21 Feb WithersRavenel professionals envision more diverse workforce in industry
While Black History Month is recognized in February, the rich stories of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) form a critical and evolving part of American history that deserves to be front and center year-round.
Additionally, the month is much more than an opportunity to recognize the contributions and struggles of African Americans. At WithersRavenel, it is a great time to celebrate the work of our talented professionals and allow them to share their viewpoints on the industry. We spoke with several of our BIPOC employee-owners to chronicle their thoughts and experiences.
Steven Powell, Environmental Scientist
For Steven, an accidental entry into a geology course and an inspiring professor at Appalachian State University formed his introduction to the industry. His professional start involved working 12-hour or longer days as a mud logger analyzing material samples on an oil field in New Mexico.
Today, he puts his geology degree and knowledge to work as an environmental scientist working out of the Asheville office of WithersRavenel, primarily performing groundwater and soil testing. He enjoys working outside and the critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving involved in his day-to-day work.
Steven also chooses to pay forward his love for the environment by volunteering with young people. One mentoring experience had Steven leading a high school group as they explored rocks in the Ray Mica Mine in the Burnsville area.
“They were asking questions like ‘What is the age of the earth?’ and ‘What does it take to make an emerald crystal? What conditions need to be met geologically before they can form?’ Watching kids enjoy the outdoors in a scientific way is something that I really love to see.
“I also enjoy letting this generation know that there are black and brown faces in the geosciences. It’s definitely a bit monochromatic as industries go. But the doors that can open, they are far less obscured than they used to be 10 or 20 years ago.”
While recognizing that the industry can work more to improve its diversity, he appreciates the open discussions that he has been able to have at WithersRavenel regarding what it means to be black and brown in the industry.
“At WithersRavenel, I’ve felt that I can have those kind of conversations where I don’t have to defend my experience in that space.” Steven believes that communication will lead to progress toward a more positive work environment and better experiences in the future.
Liza Monroe, Planner
At East Carolina University, Liza’s educational journey began in the pre-dental program. But once she started taking classes and explored links to public and community health, she recognized that planning was a better fit.
“It went from how a community could be influencing health to how we design more healthy communities,” Liza said. She also enjoyed how ECU’s undergraduate planning program engaged in a lot of hands-on work with small coastal communities, which hearkened back to her hometown of New Bern. Her experience with a project in Beaufort sealed the deal, and planning became her career of choice as she focuses on community design that is equitable across all socioeconomic classes and races.
Liza worked in local government for six years before coming to WithersRavenel. She embraced the interconnectivity among planners and workers to improve communities, and she was inspired by their efforts. Her first boss in the Town of Apex was WithersRavenel Planning Director Brendie Vega, AICP.
“I’ve known Brendie for a really long time and I’ve been able to see another person of color navigate all the higher realms of planning,” Liza said. “It’s really cool to see someone I can reach out to in that role where I don’t typically see other people of color and women.”
A large part of planning is community engagement and gathering feedback. To Liza, there are systemic and personal challenges to navigate. “Systematically, there have been decades of wrongdoings to low-income and black and brown folks, whether that was through red-lining or the highway infrastructure system through black and brown communities. That messes with my moral compass; I love to see new projects, but I realize that new development can come at a cost of displacement for these communities.”
On the personal side, Liza points to ongoing WithersRavenel work in New Bern and specifically in the city’s Duffyfield community where she was raised. “Sometimes it’s a little bit harder to separate myself from the emotions I feel in some of the communities because there are people that do look like me,” she said. Liza recognizes that in these communities, particularly during community engagement, residents see a shared history with her.
“Anyone would feel more comfortable with someone that they see themselves in, right? When we’re in these black and brown communities, sometimes people latch on to me,” she said. “I totally understand and that can sometimes make the emotional versus work separation harder because I tend to build a closer relationship than others might.”
Liza hopes to continue to nurture these relationships and to offer planning assistance in the future, even if that just means answering a question or providing ideas or support. Also, through her affiliation with the North Carolina chapter of the American Planning Association, she wants to promote planning as a career for young black and brown students.
“There are so many interests that could spark someone becoming an urban planner. It doesn’t have to be the ordinances. It might be someone like me who just wants to build healthier communities.”
Henry Boateng, Utilities Staff Professional
Growing up in Ghana, Henry Boateng looked at his surroundings – the roads, the water lines, the buildings. He wondered, asked people, and he investigated to find out “Who does this?” And he realized that the broad category of civil engineering was what appealed to him.
Another aspect of civil engineering that stood out: when a project is completed, the benefits to communities are tangible and you see the impact. “Once we create a solution and get it constructed, it helps immediately. If it is water, it provides clean water immediately. If it is housing infrastructure, people get places to sleep immediately.”
Henry’s early educational experience included important teachers, particularly a headmistress who encouraged young students to read, and a selfless teacher named Mr. Will who helped Henry and other students push themselves to greater heights in school.
The opportunity to give back through mentorship is important to Henry. When he lived in Texas prior to arriving in North Carolina, Henry was part of the Pre-College Initiative through the National Society of Black Engineers. He connected with middle schoolers to discuss STEM topics. He enjoyed outreach to young minority students who may not have considered STEM careers to help spark their interest in those fields.
“We’re telling them you can be an engineer, you can be a software developer,” Henry said. “You can be anything you set your mind to.” He’s hoping to pursue similar opportunities in the Triangle.
Henry works on the Modeling Team within the Utilities Department at WithersRavenel. He enjoys the innovative spirit of the group and how people from different backgrounds work together, along with the opportunities for professional growth he has received. He believes that working together with people throughout the company and the resulting camaraderie creates the foundation for greater understanding.
“If you are tolerant of simple things, you will be tolerant of the big things,” he said. On his team, “You get to learn amazing things from people. The perspectives we have are different, and the way we see things are different. And that helps a company grow.
“Our differences should be celebrated.”