Civil engineering is famously known for its positive impacts on society once a project is completed and fully functioning. Today’s episode, however, will make you reflect on societal questions that play a crucial role in our communities long before the project is even approved.
Today’s guest is Collin Yarbrough, a pipeline engineer, bakery owner, and the author of Paved A Way. During his graduate studies, he was required to write a paper that later turned into his groundbreaking book, which tells the stories of how infrastructure projects have been silently contributing to social issues such as racism.
What You’ll Learn:
- How Collin Got into Engineering
- Collin’s Tough Life Period After the Recession of 2008
- 3 Key Concepts to Make a Pivot in Life or Career
- What Led Him to Write His Book
- How Infrastructure Projects Can be Tied to Social Issues
- How Cities Can Avoid These Social Problems
- What Engineers Themselves Can Do About it
School of PE – http://www.civilengineeringacademy.com/sope
Collin Yarbrough (LinkedIn) – https://www.linkedin.com/in/collin-yarbrough-1b3a6717
Collin Yarbrough (Email) – [email protected]
Collin Yarbrough (@collinwritesdesign) – https://www.instagram.com/collinwritesdesign/?hl=en
Paved A Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City, by Collin Yarbrough – Click here
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein – Click here
Clarkson University- https://www.clarkson.edu
Southern Methodist University – https://www.smu.edu
Georgetown University – https://www.georgetown.edu
Creators Institute – https://www.creator.institute
Dallas Morning News – https://www.dallasnews.com
Dallas Express – https://dallasexpress.com
Nasher Sculpture Center – https://www.nashersculpturecenter.org
Meyerson Symphony Center – https://www.dallassymphony.org
The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – https://civilpereviewcourse.com
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
CEA Youtube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPeFLBZ2gk0uO5M9uE2zj0Q
CEA Free Facebook Community – https://ceacommunity.com
CEA FE and PE Practice Exams – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/exams
CEA Newsletter – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/join-our-newsletter
CEA Website – https://civilengineeringacademy.com
Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right! What's going on? Thanks for joining me on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast, Collin. How's it going?
Collin Yarbrough: I'm doing great. How are you, Isaac?
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, I'm doing pretty well. You're in Texas, I believe. So you're probably hotter than I am over here in Utah.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah, man. Texas' heat is no joke.
Isaac Oakeson: I've heard it's no joke. I don't live there, but I have traveled there and it can get pretty hot.
Collin Yarbrough: Yes. It can. It can.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, this is exciting. You know, you've got an awesome book, which we'll talk about later. But I want to dive into a little bit more about your background, how you found yourself into engineering, and then found your way, I believe, into being a baker. So what's kind of your background? What are you doing now? And sort of that kind of background history.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. You know, it's funny. Like many engineers, it's that, like, I played with a lot of Legos when I was growing up. And so you're like, "Yeah. Like, there's probably a good chance that I'm going to end up being an engineer one day". And a lot of my early focus in my career -- I went to Clarkson University. It's a small engineering school in upstate New York. Very far from Texas, but they had a really great program that was interdisciplinary, engineering and management. And that really appealed to me. I'm interested in a lot of things, all the time. And there's a lot of really good stuff going on there in terms of alternative fuel research. That was what I originally wanted to do. Ended up not happening. And I got involved with a lot of sustainability efforts.
Collin Yarbrough: But when I came out of college in the end of 2011, still feeling kind of the reeling of the recession of 08, 09 and couldn't find a job. So it was pretty tough times. And, you know, it's funny you brought up that I'm a baker. And it was in that process of not having a job that I actually -- I actually started the bakery right after I graduated from college because I couldn't find anything, and I was working as a temp engineer for a natural gas utility here in Texas. And so I did both of those at about the same time thinking, "Well, I'll play my cards, see which one", you know, "takes off more than the other". And I was able to get hired on the utility for a full-time gig, like, six months later. They created a new position. It was right when a lot of the regulatory stuff and pipeline safety legislation was coming in, and so they had to create a whole bunch of new compliance jobs.
Collin Yarbrough: So that's really where my engineering career began, was in the pipeline industry, and specifically compliance. And I did that for, gosh, about seven years or so. And I worked in Dallas, and Fort Worth, and Lubbock. And so my job kind of moved around Texas, all at the same company. But primarily like 12-inch to 36-inch pipeline construction and replacement.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow. And within that time you passed the FE and the PE, got all that knocked out.
Collin Yarbrough: I did. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Those are a bear, man. So, good job.
