As founder of the Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange, Guillermo Díaz-Fañas is working to ensure that the important work of designing infrastructure is done in a way that doesn’t just respond to issues like climate resilience, but to the humans who will you use it.
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Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Díaz-Fañas: Guillermo Díaz-Fañas
Cohen: Before we get to our show, I wanted to let you know that L’erin and I will be hosting a roundtable at the City of Tomorrow Mobility, Equity, and Access virtual summit on Thursday, May 6th. You can learn more and register at FordCityOfTomorrow.com. That’s FordCityOfTomorrow.com. It’s going to be a great event, and I hope you can join us.
The field of infrastructure and building codes is ever evolving. What was state-of-the-art a few years ago is now, with hindsight and technology, rendered obsolete. Our guest today, Guillermo Díaz-Fañas, is bringing that same evolution to who is helping make our cities safe, with the nonprofit Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange, coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Jensen: A civil and structural engineer by training, Guillermo Díaz-Fañas is helping to ensure that diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups in the industries that work in the build environment through the founding of QU-AKE, the Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange. He now lends his expertise beyond just engineering into the adjacent field of climate resilience.
Cohen: Welcome to The Movement.
Díaz-Fañas: Thank you so much. It is so great to be here.
Jensen: Do you want to tell me a little bit about how you got involved with engineering?
Díaz-Fañas Yeah. I mean, so I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. In 1998 we had a hurricane, Hurricane George, which hit really hard the capital city. I remember vaguely. I was quite young back then. I was, I guess, 10 years old. And I didn’t understand why I wasn’t going to school and why this thing was coming to my country, but I do remember that we did not have electricity for some time, that certain parts of the capital were hit very bad. In my city, for some reason, we were not really hit, and I didn’t understand why. So then this take me to about five years later, 2003. There was an earthquake that struck the northern city of—Province of Puerto Plata, and essentially same story. I was not going to school. My school was fine, but I remember that I had friends that their schools were closed for months. I know other people that were not able to go back to school.
And, I think, this is really when it happened. I guess, a seed got planted in my mind, and I said, “But why are these things happening? Why hurricanes, earthquakes? Why disasters occur and impact the lives of children? They are not able to go back to schools.” So I also see that businesses are affected and that it is not only children, that everyone is really affected by this. So I wondered, “But why is this? Does that mean that we’re not building strong?”—that’s what I would say back in the day, “strong” school—“or that we were not prepared for this?” And this is essentially how a few years later I pursued an education in civil engineering. I did a bachelor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra in Santiago, my hometown, worked then in the capital, Santo Domingo, of the Dominican Republic for a few years. And after that I pursued a master’s in structural engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Then I moved to New York City, and I think this is where my career really started. I got exposed to amazing projects, to great thought-leaders like my mentor that still to today—she was my supervisor back then, still to today is a very close friend and a mentor with everything to my career. And then looking back to five years ago, I think, I was in the right place. I was really trying to make change by responding to natural hazards in volunteering efforts. Following earthquakes I would essentially go to a country and see what worked, what did not work and try to see how these lessons would apply. I had the opportunity to work with local communities in Ecuador, in Mexico to really understand what lessons we could take from those efforts and how they could be applied not only in those communities but in others.
And this takes me to about a year ago when I changed my career to some extent and I say, “Okay, I think I did a lot of that technical work, but I feel like there is something else I can do. As an engineer? Yeah, sure. But more like as a person that is able to some extent to really support those countries in need on how to address challenges related to disasters like climate change.” And while today I’m a consultant with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., it’s really interesting and different than what I was doing before. But still it’s kind of well aligned, and it’s kind of, I guess, a full circle of how I started my career in engineering and where I wanted to go versus what I’m doing now, which is really my deepest and biggest dream, I would say.
Cohen: You know, obviously, in the U.S. we’re talking about this infrastructure bill that President Biden has proposed. And, you know, I think, prior to that I don’t think people really think about infrastructure that much. Right? I mean, I think it’s kind of something that we take for granted. Right? And I do think that what you mentioned with those disasters that kind of focused your experience or focused your mind on that, I think there’s something there that I think that is really, really—I don’t know—interesting and also just kind of illustrative of the fact that we live with this infrastructure every day, and good infrastructure can help with climate mitigation and so forth. Some of the choices we make with carbon emissions will impact climate resilience and so forth. I—it’s just there’s all these things that, like, I think, most people aren’t thinking about on a daily basis. So I just—I think that’s really interesting.
