The full version of this article was originally published in the Winter 2020 New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Journal. An abbreviated version is republished here with permission from NEWEA.
As the nation further awakens to systemic racism, members of the water and wastewater industry must actively identify opportunities to build more inclusive environments for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Inclusive environments enable all individuals to feel safe, respected, and engaged, while fostering the diversity of perspective and experience that allows an industry to excel (Eswaran 2019; Scott & Pozzi 2020; Mitjans 2019). Systemic racism perpetuates racial injustices in fundamental structures in the United States including communities, education, and the workforce (Collins 2018). This article looks broadly at systemic racism against BIPOC and its impacts within these structures as related to the water and wastewater industry, then suggests a non-comprehensive set of actions to bring awareness to opportunities for building more inclusive environments in these structures. While acknowledging and confronting white privilege and systemic racism is difficult and complex, the industry must confront the nation’s history of racial injustice.
Today, more than two million Americans lack access to safe drinking water and sanitation. BIPOC communities disproportionately bear the burden of this inequity compared to white communities (Deitz & Meehan 2019; Roller 2019). From 1930 to 1980, when significant federal investments were being made in water and wastewater infrastructure, the federal government encouraged “redlining,” the systematic practice of denying loans, investments, and services based on racial demographics. Redlining excluded BIPOC communities from receiving adequate water and wastewater infrastructure, which left inequities still felt today (Roller 2019; Kenton 2020). Now, federal funding is no longer the driving force behind water and wastewater infrastructure, dropping from 63 percent in 1977 to 9 percent in 2019 (Patterson 2019). Nevertheless, BIPOC households, whose median income is less than two-thirds of white households, are still excluded from adequate water and wastewater services through their income, as most funding for infrastructure now comes from local ratepayers (Peterson Foundation 2019). Consequently, budget constraints in low-income communities often lead utilities to defer critical upgrades and improvements.
Actions for Change: Communities
Increase federal data collection and research to support the equitable allocation of federal resources and decision-making. The United States does not currently collect comprehensive data on water and sanitation access, and BIPOC communities are notoriously undercounted in official datasets (McGraw 2019). An Environmental Protection Agency database allows states to identify Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) violations at drinking water systems, but does not track information about community demographics or income (Schwartz 2018). Overlaying and comparing SDWA violations with demographic data would better reveal how race and access to safe water are related, allowing demographics to become useful in equitably allocating resources.
Ensure that all people equitably benefit from the distribution of environmental benefits and are protected from environmental burdens regardless of where they live or work. Environmental and public health inequities disproportionately affect BIPOC communities in New England (CLF 2020). While laws provide services for environmental justice communities in writing, there must be systems in place to hold legislators accountable. In June 2020, the city of Boston declared racism a public health crisis (City of Boston 2020A). As a result, 20 percent of the police overtime budget is being reallocated into a community-based task force that will increase equity in public safety and health. Additionally, the task force plans to analyze data to better understand the societal, environmental, and behavioral factors that contribute to the impact of racism and access to jobs, housing, and education (City of Boston 2020B).
Inequalities: Education and Academia
BIPOC students are significantly underrepresented in degree programs that directly feed into the water and wastewater industry—primarily engineering and environmental science. Black Americans make up about 13 percent of the United States population, yet they represent only 4 percent of engineering bachelor’s degree recipients and 2.6 percent of engineering faculty (Chang 2015). This underrepresentation can be attributed to limited access to equitable education and resources prior to college, and discrimination in college recruitment and retention practices (Funk & Parker 2018; NSC Research Center 2015). The onus should not fall on BIPOC students; universities need to reevaluate retention policies and change their educational culture to make learning accessible for all students.
