In 2021, Robertha Richardson from Tuskegee, Alabama, sat down to read Equity, Inclusion and Diversity in Engineering: Why They Matter. The article featured Dr. Jessica Rush Leeker, Director of Undergraduate Education, and Stephen Dunn, Professor of Engineering Management at CU Boulder’s Engineering Management Program (EMP).
Richardson is the founder of Harvest Dreams, a nonprofit focused on fostering sustainable food production systems and affordable housing in her local community. She comes from a family of Black farmers who’ve owned for 100 years the Tuskegee land they farm.
“Richardson saw the article and reached out to me to explore whether we could create any partnerships or synergies,” says Rush Leeker. “She knew she wanted to do something to create more sustainable communities, and that’s how the Building Legacy in Engineering research project got started.”
An Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grant is funding the project that involves PI, Dr. Jessica Rush Leeker, Co-PIs, Shawhin Roudbari and Laura MacDonald, a collaboration between CU Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) and Environmental Design (ENVD) and Tuskegee University's College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences led by Dr. Raymon Shange.
Together, they’re pioneering a "living-learning lab" through design-build projects that experiment with agricultural-land infrastructure that’s socially and ecologically sustainable.
Building Legacy in Engineering—A Unique Partnership
Tuskegee University’s partnership is partly because of its proximity to Harvest Dream, Ms. Richardson, and her family’s land there. Additionally, Tuskegee’s prominence as one of the nation’s top historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) and its deep-rooted connections to Black history and education made it the perfect choice for the collaboration.
“We knew we needed a partnership with Tuskegee. We did not want to come in as a predominantly white institution when there was a school already there,” Rush Leeker explains. “So, we started to work on potential synergies and authentic partnerships to create, and we’re excited to be working with Tuskegee University.”
The project that began with Ms. Richardson now seeks equally forward-thinking students and community members to participate.
“Because Richardson cares a lot about the legacy of her family, we knew we wanted something with stakeholder engagement and community engagement,” says Rush Leeker. “We wanted the community to have a say, and students, to work together each year. So, approximately ten students from CU Boulder and ten students from Tuskegee will work together to create the living-learning lab.”
Collaborating To Build Resilient Communities
The partnership between a predominantly white institution and an HBCU College is a pioneering and exciting initiative in community partnership.
The lab will be designed as a “living” design, and the dynamics will change yearly. “The best part about this project is that we don't know what it’ll always look like,” Rush Leeker adds. “Every year, a group of students and different professors will design, and they’ll have themes they work on and then pass on to the next year and the next.”
Rush Leeker admits there is risk involved when there’s so much freedom to explore, but everyone agrees it is a risk worth taking. “I want to shout out to Harvest Dreams about not being scared to do this and to be excited about it,” she says.
Harvest Dreams already plays an important role in building equitable and sustainable communities, and the project will be able to rely on their expertise and community connections. “They do a lot of community outreach,” explains Rush Leeker. “So, they’re finding ways to get greater stakeholder engagement in the area, and they have land we're going to use to create the living lab.”
Richardson will also work closely with the students throughout the project. “When they have a design in mind,” says Rush Leeker, “they’ll work with her and the community to make sure that it matches the mission and the vision.”
“In the first year, environmental design, led by Co-PI Shawhin Roudbari, will lead and work with students to think through the community piece, thinking with empathy about who's involved and how to work with those stakeholders,” says Rush Leeker. “The grant is studying a lot of different relationships: faculty relationships and student relationships across different diversities. It also looks at how we involve the community in this process.”
It is an essential step toward collaboration on many different levels. “This is very important because many people are not comfortable with ambiguity—especially engineers,” says Rush Leeker. “They want to know the answer. They want to know how it's done. And the living-learning lab is a process that includes going back and changing things. I'm excited about it.”
Addressing the Challenges of Creating Equitable Communities
One of the biggest challenges the project addresses is the colonization of community outreach, where outsiders come into a community and dictate the changes that should happen.
“We want to decolonize community outreach,” says Rush Leeker. “We don't want to go into a community as if we know what they want. We want to go in listening and understanding the history.”
