Black engineers share their experiences, career goals, and hopes for the future of the field

Black Engineers, Black civil engineers history and impact

From planning some of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, to revolutionizing American travel and transportation safety, to developing the first video game blueprints, engineers have played a key role in American history, business, and culture. Unfortunately, many people aren’t aware of how crucial engineers were to these aspects of our world, nor do they know that many of these contributions came from Black engineers. For example, there was Walter Braithwaite, who developed the first CAD systems; William Hunter Dammond, who invented the first train signaling system; and several more.

Today, only 5% of all engineers in the U.S. are Black. According to the Pew Research Center, 3% are Black men and 2% are Black women. This can lead to common misconceptions that “Black engineers don’t exist,” adding to the challenges Black engineers often face in professional settings, from equal pay (Black women earn the lowest) to advancement opportunities (the promotion rates for Black employees have severely dropped since 2021) to having their expertise challenged or dismissed.

Visibility starts with education and recruitment
Education and intentional recruitment are two key factors in adjusting this disparity in our industry. For example, Atwell partners with six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in close proximity to our offices that have civil and environmental science programs: Texas Southern, Tennessee State University, Howard University, Savannah State University, Central State University, and Prairie View State University. We also participate in job fairs, on-campus presentations, and local chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers in order to identify Black engineer talent and offer internship and full-time opportunities. It’s one step in the right direction to provide more Black Engineers with more visibility.

In an industry that has been white-male-dominated for centuries, it’s important to understand the experiences of engineers from other backgrounds in order to ensure that the field of engineering continues to grow, innovate, inspire, and shape our world and our future.

We spoke to three Atwell engineers to gain insight into their career journeys and experiences as Black engineers, and to learn from them about what we all can do to produce more innovative work, build more authentic relationships with clients and colleagues, and embrace and cultivate more talented engineers.

“Knowing our history is equivalent to knowing your history.”

Barry Caison, a Project Manager in Atwell’s Mitchellville, MD office, has more than 30 years of engineering experience. He began engineering with Maryland’s Fairfax County Department of Public Works in the late 1980s for 10 years before becoming a construction manager, and he joined Atwell as a Project Manager years later. He also served in the Air Force for six years and is an active mentor for up-and-coming engineers through his work on the advisory panel at his alma mater, the University of the District of Columbia. Needless to say, he has seen a lot, learned a lot, and wants to instill a lot of his wisdom onto his peers and mentees in the industry. To him, understanding Black history is essential in having a full range of understanding in American history and engineering history.

“People need to know their American history, and their engineering history,” Caison affirms. “If they did, they’d know that a lot of design and construction came from Blacks—from Black Americans to Black Africans and beyond. There should be a sense of pride there, to know this is part of engineering history, American history, and world history.”

“You don’t have to fix every problem, but you do need to understand the people you work with.”

Morgan Walubita is a Director in Land Development at Atwell’s Mitchellville, MD office, who has been an engineer for over 20 years. A native of Zambia, he was the first generation to experience a post-segregated Zambia—the country’s racial segregation laws before its 1964 independence mirrored the Jim Crow laws of the U.S. He moved to the U.S. to obtain his engineering degree, where he also attended the University of the District of Columbia with Caison.

“I was so fortunate to move to a predominantly Black city and university and have a classmate like Barry with generations of knowledge about America,” Walubita recalls. His experiences in Zambia and the U.S. showed him that no place is perfect, but it’s important understand where people come from, what they’ve endured, and how these factors affect their lives. “Even when our history or backgrounds are known, it is sometimes misunderstood,” Walubita explains. “There’s only so much we can teach individually, but if we all made the effort to learn more, then it would benefit everyone: our teams, our organizations, and our relationships.”

Caison added to this sentiment, saying, “There is no pride in being ‘The Only One.’ From other engineers to the clients and landowners we work with, there’s not a lot of Black people on either side, and that’s a difficult reality. We need more representation, and this can happen through our peers having more education and understanding about our experiences.”

“It can feel like there’s a certain spotlight on us.”

Cierra Scott is a Design Civil Engineer based in Atwell’s Tampa office. As a recent graduate with a few years of experience, she is hyper aware of how her race, age, and gender factors into her experience as an engineer.

“Engineers in general have to bring our A-game and energy on a daily basis,” Scott says. “Being a black engineer sometimes feels like there’s more of a spotlight on me to do well, but this just drives me to excel even harder in the workplace.”

She’s grateful that her team is helping her learn the ropes, and especially thankful for all the supportive women in her office. However, there are some things she wishes all AEC professionals understood better about being a Black woman engineer.

“As a female engineer, a big focus on mine is speaking with confidence in a male-dominated field,” Scott states. “I wish people understood that communication and teamwork are so important for having positive experiences in our work, from how we speak to each other as coworkers to how we talk to clients or county reviewers.” This communication can help foster bridges of understanding the Black engineer experience better.

Passion is a catalyst for innovative engineering, but also an armor for microaggressions and systemic discrimination

All three of these engineers have a passion for building, designing, and seeing how projects are applied in real time to improve the world. Unfortunately, there have been times where their love for engineering was all they had to keep them going in difficult times.

“I remember being the only Black person in most of my classes,” Caison recalls. “It was hard to form relationships. This carried over to my earlier engineering roles where I felt singled out and challenged in certain ways—people challenging my knowledge, even though we had the same qualifications and background.”

“Some people start out in this field, then discover they can make more money doing something less strenuous and pursue that instead,” Caison says. “Honestly, I like dirt. I like building things. Engineering aligns with my passions.”

Overall, Caison expressed a desire for his work and passion for engineering to be seen more so than the color of his skin—a roadblock he’s been forced to break through in the past.

The next generation of engineers needs to see themselves in their leaders

It’s important for people to see themselves in their leaders; it signals that their advancement and status are also attainable to the people they are leading. However, with the small number of Black engineers in general, the number of Black leaders in engineering is even smaller.

“I’d love to see more of us in the industry,” says Walubita. “It’s shocking to look around and be the only Black face in the room. And I love mentoring engineers of all backgrounds—it’s the most fulfilling part of my job.”

Both Walubita and Caison have remained active parts of the engineering community in the Great Washington, D.C. region, serving on the advisory panels for the College of Engineering at their alma mater and mentoring kids from middle school through college. The combination of recruitment strategies and dedicated mentorship may have a positive influence on the visibility and career advancement of future Black engineers.

As for a final word for other seasoned, rookie, and aspiring Black engineers:

Walubita advises, “You can’t forget the struggles you went through to get where you are, but you also can’t dwell on them. You have to persevere. If people make you feel like you don’t belong, don’t let it deter you from achieving your goals.”

Scott states, “This career has a significant purpose in our everyday lives; it’s so cool to be part of developing the world we live in. It’s a broad field, but that just means there’s always something you can learn about. If you enjoy learning and seeing how the infrastructure we design applies to our world, and don’t mind discovering new things you can improve on each day, then you’ll really enjoy this career.”

Caison says, “What we go through as engineers, regardless of race, is tough enough already—the work can be strenuous and the hours can be long. Being Black on top of that has its own set of unique challenges. But we need more representation, which happens through more engineering education, more educating the general population that talented Black engineers are out here and capable, and your continued confidence in pursuing something that aligns with your passions.”

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