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MGAC Inner Voices: Episode 12

MGAC Inner Voices is an interview format podcast where a diverse mix of employees are interviewed to share their perspective on challenges they have faced in the A/E/C industry as a result of their identity—including race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, sexuality, ability, etc. By discussing the experiences of our staff, our hope is that their stories will have newfound and powerful resonance with the audience—both to comfort others in similar situations and to encourage those in positions of power to bring about positive, actionable changes to workplace environments for all A/E/C professionals, regardless of their identity.

Bryan Gamez (MGAC Assistant Project Manager, Los Angeles) talks with Meredith Sonnen (a freelancer at Jack Morton) about their experience as a non-binary person in the workplace, the power of pronouns, and the importance of creating a safe, welcoming work environment.


Transcript

Bryan: Hi, and welcome to "MGAC Inner Voices," a podcast digging into the issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the architecture, engineering, construction industry. As always, we wanna preface this podcast by letting you know that we are not experts in all things diversity, equity, and inclusion. We wanna share our stories and discuss how together we can create better outcomes for all of us in the AEC industry and beyond.

I am Brian Gamez, project manager at MGAC, working and living in Los Angeles. I'm your podcast host. And today is a really exciting day be because we're speaking with the one and only Meredith Sonnen. We have worked together on a few projects now. I will let them introduce themselves.

Meredith: Hi, I'm Meredith Sonnen and I'm the one and only. That was a great introduction. That made me feel good. I'm a project manager and creative producer in the industry. Specifically, I work mostly in experiential design and television and live events and things as well. So, Jack of all trades, just I love a good spreadsheet. I love a good creative solution and that's always what I'm looking for. And I live in Jersey City and I work mostly in the New York area but as Bryan knows, I am one wont to fly across the country an awful lot for work. So, I'm all over these days.

Bryan: Yeah. Meredith and I have worked on a few projects now and I can concur that we definitely know how to dig into a spreadsheet but they make a really good spreadsheet. So, I really appreciate Meredith and I'm really excited today too because Meredith, you're our first external consultant that we're speaking to on "MGAC Inner Voices." So, you are our first "external voice." So, you know, I'm really happy to have you on. I think this is gonna be a great conversation.

Meredith: I'm honored to be invited. I didn't realize I was the first, like, outside influence on the podcast. It's a lot of responsibility but I'm excited.

Bryan: I know you'll carry it well, Meredith. So, Meredith, can you talk to us about what marginalized group that you most associate with and how that has affected you in the professional space?

Meredith: Yeah. So, first things first, my pronouns are they, them, for anyone that's been listening and catching that. So, I'm queer and I identify as non-binary. I also wanna state that I know most people read me as a woman. And so at times in this podcast, I might lump myself in with the experience of being a woman or a fem in the industry and what that feels like. Because of the way people perceive me, I can't avoid holding both of those identities sometimes because of the identities that are both put upon me and the identity that I hold within myself.

And so I'm always holding both those things. So, it might sound confusing to anyone who is unfamiliar with, like, gender representation that I am both at times talking about the experience of being a fem in the industry and also talking about the experience of having, you know, non-binary pronouns and being non-binary. But all of those things exist at the same time and are avoidable to talk about at the same time and experience simultaneously. So, those are sort of my main identities that impact my career and my life in general and make me feel, like, underrepresented or marginalized in the industry.

Bryan: I think one of the biggest reasons I felt that I gravitated towards you, Meredith, was understanding your shared experiences. I am a cisgender gay male but we are both queer.

Meredith: I think we both hold multiple identities and we recognize that in each other when we started working together.

Bryan: Exactly.

Meredith: Does that make sense?

Bryan: No, it does.

Meredith: I remember the first meeting and it was a big page term with like a million people there. We were meeting in person for the first time. We'd only been on some calls and we took our first break after many hours of me essentially lecturing the room full of men. And you immediately were just like, "I'm so thrilled with the way you're running this." Like, you gave me a boost. Like, I could tell that you were like, "I see you. I understand that you and I are both in a certain...maybe at a disadvantage in this room and I'm here to amplify you and I'm here to support you." And that turned our relationship in a great way because I didn't really know you, we hadn't communicated very much and it felt immediately like, "Oh, this room is a little bit safer. This room is a little bit more supportive."

Bryan: Exactly.

Meredith: And I think when we do work together, we really try and make sure that that's upheld. And even when we disagree with each other because, you know, we represent different interests sometimes, contract negotiations or whatever, I think we always have that common friendship thread and understanding with each other and empathy with each other. Like, I'm never worried you're talking to me a certain way because of my identities. And I hope you feel the same way with me because we've talked openly about it.

