This blog is adapted from a story that was originally published in Environmental Monitor. It is republished with permission.
Although the environmental and planning industry often prides itself on planning for diverse populations and for applying the principles of equity and inclusion in their work, the field itself suffers from a lack of diversity in the ranks of its planning professionals. Five firms took a unique approach to make a difference: creation of a collaborative diversity-oriented internship program.
Collaboration Arises Out of Adversity and Tragedy
At the start of the pandemic, Gary Jakobs, AICP, CEO of Ascent, a planning and environmental firm, reached out to the CEOs of four other privately run planning and environmental consultancies: Dudek, Environmental Science Associates (ESA), PlaceWorks, and Rincon Consultants.
The intent of the outreach was to connect with similar firms — all had significant California statewide presence — to share what we learned and the experiences we had while responding to the early challenges associated with the pandemic. Following George Floyd's murder, the CEO Exchange also was used as a forum to discuss and share details of respective DEI programs and to identify areas we could consider for improvement.
As leaders of firms that collectively employ thousands of environmental and planning professionals throughout the state, we also recognized that, together, we had a strong voice in our industry.
A Joint Internship Is Formed
Although we frequently discussed the importance of increasing diversity in the environmental and planning industries during our exchanges, we felt we needed to do much more. This need grew into the idea of a joint internship, a program to create opportunities for students from underrepresented communities to engage with professionals in the private and public sectors and gain valuable industry work experience.
The preliminary concept was to include two components: an intensive collaborative effort during which all the interns would work together on one project, followed by a more traditional internship period during which the interns would spend the balance of the summer working for one of the five participating firms.
Each participating firm agreed to hire two BIPOC college students — 10 total at the five firms — as interns, beginning in June 2022. To provide the interns with a meaningful experience during the project phase of the internship, we engaged in discussions with the City of Sacramento (each firm maintains an office in Sacramento), to identify a project that the interns could work on together.
The city had recently purchased a 100-acre site in a historically disadvantaged and underrepresented area for the purpose of developing a project to benefit the community, as well as meet critical affordable housing and youth community gathering and sports program needs. The participating firms and the city agreed that this project would provide an ideal platform for the first component of the internship program: a two-week charrette.
Interns begin the site planning process. Photo provided by Gary Jakobs.
After months of planning and coordination with the city, the group of interns assembled for the charrette, spending one week each at the offices of two of the participating firms. Over the duration of the charrette, the interns toured the project site; met with elected officials, city staff, and key stakeholders and community members; and received training and guidance from participating firm representatives.
Interns receive training and guidance from participating firm representatives. Photo provided by Gary Jakobs.
Empowered and inspired by this input and guidance, the interns worked together to develop a conceptual site plan, as well as an environmental constraints analysis. The charrette culminated in a presentation to Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, city staff, and members of the five collaborating firms.
The professionalism, knowledge, and polish displayed by the interns during the presentation so impressed the mayor that he requested that the students present their work at a public meeting of the City's Planning and Design Commission.
The presentation to the commission was lauded, earning the interns praise for their insight, vision, and ability to complete a vast amount of high-quality work in a short time frame. In addition, the interns offered a perspective rarely seen; their work was informed by experience living in communities experiencing some of the same planning and environmental issues addressed in the presentation.
Following the charrette, the interns began the second component of the internship program: working as employees at the firms that had hired them for the summer. Following the conclusion of their summer internships, many of the interns were offered part-time positions with their respective firms as they completed their studies.
Interns participated in a City Tech Talk. Photo provided by Gary Jakobs.
Ten interns participated in the collaborative internship program among five planning and environmental firms. Photo provided by Gary Jakobs.
The following summary briefly describes what went into the planning and implementation of this program.
Planning and Program Management
Implementing a collaborative internship program requires a project manager to lead and manage the effort. Further, before undertaking such a program, the participants need to understand that such an effort requires a significant and sustained commitment of time and effort.
Zachary Miller, AICP, a senior transportation planner with Ascent, stepped into this role and managed the overall internship program recruitment and charrette processes. Senior staff from each participating firm committed to help plan and implement the program.
