Community How Black Women Builders’ Voices Have Championed Communities

by Brenda Richardson | March 05, 2021

Diversity, and the voices and perspectives that come with it, can be a powerful force for positive change and innovation, be it in the arena of political discourse or education or professional life.

The fields that are responsible for conceiving and building the physical spaces people inhabit, including architecture, real estate development and construction, can have a profound impact on how communities come together. And yet there is a troubling scarcity in the representation of Black women in these roles; it’s a growing concern, because they have valuable perspectives to offer on the spaces they create where a community can thrive.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2020 show that architecture, engineering and construction are dominated by white males, while Black people and women are extremely underrepresented: 88% of construction workers and 85% of architecture and engineering professionals are white, and only 10.9% of construction workers and 27% of architecture and engineering professionals are women; meanwhile, Black people make up only 6% of the workforces respectively in construction and in architecture and engineering. According to the National Association of Home Builders’ 2019 Builder Member Census, just 9% of members are women, and less than 0.5% are Black.

Black Americans need access to women of color in architecture and skilled trade industries who better understand their lived experience. By coordinating resources and working with partners, Black women in the trades can help communities not only chart a stronger path toward economic success, but also help their constituents to see pieces of themselves reflected in the physical fabric of their place in the world.

Signs of progress are arising. Various support networks like the National Association of Black Women in Construction and Black Females in Architecture aim to promote workplace diversity and support Black women in construction and related professions. For their part, Citi and the Citi Foundation — working closely with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) — have ramped up support for Black business owners. Citi also promotes equitable communities by investing in affordable housing development and by working to expand Black homeownership.

Meanwhile, individual change-makers on the ground are doing their part to make an impact, as well; following are the stories of four women who have made strides in architecture, design and construction, and share a common bond: through their work they are helping communities prosper.

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Black Americans need access to women of color in architecture and skilled trade industries who better understand their lived experience.
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The contractor crafting community spaces

Through a friend’s connection, Kimberley Robles got her feet wet in the skilled trades as a carpenter’s apprentice in 1985, and decided to make a career out of construction work. She eventually landed on concrete work in 1992, and launched her own business in 2018. She is now the owner and project manager of Robles Concrete Design in San Francisco, CA, a firm specializing in residential and commercial projects.

As the head of a small business, Robles believes that continuing education is key to sustaining a competitive advantage. “A lot of people think they can just buy equipment and start doing these floors with no knowledge of construction or concrete or business,” Robles says. On the flip side, she adds, “You can be the best type of builder or construction worker, but if you don’t know the business side, then it’s not going to work out for you.”

Robles has also found that to be successful, you need to support — and, at times, look for support from — your community. Robles Concrete Design was thriving, but the onset of the pandemic — when construction projects were halted — disrupted her business. To keep the business going, she secured funding through a local non-profit CDFI serving the San Francisco area called Main Street Launch, which received a grant from the Citi Foundation intended to help small businesses owned by people of color impacted by COVID-19.

Kimberley Robles, Concrete Design Contractor

Photo courtesy of Kimberley Robles

Robles is also enrolled in the Black contractor program at Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco. For three decades, this non-profit has provided resources — such as business planning and access to funding — for underserved people to start small businesses, which, in turn, help to grow their local economies.

Engaging with local organizations factors heavily in how Robles does business. One of her recent projects, polishing and coating 8,000 square feet of concrete for the site of a Gus’s Community Market, a family-run supermarket chain in San Francisco, exemplifies this. In many neighborhoods, grocery stores are part of building a sense of community. And thanks to Robles’ expertise in concrete flooring, she was involved in the construction of a neighborhood amenity.

The family who owns Gus’s opened their first store, Haight-Ashbury Produce, in 1981. Robles, who grew up in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, is finding that times may change, but the local grocery stores remain a beacon of consistency: a place of sustenance, community and care.

“The owners are very nice, and it felt great to interact with them and their family throughout the duration of the project,” Robles says. Their newest location continues the tradition of providing a place for people to meet their neighbors and create community through a local marketplace.

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Engaging with local organizations factors heavily in how Robles does business.
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The business consultant championing affordable housing

As she drives through the neighborhoods of Memphis, TN, LaShun Clark sees the economic disparities of her city firsthand. The burden of rising housing costs, Clark says, amounts to a growing crisis facing many homeowners and renters. Clark notes that housing is a particularly heavy burden on single mothers, who may be struggling to meet the basic needs of day-to-day living.