Bryan: When I first met you, I immediately knew that this was a safe space and I was very appreciative that I was meeting someone who could understand my experiences, albeit a little different but we were still there to support each other. And I think that's why I really respect you, Meredith. And I really appreciate all the work we've done. As Meredith has said, we do represent different interests but we have that empathy and that friendship that really gets us going in the right direction. So, I wanna go and dive into some of the challenges you have faced, Meredith. And I wonder if you can talk about what challenge you have faced in the industry because of how you identify. Do you have any experiences that you would like to share?

Meredith: Of course. Do you mind if I give a little bit of context about what specifically I do for anyone who doesn't know to make this make a little bit more sense? So, long story short, I'm a freelancer in live events, experiential branding, experiential events, and design. And I've been in the, like, entertainment industry or events industry for a little over 10 years and I'm still a freelancer. So, the client that I work for that I met Bryan through was called Jack Morton. My department specifically does television but that's also led to a lot of architectural work where we're opening new theaters or new TV studios or new restaurants. Through different clients, I've done all of that kind of stuff.

And I started as a theater person. I came straight out of college. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do with theater but I knew it was theater. And I am very grateful for my first few years when I sort of didn't know what I was doing and needed money and would take, like, whatever job anyone offered me. So, if you needed theatrical lighting hung, I would do that. That's fine. If you wanted scenic painting down. Sure. Totally down to do that. If you wanted carpentry or box office or whatever, I was willing to do it. And I'm grateful for those years because, you know, eventually I was getting credits as like a master carpenter for a show. On the same season, I was like the assistant stage manager on a different show and I was the company manager for a different festival and doing tours and all these things.

And it just gave me a really holistic view of how events and productions work but also how many people and different personalities and all these different things have to come together. So, I have a long history of being at different levels of power in a room. So, you know, as far as challenges go, the first one off the top of my head is just being misgendered. It's interesting because, you know, my pronouns, I haven't always told people my pronouns were they/them. I didn't even know my pronouns were they/them for a really long time. I was...

Bryan: Oh, interesting.

Meredith: ...lucky. Yeah.

Bryan: I didn't know that.

Meredith: I knew...Oh, this is so hard to describe. So, essentially, I thought everyone else felt the same way about gender that I did and we were all playing, like, a collective game of make-believe. So, like, when I think about my gender identity, it is a void. Like, I don't have a gender identity. I can't relate to any of the things people talk about as far as like really strongly identifying as male or female. It was like an emperor's new clothes kind of thing for me. Like, I was like, "Why are we all pretending this thing matters when we all know it doesn't? This is so weird, this collective societal pretending that we're doing." And I was obviously wrong. I was the outlier.

I was not feeling the same way a lot of other people feel but it took me, you know, making mistakes, and it took me meeting trans people who had such a strong gender identity that they were willing to go through a full transition. They were willing to go through all sorts of errors and obstacles to get to know themselves and really represent who they were. And through those conversations, someone, and I could remember this clear as day because I was explaining, I was like, "I just can't relate. Like, I have no gender identity."

Bryan: Right. You know, something there...right.

Meredith: Like, this doesn't make any sense to me. And that person was just like, "Oh yeah, that sounds like you're a genderqueer. That's what that sounds like." That doesn't sound like someone...

Bryan: A light bulb.

Meredith: ...with binary gender identity. Like, there's a word for that at the time, the word was genderqueer. This is years ago and language has evolved. And so, you know, I kind of started there and did a lot of research and stumbled around and then was lucky. I was working in a lot of weird spaces because of theater. And so some of my friends were like, "Well, let's just try out they/them. Like just us, we'll use it. And if it feels good, we'll keep going with it. And if it doesn't, you'll go back to she/her or whatever you want, go with a neopronoun or whatever." And we tried it out and it felt great. And then I just started, like, opening that sphere more and more. So, like more and more people, I was like welcoming into that sphere. And you know, now I'm in my mid-30s and now it's on my resume and it's like in my email signature.

Bryan: Well, pronouns have become a really important place in our workplace. Even at MGAC, we've rolled out pronouns too because it's such a huge part of one's identity. You know, I'm really happy for you, Meredith, because you resonate this confidence now. There is a confidence to you that speaks in your work but also when you're leading meetings and also personally. And I love hearing these stories about how one comes to accept themselves because I've had a long road as well.