Díaz-Fañas Yeah, and I think that that’s a great point, because we have come a long way, I would say. If we look at the U.S. infrastructure, I mean, there are so many lessons to be learned. And, I think, it’s not only in the U.S. I think it’s all over the world. Those examples I mentioned in, let’s say, Mexico and Ecuador, these were essentially reconnaissance missions that were funded by the National Science Foundation through volunteering organizations like GEER, the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance; or ATC, the Applied Technology Council, through their endowment fund. And essentially these organization, what they were trying to do is to see how the lessons learned abroad in terms of how building behave, what worked, what did not work, how does infrastructure react, how does it respond to an earthquake or to a hurricane or to a flood. And these are things that we have to keep in mind because actually codes come to be a thing based on those lessons.
I’m not sure if, let’s say, you folks or the audience understands, but any time that there is a standard or a code, it’s not final; it keeps evolving. Today we think we’re doing the best we’re doing. Maybe in five years, in 10 years, in 20 we will learn that we were doing it all wrong or not perfect perhaps. Or maybe, yes, we were doing it right. And, I think, if we look at, for example, how fire codes came to be a thing, it is quite interesting. The reason why we have sprinklers mandated to have everywhere is because there was a lesson learned, a lot of lives lost because there were not sprinklers in place. 9/11 left a lot of lessons. This is the whole thing.
I mean, even I start talking about earthquakes where we see that codes keep evolving again and again and again. If you look at the 1995 earthquake of Mexico, the way that it affected Mexico City, we look then in 2017 almost 32 years later a very similar earthquake in terms of characteristics occurred at a different location originating. But we do see that we had some lessons that we learned from 32 years ago that were applied, and if we had not applied it, then destruction would have been more significant. So that’s the whole thing. I mean, we learn about our infrastructure, our buildings through these disasters. I’m quite glad that you mentioned this part of climate change. I mean, I think, we’re living in a great time where we are able to go back to the Paris Agreement, we’re able to look at actual commitments for our future, for our children, for ourselves by making sure that we are trying to pursue low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure.
Jensen: So I want to stay on this topic of infrastructure. I know in the past you’ve mentioned the human side of infrastructure. What do you mean by that?
Díaz-Fañas Thank you actually, L’erin. This is a very interesting point, because a lot of times we forget who is infrastructure trying to service. And, I guess, this is a two-folded question. I would put it this way. I would say question number one, who is paying for infrastructure; how is it paid; and how it been prepared, designed, or procured? And the second part is, who is impacted by the lack of service of such infrastructure in the face of adversity? If we look at the first part, typically we think, “Well, taxpayers pay for infrastructure. Perhaps users of infrastructures are paying through fees.” And this takes us to how is it being prepared, designed, or procured. Well, people are supposed to be designing this. But is it the right people? Are they taking into account what they need to, to ensure that this infrastructure is servicing everyone in an equitable way?
If we look, for example, let’s say, a public-private partnership, essentially this is a way of procurement where the public authority works with the private sector to bring private finance to ensure that the private sector carries some risk in case that there is, let’s say, some uncertainty like climate. Who is going to pay for the bridge if, well, if something happens? Well, we have learned that the public authority does not have enough funds to be always repairing and maintaining and much more retrofitting in the case of an event. And also we know then whenever we are, let’s say, procuring or designing a project, we really need to have a very strict stakeholder consultation to make sure that those communities being affected by the infrastructure—and when I saw affected, I just want to remind ourselves that when something is built the environment is modified. We have animals; we have endangered species around us; maybe we have some cultural heritage site; maybe we have some biodiversity that we have to respect; or maybe we have settlements that may be indigenous or may be very vulnerable settlements, let’s say, of refugees that could be affected by the building of this infrastructure. So we have to really have a very robust, let’s say, environmental and social framework to ensure that people are not affected.