Collin Yarbrough: They really are.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm curious what advice you would have. It sounds like -- You said you're interested in a lot of different things. I mean, including starting a whole bakery place. Like, what advice would you have for other civil engineers that maybe are in that same boat? That kind of aren't quite sure, you know, where they're at is where they want to be?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. It was not a quick and easy jump for me. There was definitely a period of hesitation and kind of nervousness and all of that, that I think, you know, probably anyone would feel when they're trying to decide, "Do I leave this really stable job?", and then jump out into the unknown where I don't know if I'm going to make money, where I'm going to make money, or what's going to happen. And so I think there are probably three things that, if there's anybody who's considering making a pivot, either outside of engineering or something else: finances, flexibility, and exit strategy are probably the three main keys. Do make sure that you have a financial plan set up. Some sort of runway to determine whether or not you have enough money to support yourself for a little while.
Collin Yarbrough: If whatever you're doing on the side, or going to do, isn't going to bring income immediately, make sure that you have enough money to realistically cover yourself.
Isaac Oakeson: Makes sense.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. It's because you don't know what's going to pop up. And then you have to be flexible with whatever comes your way. You know, I wasn't expecting, you know, where I am today, when I left two years ago, to be where I am. But I've had the flexibility of following the opportunities that have cropped up. And so now, yes. My life looks a little bit different than it did when I started out. But I did have an exit strategy that if I got to the end of kind of like my two-year plan and I didn't get to where I needed to be, I could always go back or I could do something, you know, tangental and I could return if I absolutely needed to.
Isaac Oakeson: That works. I like that advice. So if people are questioning that, those are some great tips. So, talk me through this period where you were able to write this book. You've got a book called Paved A Way. Tell me about how you created that, what spurred the interest in writing that?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. So kind of what we were talking a little bit before the show, kind of when the pandemic hit last -- Gosh, it was last year.
Isaac Oakeson: It keeps going.
Collin Yarbrough: It does. Yeah. And I had gone back to school. So I was running the bakery full-time, doing all that kind of stuff, and the bottom fell out. And so we lost all of our business. And so pretty much all I had in my life at that time was grad school work. And I was taking a class called the Context and Impact of Design. And it was looking at how -- A lot of it was on the built environment. And so we were learning about things in St. Louis and failed housing projects, and the way that the built environment is shaped and what the impact of the built environment is. And it's like, all of these light bulbs started to go off in my head. Because I'd actually started in seminary, working towards a theology degree.
Isaac Oakeson: Wow.
Collin Yarbrough: And so I had some of these ideas of justice that I was learning about from some of the theological work that I was doing. And so --
Isaac Oakeson: Let's back up a little bit. You went from engineering, to seminary, to the bakery. Is that the order?
Collin Yarbrough: Engineering, bakery, seminary, and then back to engineering.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. Okay. I just wanted to make sure I had that right.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. There's a lot of pieces. And you know, it's interesting because it's seminary. I tell people, "seminary is what pushed me away from seminary". It was the theological grounding that I was getting and the understandings of what justice meant and how it played out, and what the church meant in the world outside of the walls of the church. And then taking the context and impact class and seeing there are wider impacts of where these things take place. And so I realized I needed to kind of go back and double down on the engineering piece. And we were writing a paper -- We had to write a paper about something in Dallas, some sort of design element in Dallas. And on the list, it had things like big design Dallas icons, like the Meyerson Symphony Center, Nasher Sculpture Center. All these, like, well-known Dallas icons. But at the bottom of the list was, like, Central Expressway US-75.
Collin Yarbrough: And it just sounded like, "Why is there highway on here? That doesn't make sense at all". So I chose it. I was like, "You know, it's a highway I use every day. It's right next to campus", at SMU, Southern Methodist University. And as I began to dig into the history, I found a New York Times article that discussed the, in like 1990, late eighties, early nineties, the removal and reinterment of 1,127 bodies of people who were formerly enslaved in a cemetery. And they moved them to make space for the expansion of the highway. And those bodies had been paved over with the original construction of Central in 1940s. And there was something about that that just fundamentally did not sit well with me. And the fact that there was a Freedmen's town in an area where I had spent a lot of time going to bars and all those kinds of things in my early twenties, and none of that history is visible anymore. I'd driven past that cemetery hundreds of times and my question was, "Why would anybody put a cemetery here?", when actually the question I should've been asking was "Why are all of these condos and new buildings here?" Because they had paved a way all over history of one of the most important black business and residential areas in Dallas that just no longer exists.
