Constructive Constructions for Environmental Justice
By Frank Schwamborn
In light of the social justice and police brutality events over the last year, and throughout the course of our country’s history, I felt it was important on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to once again read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — to take these moments to reflect on how I am upholding Dr. King’s dreams, or rather how my actions prolong the frustrations Dr. King wrote about in his letter.
As an engineer, I’ve pledged to “serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.” And with every building I leave my fingerprints on, I aim to combat the injustices that Dr. King worked toward bringing an end to.
On California’s famous Pacific Coast Highway, the inequity is clear as you drive from one city to the next. Although I doubt any part of the United States is exempt from this truth, Los Angeles and its surrounding neighborhoods demonstrate that many buildings in working-class communities were not constructed with an equitable foundation. These buildings were constructed in a United States that had (and still has) exclusive classes developing systematic barriers to pin races against each other. This narrative might seem grim, but buildings stand for generations and any environmental injustice embedded in them will stand even longer. Our past constantly surrounds us, and it serves as a reminder that every building I help design and construct will stand long after I am gone.
The loss of Dr. King was tragic, but he had hope. Hope he left instilled in future generations to work toward justice and equity for a “more perfect union.” I hope at the end of my career, I will feel that my work has celebrated communities for their culture, and did not transform or displace them through the forces of gentrification. That my work created equitable opportunities in a clean, green, and healthy community. And finally, that my work fulfilled my pledge to serve humanity through the lens of environmental justice. It is not enough to be an engineer for the world, I need — as engineers, we all need — to be “societal engineers,” working to design constructive constructions for environmental justice.