At a previous job, I remember I stayed late in the office one evening, when, as I was walking to take a break, I overhear words and laughter coming from a conference room. There were more than half my coworkers laughing about two jokes that I unfortunately overheard as well – one perpetuating a racist and dehumanizing stereotype about Black men, the other was antisemitic.
“Wait… what did you just say?” quickly came from my mouth with a look of genuine confusion and disgust. After a bogus explanation of how it’s all “fun and games,”, I said “Ok” and walked off with that same disgust and confused look as I stored it in my memory, not to speak of it again because I knew I was in a bad place.
That short interaction was all it took to foster change. Years later I received a message from someone in that room sharing how my actions fueled their transformation into a more racially sensitive individual working to check and correct his biases and perceptions of people.This was the first time I truly felt a small reward of satisfaction from using my voice when I felt I had no voice.
Because of that situation (and many other extreme situations I’ve endured), I’ve developed the confidence to speak up and speak out about unfavorable, wrong, and unjust situations without the fear of “social threat” (that uneasy, anxious, and fearful feeling we have in stressful social situations) impacting my ability to speak.
The important thing to note from my story is how critical it is to genuinely speak up about ANY situation that gives you physical or mental discomfort.
Is a coworker harassing you? Say something.
Do you feel your mentor isn’t living up to the responsibilities? Say something.
Are you unhappy with a shift your organization is making? Say something.
By not speaking up, you’re robbing yourself and others of:
- Inspiration. As my story highlighted, even the little that I said and did in the moment was enough to change someone’s life under their own will.
- Learning. It’s very unlikely I share the same ideas and skillsets as the people in the room. Everyone has some sort of uniqueness, so it’s the perfect time to come with an open mind willing to challenge ideas and concepts. You can learn or unlearn something, or someone else can learn or unlearn something.
- Peace of Mind. Even if my ideas aren’t truly heard, I can rest easier at night knowing what I said is my truth, and I 100% defend everything I shared.
- The Ability to Deny Approval. Silence is compliance. Speak now or be prepared to hold your peace forever.
- A Seat at the Table. The more you speak up, the more people inside & outside of the office will desire your presence collaborating & sharing ideas.
What can you do to confidently and effectively speak up?
- Accept that speaking up will always be psychologically difficult. Accept the challenging nature of it just like how we accept the challenge engineering provides.
- Plan your approach for speaking up. Our engineering workflow operates so much more smoothly when we have a plan of attack for completing a project. Same thing applies here. Have a topic you’d like to discuss, explain your point clearly, and offer solutions.
- Be sincere and be careful with the words you use. Don’t speak up just to hear yourself. Only enter that environment if you truly want to make a difference. Share your message without hidden agendas, and use language that is easy to understand, isn’t malicious, or inflammatory. Most importantly, LISTEN!
- If using your natural voice is extremely stressful for you, write your thoughts in a letter or email.
- Or allow someone else to speak up for you. But caution… do not allow yourself to consistently be lost in someone else’s activism. One person speaking up removes the stress from you and is more effective in certain situations. But change is more likely when a group actively engages in coordinated speech. Take the responsibility to speak for yourself.
If you feel you’re in an environment where you’re not truly heard, your concerns are not addressed, and you continue to feel overwhelmed by the words and actions of others, it’s time to go. People and organizations that continuously want to evolve, a learn, and invest in their people will listen to you.
Jay Garth, P.E., M.ASCE is a structural engineer for Progressive Architecture & Engineering (PAE) in Grand Rapids, MI designing various types of structural building systems for healthcare, senior living, retail, housing, and industrial clients. He was named a 2021 New Face of Civil Engineering by ASCE.
In his community Jay serves various roles such as Board Vice President for United Methodist Community House (a non-profit organization). He actively mentors students & young professionals through ASCE’s Mentor Match and Wayne State University’s College of Engineering Industry Mentor Program. Jay works with various organizations to provide STEM education programs teaching students structural engineering topics to increase involvement in STEM careers for African Americans & other underrepresented groups. Jay is a champion of the cause to make engineering more equitable & diverse and serves on the PAE DE&I committee. Outside of his career & activism Jay loves to play basketball, read, barbecue, and create and edit videos.