As a former single parent, Clark made it her priority to find a safe, affordable home. “Now I take notes in terms of what we need to do to create a place where women can become homeowners and provide legacies for their children in neighborhoods that are safe,” she says.

The city stands out in terms of risk factors for inequity. “Memphis for the longest [time] has been at the top percentile of poverty, bankruptcy — a myriad of things that have not been a shining light from a financial standpoint,” explains Clark. (The state of Tennessee itself has had one of the highest rates of bankruptcy filings in the U.S. in recent years.)

CEO of Memphis-based InDigo Strategic Management, Clark is a professional consultant and an entrepreneur in her own right. She also serves as operations chairwoman for the National Association of Black Women in Construction, which represents the unique interests of Black women in construction and construction-related fields throughout the country. The organization offers its roughly 300 members an opportunity to expand personal and business networks, maintain awareness of industry developments, improve skills and knowledge, and make a contribution to other women in the construction industry. And through her many roles, she advances her personal mission to provide innovative ideas and strategies that will help close the persistent gap in homeownership rates between white and Black people in Memphis.

LaShun Clark, Business Consultant

LaShun Clark. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Baker

“Most disenfranchised neighborhoods do not have grocery stores in close proximity,” Clark points out. Lack of robust public transit and no private transportation to rely on mean some families are limited to how many groceries they are able to transport home. “They spend more time commuting than engaging with their children,” she notes, leaving kids at greater risk.

Clark believes one way to create safe spaces for Black homeowners is by maintaining housing affordability in gentrifying sections of Memphis, which would mean community stability for low-income residents vulnerable to displacement. As part of that effort, Clark has been in discussions with a local construction company about acquiring vacant lots and building homes on them that position families to become homeowners.

Her vision and desire is to see more “forever” homes built in Memphis — ones that fit their owners so well that they can live and grow in them for the rest of their lives. (Clark says she favors Craftsman-style and ranch homes because they are relatively affordable to build and are designed to accommodate the changing needs of a family over time.) Ultimately, she hopes, residents will pass the homes down to the next generation of their families.

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Ultimately, she hopes, residents will pass the homes down to the next generation of their families.
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The architect advocating for diverse perspectives

While in her first semester at an architecture school in New York, in 2001, Pascale Sablan got a stark indication of how she was seen by the field she had aspired to join since age 11.

Out of a group of about 70 students, the professor suddenly singled out Sablan and another student, asking them to stand up. “We stood up and he said, ‘These two will never become architects because they are Black and they are women’,” Sablan recalls. “I was shocked by the professor’s audacity to make that claim and the silence of my peers in the room.”

But instead of feeling intimidated by the professor’s lack of confidence based on gender and the color of her skin, a lightbulb went off in her head. Sablan says she knew from that point on architecture was the right fit for her.

“It was powerful for me to start my journey there, understanding that I would always be representing my gender and race when I am in a room and in a space. And that gave me the privilege of having purpose to know I needed to always show up and show out. And whenever I did, I was able to flourish,” she says.

Pascale Sablan, Architect and Community Advocate

Photo courtesy of Pascale Sablan

Sablan has more than defied the narrow predictions of that architecture teacher from her first semester class. She earned her license to practice in 2014, becoming only the 315th Black female in the U.S. to do so, according to the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

Data kept by the National Organization of Minority Architects and National Council of Architectural Registration Boards indicate that Black women make up about 0.4% of the industry’s licensed practitioners, as of the end of 2020.

Sablan has gone on to become an associate at the prestigious global architecture firm Adjaye Associates in New York and was named the 2021 recipient of the AIA’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Award, which celebrates an architect or organization that champions a range of social issues. In its announcement of the award, the AIA recognized her advocacy for the work of “women and diverse design professionals,” which in turn “greatly enhanced the profession and broadened social awareness of the built environment.” The honor also made Sablan the youngest Black American to ascend to the AIA College of Fellows, a distinction held by just 3% of the organization’s network of members.

