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A President's Message from SEAOC President Rafael Sabelli

Tuesday, June 23, 2020  

By Rafael Sabelli, SE, SEAOC President 2020

It is rare that cultural forces rise to the level of requiring statements from associations such as ours, but we find ourselves in just such a pivotal moment. SEAOC is a prestigious and diverse group of engineers, professionals, academics, students and industry members who share a common interest in advancing the safety of our built environment and resiliency of our communities in the face of disaster. We are both servants of our society and also indebted to our society as it continues to grow and build. We have all embraced our role as caretakers of the science and practicality of how to put structures together. However, we also bear a responsibility as public professionals and intellectuals to advocate for the kind and quality of society that is being built, not just the physics and forces that keep it standing.

We are in a moment that highlights what has long been clear: our society is not functioning equally for all of our citizens. NCSEA’s own SE3 survey has shown that just in our ranks, inequality, while often not intentional by any one person, is nonetheless a headwind to many of our members’ careers. A headwind made up of the systems, cultural norms, educational barriers, gender stereotypes, etc., that for many of us goes largely unnoticed if these winds are instead at our back. This is a microcosm and only a faint example of the issues the recent protests across our country have been raising.

This month SEAOC issued a call to action, in coordination with CASE, NCSEA, and SEI, to help bring about an end to systemic racism. This societal affliction limits the potential not only of individuals, but of society itself, including our profession and professional organizations. In issuing the call we have said to our members, current and future, that we stand in solidarity with those who oppose the abuse of people, and the impunity that protects that abuse, and that we recognize the cost to society that it entails. In my view, this relates directly to SEAOC’s core values, and to SEAOC’s mission. SEAOC members should recognize that as well-educated professionals we have a degree of privilege, yet that this privilege is not a shield from abuse and discrimination for many of our members.

With this privilege comes a corresponding responsibility to do what we can to bring about changes that help achieve a flourishing society, one that benefits our members both culturally and economically, now and far into the future. This is the foundation of the call to action, a call that should be met with action on multiple fronts to both increase the diversity of our profession and to leverage our influence to effect positive change in society.

The absence of overt barriers to entry and advancement is not enough to achieve diversity. People do not enter professions that they don’t see themselves in, or that appear insensitive to and unconcerned with their wellbeing. In addition to the SEAOC efforts addressed in call to action, I ask that we, as SEAOC members, consider other actions:

I ask that our leaders consider public statements condemning the on-going bias, abuse, brutality and death meted out to people due to the color of their skin. Silence on this issue, especially at this time, sends a message that our institutions, associations, and firms are insensitive to the concerns of many of our members.

I ask that we consider our technical language and avoid loaded terms. (Many of us have already taken a cue from Shakespeare and learned the singular “they” as appropriately ungendered.) I was pleased to learn that CSI years ago eliminated the term “slave” from its terminology. Small gestures of respect and consideration can be welcoming, and small gestures of disrespect can have outsized consequences.

I ask that we consider the projects we take on. We are used to thinking of engineering as a positive, public-service profession, keeping people safe and accommodating all manner of activities, but some of these activities have negative impacts. Would you submit your qualifications to engineer a concentration camp in another country? A for-profit prison in this one?

I ask that each one of us consider how we can do a little more to help our society fulfill its promise.