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.
As a kid, Nate McCoy liked to draw.
He was so good at it, one of his teachers suggested he should pursue architecture. He liked the sound of that, and the possibility of leaving his mark on the world in the form of buildings he designed.
"I just thought that was really cool,” McCoy said.
But later, in high school, he was told about a roadblock for breaking into his chosen field that until that point, he didn’t know existed.
“I had a career counselor who told me there are no Black architects,” said McCoy, who is African American. “They said maybe I should think about construction, instead, because more Black people worked in that field.”
As a teenager, the news upended his world. “I started thinking, maybe she was right,” McCoy said.
Fortunately, a stern talk from his grandmother turned the career counselor’s naysaying into gumption. “I went back to my grandmother's house, and just as she always did, she told me, ‘You’re not gonna let nobody tell you who you’re gonna be and define your life like that. Now get out there and apply to some schools.’”
McCoy did, and within a few years he received a full scholarship to the University of Oregon for architecture.
“I certainly found out that the career counselor wasn’t inaccurate, per se, because I was the only African American,” McCoy said. “But what I did there is what made my career what it is.”
After graduating with an architecture degree, McCoy achieved his dream of designing buildings, but he also found more truth in his counselor’s words. While he had the credentials to do the job, he was still different from the people he worked with in an industry that was predominantly White. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 83% of architects are White, while just 6% are Black.
“I just didn't grow up going skiing and whitewater rafting, and that was what a lot of the architects did,” McCoy said. “So for me, I did my job, but I didn’t fit into the cliques, and I wasn’t going to try to borrow into other people’s cultures.”
So when the Great Recession hit, McCoy pivoted again and went to work for the city of Portland, first as a senior construction manager at the Portland Development Commission and then as a senior construction coordinator at the Portland Housing Bureau.
But while he had accomplishments within government, including hiring contractors of color on projects he managed, he also felt he had a limited scope for what he could ultimately achieve there.
“I couldn't really accomplish what I wanted to do on the inside of government,” McCoy said. “I just kept finding that the ceiling was not going any higher.”
So in 2015, when he was approached by the Oregon Chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors to head the organization and work on industry issues that impact African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American businesses, he seized the opportunity.
“I jumped ship and haven't looked back,” McCoy said. “Now, we've been really creating a new destiny and a new blueprint for being committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in construction. And that’s why I say my life bears that out, because I’ve been a convener and a mobilizer, from really middle school on.”