My pronouns are he/him but I wanna learn more about experiences for genderqueer non-binary human beings because I feel like in our industry, we don't meet as many of those individuals. And I think that they are such an important voice that needs to be amplified because a huge part of our community is not being recognized. So, that's why this is so important to me to hear this. And I feel like this is gonna resonate with so many people that are struggling along their journey. And I just wanna commend you on your confidence and finding that voice. I'm gonna go on and on but continue, Meredith.

Meredith: Oh, thank you. I mean, I had to make some real mistakes to get there, whether that was like not understanding and consequently invalidating other people's thoughts about their identity because for a long time, I didn't understand what was going on and I really regret that. And the reason I wanna talk about it and I try to be open about it is because I want people to have the right words and the right understanding that I didn't have until I was in my 20s. I'm so excited for Gen Z and Gen Alpha to already have the words.

Bryan: And people like us really to help support them.

Meredith: Yeah. And I think the fact that my biggest corporate client has pronouns in their email signature like in their brand guidelines, your email signature is dictated. So like what font it is, what color, like it's a corporate rollout of what the pronouns are and they changed it within the last couple of years to include pronouns. And then next to it is like a little link that says, "What's this?" And you click on that and on their website is like a section you can go to saying like why they think pronouns are important. And that's huge. I feel like we got off the original question.

Bryan: You were talking about giving context about who you are as a person.

Meredith: Yeah.

Bryan: And the challenges that you have faced in the industry.

Meredith: So, here's a good example of challenges then. Obviously, the most common microaggression for me is being misgendered and it used to be all the time but not everyone knew my actual pronouns. And in some ways, that was better. Like, there was definitely a time in my life where if I knew you personally and you knew my pronouns, but it wasn't in my email signature and people made assumptions and used whatever pronouns, and I couldn't be upset with anyone because they didn't know. Now it's in my email signature, it's on my resume. Other people refer to me by my correct pronouns. And then if someone is using my incorrect pronouns, like really consistently without ever correcting themselves, then it's like a choice. It's somehow in some ways worse with certain people because now I'm like, oh, okay. Like, you are now actively making a choice.

Bryan: You're aware.

Meredith: You're aware. You definitely know. You've probably had to go to some sort of DEI training in the last few years to talk to you about this. Most companies have something required like that and you're still making this choice and that can make it worse.

Bryan: Have you ever had to explain that to someone? I know that I catch myself with pronouns but I always make a cognizant effort in my head and personally because it's so important to me that I always use the correct pronouns when I'm speaking to anyone whose pronouns are different from, you know, the gender that I physically see or I am associating that in a way.

Meredith: Yeah. Your gender assumptions. Is that what...

Bryan: Exactly. You know, as you talk about that challenge, have you ever had to physically, or not physically, ever, you know, talk to them about...?

Meredith: Did I shake someone? No.

Bryan: That's exactly what you have to do.

Meredith: Yeah. I just shake them until they get it right. No. I have definitely said things to people before like, "Hey, you know my pronouns. I know you know them because sometimes you get them right. And sometimes you purposely don't or if not purposefully, then you are choosing in the moment to, like, prioritize your comfort over my comfort and safety." So, for instance, I've had clients in the past who are pretty good about using my pronouns when we're talking and interacting, but then when we're talking to higher-up or we're talking to the exterior client or whatever, all of a sudden all of that's gone because they don't wanna have to explain why they're using they/them pronouns for me.

That's an interesting thing that I've noticed where people to my face will use the right pronouns but then in an email to someone else will misgender me, which almost takes more work because you're like typing it out and proofing your own email, or in a call to clients will misgender me. But if it was an internal call, they would be correct. They would do the right thing. But in an external call, they don't.

Bryan: That's almost painful to hear, especially being kind of one of those external clients on projects for yourself, Meredith. I know that when I'm communicating to others if we are speaking about our project, I always intend to use the correct pronouns, even if you're not in the conversation, emails, whatnot.

Meredith: Yeah. No. And I see you like...

Bryan: Because it's a matter of respect.

Meredith: Yeah. You correct people like in big meetings. You'll be like, "They/them," which I super appreciate because not everyone does that. I always say that's like the first thing you can do as being a good coworker or good ally, however you wanna describe it.

Bryan: Exactly.

Meredith: Just casually correct people. The only way people will get good at pronouns that they aren't used to or are changing for someone is if they practice. The best way for that to happen is when someone is talking about me and I'm not around and everyone is holding each other accountable. So, like, if people are having a meeting that I'm mentioned in but I'm not actually present in, if everyone can hold each other accountable there, it'll get so much easier in every other meeting. Actually, I got married this last year and my...

