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Finding a Professional Mentor

Throughout my career, I have had mentors who guided me through challenging career decisions, gave me tough love when I needed it most, and coached me out of a funk.  Some of the relationships with my mentors have spanned decades, while others were one or two conversations.  Regardless of the type of relationship, I believe everyone should have people they can count on for guidance and perspective.

As a transportation nerd and executive, one question that I am often asked is “how do I find a mentor?” Here are five ways I found my mentors and how my mentees found me.

  1. Apply to a formal mentor-mentee program: Many professional organizations and large companies have a formal mentor-mentee program. The organization/company will match you with a mentor based on areas where you need guidance. These programs are a great way to meet with senior professionals in your industry. I have served as a mentor in the Women’s Transportation Seminar – DC Chapter twice and I still work with both mentees today. I have my mentee that I was matched with two years ago and my current mentee. Although my obligations of the program ended with my old mentee last year, we still try to get together at least 3-4 times a year. I’m meeting with my current mentee about every other month.
  2. Look within your company/agency: A boss or supervisor can serve as a mentor. However, I have found that it helps to have a senior person to mentor you that does not have a direct say in personnel matters (i.e. raises, promotions, etc) because it can create a conflict of interest. At every organization I worked prior to Nspiregreen, I had a mentor within my agency/company that was in a different department or office. In each case, I found that person without a formal program. There was something about them (personality, position, leadership style) that drew me towards them.  For example, when I was at the Federal Highway Administration I met my mentor during orientation. He walked in, was well-dressed, and had a presence that commanded attention without being gregarious. After learning he was in the Senior Executive Service, I decided I was going to get his contact information and he was going to help me navigate the Federal government. Our mentor-mentee relationship started with monthly 15-20 minute meetings. Twelve years later we still have check-ins by text message, email, or over a meal (when our schedules align).
  3. Reach out to a former boss: We leave jobs for different reasons such as relocation, change in career paths, or ending of an internship. If your boss is not the reason you left and you had a connection with them, they may be a good person to serve as a mentor. Depending on how long you were at the company/agency and the nature of your relationship with your boss, they may have unique insight into your strengths and areas where you can grow. Personally, I reach out to my boss from my internship between college and graduate school a few times a year.
  4. Use the internet: The internet gives us global access to all levels of professionals in any industry. You can Google leaders in your industry or use networking or social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, or blogs to learn from their experiences and connect with them. People have reached out to me on LinkedIn to ask specific questions related to growing in transportation and equity. Some of those conversations ended on LinkedIn, while others led to in-person meetings.
  5. Use your resources: People you know, know other people. Whether you are looking for a new job or have questions about growing within an industry, share your progress with your friends and network. Often your contacts know people who can help you find someone that can impart knowledge. Ask people you know to facilitate an introduction or at the very least give a heads up that you are going to contact them.

There are many other ways to find a mentor. These are five methods that have worked for me or people have used to contact to me. In my next post, I will discuss how to start and cultivate the relationship with your mentor.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

Selma pic

When Access to Transportation Impacts Your Potential!

I grew up in Selma, Alabama, which is a small town in the deep south, where the options for public transportation were walking and taking a cab. While people rode bikes, they weren’t used to commute but more for little kids to visit their friends around the neighborhood. Growing up I considered having a car as a luxury item that was far beyond the reach of my household. I reflect now, as an adult, and realize the immense impact that growing up without a car in my household had on the opportunities that I could pursue.

For background, my grandmother raised a lot of her grandchildren and we were always dependent on another family member or friend to take us to places such as church, the grocery story, or special occasions. We all walked to school. I walked to my elementary, middle, and high school. All of these were nearly a mile or more away through a variety of neighborhoods. I can vividly recall during my elementary and middle school years jumping across or walking under trains when they obstructed our path home. Dangerous, right? But in our naivety we didn’t want to wait thirty or more minutes for the train to move.

Our lack of viable transportation options impacted all of our decisions. In third grade, I scored highly on an achievement test and was labeled as gifted. I was presented the opportunity to be a part of the gifted program, but there was one immediate challenge, the school that hosted the gifted program was a few miles away and I didn’t have a way to get there. As great as the opportunity was, we had to say no. I’ll never know what other opportunities this might have led to.