This effort required scheduling, coordinating, and participating in twice-a-month meetings; planning and implementing recruitment efforts; developing a detailed scope of work for the charrette; and coordinating and scheduling all training, guest speakers, and meetings and presentations.
The planning and development of the program and its framework could not have been completed without the continued input, effort, and contributions of individuals from each of the five firms.
Each firm was typically represented by two or three people at each of the internship program development meetings. The number of representatives proved to be sufficient for ensuring that all goals of the internship were expressed, considered, and agreed on, including hourly salaries.
The collaborating firms agreed that all expenses associated with the implementation of the charrette would be split equally. Some interns had to travel from other parts of the state to Sacramento. Regardless, the firms agreed to equally split travel, hotel, and per diem charges for all the interns.
The recruitment effort was initiated through the development and distribution of a flyer that described the intent, mission statement, and application process of the internship program.
Carey Fernades, Dudek's NEPA/CEQA practice director, developed the flyer with input from the other firms. Before a flyer was distributed, however, schools were screened to ensure that they had a curriculum consistent with the focus of the internship program and to ensure that the enrollment demographics of each school's relevant program reflected the intent of the program.
To ensure that the selected schools fully understood the intent and mission of the program, the firms contacted career advisors or internship coordinators at each school. This step was critical to ensure the schools would actively push the program to its qualified students.
We now know to start this process much earlier in the year. In the end, the flyer was distributed to nearly 40 colleges and universities throughout California, 65 applications were received, and more than 30 applicants were interviewed for the 10 positions. The five firms discussed the applicant pool to ensure a skill set and geographic fit between the interns and the participating firms.
Barbra Calantas, ESA's biological resources director, possesses a certificate from the Cornell University Diversity and Inclusion Program. In preparation for the event, she applied her deep knowledge and understanding about the implementation of such programs and developed and conducted a training session for all the professionals who staffed the charrette. The training session was focused on working with BIPOC individuals, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Nearly every day of the charrette included "table talks," presentations and discussions led by industry professionals from the firms, City of Sacramento staff, and, in some cases, other industry professionals. Among the table talk topics were site planning, CEQA, transportation planning, public engagement, housing, and climate action planning. Individual topics were selected and scheduled based on the specific work and tasks being completed by the interns on that day so they could immediately apply their new-found knowledge to the task at hand.
During the charrette, Zachary Miller, AICP, and Jonathon Teofilo from ESA were on-site and actively managed the daily activities to ensure their smooth operation, address any logistical issues, and document each day's activities.
Rincon's Matt Maddox, AICP, and PlaceWorks' Mark Teague, AICP, were on-site for most of the charrette, offering continued guidance and support to the interns as they worked through complex planning and environmental issues.
Two or more additional professionals from the participating firms staffed the charrette each day. To help the interns imagine themselves in the role of the professionals they worked with, BIPOC professionals from each firm staffed the charrette when possible.
The inaugural charrette and internship program were a success. The students learned a tremendous amount, formed friendships, and developed an understanding of the planning and environmental field that may lead to their entry into the profession. All the interns expressed enthusiasm about the charrette and the experience working at the firms during exit interviews.
It is our hope that their enthusiasm for the program will be shared with other students and that it will increase the number of BIPOC students who choose to enter our profession.
Although the charrette required tremendous commitment from professionals already facing a demanding workload, the program was so rewarding that we are all committed to bringing it back next year. One change we have decided to make is to expand our focus to include students in community colleges.
Moreover, we want the success of this program to inspire the creation of other, similar internship programs and partnerships not only in the planning and environmental field but in transportation, architecture, landscape architecture, civil engineering, and, frankly, all industries.
Together, we hope to create the more diverse and more effective workforce we have talked about for years, one that resembles the communities in which we live and work.
For more information, contact Gary Jakobs or Zachary Miller.
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Top Image: Students participating in the internship program plan ahead for the upcoming charrette.
About the Authors
Gary Jakobs, AICP, CEO of Ascent, and Zachary Miller, AICP, Ascent senior transportation and environmental planner, with contributions by the following CEOs: Leslie Moulton-Post, Environmental Science Associates; Joe Monaco, AICP, Dudek; Keith McCann, PlaceWorks; and John Dreher, Rincon Consultants