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.