Creating a Culture of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

This past year has been a whirlwind of activity for AEC and our sister company, WalterFedy, from transitioning to fully remote work, to celebrating WalterFedy’s 70th year in business, to welcoming a new CEO at WalterFedy and President at AEC. One of our most significant achievements came at the beginning of 2021 with the launch of a new committee, dedicated to ensuring our organizations are diverse, equitable, and inclusive. It was a significant step for our firms, which up until this point opted for a more neutral stance toward DEI-related topics. So, what changed?  

This time last year, with Pride month on the horizon and the recent news surrounding the death of George Floyd, two of our employees had the courage to say, “we can do better.” 

Allegra Friesen, an Intern Architect at WalterFedy, had been discussing equity with her friends and family for ages, but these most recent events, coupled with her own ADHD diagnosis, prompted her to rethink her allyship. When Allegra reflected on what this might mean for her workplace, she had some big ideas but didn’t quite know how to begin enacting change.  

Allegra broached the subject of diversity and inclusion with her mentor, Russ Parnell, a senior structural engineer and partner at WalterFedy. A father of two, Russ was also learning to introduce and navigate conversations about inclusion at home.  

“Now is the time to demonstrate our leadership and integrity to inspire others to action and to work to build truly equitable communities by acknowledging and addressing our own systemic biases,” Allegra recalls telling Russ. Allegra’s passion was met with enthusiasm and, with a leadership meeting on the horizon, they decided to have Russ put the topic in front of some of the business’ most influential decision makers.  

In tandem, Shelby Johnson, an Asset Management Specialist/Building Science EIT, was also moved to action, and scribed a letter to management asking the company to join in on the conversation:  

“I cannot speak for the people of [other communities], but I can speak as a person of the LGBTQ+ community. I notice. When I walk down the street, and I see a rainbow flag in the window of a shop or restaurant, I notice. I think it’s important for WalterFedy to show support for these communities and the staff members who are a part of them. We are a community of roughly 200 people that are individually unique, inspirational, and important. To me, the voice of each and every staff member is important and should be heard.” 

Shelby proposed the initiation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee with the goal of providing awareness to staff and liaising between other committees and departments regarding matters of equity in our company and community. 

The feedback from Shelby and Allegra was a catalyst for management to think critically about our operations and the implications of choosing neutrality over vocality. “Our ambition is to enhance the world around us, and we can only achieve that if our best changemakers, our people, feel safe, seen, heard, and supported in our office and the world outside of it,” said Garth Cressman, CEO and Partner of WalterFedy.  

Acknowledging the intricacies that would come with launching conscientious discussions around DEI,  we hired an external consultant to guide our firms through the process. Over the course of many months, Stacey Alderwick, of Alderwick and Associates, supported our team through the process of thinking critically about DEI, and helped us map out terms of reference that would guide the formation of a new employee-led DEI committee.  

“We knew there were things we wanted and needed to change, but we wanted to do it with intention,” said Victoria Campbell, Director of Human Resources. “Stacey has been instrumental in helping us practice corporate introspection.” 

The creation of the DEI committee has been the first step in a journey toward responsible and equitable business practices. We acknowledge that to make meaningful change we need a collaborative and iterative process, and we will continue to work with our committee and employees to move forward toward positive change.