Every February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District joins the nation to observe and reflect on the tremendous contributions that African Americans have made to our country and our history. As 2022’s Black History Month ends, we took time to talk with some of our people and ask them about their experiences and perspectives that both empowered and shaped them. Although only three Black voices were interviewed, Black History Month is an opportunity for the corps to share some of our employees’ perspectives on Black history and what it means to them.
Information Technology Specialist and Information System Security Officer
Tell us a little about what you do.
“I am an information system security officer. I work with cybersecurity and supervisory control and data acquisition systems, SCADA, and non-Corps-connected systems.”
Do you celebrate Black History Month?
“Every day! [He laughs.] You’re not just Black during Black History Month – there are constant reminders of what it means, the situations in the world and whatnot that unfold, and you have to see and deal with them. You're constantly reminded of where your heritage is, how it was developed, where it came from, so I celebrate every day.”
Can you elaborate on that?
“For me, Black history is also American history. We call it Black history here, but there's a world history incorporating everything from Africa. So, when we focus on just the African American or America's idea of Black history, we start with the introduction of Africans to this continent. There's a history before Blacks ever landed in America, and there's a history of African Americans after they arrived, so in one respect it’s like, okay, I look at America's idea of Black history and the world's idea of history, and they’re connected.”
How does this weave into a larger picture of history?
“When I think of American history, I think of it as a quilt. Every ethnicity, race, creed, color, religion, everybody that's come here or has wound up here for one reason or another, everybody has their own square in the quilt that tells a story. If there's a square missing, you don't have the whole story. Irish history, Italian history, Black history, Asian history, Hispanic history, they’re all American history. Since we’re talking about this as a quilt, you’re probably going to wind up being cold if your quilt has a hole in it.
“It’s a real benefit to know your history. One of the things a lot of African Americans don't have is the ability to say ‘I'm this, I’m that’ because they can’t trace their ancestry back to any particular place. It’s nice to know this stuff and be able to go visit someplace you might have relatives at.”
That’s an interesting perspective. Most African Americans only identify as African Americans, they don’t say they’re part Congolese and part Ivory Coast.
“It’s a luxury to know your origins.”
When you study African American history, what interests you the most?
“When I started to learn about my heritage and culture, I started to see what's real and manufactured, what's presented to people to make it palpable. History can be a bitter subject, but I love it. I wanted to be a history teacher for a time, but you have to take the good with the bad.”
What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
“I think diversity and inclusion help take away that dynamic of groupthink: when a team only thinks one way about something. It limits a team on what their capability is and the capabilities of what something can be. I think when you have so much of the same, it'll wind up in the same train of thought, and there’s nothing to encourage thinking outside of the box for a solution that could improve something and make someone say, ‘Hey, this is what we really need right now. We have the building blocks and the foundations to make it bigger and better.’”
Deputy, Small Business Office
Tell us a little about yourself.
“My job is to educate the Pittsburgh District staff and educate small businesses on small business issues. Essentially, I’m an advocate for small businesses.”
Do you celebrate Black History Month?
“Kind of. An important thing about Black History Month, to me, is that one person isn’t more important than another, and that it [Black History Month] is an opportunity to learn a little bit more about Black history. There are some very good speakers showcased during this month. On television stations like PBS, they provide a documentary on African Americans during the month of February, which I find interesting. You can always find good African American movies on some of the streaming services.”
What do you enjoy about them?
“I enjoy a lot of them, but I look at them from an educational point of view as opposed to just entertainment. I had a conversation the other day with someone about Black History Month, and this person was really interested in Black military history. He asked me if I ever heard of the Harlem Hellfighters in World War One or the Black Panthers in World War Two, and I had never heard of them before. We got online after and did some research about these two African American units that contributed so much to World War One and World War Two that I would have never known about if we didn't have this conversation, which was brought up because it’s Black History Month.”
What do you think Black History Month means from a cultural perspective?
“It's a way to educate people about the contributions African Americans have made to this country. It opens doors by allowing more conversations about African Americans or even about race, you know? Sometimes it seems a little taboo to talk about race or the tough issues, but during Black History Month you really can't get around discussing race, so it can be educational for everyone, not just African Americans.”
What kind of conversations do you wish people were having more?
“I think that we should have a more open conversation but not in an adversarial nature, more like I would have with a friend of mine. We can disagree on things, but it's not adversarial, you know? I think we should be able to have these conversations with people from the same or a different race without making them feel uncomfortable. People shouldn't be afraid to talk. That's the only way we're ever going to understand each other.”
Lock and Dam Leader, Allegheny River Lock and Dam 3
Tell us a little about your job and your career.
“After I graduated high school, my first job was in a coal mine. I rode a bike eight miles every day to get to work. After the first year, I bought a brand-new car and then I went to college. After I got my degree, I started working as a maintenance mechanic for the Corps of Engineers. In some jobs, I got to do a lot of work on trains and bridges. In other jobs, I got to do some bricklaying and concrete work, all kinds of odd jobs at different places. Right now, I’m a lock operator, so I lock boats, moor boats on pins, escort boats through the locks and coordinate with the public and the tow industry.”
You must have learned a lot from those jobs.
“I use those experiences that I had with those jobs on my current job. When I worked with the Corps of Engineers, every time a contractor would come to the locks and dams, I would offer them a hand and work with them. I would ask them, ‘Hey, what do you do on this job? Can I work with you guys?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ I’m happy I can use my experiences to help others.”
Do you think Black History Month is important for organizations to recognize and celebrate?
“To a certain degree. Everyone struggles with Black representation – I’m the only Black female who works on the river, as far as I know. That can be hard for me because I don’t have anyone to relate to if I have a problem that I want to talk about from the female point of view. It was also hard to earn respect at the beginning of my career and even though I have years of experience with locks and the work we do, it was hard to have my voice heard.”
Do you feel respected now?
“Absolutely. It took a while, but over the years I’ve worked blue-collar jobs, I think I’ve earned respect.”
What is your experience working with the corps today?
“The corps has a great class of people. They have a lot of different state-of-the-art equipment that I could use at my readiness. If I have a problem, I can go to somebody and ask, ‘How do I use this?’ and I’ll learn how to use it. Some of the guys know and are experienced with these tools and I get to learn from them. That's an aspect that I like.”
Do your experiences at work translate into your personal life?
“Yes. A lot of people keep those separate. They go to work and work there, but they're one person at work and a different person at home. To me, if you are a very well-rounded person, experiences that you have in your private life are things you can use at work. The experiences you have at work are things you can use in your private life, so I think I have a good balance there.”
Do you have anything you want to say for new generations entering the workforce?
“I think it’s important for candidates of color to hear about the experiences and challenges others have faced when they’re applying for a non-traditional working environment. I hope they hear more from other people of color so they can connect their cultures to their very best innovations and see hope. If they can keep going, they shouldn’t give up.”