Bryan: Congratulations. Yes.

Meredith: Thank you. My husband, leading up to the wedding, we were talking about what we wanted and one of the things I wanted was to be misgendered as little as possible throughout the day. And it's hard because it's the wedding industrial complex and, you know, there's all these vendors who don't really know you and a million caterers and all these people. So, I knew it wasn't possible to totally have, like, a day where no one said bride to me or whatever. Like, I set my expectations reasonably but we did make a point of really talking to all of our extended family and our close friends and making sure that one could hold up that into the bargain, essentially. We were like, "Hey, some of you have known us for a really long time." And it's a wedding, there are people I didn't know very well that were there as well.

Bryan: As always. It always happens. It always happens.

Meredith: Like, the extended family and like significant others of people I haven't seen since college and whatever, you know. So, we had a lot of conversations with different people. And one of the things that I really, like, touched by is one of the people I thought would have a real problem with it just came back and was like, "What's the etiquette? I'll do whatever. Like, I want Meredith to be happy. I just wanna know what the etiquette is."

And it was someone that I thought had had a relatively conservative upbringing, worked in a pretty conservative industry. And he just wanted to know the rules. So, essentially, we like, made up a little script for him that was like, "Hi, my name is X. And my pronouns are he/him." I was like, "That's your introduction now. Like, you introduce yourself that way. And then that invites the other person to give you their pronouns. And then if everyone does that, you never have to worry that you don't know someone's pronouns."
I think that is so important. And that's something that I think is important in industry things because one of the things that I've said to people is like, at this point in my life, I don't mind having my pronouns in my email signature. It's fine. But don't ask me to out myself to every single person that I interact with if you are not gonna hold yourself to the same standard of supporting me in those situations. Because almost all my clients now that's their standard email signature.

And for years now, that's been like happening more and more. And it started with my, like, cabaret clients, my theater clients. Now, the fact that with my most corporate clients too is wonderful. In the same wave, I've watched this question sweep that if you are going to do introductions where everyone has to state their pronoun, or it's gonna be email signatures, or like whatever the thing is, there's gonna be an upside and a downside to that. And if you are going to institute that at your organization, then you have to be prepared to support the person if they need it later.

Bryan: And again, it always comes back to accountability. If you're rolling out these guidelines, you're rolling out these processes, these policies really at the end of the day, we have to hold the company accountable, these individuals accountable. I think that our collective queer group has lived in an era of being marginalized for too long. I've sometimes felt so uncomfortable to be who I am as a person, which is unfair to us. So, now it's the time, especially as corporate companies are rolling out these policies, it's time to hold them accountable because they're presenting themselves as being ready and that's what we need to do. So, I completely agree with you, Meredith. Have you ever had to, you know, adapt who you are in the workplace maybe earlier in your career or...?

Meredith: Every day. Today. I had other video calls today. And I sat and stared at how much makeup I was gonna wear, what shirt I was gonna put on. I was meeting some new people today. Is like presenting more fem or more masculine gonna serve me better in those particular interactions? It's a million decisions all the time. And like, if I'm going to a construction site, sometimes I'm on a construction site, then, same thing. Will I be treated better or worse if I present more fem that day? It doesn't really matter. Like, I have a pretty flexible gender presentation. And so some days I wanna dress more masculine and some days I wanna dress more fem. And like, some days I wanna wear lipstick and some days I don't, whatever the thing is, and I have to weigh all of those decisions really carefully.

Bryan: It's interesting how our society's standards of beauty are really ingrained in our heads and that we understand that how we present ourselves is going to impact how others perceive us and how they, you know, interact with us. So, I think I've talked about this with other guests on my podcast, especially Black women. I'm happy that you're sharing this experience because I think people need to hear this experience that it's unfair to us to have this idea of discomfort and trying to wash it away by trying to present ourselves in a different manner that's not really who we are.

Meredith: Yeah. And I'm lucky. Like, I'm like a relatively conventionally attractive white fem. I have lucked out in a lot of ways and there's less weight in the way I present myself than there would be for a Black woman, for instance. Like there's decisions that are easy for me that will have minimal impact, and I'm very grateful for that. But at the same time, there are decisions that are hard and have impact and have gone well and gone poorly. And now I'm pretty good about reading what people wanna see and then presenting that or, like, riding the line pretty well. But it took a long time to find that.