Actions for Change: Education and Academia
Create supportive learning environments for underrepresented students. BIPOC students in engineering programs are more likely to advance professionally if their university’s culture is welcoming and sets clear expectations (Fisher et al. 2019). The Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center (EDOC) at the University of Connecticut (UConn) is an example of incorporating institutional changes to create a more inclusive experience for BIPOC students. UConn’s EDOC facilitates the recruitment, retention, and success of all members of the UConn College of Engineering (COE) community, but especially those from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in engineering. This program provides students with resources for practicing anti-racism, facilitates thoughtful discussions on inequality, and supports students within the engineering community (UConn 2020).
Incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into the culture and curriculum in higher education. In August 2020, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst COE launched the Dean’s DEI Curriculum Challenge in response to students’ requests to see DEI issues embedded in the engineering curricula. Every faculty member was asked to submit one lesson plan for one class taught during the fall semester that incorporated these ideas (UMass 2020). Equipped with the proper tools to confront DEI issues in the classroom, professors can educate students about the ongoing impacts of white privilege and systemic racism within the nation and give them the tools to undo them.
In the United States, less than 8 percent of water and wastewater treatment plant operators are Black; similarly, less than 8 percent of environmental engineers are Black (DATAUSA 2020). Further, BIPOC operators and engineers disproportionately represent lower positions; those who do enter the industry are less likely to advance to senior positions than their white counterparts (EEOC 2016). These patterns can largely be explained by the impacts of systemic racism and implicit bias felt in communities and educational structures. Systemic racism manifests itself in numerous ways in the workforce, which limits the range of perspectives and skill sets needed to tackle increasingly complex industry problems (OED 2020).
Actions for Change: Workforce
Incorporate diverse networks in hiring practices. Racial discrimination influences recruiting and hiring processes, which impacts consideration for a position. Since most social networks are racially homogeneous, it is easy for white people to exclude BIPOC from their networks. Further, resumes with white-sounding names are more likely to receive interview requests than equally qualified resumes with Black- or Latine-sounding names (Gerdeman 2017; Bertrand & Mulainathan 2004; Gaddis 2017; Nunley et al. 2014). Recruiters must focus on universities and colleges with higher numbers of BIPOC students and utilize associations that support BIPOC students, such as the National Society of Black Engineers or the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
Identify and mitigate potential areas of bias in promotion and compensation practices to help an organization succeed. Organizations that prioritize and invest in diversity benefit from increased profitability and better problem-solving compared to organizations that do not invest in diversity (Eswaran 2019). Organizations can consider hiring an external firm to conduct equity analyses, which would provide feedback and recommendations including quantitative analyses, individual interviews, and human resources data collection and evaluation (Frankel 2018).
A More Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Future
To continue progress, the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) has established an ad hoc DEI Committee to ensure a welcoming environment for all members where everyone feels empowered, respected, and safe. In January 2021, the committee facilitated a panel and roundtable discussion on confronting racial inequalities in the water and wastewater industry at the NEWEA Annual Conference. In February 2021, NEWEA and the New England Water Works Association are hosting a Young Professionals Summit focused on diversity, inclusion, and environmental justice in the water and wastewater industry. More information and the link to register can be found here. Later in 2021, the committee plans to spearhead an environmental justice-themed edition of their Journal. If you are interested in joining the NEWEA DEI Committee or contributing an original piece of writing to the environmental justice-themed edition of the NEWEA Journal, please contact NEWEA at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Professor Nick Tooker discussing how differences and similarities in students’
backgrounds and experiences can affect the design process as he helps his students
with their semester project of incorporating civil engineering design and sustainability
into a building project. Students had to include cultural and geographic considerations
to determine design differences and similarities if their building was situated in an
alternative location from Amherst, Massachusetts. This assignment was part of the UMass
Dean’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Curriculum Challenge. Pictured is a team considering
alternative locations in Baku, Azerbaijan (from top to bottom: Rachel Perrotta, Nick Tooker,
Karalynn Aguilar, and Elvin Kadi).
Ultimately, confronting inequalities and creating a more inclusive industry are challenges all leaders must meet within their respective organizations. Every individual in the water and wastewater industry has a role to play in promoting equity and activating meaningful change. Let us continue these difficult conversations as we strive to make the industry more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
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