Editor's note: In this continuation of Construction Dive's series examining racism in construction, we share the stories of people of color who have built prosperous careers in the industry despite hurdles put in their way.
Deryl McKissack knew she had to earn it.
Even though she came from an African-American construction family that traces its roots to a freed slave who made and sold bricks before her grandfather founded McKissack & McKissack with his brother in 1905, she knew that to be successful in the business, she would have learn it from the ground up.
So after graduating with a structural engineering degree from Howard University, she went to work for others before coming back into the family fold. She remembers arriving at her first job to the surprise of the foreman.
“When I showed up, the head person came out and said, ‘You're Deryl. Oh, no, I thought you were a man,’” said McKissack, who noted that she’s probably felt more discriminated against as a female in a male-dominated industry than because she is Black. “I just laughed and laughed. Honestly, it didn't bother me.”
Along the way, she also witnessed the racism that is pervasive in the construction trades. For example, in the 1980s, she remembers visiting a jobsite where the foreman had a Confederate flag behind his desk in the trailer.
“There were a couple of Black laborers that were there on the job that he called lazy because they took naps on their lunch breaks,” McKissack said. “But what he didn't know was they were going to school at night.”
She said throughout that time in her career, she had two things going for her: She would work harder than anyone else and she was college educated.
“I was working for companies where I actually had some great bosses, and even though I know they had some racist parts to them, they really helped accelerate me because I was the first one there and the last one to leave,” McKissack said. “And then for some reason, if you're educated and you're on the same team in terms of management, somehow you lose your Blackness in some kind of way. I don't know what that is, but it’s there.”
Going out on her own
When she returned to the family business and launched her own firm, she did so with $1,000 in savings, a business plan she wrote and a list of 300 prospects to cold call. Today, Washington, D.C.-based McKissack & McKissack is one of the 50 top construction management for-fee firms as ranked by Engineering News-Record. The company has six offices around the country and 140 employees, and has made a name for itself in transformative landmark construction projects.
The company's portfolio includes the Obama Presidential Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the George H.W. Bush Library, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
As the events of 2020 came to a head and put racism in the construction industry in the spotlight, McKissack put out a 7-Step Plan to Combat AEC’s Systemic Racism. And, like others interviewed for this series, she said there are two construction industries in America: one for White workers and firms and another for minorities and women.
"The industry expects minority and women-owned enterprises to be subcontractors or team members rather than project leads, and this preconception pigeonholes us. We can break ground, but we can’t gain ground,” McKissack said.
Some companies have begun to implement inclusive initiatives with the full force of the CEO’s office and leadership team. But others, less so, or not at all. McKissack issued her plan to ask her peers to commit their firms to change now.
"I believe that Black people want to work and they want the opportunity to work,” McKissack said. “And they want the same payment that that their White counterparts are getting.”
While she, like others in the industry, sees racism as a colossal challenge in construction, she also thinks it can be solved, due to the very nature of how work gets done in the sector.
“As an industry, we solve problems every day by bringing everybody to the table and getting their perspective. Everybody’s a stakeholder,” McKissack said. “And at the end of the day, we create a beautiful building or bridge or whatever it may be. We should be able to take that energy, that power, and turn it toward racism to say, 'OK, let's sit down and figure out how are we going to fix this.'”