Isaac Oakeson: So this was a paper you were writing for school.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: All these light bulbs are going off. Is this what started the seed of the book, Paved a Way? Is this what started that then? And then I imagine the paper probably got a good score and off you went, huh?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. In fact, my professor -- Because I was realizing a lot of this very late in the semester, and my professor was like, "Look, you"-- Because I kept uncovering other highways in other neighborhoods and other patterns like this in the city, and my professor was like, look, I just need you to write 3000 words on one of these and turn it in". He's like, "You can take the rest of this and turn it into a book". And so I did. And yeah, there ended up being a partnership that SMU has with the program at Georgetown University. It's called the Creators Institute, and it's basically an 11-month accelerated program to help first time authors write a book. And so I had this really great program instruction that I could take -- You know, the next month, it started a new cohort. And so I basically just went right in for my paper into this really accelerated book writing process.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. So you came up with the tagline, I think it's called "Infrastructure Policy and Racism in an American City". So based on everything you're telling me, ou know, infrastructure can be tied to racism, as you're finding out. And I imagine that -- Was the newspaper the only thing that you researched on this? How did you get more information about this as you started researching this topic?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. It was a lot of newspapers. I spent days researching newspaper articles. Going back through the Dallas Morning News and some of the black newspapers, the Dallas Express, and trying to find some of these narratives, and really trying to understand -- Because that's part of what it is. It's narrative change. It's the narrative that I grew up with in Dallas didn't talk about any of this. And so I had to go back and relearn. I had to unlearn and relearn so much of the history of Dallas. And so, yes. It was tons of historical research, which was fun because you're learning a lot of new things to you about a city and then some place that I've called home for for decades. And a lot of the other research was done just creating friendships with members of the community, and my neighbors in the city, and working with local groups who are now really good friends. I look back over the past year and I'm blown away by how wide my network has grown with all of these new friendships and relationships I've made in south, west, and east Dallas. Places where I didn't really go a lot, but now I spend so much of my time and energy thinking about.
Isaac Oakeson: That's really neat. As you were talking, I was thinking of another -- You know, kind of a follow-up question. But now that you've kind of unearthed all of this and written a book about it, how does that make you feel about Dallas? What are some things that you're doing to be more -- I don't know. What can you do to help mitigate what you've discovered?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. That's a really important question. And gosh, how do I feel about Dallas? I don't know. It does because a lot of -- I'll say this, a lot of what it has done is made me realize how much the city was built for me, people who look like me. So much so that I didn't have to think about any other part of the city than places that mattered to me. Because the city does such a good job of pushing black and Mexican-American neighborhoods and culture out of the norm that I didn't have to experience any of it. And so there's something really frustrating about that. Part of it is my own implication as an engineer, because I participated in building and continuing to use eminent domain and all of these other tools to build infrastructure. I mean, how different cities, not just Dallas, treated certain projects in different areas differently based on who the neighbors were and who had more political clout to stand up against a pipeline going, you know, here or there. Things like that.
Collin Yarbrough: And so that's really -- You know, when those other light bulbs were going off, I began to see my own implication at a smaller scale. But I began to see how my own engineering decisions were playing out in the built environment. And it's -- You know, people will say, "Well, a highway is not racist". Like, sure. It's an inanimate object. You're right. But the placement and construction of highways and other infrastructure is always filled with decisions. And those decisions are often influenced by historical and present impacts of literal and figurative structural racism. So things like redlining, eminent domain and fair market value, zoning laws, public involvement and community engagement. All of these policies and mechanisms for the built environment are so critical to how a city operates and who has power, who defines space, and all those kinds of things. So as engineers, you know, we're going about our daily work. It's those types of policies and procedures that we're using every day that are influencing, you know, the perpetuation of these things.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I mean, many engineers are just -- You know, they come to the cubicle and get the work done. They don't really see why a decision was made the way it was sometimes. I also work for -- Well, recently switched, but worked for a public utility doing transmission design work. And you know, oftentimes I didn't see a lot of the muscle flexed about using eminent domain. But oftentimes in cities, when those decisions have to be made, is when -- You know, who decided that was the best route for something and what impacts do those things have. So that makes sense.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. I had a very similar experience. I didn't think much about it. Now I'm like, "Oh, man".
Isaac Oakeson: And you're like, "Hmm, why did we go there?
Collin Yarbrough: Exactly. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, now that you've discovered this, what can cities do to avoid this in the future? I mean, do you have any advice around that?
Collin Yarbrough: I think the biggest thing is critically reflecting on a city's history and asking, historically, "who has not been at the table?". And then moving forward and asking, "Okay. This is who hasn't been at the table in the past. Who do we have at the table now and who do we need to extend the table to?". Because you know, the people who are at the table are going to be able to make the decisions. And if people aren't going to be included in the decision-making, then the likelihood of them being railroaded, no pun intended, is much, much, much higher. And that's why it's so critical for people -- You know, everyday citizens or engineers, whoever it is, whatever hat you're wearing, it's so important to be embedded in all of the communities in your city to have those varying and diverse viewpoints.