And you asked if I've ever felt unsafe? And like absolutely, 100%. It doesn't happen super often anymore. It's been a long time since I felt like physically unsafe on a job with regularity but it used to be very, very common. And I've been sexually harassed a lot in my career and it only really stopped because I was gaining power in every room that I walked into. And I'm very of the fact that what transitioned was that I was in charge and not that people stopped being terrible. Like, the consequences of being terrible to me became greater for them, but that's the only transition.

And so I really try in the rooms where I have any sort of control...because not every job do I get to hire the crew or have any impact on that sort of thing. But when I do have some influence, I try very hard to make sure that I'm creating a room that 21-year-old me could have walked into and been safe and felt safe. And I do think that that comes from the top down. And so, like, there are TV studios that are my favorite TV studios to work in because no one has ever hit on me in them. No one has ever called me honey or sweetie, or like any of those little microaggressions. I get that all the time still.

Bryan: That language.

Meredith Dear is one that weirdly drives me insane. But like, those little things, there are certain studios, and it doesn't matter who's filming in that studio or whatever the thing is, no one ever says anything like that to me. And it's because the leadership of the crew does not allow that atmosphere to brew in that location. And then there's the opposite of that as well. There are TV studios that I'm like, "Ugh, it doesn't matter, like, what show is filming in that studio, I know what that crew feels to be around and it's gonna be a hard one." You know, like, it's maybe not me getting hit on but just like a general lack of respect. I have to kind of prove myself more kinda thing.

Bryan: And I think as we move forward as an industry, that's exactly what we need to be doing. We need to harbor that safe atmosphere. I've noticed the same thing, Meredith, as I've gained "more power," I have felt more safe, you know, presenting myself as a person. So, that resonates with me and the language, I've never experienced dear, honey, but I've seen it happen. And, you know, when I was younger, it was these older white men speaking to these women. Because I was younger in my career, I didn't know what to say but in my head, I'd always go to whoever it was and be like, "Are you okay?" Because those microaggressions are not okay. And typically, when I spoke to those individuals, they'd say, "I've experienced it a lot but now I know how to deal with it." Because, you know, when I was younger, when I was 22, 23, I questioned, "Is it my place to say something right now, or am I going to get reprimanded from this higher-up?" I didn't know how to navigate that situation.

Meredith: Well, it's interesting how it, like, trains you too. So, I used to put up with that a lot at work. It was really hard. It was like a thing that I dealt with all the time. I would purposely dress very masculine and never wear makeup in front of anyone I worked with at certain locations to minimize it as much as possible, which increased harassment in some ways, but like decreased sexual...You know, like, I used to have to make a lot of really tough decisions just in getting dressed in the morning, much less who I ate lunch with and who I was alone in rooms with and all those things.

But, you know, a lot of that has gotten better. And then last year I actually got hit on pretty aggressively on a job site and it built up over a few weeks and I didn't really know the person, they weren't on my crew. They weren't like a direct report to me. I didn't know who their direct report was but it happened enough. And it was amazing how quickly when it finally crossed over from being like, hmm, this guy's like a little too chatty to me to like him saying inappropriate things very quickly to me. I was just like, oh, I was so surprised, and how quickly I felt young and helpless again.

Like, how fast all that power that I felt like I had built up and had protected me in a lot of ways disappeared. And that's from years of being powerless in those situations. You know, when I was really young, I, like, didn't know how to report things. And then I think one of the problems with, especially, like, the starter theater industry, like when I was really young, I was doing essentially, like, very low-budget theater shows to regional theater maybe to off-Broadway kind of stuff.

And there wasn't a structure for who to report things to because the company is so small. It's, like, scrappy. It's probably nonprofit. There's not like a single accounts payable person, much less an HR person. Everyone's wearing like 50 hats and you just don't know who to go to. And I think that that is part of the problem that the leadership doesn't make it clear like who we go to and who you could trust to talk about those things.

And that's something I think is important now as we move forward as an industry is making sure that there's like a clear, who do you go to if something happens? What's the process? Where can someone go? Because it's so jarring when it happens and to have a structure in place so that I don't have to wonder who I go to or think about it or send a couple of tentative emails to try and figure out who I would talk to about it. Taking those decisions out of the equation so I know exactly what to do is such a helpful thing you can do to make a safe work environment.

Bryan: You know, it's interesting because when those incidents do happen, I think I sometimes get lost, especially in the moment you're, like, thinking, "Whoa, well, what just happened?" And you said, you feel powerless. I start to question myself and that's the worst part about it because then at that point it's like, wow, you really have lost your power. And you've given power to this other individual who doesn't deserve that power. And you think, "Is this worth reporting to? Does this make me seem weak?"

