‘Pushing Towards More Representation’; ASCE Shows Winning Impact of Diversity Initiatives

Lisa Black is the director of cultural belonging and social ethos for the American Society of Civil Engineers, winners of a coveted SIIA 2022 IMPACT Award. She says that her unique title is “intentional because the work that I lead is really about creating and developing that sense of not only belonging, but [creating] that frame of mind—just making sure our actions are reflected in our environment.”

One of her biggest projects is their Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Best Practices Resource Guide. (See it here.) That guide is just one reason that ASCE won a 2022 SIIA IMPACT Equity Award for its Outstanding Employee Resource Group.

It begins: “Civil engineers are problem solvers. One critical element that cannot be overlooked is that civil engineers solve problems for society. Society is made up of people—people from diverse backgrounds, identities, and cultures; people who have diverse interests and needs…”

After acknowledging some problems with siloing and employee stress—not uncommon in organizations today—ASCE has initiated multiple steps and activities to change their organizational culture, led by Black, with lots of support from colleagues and leadership.

Here are some of those activities:

  • REELTalk
  • Short Story Club
  • Diversity Day, an annual celebration held the week of May 21
  • Lunch and Learns – on topics relating to DEI.
  • A Monthly Diversity Calendar, posted every month on ASCE’s intranet
  • STRUCTURES: Faces of ASCE, inspired by Humans of New York, features portraits and stories shared by staff.

More support has come from their Members of Society Advancing an Inclusive Culture (MOSAIC), established as a Board-level body to provide ASCE with leadership in all matters of DEI within the civil engineering profession. I spoke with Lisa a few weeks ago about their amazing work and Equity Award honor.

RL: Congratulations Lisa. Can you describe your role at ASCE and how you’ve moved more into internal functions?
LISA BLACK: I came on staff in 2016, and the [D&I] Council was created around 2015. My role had been working primarily with the member community of ASCE to focus on the profession of civil engineering. But given the work that I was doing writ large, it seemed natural for me to see what was going on internally. So all the wonderful programs that we have now have evolved in this 7-year timeframe. It started with the hosting of a Diversity Day, [featuring] customs that staff shares. Most departments are represented.

How did moving to virtual impact these initiatives?
LISA: We’re fortunate to have some tech geniuses who created all these channels that staff could go in and participate—sharing their favorite recipes and traditions, celebrating veterans. It was a great way for us to get to know each other and build community. And at the heart, that’s what DEI is about—building that sense of belonging and community, and celebrating all of the talents.

How did that translate back to things you did externally with members?
LISA: Our member programs and resources have grown exponentially. We have developed that best practices guide and also have [MOSAIC] to help create and develop these resources for members. We also have industry leaders who are interested in learning how they can create more inclusive environments in their workspaces. So I’ve done presentations individually, providing resources. I’ve also received a grant to create DEI best practices specifically to engineering, speaking to equity, social equity, and community and sustainability—also looking at the K-12 pipeline, and making sure that we’re reaching under represented populations of future engineers.

It must be very satisfying to see the progress you’ve made.
LISA: When I first came on, we had a virtually all white male staff and board. Since then, we had a span of 3 consecutive years of female presidents. And now it’s evolved to where almost half of the board are women. But again, I’m vested and committed to broadening our definition of what diversity looks like. So though I’ve seen strides when it comes to gender diversity, we’re still pushing towards having more representation from groups that we don’t typically see.

I know that’s not easy in a profession like engineering.
LISA: We have partnerships with groups like the National Society of Black Engineers, featuring undergraduates in particular who are studying civil engineering and connecting them with engineers in the field. That is a way that we can build and grow. We have a mentor match program, and we’re trying to encourage our students to engage in that, and for our student chapters to connect with NESB’s student chapters. It takes time, and from my years of experience… you have to be so strategic about it. There’s that saying [paraphrasing]: “If you’re going to do for us, then you need to have us as part of the solution” and at the table.

Lastly, to change an organizational culture, I’m sure you need lots of support.
LISA: Yes, it starts with Tom Smith, our executive director. I can’t give him enough shout outs for his support and his commitment to DEI. It’s funny because he’s like, “Lisa, you’re doing a lot of great work but you need to get your name out there.” And I’m like, “I’m your courageous follower; you just keep giving me the support, and we’ll get it done.” And [COO] Marty [Fertal], I want to shout him out, too, because I try to keep him updated on what I’m doing, and I go to him at times just for some mentorship. And then I report to our general counsel, Tara Hoke… It’s really about organizational change, and that starts with the leadership commitment to that change. [She also gives kudos to Bianca Augustin, Sahar Kandahari and Damita Snow.]

I also appreciate that [SIIA] has recognized the work that ASCE and our D&I Council is doing.

Thanks Lisa. It’s well-deserved.

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