Shifting Our Focus to Racial Equity

Across the science, technology, engineering, and math sector, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) make up only 33 percent of the workforce. This industry statistic is in part what prompted Woodard & Curran to form its diversity and inclusion program nearly 10 years ago. While incremental organizational changes have been made, focusing on diversity and inclusion was not having the impact we wanted. The missing and arguably most critical piece to upholding our people first value was equity.

Race Forward defines equity as “a process of eliminating racial disparities and improving outcomes for everyone. It is the intentional and continual practice of changing policies, practices, systems, and structures by prioritizing measurable change in the lives of people of color.” Since I assumed the role of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager in 2020, I have worked in concert with leadership at Woodard & Curran to dive deeper into this work, especially in terms of racial equity. It became apparent to leadership that we needed to develop a shared understanding of what racial equity means and how it applies to the work we do.

We made a commitment to racial equity as a firm and started with education. The racial equity training we have since embarked on in partnership with Hackman Consulting Group was the focus of a recent panel discussion during the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. I was joined by my colleagues Julia Wahl, Engineer, Sue Guswa, National Wastewater Practice Leader, and Jay Sheehan, Operations & Management Business Development Leader, who shared their thoughts on the training, our effort to incorporate a racial equity lens in our work and daily interactions, and the way racial inequities impact our industry.


Rachel Gilbert Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager Human Resources

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~ 70

Members of Executive Leadership & Management


Hours of Racial Equity Training

Developing shared understanding through training

As our conversations shifted to focus on equity, and specifically racial equity, it was obvious that our individual understanding was all over the chart. Some people were generally aware of inequities and had turned to common resources found on lists generated in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Others were just awakening to the concepts.

“It’s a big leap from diversity and inclusion initiatives to company-wide equity,” said Sheehan. “The commitment and investment the company has made is significant, both in terms of funding a full-time DE&I manager and hiring a consultant for racial equity training. We have just started the journey.”

In 2022, approximately 70 members of our executive leadership and upper management attended 27 hours of racial equity training. The training was broken down into five modules, starting with the foundational work of establishing language and framework and building trust through relationships, then addressing race, racism, whiteness, and how to apply the racial equity lens to our corporate culture, policies and procedures, and external work. We are planning to train another two groups this year.

“I feel like I am moving toward understanding racial equity both as an individual and alongside Woodard & Curran, and now have a better understanding of the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion,” said Guswa. “We are striving to make impactful changes to our culture and systems. If the systems aren’t equitable, then inclusion – in the sense of a deeper belonging – can’t be achieved and will be difficult to sustain a complex workforce.”

Some were surprised at the amount of time invested in this training, but it’s important to remember the scale of what we’re working to dismantle. The root of racial inequities is more than 400 years old and has been baked into systems, structures, and institutions, plus lifetimes of individual socialization into a largely invisible system.

“We’re doing deeper work because we have to grapple with our individual history and the greater history to really understand how these forces control access to power and resources,” said Wahl. “These are facts that we were never taught as scientists and engineers. It’s totally outside of our technical curriculum, and at first, it feels like a stretch to dig into the ways that equity work underpins our professional work.”

Operationalizing our lessons learned

Many people are told the old adage, “Don’t talk about race, religion, or politics at the dinner table.” As such, many white people avoid the subject to avoid conflict or discomfort. Wahl explained, “Being white in engineering is a profoundly safe and comfortable space. So, as a white person, it’s incumbent on me to move out of my comfort zone and address microaggressions and inequity when I see it. That’s what operationalizing a racial equity lens looks like for me.”

“This training has brought the topic of racial equity into conversations we have at work. We have the permission, some tools, and a growing level of understanding how to address the impacts of racism in our jobs,” said Guswa.

“We have spent decades pretending race isn’t a factor in how we work, but that approach hasn’t resulted in any changes in workplace complexity, retention of BIPOC engineers and scientists, or the capacity for us to address race with any sophistication,” said Sheehan. “It’s worth mentioning that none of us think we have this figured out, but we’re trying. And it’s our responsibility to get this message out to the industry.”

Where we go from here

Leadership at Woodard & Curran recognizes that 27 hours of training won’t undo hundreds of years of racial inequities and injustice. However, our commitment to continue racial equity training, develop a shared language, and start putting the tools to work is catalyzing a critical mass to effect change across the company, and hopefully our industry in years to come.

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