Fostering Equitable Internships and Diversifying the Green Building Industry
Women and people of color have been historically underrepresented in the architecture and design fields. In 2017 females comprised more than half of the U.S. population, but only one-third of licensed architects were female. African Americans made up 13% of the American population and Latinx 18%, while only 4% of licensed architects identified as African American and 8% Latinx1. The green building industry has grown exponentially in recent years but continues to experience a persistent diversity gap, with far fewer minority individuals employed in higher-wage positions such as engineer or architect2. EcoRise is working with several strategic partners to create opportunities for historically underserved students and diversify the industry.
EcoRise, the University of Texas School of Architecture (UTSOA), Austin Independent School District, and BLGY Architecture have teamed up to design and pilot an innovative Green Building Internship Program for Central Texas high school students. With plans to scale the program, the pilot’s mission is to facilitate an equitable pathway to green jobs that will promote climate and community resiliency via green building programs, localize climate change and empower student action, and create career opportunities for historically underrepresented students in the field of green building, including female students and students of color.
The pilot program is funded by Glimmer Austin and the City of Austin’s Office of Innovation. The first cohort of interns are members of Mr. John Sayce’s Scientific Research and Design Open-Ended Engineering Design course at Akins Early College High School in Austin, Texas. The student body at Akins High School is made up of 88.5% students of color and 62.1% economically disadvantaged students3. In Mr. Sayce’s class, students are learning about green building and sustainability through EcoRise’s LEED Prep curriculum, which also prepares them to take the LEED Green Associate exam. To further apply what they have learned in the classroom, a diverse group of six students from Mr. Sayce’s class have the exciting opportunity to intern at BLGY to gain real-world work experience and learn more about the wide variety of professions associated with shaping the built environment.
Preparing internship hosts and interns to work with one another is an important step to ensuring student success. Just before winter break, UTSOA’s Assistant Professor Miriam Solis and two graduate students worked with EcoRise to orient the Akins students to the internship program and provide them with the tools that they need to have a successful experience in a professional workplace. In addition to covering workplace norms, architecture firm culture, and role-playing activities to help students navigate a variety of potentially challenging situations, the internship orientation included discussions about cultural capital and barriers that women and people of color often experience in a traditionally white, male-dominated workplaces. Students left more prepared and excited about the internship opportunity that lay ahead.
Later that day, Dr. Solis and EcoRise Deputy Director Abby Randall visited BLGY to facilitate a 90-minute lunch-and-learn for the four internship hosts who have signed up to mentor Akins students from January to May 2020. Students will work with BLGY professionals three times a month during the spring semester on the modernization of South Austin’s Blazier Elementary and Intermediate School. In addition to providing students with valuable opportunities to develop skills and knowledge to pursue professions related to green building, the internship hosts brainstormed how to navigate potential challenges and learned they play a crucial role in mentoring interns through career advice and modeling professional and social behaviors. Exposure to career pathways and mentorship in high school affects students’ likelihood to pursue a career in the industry4.
The lunch-and-learn included an engaging discussion about community cultural wealth.5 The concept holds that people of color possess skills, abilities, and knowledge rooted in their experiences with social marginalization. These attributes are typically overlooked due to deficit thinking. Mentors engaged in a community cultural walk exercise to reframe cultural capital in a way that acknowledged these attributes as strengths. They considered ways to recognize and build on these strengths to enhance learning and ensure a positive internship experience. Being open to the unique experiences and knowledge that each student can bring to the internship reduces cultural communication barriers and creates a two-way learning experience for the mentor and intern.
Another major way to reduce barriers for students, and further increase opportunity and access to green careers is by offering paid internships6. Akins students – as well as other high school students of color from across the Austin area – will have an opportunity to build on their course-based internship experience through a paid summer internship with local architecture firms and municipal offices. By providing paid internships, as well as transportation to and from internship sites, EcoRise’s Green Building Internship Program aims to further reduce barriers for students whose families experience financial insecurity and don’t have the privilege of being able to intern or work without compensation for weeks or months at a time.
National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, Demographics, 2017, https://www.ncarb.org/nbtn2017/demographics.
S. Breau of Labor Statistics, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, 2018, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.
Austin Independent School District, Akins High School, 2019, https://www.austinisd.org/schools/akins.
Equity and Architecture Research Project, Equity by Design [EQxD]: Minimizing Barriers to Maximize Potential for Succes, 2018, http://eqxdesign.com/.
Yosso, Tara J., Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth, 2005, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006.
Stanford Social Innovation Review, Reimagining the Internship to Promote Racial Equity, July 9, 2019, https://ssir.org/articles/entry/reimagining_the_internship_to_promote_racial_equity.