Improved representation improves our ability to problem-solve, to be strategic with our strengths, and to think critically and comprehensively about topics.
By Sara Parkman
Acevedo currently plans and manages development for residential, commercial, and industrial projects with Matthews Design Group. Previously, she led a team of planners in development review for St. Johns County, a government within northeast Florida. She was a member of Zweig Group’s 2020 ElevateHer cohort. Zweig Group founded ElevateHer as a commitment to embrace, promote, and ensure equal opportunities for everyone in the AEC industry regardless of gender, race, age, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
“It is important to ensure that diversity and inclusion in the AEC industry is a priority, as these fields affect everybody,” Acevedo says. “We deal with developing the spaces around which we live and work which should represent everyone, not just a minority.”
A conversation with Shannon Acevedo.
The Zweig Letter: You’ve had a colorful work history spanning regional planning work to educational non-profit research. What is something you learned in a previous role that is still valuable today? How is it valuable?
Shannon Acevedo: I did a brief teaching stint for a K-8 school in downtown Phoenix. It was the most difficult position I’ve ever had with a high physical and mental demand. It forced me to be prepared, intentional, and to constantly think on my feet. This experience helped me tremendously in my presentation skills and ability to improvise when needed in the planning field.
TZL: What made you decide to share your story and apply for the 2020 ElevateHer cohort?
SA: Honestly, I was not aware there was such a disparity of women compared to men in the industry and was moved by the statistics shared with me from Zweig Group and Jamie Claire Kiser. I think it is important to ensure that diversity and inclusion in the AEC industry is a priority, as these fields affect everybody. We deal with developing the spaces around which we live and work which should represent everyone, not just a minority.
TZL: What first drew you to the AEC industry? What do you love about working in it today?
SA: I was first drawn by the aspects of urban design. I love to imagine and reimagine places and wanted to have a part in that. Once I began my journey in the field of urban planning, my passion morphed to include environmental sustainability and resilience. With all of the pressures on the earth and the interesting research on how to design places more thoughtfully and efficiently, the field is never boring and there is always more to learn. What I love about my present job is the constant newness of having a variety of projects and challenges. No day or project is the same as the one before.
TZL: What advice would you give to someone who is considering pursuing a career in the AEC industry?
SA: This is a wide and diverse industry with so many different avenues. If you decided to pursue a degree within the AEC industry whether its engineering, planning, architecture, or something else, don’t define the industry by your first job or professional encounter. If you find yourself in a place or job that you don’t feel fits you, don’t immediately search for another career. It may be that you just haven’t found your niche or the right organization where you can be fulfilled and flourish.
TZL: How has COVID-19 impacted your work-life balance?
SA: I’ve been able to adapt quite well since COVID-19, fortunately. I’m set up well to work flexibly in the office and at home and have been able to maintain somewhat steady hours. The only downfall is now everyone has my personal cell phone number, which I used to keep quite private! To help keep separation between work and personal time, I make a point to not answer my cell on the weekends if it is a work call or phone number I don’t recognize.
TZL: You’re a volunteer with UrbanPlan, an organization that engages high school students in urban planning. What do you do as a volunteer with UrbanPlan, and what role do you think programs like this play in engaging the next generation of planners?
SA: I became a planner because I wanted to do landscape architecture as a second career, but couldn’t afford to quit my job to take the daytime studio classes. I started looking into other academic master’s programs in similar fields and found one that was mostly at night for “urban planning.” I had never heard of it or ever realized this was a career field, much less know it would become such a great passion of mine. This is the primary reason I volunteered to do UrbanPlan. It’s an amazing high school special topics program that gives students the opportunity to plan a development from complex and wide perspectives including political, financial, and community development viewpoints. Students are divided into teams and build their projects using LEGOs and must defend their developments to a city council. It is very realistic and provides a window for students who may be interested in urban planning as a career.
TZL: The 2020 ElevateHer cohort worked in smaller project groups on self-chosen topics to create a focused deliverable that was shared with the rest of the industry at Zweig Group’s ElevateHer Symposium and Elevate AEC Virtual Conference. Which topic did your group choose and what was one of the ways you addressed it?
SA: We chose the daunting task of coming up with a metric system to measure diversity and inclusion. Our dream is to develop an index that can measure this nuanced topic much like how LEED has become the go-to metric on environmentally-conscious design. We got the ball rolling by defining some of the characteristics we think will be important factors and then we scouted out a project success story that we could use to identify some of the attributes and presented it at the first ElevateHer Symposium. We hope the work will continue with the next cohort.
TZL: Why are inclusion and engagement an important part of diversity initiatives?
SA: Inclusion and engagement is so important to diversity initiatives, because these elements give the initiative authenticity. It’s not enough to make the numbers work, whether it’s generating enough diversity in terms of gender, race, background, or ethnicity for example. The diversity must be valued and the need genuine for the results to reap rewards. In other words, if a person is included just to meet a checkmark on some diversity metric, but is not wholeheartedly engaged or encouraged to contribute, their value will not be fully realized.
TZL: According to research, 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys are interested in science during the 4th grade. However, by freshmen year only 14 percent of women intend to pursue a STEM degree, as opposed to 32 percent of men. How do you think we can attract more girls to STEM fields from a young age (school outreach, scholarships, etc.)? When did you become interested in your field?
SA: We need to give them more opportunities earlier. As mentioned earlier, I didn’t learn about urban planning until I was an adult looking for a second career after working in marketing and research roles. UrbanPlan is a great program to introduce students to the field of planning in high school. I think scholarships are a great idea and so are high school internships. At my company, Matthews Design Group, we hire high school and college interns, giving opportunities for young people to learn and be exposed to the industry early on. Their roles are not making copies and getting coffee. They are learning how to use software, designing site plans, and even researching local codes to develop an understanding of planning and engineering.
TZL: Improved representation – regardless of gender, race, or age – benefits everyone in the workplace. What examples have you seen of this?
SA: Improved representation improves the ability to problem-solve, to be strategic with our strengths, and to think critically and comprehensively about topics. An example of strategy may come with how we assign project managers for new clients and projects. There may be specific needs for a project related to location, industry, relationships, or jurisdiction. Having a diversity of backgrounds as part of our organization allows us to be nimble and capable to pair the right person with the right project to ensure success. In terms of thinking critically and comprehensively, we have spent time as an organization collectively brainstorming motivators for building success within the company. By including everyone, we get a more comprehensive or creative list of ideas, for example, versus just a higher bonus or salary which typically comes to mind as a carrot. With greater representation, you learn other things that make people tick like having more vacation time, more celebrations, better work/life balance, or more funding for professional development opportunities.