Now, thinking about the second part of what I mentioned of who is being serviced and who is impacted, we have learned in many lessons that when infrastructure systems fail, women, girls, LGBTQIA+, people of color, people with disabilities, refugees, and other vulnerable communities are usually disproportionately affected by the loss of infrastructure services. And the reality is that these groups that I mentioned typically use public transport differently than, let’s say, the traditional groups that have a little more privilege. If we look at the case of, let’s say, gender, women tend to have trips with multiple stops and destinations and shorter trips to a scattered location during off-peak travel times to combine the completion of their domestic and economic activities. And because of these responsibilities that could be picking up children, buying the household goods, or even doing some kind of errands in societies where perhaps the man is working and the women is doing the house chores, women a lot of times have to pass through unsafe areas or wait for public transport in isolated places where the chances of becoming targets of violence increase.
So when we are designing infrastructure we have to think of gender-responsive measures, which could be, for example, the use of inclusive mixed land, the use of planning, ensuring that there are clear lines of sight in public spaces, improving lighting on streets and walkways, having, let’s say, surveillance systems in place, and it could go even as far as having designation of women-only buses and subway trains and cars for societies where there is really a high risk. And I don’t think that it is a one-fits-all solution. This is something that you really need to have the right stakeholders in place to consult with in the teams that are in charge of designing, planning, financing, and procuring this infrastructure, to make sure that there is representation that allows for those decisions to take place.
I mean, similar to women, in 2011 the U.S. National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that within about 6,500 respondents, 22 were verbally harassed or disrespected on a bus, train, or a taxi because they were transgender. And this is, again, another evidence that certain individuals are more vulnerable to abuse in infrastructure to receive severe attacks to some extent and frequently micro aggressions. Minority workers, especially LGBTQIA+, Black, Indian, and people of color typically would experience this kind of hardship when they’re using public transport. So what can we do about it? I mean, it’s great that, let’s say, you are designing the right infrastructure in terms of a structural robustness, that it’s able to behave well during the disaster, but there’s more aspects; there’s human aspects, so you need to have social experts in place. You need to have economists that are able to really to some extent provide the business case to make sure that those financiers that are providing the financing and funding for this are able to understand, “Well, this is why we have to design it this way.” Otherwise what is going to happen? People are not going to use the infrastructure because they don’t feel safe.
I’m actually thinking now of a friend of mine from Brazil telling me that in his town there is this fear of using public transportation because typically gangs would plan to get in the train and in the longest stops just get knifes and getting all the money and all the jewelry from the passengers in the train and then get out on the next one. And what do you do there? Right? So you feel unsafe to do this. And if we are not feeling safe in the infrastructure that is supposed to be servicing us, then it is not serving its purpose.
Cohen: Well, going back to what you were saying earlier about the evolution of building codes and so forth that we’re always evolving, certainly as it relates to things like designing infrastructure kind of in a human way—right—recognizing some of those vulnerable communities that might be impacted by that, it seems like we’re doing better than ever. Right? I’m curious if we look back in five years, we’ll look back on this time and say, “Wow. We thought we were doing better, but we still have such a long way to go.” I mean, do you have a sense on kind of where we are as far as at a macro level to really doing this well as far as integrating in these perspectives of those end-users or the most impacted users?
Díaz-Fañas Well, I think you said it right. I think we’re doing great. We’re doing better. But we’re not there yet. I mean, perhaps—I’m here in the U.S. I’m to some extent in a bubble, so I may not see that example that I gave you from my friend in Brazil. So are we doing better? Yes, we are. Are we there yet? No, because there is so much more to be done. I mean, even here in the U.S. if we look back a few months ago, we were a few steps back. We were not committed to making a change, to essentially contributing towards, let’s say, for the Paris Agreement. To me, this is what the issue is. I mean, to some extent it could be very political, it could be bipartisan, like in the case of the U.S. And today I think we’re doing better. In five years, are we going to be doing better than today? There is a lot of factors that are going to define that.
I am hopeful that the case is that we are doing better, but I think it starts with people like both of you and myself to making sure that if we do have, let’s say, a concern for, let’s say, climate change or infrastructure safety or making sure that my community is being served, then, well, we have to call our representatives and make sure that they are aware of it. This is the only way that they’re able to voice your concern. And if they’re not representing your interests, then you vote them off next time you’re able to.
Cohen: That’s right. That’s right.
Jensen: So, I think you’ve touched a bit on this when you’ve mentioned bringing in social experts and economists, just there be representation. So one of the things that’s important to you is ensuring that the construction industry is diverse. Can you tell us a little bit about the organization you founded, QU-AKE?