Other times, I felt the impacts of a lack of transportation. Around the age of 10, I started piano lessons ; however, I soon had to quit because  paying cab fees or gas money for someone to take me combined with the costs of the lesson became too much for my grandmother to bear. In high school, I got my first job at a local restaurant. I took a cab to and from work every day but when I realized that the hours that I was assigned barely compensated for the cab fare, I quit the job. Anything that I had to do solo was a burden because my transportation options were so limited.

Not until high school did I start overloading my schedule with extracurricular activities because I could finagle a ride from classmates who had cars or those who had parents who were gracious enough to give me a ride. Of course by that time, there were other things that I could not participate in because the foundation had not been set at an early age such as dance, band, and some sports.

Unfortunately, Selma has not changed regarding transportation access. It makes me think of all of the young kids who do not participate simply because they don’t have a ride to tee-ball, softball, football, band practice, or whatever their hearts desire. This lack of transportation leads to new generations of missed opportunities and access to programs that could lead them to a different future. In a place where the high school dropout and crime rate is high, I wonder if access to transportation could be one factor in changing that paradigm.

At Nspiregreen, I’m the environmental principal, but this is what I love about the work we do. We help build and expand transportation systems to improve access and mobility for all people. Through our work, I want to make sure that no one misses an opportunity simply because they did not have a ride.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.


Howard County LPPRP Public Meeting

Tips to Design for Public Engagement

In my previous post, Designing to Connect Communities, I explained why content visualization is useful for communicating complex ideas. Today, I want to share three basic tips of creating a good content design and some examples from Nspiregreen’s projects. These tips may be useful when designing a PowerPoint presentation, a poster, or any other document to communicate your ideas more effectively.

Consider the audience

When we do outreach in the District of Columbia and other cities, we expect to engage people from a variety of backgrounds, education levels, and even languages. Therefore, we know that we need to focus on using simple and non-technical terms, as well as graphics to explain complex transportation and environmental concepts. If, on the other hand, we are preparing an internal document for a client, we use more technical language while at the same time maintaining a visually appealing design.

Below are different versions of a poster we created for the Rock Creek East II Livability study.  Within the study area there are a large community of Amharic and Spanish speakers. We designed a poster in English, Spanish, and Amharic.

Figures 1- Considering the Audience

Use images instead of text

Images are a universal language that can facilitate communication (you can read more about this in my previous post). When we work with communities, we not only use simple, non-technical words to explain a concept, but we create diagrams, illustrations, graphs and figures that help the reader to better and faster understand the ideas we want them to understand. Our aim is to reduce the amount of words used to describe a process or other ideas.

When I am in the process of designing a poster, I take some time to get inspiration. I do this by searching for design ideas on Google or Pinterest, including how to create an appealing process diagram or illustration that could help summarize an idea. There are many online resources of free or low costs images, icons, and illustrations.

Here is an example of a board we created for a public meeting for the DC Stormwater Plan, where we reduced the text to the minimum, and we used icons and graphics to support a list of action items.

Figures 2 - Use images instead of text

Choose the colors carefully

There is a fine line between a nice design and a document that looks like a piñata. We carefully choose the colors we want to use for each project. Having too many colors can be distracting, making it difficult for readers to focus the attention on the content. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 4 different colors, which might include black and white.

For instance, the Vision Zero Action Plan we worked on last year (here are some good insights we had: link to 2 blogs) contained 2 main colors: red, which is the District of Department of Transportation (DDOT)’s branding color (our client), and blue. The other 2 colors are white and black. If you need more color variations, as we did, using different shades of those colors work well. The following image is one of the pages of the Vision Action Plan, which summarize some statistical facts through graphics, using only the branding colors.

Figures 3 - Choose colors carefully

To create visually appealing documents, there is no need to be a professional graphic designer. As any other skill, it takes a bit of research, time, and practice. Following these tips might give you a good place to start. If you find these tips useful and you want to know more, stay tune as I keep as I keep posting more tips in our blog in the future.

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.



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