Michael Simpson (Courtesy photo)

Looking for a solution to the lack of African American engineers in Los Angeles, the City of L.A. decided to work against this disparity and create an internship program for Black students aspiring to have a career in the STEM field.

The City of Los Angeles HBCU Integrated and Interdisciplinary Virtual Internship Program

is dedicated to African American students’ academic and professional growth and helping increase their opportunities.

“Currently, in our CSU and UC schools, we’re not graduating many Black engineers. We know the HBCU graduates one-third of our Black engineers. Why not go where they are and try to link them together to come out here and work,” said Michael Simpson, Principal Environmental Engineer for the City of Los Angeles.

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Simpson was instrumental in starting the internship with help from Commissioner Mike Davis, SEIU Local 721, and former Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Executive Order 27.

The Los Angeles HBCU Engineering Recruitment Committee, which has been in effect since 2018, helped coordinate the general execution of the program.

Summer 2022 was the first cycle of the internship program, assisted by a grant from the mayor’s Office of Innovation and Performance Management.

According to Simpson, Executive Directive No. 27, prompted by the George Floyd incident, called for a Racial Equity Officer, a racial equity plan, and a racial equity committee for each city department.

As a Black-focused program, getting other organizations to come forth and participate is sometimes challenging. There has been some resistance, noted Simpson. But, he aims to give the students some critical talk and prepare them for professional employment. He is hopeful that the program, backed by Mayor Karen Bass, will help ease the process of getting other partnerships involved.

However, Simpson is grateful for the partners they have such as the American Public Works Association, American Climate Change Officials, American Society of Civil Engineers, and American Water Works Association.

“What happens to a lot of Black engineers — we do get employed, but we never have the chance to move up. It’s really a shame and this definitely happens to the majority of us because there’s nobody there to really mentor us along or pull us up,” Simpson said.

Simpson added that he is looking forward to seeing this program continue and enjoys mentoring the candidates in engineering and giving them a platform where they can see themselves grow.

Kayden Graves, an Electrical Engineering major at Howard and former participant in the program, said she is grateful for the organizers, mentors, and colleagues who offered her unwavering support throughout the internship.

Graves said the internship ignited a passion in her for contributing to community projects in her hometown as an L.A. native.

“As I look forward to my future career as an Electrical Engineer, I am motivated to continue pursuing excellence in my studies, make meaningful contributions to society, and to promote Black excellence in an underrepresented field for the kids in my community,” Graves said.

Graves served as a student engineer and said she had a multifaceted learning experience that encompassed practical skills, networking opportunities and personal growth.

“This experience exposed me to the collaborative efforts of various city departments in Los Angeles, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Los Angeles Sanitation and Environment, Bureau of Engineering, Port of L.A., and Department of Building and Safety,” Graves said.

The program is virtual, which means the students mainly participate via Zoom. Yet, each department does something different with their virtual field trips to give the students as many hands-on opportunities as they can virtually make possible. According to Simpson, they have made the lesson plans exciting and challenging so that the students look forward to participating in the internship.

During late fall, the program sends flyers to around 15 HBCUs with better-accredited engineering programs and asks their seniors and juniors to apply. They also share their initiative with other departments that might be associated with HBCUs or for job fairs focusing on diversity.

Part of the internship program is to go outside the norm for engineering teaching practices and to ensure these young up-and-coming Black engineers are forward-thinking. Simpson said that the program includes a lot of green engineering terminology so that the students can think in sustainable terms.

Another former internship candidate is a Civil Engineering major at Southern University and A&M College, Donald Foulcard.

Engaging in the internship program was an enlightening experience for Foulcard. He said that it helped broaden his understanding of environmental stewardship.

He contributed to initiatives to enhance the city’s sanitation practice through video conferences, collaborative projects, and insightful workshops, recalled Foulcard.

“This internship instilled in me a renewed sense of purpose and a heightened awareness of our crucial role in safeguarding our environment. During the program, I had the privilege of working alongside passionate professionals who were deeply committed to making a positive impact on the city’s cleanliness and sustainability. This internship has enriched my understanding of sanitation practices,” Foulcard said.