me to explore equity in my own field of practice, flood management. Throughout 2021, I was fortunate to collaborate with Federal, state, regional, and local government agency representatives, academics, and non-profits—as well as those representing their frontline communities—to share their experience advocating for and responding to the needs of underserved and vulnerable populations. Together we prepared two virtual panel discussions. For me, it was an opportunity for career reflection, observation, discovery, and growth. Their advice may inspire you to implement something new in 2022.
Social Equity in Infrastructure Resiliency
For the Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) San Francisco Post panel discussion on Social Equity in Infrastructure Resiliency, we convened to understand how our projects affect economically underrepresented and socially excluded communities. For too long, these groups have historically been left out of the equation. Acknowledging and understanding how infrastructure impacts everyone within a community is necessary for sustaining environmental justice and truly resilient projects. Take-aways from the panel included:
- Equitable and inclusive infrastructure planning results in social and economic benefits
- Work with community organizations with trusted relationships in the community
- Advocates, grants, training, tools, best practices guidebooks, and other resources are available to help – no need to recreate the wheel
- We need a sustained investment, not just a one-time investment
- In human infrastructure investment, collaboration is vital to bring everyone to the table.
- Meet the community where they are
- If we value the input, we need to pay for it (i.e., provide stipends to participate)
- A liaison building outreach and community engagement model helps identify needs ahead of agency planning actions
- Move from: Design first, then get community feedback To: Define project goals and location, then add community strengths and needs
- Move from: We know what the community needs To: We know science, and the community knows local strengths and needs
Social Equity in Floodplain Management
During the Plenary Session that kicked off the 2021 Floodplain Management Association Conference, community activist, advocate and champion for social equity issues, Irma Munoz, Mujeres de la Tierra said,
“You will learn more from them (the community) than they will learn from you.”
Her words inspired more than a dozen sessions on Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (JEDI), including my “Equitable Floodplain Management: Reckoning with the Past, Learning, then Acting” panel. The take-aways from the panel are actionable, helping to transform our flood management industry toward a more equitable future:
- We need to be willing to recognize past inequities in our industry of flood management
- Our actions in our services can have compound and cascading consequences
- Technology and science can be used to identify inequities. For instance: Communities of color are located in high hazard areas more often, showing that socially vulnerable communities bear a disproportionate share of the impacts of flooding in the U.S.
- Sustained investment allows us to be more flexible and help get everyone to participate in the decisions that matter
- Improving STEM pathways in front-line communities to incentivize and inspire future floodplain managers is imperative
- Being an ally or an advocate is of utmost importance
We acknowledge progress can take time. It’s up to all of us to be aware of what we do throughout our careers—as members of our communities, as advocates for others, and as part of the associations that we support. I’m proud of my Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) Social Justice Task Force, led by several of my panelists who wrote and promoted their social justice policy statement leading to our Social Justice Policy that our Board unanimously approved at the end of 2021.
No matter your industry, we can all learn from equitable policies and advocacy—and we can use the lessons we learn to overcome obstacles and promote equity in the services we provide our communities. We in the AEC industry must acknowledge that the benefits our work provides have not always been evenly distributed among all people. We integrate equity and justice in our practice when people in the community have access and a role in decision-making processes. What is your role in advancing and implementing social equity? What will you resolve to do in 2022?