And at those times, I think now, as you said, there are reporting structures in our companies but I still sometimes feel like I don't wanna lose myself in those situations and panic and start to question myself and lose my confidence in my abilities to protect myself, and also, at the end of the day, to protect others so that it doesn't happen again. How can we move past this discrimination and really focus on a better industry? Which you've already touched upon now.

Meredith: Yeah. I have such a strong belief in good leadership. I've worked in departments where the leadership was great. I've worked in departments where the leadership was lacking and that is really the difference. Like, all the talent in the world can be there, all the resources can be there, and it really comes down to leadership and having someone who is willing to acknowledge they need to change, is willing to acknowledge they need to grow, and is willing to prioritize it. And like I was saying, like, everyone's been to a DEI training or a DEI event in the last couple of years probably. Right?

Bryan: Right.

Meredith: If I show up to one of those that a company I'm working with is...Like, if I get an email about a speaker series or, like, whatever the thing is, and I show up to it and not a single person in leadership is on that call, I know exactly what they prioritize. Like, in that moment, they've prioritized making it appear like they care about DEI by paying for a speaker or organizing an event. But if they haven't, like, heavily publicized it to the people that work with them, if they haven't encouraged people where they can bill that time...because I know a lot of people if they have unbillable hours, they don't get paid for those hours or if they have unbillable hours, they feel the pressure to not attend that training. You know, like, give people a job number to bill it to, remind people about it, encourage people to attend, and then have your leadership in those meetings. And make it so clear that it's important for everyone to be there.

Bryan: It really does start with leadership recognizing all of that and really being involved.

Meredith: And it can be so good. I recently did an interview. One of my employers had me do an interview for national pronouns day and I did it and they published it on their blog, you know. And then it was like sent to the whole company, which was wonderful and terrifying. And the president of that company, like the North American president of that company, immediately sent me an email after reading it and was like, "Thank you so much for doing this. I realized probably in some of our interactions, I've misgendered you and I am so sorry." In that article that they had written from talking to me, I had recommended people just increase what they're exposed to. Like, we all have a limitation, whoever our friend group is, whatever it is. Follow people on social media you would never have followed otherwise. Do whatever it is to increase the spectrum of the world that you see.

Bryan: Don't live in a bubble.

Meredith: Don't live in a bubble and, like, make yourself hear about different experiences. And I do the same thing. Mine have gotten increasingly radical that I follow over years to, like, keep pushing myself. But I think that's the only way. And, yeah, like, this person who had I'm sure a million things to be doing then had an email exchange with me about what social media I recommended and he immediately started following all of them, and it...

Bryan: That's great.

Meredith: ...was amazing to feel, not only had he taken the time to read the thing, which I'm sure a lot of other people did not, he took it to heart. He apologized for what had happened in the past. We hadn't worked together a lot but we had, like, been in meetings together. He acknowledged that he had probably messed up and immediately took ownership of it, said he wanted to do better, and then took steps. And that's all you can ask of anyone...

Bryan: Yeah, it is.

Meredith: ...is to, like, acknowledge what they've done, apologize for it, and then do better in the future.

Bryan: That's emotional and mental maturity that we are all seeking from our colleagues.

Meredith: I was blown away by that.

Bryan: I love that. You know, I always hope that when we're creating these safe spaces, and say there is a microaggression or treatment that is that you wanna report to, I always have this hope that the person that you're...an HR is understanding and is going to be supportive because I know that there are probably teams across this country that you'll report to HR and they'll be dismissive. And that's probably one of the worst things that that person could face because then that continues to marginalize the group and also creates an uncomfortable and really not a safe space. So, that's one of my biggest concerns and hope that HR creates that safe space and that individual who is in that position.

I know that we've been talking about behavior and discrimination and just our shared experiences but I wanna move on to the...and we've already kind of touched upon this, Meredith, but the advantages of diversity and why you're such a strong asset to the team. You know, can you elaborate why DEI is so important in the workplace? We've already touched on a few of the topics. To our listeners, I don't even have to tell you why Meredith is a strong asset to your team. They need to be hired and be on that project team. This is the 18th...

Meredith Find me on LinkedIn. Yeah. I mean, I just think unregimented thinking, or like, a lack of boundaries in your thinking is valuable and nothing important or beautiful or groundbreaking has happened because people weren't pushing boundaries and thinking outside of their lived experience and pushing past their lived experience to that date. And I think having to live that every single day also makes me good at bringing that into creative brainstorming sessions or how I think about a budget or whatever the thing is. Like, I'm just not as binary in my thinking because nothing in my life is a binary. And I find that that's really important. One of the pieces of feedback I get a lot that I'm very proud of is that I create a good environment to work in and that I can turn a very tense team into a team that really gets along.

