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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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