Díaz-Fañas Well, so I guess I’ll start in the origin of why it started. So the Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange is a tax-exempt organization that is, in the U.S., that exists to ensure that there is representation in the infrastructure industry. When we talk about infrastructure, we’re talking about construction; we’re talking about consulting; we’re talking about design. So not only engineers per se, we talk about architect, we’re talking about real estate, anyone that is in this community. Why? Because typically, as I mentioned before, LGBTQIA+ individuals working in this community may suffer harassment, may suffer, I guess, roadblocks because of who they are, who they love, and may also suffer even persecution.
I myself, I was a victim of a few of those. Back in the Dominican Republic I suffered discrimination in the workplace. I was essentially confronted, and someone started to beat me up at work. And then later in the U.S. even I suffered not physical discrimination but still it was verbal and even resulted into finding a way of me losing my job. Some excuses were brought up regarding my immigration status, which were not well founded, and I was let go because I am an LGBTQIA+ person. And the worst part is that I was not out even. So when this happened, I questioned myself, “What do I do? Do I bring legal action? Do I take this and make something positive out of this to ensure that other people do not go through this again?”
And obviously I went with the latter because with the former—I don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of times it ends with a legal settlement and a lot of time, and I did not want to be, let’s say, financially benefitted from the pain that I went through. I preferred that I took this and made something positive out of it. So with a group of friends, QU-AKE was founded in 2017. It was essentially accepted as an organization by the IRS in 2018, and then a few months later it earned its tax-exempt status. And, well, it’s still something under development because we’re a very nascent organization. It’s new, but every now and then we do get the opportunity to make a difference, to talk to students about what it is like to go into the real world after school and, let’s say, follow a career as an engineer. Because one of the realities is that there are not a lot of, let’s say, out, proud, successful role models that in this industry of infrastructure they are able to tell you positive stories. I think that there’s a lot of sad stories and anecdotes of, like, “Oh, yeah. I did not get the job because of that.” And I think we need a little bit more happier stories so that we’re able to inspire the youth to pursue these careers, to make sure that more of us are able to climb up the ladder.
And I think that there are a lot of successful people out there, it’s just that perhaps they’re not able to be as, let’s say, public about their personal life. In other cases, they preferred for their personal life to remain private, and I think this is something I totally respect. But in my case I wanted to make sure that I was able to show the world, “Yes, you can be an openly cisgender, gay male.” Because, to be honest, I mean, others have it harder than I have. But it’s okay to be openly gay and still have a career and have a life. And the truth is that, of course, this is state dependent. Right? I was in New York City where it is totally acceptable. If you go to another state, perhaps you are not able to be as open and proud, and what do you do around it? Perhaps you need some kind of guidance; you need to speak with someone about it, and QU-AKE wants to serve as that space, that safe space where anyone can come and try to talk to us to see how we can help them pursue a career, because we want to retain these LGBTQIA+ individuals in these careers because we need to be part of those designs to make sure that infrastructure is serving us. Otherwise essentially, you know, who is going to be essentially having that voice?
Cohen: I think that’s right on. And, I guess, where my mind goes with that is that if you think about the fundamental premise that you founded the organization with combined with what we were talking about earlier as far as, like, making sure that the folks who are kind of vulnerable communities who are most impacted by some of these infrastructure changes, it seems like having everyone in the industry be as kind of in touch with their humanity—maybe to put such a fine point on it—it seems like that’s only going to make better infrastructure for everyone. Right? And so certainly from a White, cisgender male like myself, my perspective has been kind of the default for quite a while. Right? And I think it’s really important that we make sure that these other perspectives are also valued and just accepted kind of because, I think, when we do that we will have much better infrastructure.
Díaz-Fañas Yeah, indeed. I mean, I think that is the whole point. Who is going to advocate for you if you can’t advocate for yourself? I think that’s the takeaway message of how, you know, I guess, QU-AKE, my past experiences linked to something bigger. Because this is the thing; QU-AKE is not about me and what I went through; it’s about the path forward for the future of, let’s say, LGBTQIA+ working in infrastructure careers. We want to make sure that trans women are able to go to the construction site and feel safe and be able to do their work. I know wonderful engineers that are trans women, and they have gone through a lot in their careers, and they have proven to resilient. And I am so proud of them and so happy to see that we have that kind of representation.
