Bobbie Shields, P.E., M.ASCE, is the owner and manager of SHIELB PLLC, a planning, engineering and management consulting firm. Previously, he worked nearly four decades as an engineering leader in both the private and public sectors in his home state of North Carolina.
A longtime ASCE leader, Shields currently serves as a Region 4 governor. He was set to take part in ASCE’s virtual roundtable discussion, June 10, “Engineering a Culture of Inclusion in the Face of Injustice.” However, technical difficulties limited his participation, so he shares his story and comments here as an ASCE News Member Voice article.
George Floyd’s statement, “I can’t breathe,” is one that has been said all too often in the face of injustice.
I wear a smart watch that monitors my blood pressure, and sometimes when I just think about race relations and injustices in America, my watch advises me to pause and take deep breaths for at least one minute.
I have also noticed, in this time of COVID-19, that I hold my breath when crowded by unknown, unmasked persons. Social distancing allows me to breathe – freely. Staying away from messy discussions about racism keeps my blood pressure down. So when I was asked to participate in the ASCE “Engineering a Culture of Inclusion in the Face of Injustice” discussion, my watch advised me to have a minute of deep breathing. Afterward, I told myself to politely decline the invitation to be a panelist.
As it turns out, I did call in but could only share a few comments because of technical glitches. Here is what I wanted to share:
I was born and raised in segregated rural North Carolina. Early on, I was indoctrinated with American history, mostly from the white man’s perspective, and observed privileges that I did not have.
I have been ridiculed, discounted, physically threatened and called hurtful names. I made mental notes of things that provoked such unjust treatment.
In other words, early in life, I unknowingly applied the scientific method to develop the following hypothesis about racism – “Racism is evil.” For me, the recent events in our country validate that hypothesis.
I joined ASCE in the mid-1970s and, since then, have followed its efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. In the late 70s I served on the Committee on Minority Programs, and recently served on the Committee to Advance the Profession (which included the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion). I have observed the hard work being done by [ASCE MOSAIC leaders] Yvette Pearson, Quincy Alexander and others to align ASCE’s Code of Ethics with our professional obligations. But there is still much work to be done.
As we discuss why racism in this country is something that everyone needs to be working to eliminate, and how people can start that healing process and improve society, I say, observe, be knowledgeable about behaviors (yours and others) and speak out. When you step into an office setting, committee meeting, board room, join a video conference or enter a job site, look around ask yourself, “Does what I see reflect the diversity, inclusion and equity that we talk about?” I am conditioned to make that observation simply because I am often the only person of color present.
We have many grand words recorded in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, some of the constitutional amendments, our ASCE Code of Ethics and countless written speeches made by persons with good intentions. We, as engineers, understand our ethical obligations; however, we, as a nation, must come to grips with “matters of the heart.”
That effort needs the involvement of the collective human race to reject racism and injustice in all forms.
The Experience of Mr Shields reminds me of an encounter with a lady from Wharton Business School in USA. I was the Team Leader for the Mid-Term Review of Urban Restructuring and Water Supply Project for the Zambian Government in early 2000. This Sociology Professor as a team member, would not allow any breathing space to enable me lead the team. Ethical behaviour under a World Bank supported project prevented me from replying her actions and attitude in equal measure. Following completion of the final report and subsequent presentation to stakeholders, she sent a mail to praise the quality of my report. I did not bother to acknowledge receipt of her mail.
Dear Mr. Shields,
Racism is an issue that not many of us readily accept. First, I want to thank you for making a stand against injustice. I think one of the most challenging things as an engineer comes in walking the talk. Everyone has been in this situation before and a lot of us join organizations hoping to be carried.
I am a candid person, that is a part of who I am, and I have found some injustices to be crippling beyond belief. Many of us face the same types of injustice outside of the workplace and the worst thing to witness is having someone lose their lives and livelihood before a cause has to mean something.
Civil engineering is a profession that is held in high regards because it is about designing, building and creating ways for people to improve their lives. Not only that but this profession requires trained personnel to use and manage equipments that are hazardous and could be detrimental to people’s wellbeing if not used appropriately and so others who are affiliated with this profession are also accountable to the amount of trust that is placed by the public.
Truthfully, these acts require a lot of courage, courage that sometimes people don’t have and it’s unfortunate that there are those who will give into greed and material gain at the expense of others.
As an engineer, I have found that culture and leadership plays a major role in how decisions are made and many of these situations are a call to action to the leaders of industries and business but also to employees to act and disobey acts that are unfair and unjust.
Thank you for sharing this.
Ms. Oanh Le
Bobbie, thank you for your powerful words and your continuing involvement with ASCE. Your calming presence has a positive effect on others’ BP, and your obvious knowledge and intellect demonstrate the folly of racial stereotypes. You grace every meeting you participate in; Region 4 is lucky to have you as Governor.