Bryan: I agree with that.

Meredith: Thank you. And like wants to have that weekly meeting. Wants a little fun in the week or whatever the thing is. And I don't know if you can find that everywhere. I know that that's something unique that I bring to the table that I can make people like each other by finding out little things about people, like bringing personality to the table. And that is a skill I learned through my experiences of being marginalized.

Bryan: That's a skill that I definitely value of you, Meredith. Especially in our meetings, you have been able to really create that rapport with others, especially in this digital age with COVID. When we all had to jump on the Zoom, the dreaded Zoom call, you and Larry were great at bringing that personality to the table. And that's a great skill that I also have to commend you on. Really, we have to speak through Zoom and we're doing this through Zoom right now but it shines through the computer and that's one of the most important qualities to have. I thank you for that.

Meredith: Thank you for saying that because it's a skill that I feel like I didn't always have, and I worked really hard to create a welcoming environment.

Bryan: It's a skill I'm working on too. So, I'm learning from you.

Meredith: Oh, thank you. Yeah. And that's like the dream, that everyone that I work with tries to create a more welcoming environment because they experienced a welcoming environment. And like, I had someone who did that for me, I'm hoping that I can do that for other people. And, you know, you were asking what diversity brings to the table, why people should pursue it. And I would say, like, a lot of it is just like, it's the ethical choice. Like, you should just do it because it's the right thing to do. But if people are trying to make, like, an economic argument for it, I would also just say, like, why would you bring five people into a room that have all had the same experiences and the same education?
They've all followed the same path and you're trying to forge a new path, wouldn't you want someone in the room that has different experiences and different education and different artistic influences and all of these different things? Because maybe, you know...this metaphor might be getting a little too intense. But like, let's say the new path you're trying to forge has to go over water. And like, all of you are from a desert. Like, you don't know how to deal with water. You need to bring someone in with, like, a little bit more information and you can't do that if everyone has the same background and the same experiences.

Bryan: Exactly.

Meredith: To me, that's just like so logical, like, why would you want a group of people that are all the same? And I don't know if that's because I come from specifically, like, a theater background that was very heavy in, like, ensemble work and collaborative creation of work. So, like, the whole room of people created a theater piece, not an individual was a writer, and an individual was a designer, and an individual was an actor. So to me, it's like, "Oh, everyone should be collaborative. Everyone's on equal footing here." It just makes a lot of sense to me. And so I'm always a little taken aback when I feel like...you're asking because you want people to hear the answer to that question. But sometimes people ask me that question with like a real, "Why would I bother to do that?" And I'm just like, "Because it's the most logical thing in the world."

Bryan: That's exactly what we're trying to do. We're trying to expand the horizons for a lot of individuals. And that's why I wanna harness this platform to create that visibility, you know, to amplify our voices because, you know, our identities, your identity, your background experiences brings a lot to the table and it should not be dismissed. It should be heard. And so, I think this is a powerful way to harness that. So, we've talked about how, when we were younger, we had faced, you know, discrimination and where do we go to report something? What advice would you give to young people pursuing careers in our industry who are worried about facing similar discrimination? What would you say to them?

Meredith: I would tell them to find the people that are making the work that makes you excited and to find a mentor. I think mentorship is really important in the industry, and it never hurts to email and just ask if you can buy them coffee and have like an informational interview or a Zoom interview, I think that's really important. And I also think my advice to non-young people in the industry is to always say yes to doing those coffees and to those Zooms because that is how doors get opened.

And I would say it's changing and it's getting better. And there's a lot of us out there trying to reach our hands back for you, and to know that we're out there. And also, at the same time, that's not true at every single company and it's okay to not wanna work somewhere because it's not a good environment. There is a good environment out there for you if you can find it. But it may not be as easy as it should be. And I'm very, very sorry for that. But please know that there's a lot of people who are rooting for you and if you can find us, we're building a better world, or we're trying to, as we move forward.

Bryan: Where do you think that our industry will be in 10 years' time?

Meredith: I hope very environmentally friendly. I hope willing to set aside the way we've always done it or the way we should have been doing it. Not just setting aside things to set them aside, but really reprioritizing and thinking about what's the most important? What do we have to keep? What should we keep? And I feel like there's a lot of change coming with climate change, with the economy, with a potential for continued pandemics, and how we handle all of that.

