March 7, 2024 | Damon L. Garrett, PE

The AEC Industry in Underserved Communities

Underserved communities are defined as areas or groups of people with limited access to needed resources. These communities are typically made up of populations that are elderly, have limited abilities, or live at or below the poverty line. There are unique challenges and lessons learned while working with underserved communities.

Damon L. Garrett, PE, has developed expertise in working with underserved communities from his experience as a civil engineer and Highland Park’s Water Department Director and Engineer of Record roles. The following discussion is part of a four-part series that continues Damon’s conversation with Bonnifer Ballard at Michigan’s American Water Works Association (AWWA) conference on September 15, 2023.

Q: How has the AEC industry impacted underserved communities?

A: Honestly, the AEC industry has left underserved communities behind and taken advantage of them instead of fixing them. There are millions of dollars appropriated to projects involving underserved communities, and, unfortunately, many people look at them as business opportunities.

Q: How has MCA impacted underserved communities?

A: I can tell you that in the underserved communities that MCA has been able to work in, we’ve truly made a difference. In addition to providing direct services, we’ve made ourselves an integral part of those communities.

Typically, the various circles of trust are broken and need to be rebuilt. We try to mend those fences and build back that trust through developing personal relationships. Our team completes training and research to try to understand what is happening and how the community got to an underserved status. We invest in charities and do everything we can to get the community back on its feet.

Q: What is the greatest lesson a civil engineer can learn when working in an underserved community?

A: One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is how to become a historian. You need to find out how the community reached an underserved status. Finding a community that started underserved and never changed is rare. When you discover the altering event, you find critical indicators and put systems in place so it doesn’t happen again.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face while working in underserved communities?

A: I think the biggest challenge is listening to everybody’s story, talking about solutions, and leaving emotions out of the equation. When you’re working in underserved communities, you need to learn the history and what the perception is of why it happened. A lot of people say, “Somebody else did something to me.” I think people have to look in the mirror and say, “I have to be culpable in this situation. Did somebody really devise this maniacal plan to do these things?” In some cases, the answer is yes, but not always.

Working in underserved communities, you have to ask yourself, “Did I hear all sides of the story?” You hear the saying, “There may always be a little truth in a rumor.” So, get to the bottom and find out where that comes from.

Q: How do these challenges vary from other communities you’ve worked with?

A: A lot of these communities have similar challenges; I think they get magnified when there is a financial aspect. The challenges in a rural underserved community might not be that much different from those in an urban underserved community, such as not having a lot of jobs, a lot of business, or a lot of resources. It all comes back to money. If you don’t have any money, rural or urban, you fall into the same category, but it looks a little different. When you have good thought and leadership, you can avoid becoming underserved or pull yourself out of it much quicker.

Q: What do you find to be in common with many of the underserved communities you have worked with?

A: They almost all have the same issues, and they almost always come from a catastrophic event that happened in the community. Although there are variations, the issues often come down to a lack of competency and resources. They just rear their heads in different ways in each community.

Q: How has MCA grown throughout working with underserved communities?

A: Overall, we’ve learned to be efficient, communicate better, and have more empathy.

We’ve seen a lot of things and learned how to be more accepting. We’ve been working with underserved communities since 2015, so we have developed a level of expertise. It’s been stressful, and we’ve had some tough times over the past nine years. Sometimes, you have to do five times more with half the resources, so it has challenged us to find the most efficient and effective solutions. From our experiences, we’ve learned what questions to ask and what solutions are available to the community.

Q: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned while working with underserved communities?

A: The greatest lesson I’ve learned is to be patient, which is really difficult because, in our society, everything runs a million miles a minute, and everything is at your fingertips. Sometimes, it can feel as if society is moving in one direction, and this community is moving in another direction. Ideas and solutions you might offer them might not be attainable because they are underserved.

Q: What is your philosophy or motivation while working with underserved communities?

A: My motivation is to make a difference. If you’re not making a difference, I don’t think you’re doing much of anything. In an underserved community, you have to be dynamic to make a difference.

It’s been both extremely rewarding and extremely stressful working in underserved communities. I’ve learned a lot as a leader and as a professional engineer, which has all helped contribute to bettering the communities we’ve worked with. I’ve enjoyed helping underserved communities, like Highland Park, grow and progress, and I look forward to seeing each success the community achieves that puts them a step closer to getting back on their feet.

Highland Park Water Department Director

Metro Consulting Associates was appointed Director of the City’s Water Department in 2016 and currently manages billing rates, operations and maintenance, and the overall day-to-day operations of the water and sewer systems including the customer service center. With City administration assistance, our team created a rate structure, revised annual budget structure, and fee schedule for the Water Department that ensured the $10 million annual budget fulfilled City needs and goals.

The AEC industry is in the position to utilize its talent, knowledge, and expertise as an opportunity to make a difference in communities. Although this work can bring long days and hard work, the result of helping a community get back on its feet is incomparable. These communities need tenacious and trustworthy leaders who look to solve complex problems. MCA can help.

View all posts in this four-part series:

  1. Leadership in the AEC Industry
  2. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the AEC Industry
  3. Ethics in the AEC Industry
  4. The AEC Industry in Underserved Communities

About The Author

Damon L. Garrett, PE

Damon brings over 20 years of civil engineering, project management, and executive leadership experience to his role, leveraging his ability to build, grow, and enable high-performing teams to help clients achieve success in their communities.

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