Isaac Oakeson: So as an engineer -- I mean, most of our audience I think is civil engineers. But do you feel like every engineer has a voice that they could, you know, if there's a decision on something, they could voice their opinion about something to someone and see how they can help or influence things? Is that kind of what you're thinking of?
Collin Yarbrough: Absolutely. You know, as I reflect and think about my own voice when I was practicing as an engineer, engineers hold so much power in the decision-making process. We are held up as experts, as you know, all sorts of things. People are always looking to engineers to answer a question and make a decision. And a lot of times people will defer to our expert opinion without hesitation. And so I think the message for engineers is: you have a voice. Whether you think you do or do not, the fact that your title is engineer brings a whole lot of power and privilege with any decision that you make. And so any small little action you can say, and a lot of what I would do would just -- You know, and this is a common-- You know, you've been in the utility industry. It's deferring to operations and saying, "Hey, has operations had a chance to look at this design?"
Collin Yarbrough: "Hey, have we talked to anyone in the community?" Not just the the property owners that you're directly affecting by whatever, the road, the bridge, the pipeline, whatever it is. But have you talked to the community, you know? Is this really where the thing is? I know the company says this is where it needs to get done, but does the community say this is where it needs to be done? Is this something that's actually needed? Are we just spending money because we need to spend money? And I think there are a lot of those little moments where you can inject another question that can at least get people to pause and critically reflect on why are we doing this and who is involved. And I think that's fundamentally where all this comes back to.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great advice. So I mean, hopefully the audience here that's listening to this, you know, if you want your voice heard, definitely voice it up the chain and make it known.
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm sure this book has opened some doors for you. At least it sounds like you've built more relationships. I'm curious, where do you see yourself in five years, 10 years down the road now that you've written this book? What's some of the next steps in your life, you think?
Collin Yarbrough: Yeah. I'm in the process of finishing up my masters right now, and I'll be rolling into doctoral work here in the fall at SMU. It'll continue to be an extension of the work from the book. And so what I'll be primarily looking at is, "Okay. How do we create more restorative and equitable transportation development processes so that we can fix the inequalities and injustice that exists now, and then prevent them from continuing to propagate into the future". So figuring out how we develop good, equitable outcomes, and then measure those, and make sure that we're not letting that fall by the wayside. And I think there's a gap there in the current environmental justice legislation and executive orders. We could probably fill in some of those gaps. So a lot of my work, as I see it moving forward, will be centered around a lot of that infrastructure, justice, and equity work, and probably working to be as embedded within the community as possible. Communities that are facing development infrastructure removal, as we're seeing the current administration focusing pretty heavily on. And so that's my hope. That's the work. It is really kind of that more embedded engineering, if you will. I call it infrastructure ministry.
Isaac Oakeson: That's a good label for it. Well, I hope the book and everything has really opened some doors for you to do some public speaking and really get out and talking to universities or colleges, talking to students at a young age, and things of that nature. Man, I really think -- Yeah. You've really tapped into something there, and I think that's really good. So, you know, that's definitely a recommended resource. I would tell everyone to go check out. We'll make sure well link that, Paved a Way. Is there anything, any other resources you think would help engineers to understand this?
Collin Yarbrough: Right off the top of my head, there are great works, like The Color of Law, and some other books that are similar to that, that really look at these historical policies and how they manifest present day inequalities. So I'd recommend anything along those lines. And if you go to -- You know, if you're on Amazon, you haven't boycotted it or whatever, then, you know, you can see all the other recommended titles that come with Color of Law. We pop up there as well. And any local history books, especially ones that are not told by whoever the dominant population is.
Isaac Oakeson: Got you! Well, we'll link that in the show notes as well. Your book, well obviously link there too. I think you've got a lot of good stuff in there and encourage everybody to check it out, if you haven't already. Collin, what's the best way for our audience to reach out to you if you wanted them to, you know, ask questions or even just find your book? What's the best way to reach out to you?
Collin Yarbrough: Right now, until I get my website up and running, would be email, Instagram, or LinkedIn. And I'm sure we'll have all those specific details in the show notes. It's @collinwritesdesign on Instagram, and then my email is [email protected]
Isaac Oakeson: We can do that. Well, we better get you some official stuff in case your book starts, like, taking off, you're doing more public speaking. You have to get that website up.
Collin Yarbrough: Yes, I do.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, thanks Collin for jumping on the show. I really do appreciate it. This has been really fun, really educational for me. I'm excited for you and your future, and I can't wait to see where you're at.
Collin Yarbrough: Awesome. Thanks, Isaac! I really appreciate it.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. See you.
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