It also bounds us forward towards a better society, because not only we are able to advocate for ourselves but we’re also educating other people and telling the world that anyone can be an engineer, an architect, or even work in, let’s say, urban policy. I mean, we’re living in exciting times. I mean, our secretary of transportation is a gay man, and I think this is something that I’m very proud of. I see a gay man running the transportation, you know, cabinet, and this is where we want to go. We want to keep going there. We want to have a gay president one day, a lesbian, trans, bi, pansexual, you know, a queer person making sure that we’re not left behind.
Jensen: Yeah. Just to both of your points, our most marginalized persons win, we all win. Like, if the most marginalized people in our communities have access and can feel safe wherever they want to go, imagine how much access the rest of us have and how safe it is for everyone else. So I want to pivot a little bit and just talk about some of the leaders that you’ve met and you’ve engaged with. What has distinguished some of the best leaders that you’ve worked with from others?
Díaz-Fañas This takes me back. I was mentioning someone earlier, my mentor for, I think, a very long time, Dr. Sissy Nikolaou. She is the earthquake group leader at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And I think I saw a lot of these characteristics on her because I am who I am as a professional a lot because of her. And I think this is what an effective leader should do; they’re able to empower those around them. An effective leader is someone that is able to see past her interest and think of the interests of others. Typically they are surrounded by a diverse team, but not only that. They’re also empowering those around them to have their voice heard. There is actually a very famous quote, “Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.” And, I think, this is a phrase that really speaks to me because this is what an effective leader should be doing.
Even if we go back to, I guess, one of the first topics we discussed, it was about how the U.S. infrastructure, you know, something of a lot of concern. It’s an opportunity for effective leaders to really be able to speak to those that support them but also those across the aisle. If you look at the example of U.S. infrastructure, American transportation has been funded largely by fuel-consumption based charges like fuel levies that typically flow to a highway trust fund. Since 1993 the tax for fuel levies has not increased at the federal level. This is something that is unprecedented. I mean, how in the world we are still at a price of 1993? So essentially we are in need of those effective leaders that are able to speak across the aisle and to stop thinking about their own interests, because I understand that taxing is not popular, but we have to pay for our roads. Right?
If we look, for example, at the American Society of Civil Engineers government relations, they champion a strategy called fix the highway trust fund, which provides a short-term solution to achieve at least 25 cents per gallon of carbon fuels incrementally to bridge the gap that exists today because of this not changing the price since 1993. In fact, their yearly effort championed by ASCE to try to go to Congress, talk to representatives, and tell them, “Hey, this is the plan. We have to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill.” And for how long have we been talking about this? Forever. I cannot recall a moment within the last 15 years where that has not been a topic of interest. It’s always in discussion, always going back and forward.
So, to me, an effective leader is someone that would be able to make this happen. Why? Because they would be able to see past their interest of, “Well, if I raise the taxes, then my constituents are not going to elect me. That’s my own interest, but past that these roads need to be maintained; they have to be funded.” And I’m not talking only about the main roads. I’m talking about those little roads that go into the small communities that typically no one cares about. So this is what an effective leader can do. They can look beyond what is going to benefit them and is going to benefit those around them and not only their teams and the people that support them but also those that do not support them.
Cohen: Yes, for sure. Well, this has been really great. As we kind of talked a little bit prior to starting, you know, we haven’t really talked that much about infrastructure, and so I really appreciate you coming on today and sharing a little bit from your perspective, which, again, is slightly different than our kind of more pure transportation focus. But, again, in all these situations it all comes back to leadership, and so I think the work you’re doing with QU-AKE, I think, is a great example of some of that leadership. Where can folks learn more about QU-AKE?
Díaz-Fañas Well, thank you for that. So QU-AKE website is www.QU-AKE.org. You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram at @QuakeOrg, or you can find us in LinkedIn as Queer Advocacy and Knowledge Exchange.
Cohen: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. This has been a great introduction to some of your work, and encourage everyone to check it out, some of those resources that Guillermo just shared.
Díaz-Fañas Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure. I actually was really excited to be here. Since the very beginning, I follow your podcast; and it’s something that—it’s really inspiring, so I would like to commend the amazing work you are both co-leading and would like to invite you to continue this great work because it gives us, the audience, the opportunity to see different perspectives towards the movement.
Jensen: Thanks, Guillermo.
Cohen: Thank you. That’s really generous.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
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