Sablan’s drive has inspired those around her and spurred the extensive network of architects and designers she has collaborated with to advocate for themselves and their communities. “To me, community is everyone, as much as you’re able to embrace and engage with them,” she says. Her commitment to involve everyone in the design process, especially those who don’t typically have a voice, led Sablan to found Beyond the Built Environment, a platform aimed at leveraging community engagement to inform architectural decisions and, ultimately, to create “equitable, reflectively diverse environments,” its mission statement notes. One of the platform’s programs is SAY IT LOUD, a series of exhibitions that has profiled more than 400 diverse designers from across the world, bringing broader visibility to them and their contributions to the built environment.

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Sablan has more than defied the narrow predictions of that architecture teacher from her first semester class.
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“I have been very honest and very persistent about pushing those values of community engagement and community focus in design justice,” says Sablan, explaining that she takes on projects that are designed with input from the communities that will benefit from them.

For example, when Sablan was handling community engagement opportunities for a project focused on addressing shortages of affordable housing and jobs in a rent-burdened and low-income section of the South Bronx neighborhood of New York, community surveys yielded a large number of requests for additional barbecue grills for an adjacent park. “The barbecue area in the park was not a part of our jurisdiction or project development,” says Sablan. “Traditionally, requests like this would have been dismissed. But with a team who prioritized the voice of the community, the client chose to request that the city include this area in their scope and made it part of the project. They designed the barbecue area to substantially increase the number of grills, an amenity that will allow families to gather and celebrate as a community.

“When you walk into a community meeting and have people be vulnerable enough to tell you what they are scared about, you cannot just dismiss their answer if it doesn’t align with your vision,” she adds. “You need to handle it with care and to consider how to address it.”

The builder unlocking potential in unused space

Tagging along with her father on construction jobs in Memphis as a teenager left a lasting impression on Areletia Gibson, and laid the foundation for a love of design and the built environment.

Starting at the age of 14, Gibson learned the basics of plumbing, carpentry and electrical work. Getting the experience and skills under her toolbelt led Gibson to start her own business, Gibson Girls & Smith Guys Construction, which services residential as well as commercial properties. “We handle everything from heating, ventilation and air conditioning to plumbing, electrical, roofing, landscaping and complete remodels,” Gibson says.

It’s not uncommon for would-be clients to doubt her credibility as a contractor. “The only challenge I have is clients look at females like, ‘okay, I don’t really think she knows how to do this type of work’,” Gibson explains. “But when they actually see me do the work, they are like, okay, she’s got this, and they want me to come back. And I get a lot of referrals.”

In addition to operating her construction business, Gibson is thinking outside the box about ways to marshal her skills, creativity and connections for greater impact. She has set her sights on addressing affordable housing by preparing to learn how to transform steel shipping containers into new homes that can fit on small lots in the North and South Memphis neighborhoods through her partnership with three Black women-owned businesses.

Areletia Gibson, Construction Business Owner

Photo courtesy of Areletia Gibson

Among the Black residents in Memphis, who make up more than 60% of the city population, many see buying a home as out of reach. According to a 2020 University of Memphis study, the city has a dramatically higher-than-average percentage of residents below the poverty line compared with the rest of the state, and housing insecurity is a pressing concern. Which is why Gibson is interested in container homes as a more cost-effective alternative to conventional housing because they require fewer building materials and labor to construct.

“You can have an old house, but many don’t have the proper insulation,” says Gibson. “The container homes are going to help low-income residents save money because they are cost-efficient. We will have indoor motion sensor lights to cut down on energy bills, and the walls will be fitted with insulation panels.”

The affordability and durability of container homes are attractive to those seeking a living space that is quick to build and won’t keep them in debt for decades. Putting down roots, renovating property and investing in communities help neighborhoods grow and become stronger for everyone. These women and the work they engage in play a vital role in helping shape the future of their communities as more inclusive, self-affirming spaces, and enabling families to have a secure, affordable place to call home.

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Putting down roots, renovating property and investing in communities help neighborhoods grow and become stronger for everyone.
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Though Black women are noticeably underrepresented in the construction industry, still they persist in seeking access to the tools needed to improve the lives of others around them. They continue to knock down barriers as they challenge the norms, and are making positive headway in closing gaps and creating equity when it comes to something critical and foundational for people: their home.

To learn more about how Citi is helping close the racial wealth gap and increase economic mobility in the U.S., visit citi.com/racialequity.

Brenda Richardson

is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in a variety of news outlets, including the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Money.com and MacArthur Foundation’s grantee stories. Her story on redlining’s legacy of inequity was named one of Forbes’ best real estate stories for 2020.