For Building Legacy in Engineering, the goal is to involve the community from the earliest stages. “We're hoping to show what community engagement can look like,” explains Rush Leeker. “Many times, people go into a community already thinking, ‘I know what they want, and I don't need to talk to them.’ That’s a big issue, and we're trying to show that community engagement can be done and that community involvement from the very beginning of a project is so important. That's one of the most important things we’re doing.”
Another challenge is talking about issues of race in a respectful way that encourages dialogue and mutual understanding. Tuskegee, Alabama, is a city that is pivotal to Black history in the United States, as home to the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, educator Booker T. Washington, civil rights icon Rosa Parks and scientist George Washington Carver. However, the area also has a history of food scarcity and poverty—an estimated 30% of the population is struggling below the poverty line, according to 2020 Census Bureau data.
“We’re taking on that challenge by focusing on how to have complex conversations about race and class,” says Rush Leeker. “We’re showing how to have these dialogues with students and faculty and ensuring we have a team that can support that. Building the trusting relationships to make up that team has been an exciting process.”
Because the research team doesn’t know precisely what the project result will be, they’ve had to become comfortable with ambiguity. “It’s been important that we start as an open grant with freedom for innovation,” she adds. “The innovation piece is so important, and we must move forward without fear.”
New Models for Sustainable Community Development
As they innovate, the Building Legacy in Engineering team hopes to create models that other universities can follow. “We hope to model how collaboration between two universities can happen and how faculty can facilitate,” says Rush Leeker. “As faculty, we're enablers and guardrails, and we hope to show how this can be done—giving the students free reins but still being their support.”
Because this project involves informal learning research that happens primarily outside the classroom, the team is determined that students have the support and resources they need to participate. In this, the program is also striving to model equity.
“It’s crucial to us to make sure that everything’s equitable and that we're supporting the students in this journey with us,” Rush Leeker explains. “We’re making sure students get a monthly stipend to participate. This is an opportunity for them to gain skills and knowledge, so much of the budget goes to the students and different speakers or workshop leaders we’ll bring in to help them gain the skills they’re lacking.”
The Role of Engineering in Creating Self-Sustaining Communities
A key focus is establishing a collaboration where the community is a participant, not just a passive beneficiary of the project. “I’ve been on a lot of service-learning projects in Haiti and other places, and we go in and leave again, and that’s it,” Rush Leeker adds. “That’s why it’s important for me and the whole team to think of this project as a two-way relationship. The students and faculty will learn as much as we're giving to the community, so involving the local community and giving everyone a voice at the beginning is very nice. Even the mayor, Lawrence Haygood, is on board. Having this whole community-enriching experience is key.”
For engineers to make a difference and build sustainable communities, they’ll need to begin as listeners. “We’ll need to understand the history behind what’s happening in the local community,” says Rush Leeker. “We can start with changing our mindset and seeing everyone as human. Then, we can go in and see how we can all use our skills together, to look for opportunities to create sustainable community development and solve these opportunities together.”
Each year, students will work with the community to build stakeholder engagement so the community can keep going forward after the grant. “We’ll look at what resources the local people need for the community to sustain the work,” Rush Leeker explains. “Hopefully, elementary and middle school students, including my children, can go to this place and learn. Let’s say they find sustainable agriculture there, sustainable architecture, and other structures. The students can see it as a science or engineering lab that they can learn from year in and year out.”
Sustainability That’s Engineered for the Long Term
Building Legacy in Engineering is a four-year grant project—aptly named for the legacy engineers can leave for this community. “Each one of the students who’s involved will bring in their bricks—that is, the skills they’ll offer in the project,” says Rush Leeker. “Every student's going to bring their unique skill set, and by the end, what we begin building will continue to be built long after we’re gone.”
Sustaining progress will also involve the community. “We’ll also outline a process plan for the community, including helping them know how to obtain resources for support. If they need a group reflection, for example, to talk about strengths and weaknesses or improvements we can make, we’ll help them navigate all that. And after we leave, hopefully, it will continue.”
Sustainability in Engineering
To learn more about how a Master of Engineering in Engineering Management from CU Boulder can help you better understand the role of engineering in building more sustainable communities, visit the Engineering Management Program page. You can speak with an advisor or request more information by contacting: Kendra.Thibeault@colorado.edu.