Shelia Montgomery-Mills, P.E., M.ASCE, is a manager of projects and systems at Appleseed Workshop and also owns her own consulting firm, Civil Construction Solutions. She works on commercial and residential renewal projects in Birmingham, Alabama.
Shelia’s experiences in her career, along with attending the ASCE Legislative Fly-In, contributed to her active role in advocacy. The Alabama Section is currently working on a state Report Card and starting a Government Relations Committee, both of which Shelia will be involved with. She also serves as the past-president of the Birmingham Branch, vice president of the Alabama Section and is active with supporting the younger members group.
How did you become interested in and get involved in advocacy for your profession?
When I first attended the Fly-In four years ago, it piqued my interest in advocacy and I knew I wanted to go again. The experience made me very interested in how the federal and state governments work together. I started my career in local government, seeing it from the inside, so to then experience the state and federal levels was an exciting new learning experience.
I’ve always wondered “how do they get anything done?” given the structure of government. Yet, I also witnessed that when infrastructure is at its best, it improves the community. Through that, I knew it was possible as projects led to growth and change.
What issues have you highlighted/focused on when communicating with your legislators?
I make it a point to always discuss MAP-21 and funding for roadways and transit, especially as transit is not readily available in Alabama and I believe it’s a crucial part of building a strong economy. I try to continually tie how infrastructure investment leads to community revitalization and redevelops inner-cities, and the positive impact that can have on the economy. The message that it helps create a better, stronger healthier community that is going to grow is one that I think really resonates with legislators.
As Alabama is the only state without a dam safety program, I bring that topic into the conversation by explaining the potential threat to public safety, infrastructure, homes and businesses. I always make a point to discuss the federal funding available to states that have a program.
What levels of government have you focused your efforts on? Is there something that prompted you to focus your efforts there?
I serve on a local design review committee that is charged with making sure that new developments fit into the neighborhoods and the long range planning of the community. I participate in local public involvement meetings for specific projects and for local community planning efforts. As a small business owner, I am also part of the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) and utilize that venue to talk about infrastructure investment. I traveled to our state capital with the BBA promoting similar topics to those discussed at the ASCE Fly-In, as they relate to the state legislature.
How do you gather information and prepare to do your advocacy work?
I try to stay up on current issues by reading articles published by various avenues through ASCE, in local publications, including blogs, newsletters, and the local business journal. When a topic is particularly interesting to me, then I make note and start to follow it more closely, seeking out additional information on it. Dedicating myself to reading about local events takes a lot of time, but I try to save articles up for an opportunity when I have an hour or two to dedicate to it.
What have you learned through your activities as an ASCE advocate and citizen lobbyist?
Our job is to educate the public as civil engineers. If you say something long enough, people start repeating you. When I first started talking about these issues, even among fellow ASCE members in my branch and section, people were not that engaged. Now, I find them echoing the things I have been saying for years. Explaining things–such as the gas tax and why it matters and the need for a dam safety program in Alabama–helps people understand both sides of the equation.
I truly believe that in the end you can make a difference, which I was not sure of at first. Now, looking at things that have been accomplished I am reassured that advocacy is influential and important, especially talking one-on-one to help build the relationship.
Has the experience helped you improve skills you utilize personally or professionally?
Having something to discuss that I am knowledgeable about has helped me overcome my shyness and reluctance to speak in public. I’ve been put into situations where there was no choice but to speak up and knowing I have something valuable to contribute pushed me to say something. Once I return from the Fly-In, I know I must present to the Branch and report to the Section. The experience has made me a stronger leader, and given me added confidence. When tasked with a new challenge I am encouraged by the things I’ve already accomplished and know that I can take on this new challenge, too.
What has been challenging about being an advocate? What methods have you found effective in working through those challenges? What sort of pitfalls or setbacks have you encountered? And how did you overcome them?
I always respond to hearing “we have a problem,” by saying “no, we have an opportunity.” That definitely applies in advocacy. It is often about finding balance, and saying things in the right way that it will connect with the audience present. It can be a challenge to find opportunities to speak to key people. When the topic is increased taxes or government regulations, many citizens and politicians quickly shutdown or get defensive. It is extremely important to start with the cost of doing nothing and the effect on individuals and our community.
What have you found rewarding about your efforts? Is there a particularly memorable experience you can share?
It genuinely feels like I am making a difference, and it is an honor to talk about these issues on behalf of others who can’t or won’t raise these topics. It’s also provided a way to meet a lot of great people and give back. I also try to encourage others, especially young engineers, to get involved and find their own rewards through advocacy.
Walking the halls and stairwells of congress has been the most memorable. I always make a point to walk the steps so I can see the worn-impressions created in each stair by those before me. I wonder about the many critical decisions made in our history that have brought us to today and, ultimately, what will the effects be in the future for decisions made today.
As civil engineers we understand infrastructure, the needs for investment, the value of maintaining what we have verses replacement, and how what was built in our history that has made us the great country we are today. How do we continue so that the same quality of life we enjoyed is passed down for future generations? Tough decisions were made 100, 200 years ago and it brought us to what we have today. Stopping now is not the answer. Having a younger member attend the Fly-In with me this year and sharing my enthusiasm for the whole process made me realize just how much advocacy means to me. I can make a difference in many more ways than I ever thought.
Have you felt that your efforts have made a difference? How?
I have seen public investment make a difference in communities, which is what encourages me to continue my advocacy efforts. Public support, which often means funding of infrastructure projects, encourages private development leading to economic development with benefits that far outweigh the public funding.
I also hear more people talking about the issues, including dam safety and the Report Card. It took a few years, but other people have joined me in advocating on the issues from Alabama. We are planning to release a Report Card because we recognize it’s a valuable tool for advocacy.
Seeing other members have an interest is very rewarding for me, especially younger members who have a lot of energy and are interested in finding ways to make a difference, because I know it will make an even greater impact the more people talk about these issues. It is very important to me to encourage younger members’ interest in advocacy and ASCE in general. Our future, and theirs, is in their hands and engagement today will be paid back for years into the future. The youth of today are seeking these opportunities and we must strive to find ways to support their efforts.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in advocacy?
It’s helpful to talk to someone who is already involved in advocacy. I also recommend familiarizing yourself with the issues through newspapers and ASCE materials. By learning more about the issues you will find something that sparks your interest, and that passion can be very motivating. Once you find that passion, get involved! Serve on a local board or commission or committee, become a key contact, attend the Fly-In or Drive-In, or get on an agenda where you can talk to local officials.