I hope that we keep the good and are willing to let go of the mediocre and bad and rebuild. So, I think that that's coming, I'm seeing it. I'm seeing a lot of good change. I'm really interested to see the innovation that's going on. I'm really interested in the changes in, like, hiring practices that I'm seeing and sexual harassment training that I'm seeing, but we have a ton of work to do, you know.

Bryan: Yeah. I see it too. So, hopefully, in 10 years' time, we can revisit this podcast and have a conversation. Especially because I think at that point we may have greater power to create these safe spaces that we're talking about. At that point, I think that companies should all be a safe space for anyone.

Meredith: I would just love to be in fewer meetings where I am the only non-man. The majority of my meetings, it is just me or it is me and maybe one or two other people. And that can wear you down over time.

Bryan: Oh, it does. There was a picture on LinkedIn the other day of a construction group receiving an award, or it was an engineering group. I think it was like 12 people and there were all white men. And I just thought to myself, "What? I can't understand how they're just...Where's the woman? Where's the diversity? There's nothing there." I don't know. I mean, sure, the structure is great but I hope in 10 years' time that is not the same photo, you know.

Meredith: Sometimes I joke that, like I walk into a new meeting and I see another fem or someone who's, like, gender presentation isn't totally binary, and I get excited like a dog gets excited when they see another dog in, like, a park. And I'm just like, "Oh my God, hi. Hi." Because it's so rare. Not to say that every single meeting but it's a lot of meetings where it's just me and I would love for that to change. I get so excited to work with people of different backgrounds. And like, I'm white. So, sometimes it's still a room full of white people and only white people. And that also makes me very sad because at what point is it a choice? And I have to, like, have that thought in the back of my head like, "At what point was this the choice that was made?" How old can your company be and be entirely white men before? I'm like, "Oh, well that's the company you built."

You know like, that's a valid question to have out there, especially now, you know, like there's more college-educated women than there are men. There's the, like, demographics of, you know, the argument of like, "Well, I couldn't find some binders full of women." I don't know if you remember that. I feel like you're younger than me. And I don't know if you remember the binders full of women, like, debacle at one point. But essentially someone was like, "Why aren't there any women that work at your company?" And he was like, "I have binders full of women applicants to work for me. I just haven't found the right one."

Bryan: Excuse me? I've never heard that before.

Meredith: I think it's from a presidential debate. And like, that argument just doesn't apply. Like, there are people qualified in whatever industry it is that are of different backgrounds than like, white, straight, cis men.

Bryan: Exactly.

Meredith: You could have that diversity on your team and you have maybe chosen not to. And I think a part of that is hiring. You know, like if you went to Yale and you keep hiring through your alumni network, that's gonna limit what is available to you. Yeah. Economically, like, race, gender, like, it's all gonna limit you. And so I think there's a way things have been done for a long time where it's like, "Oh, well, whenever I need someone, I just email this person and they tell me whoever the recent graduates are." Like, whatever the thing is. You can't do that anymore. You have to make a little bit more effort. You have to make this a little bit more effort.

Bryan: Exactly. Meredith, I truly appreciate this conversation. You are one of a kind. Anyone listening, you must have Meredith on your team. There's no one else like you, Meredith, and I've been so grateful and blessed to have worked alongside you on our projects and that we're continuing to work through. And you create amazing designs. And so I hope that anyone listening here, if they ever wanna reach out to me or you, I hope they feel comfortable doing so. And we're here to be supporters and also just listen and be an open book for everyone. That's the purpose of this podcast, to really ensure the people feel safe. And I really thank you for that, Meredith, allowing me the opportunity to speak with you. Your voice is amazing and I'm happy that you agreed to speak with me.

Meredith: I'm honored to have been invited to be on here and for you to think that this conversation needed to be out towards other people. We've had conversations like this privately, and I'm just so proud of you for creating a platform and using your power for good, essentially. So, thank you, Bryan. You're part of what's gonna change the industry and I'm honored to have any small part in it. So, I hope you have just the best day and I'm sure we'll have 9 million meetings together soon.

Bryan: Thank you, Meredith.

Meredith: You make my day brighter whenever I get a chance to speak to you. And thank you for all that you're doing.

Bryan: Thank you. Well, with that, everyone, thank you for listening to this episode of "MGAC Inner Voices" with our first external consultant, Meredith Sonnen. Check back next month for our next episode. Bye, everyone.

Alternative Text
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee

MGAC's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee is a staff-led group that establishes initiatives aimed at encouraging employee conversation around issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion including a book club, podcast, calendar of cultural holidays, and more.

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