Swimming Against a Colonial Current

Published: November 29, 2022
Updated: December 20, 2022

Kerry Black, P.Eng., swims upstream.

She is a recipient of a 2022 Avenue Magazine Top 40 Under 40 award, which are given to Calgarians to recognize early career success, innovations that lift one’s community, and the improvement of the world for all.

She swims against colonial systems, policies, infrastructures, and beliefs. She swims against mechanisms and societal organizations she deems unjust. She swims against the history of patriarchally led decisions about what is important in engineering.

Her goal is clean water and equity for all, and she’s starting with Indigenous communities.

A trip to Cambodia in 2006 grew her passion for this work. As the sole engineering student working on a health-based initiative, she saw the impact of lack of access to safe drinking water and sanitation on the health, well-being, opportunities, economic development, and education of a community. “When I came home, it hit me that I didn’t have to go that far to find people who were struggling with access to safe, clean drinking water.”

A river close to home

The people struggling in Canada face similar challenges, for vastly different reasons. Black learned more about colonial policies and programs affecting Indigenous Peoples across Canada, fuelling her drive to generate positive change.

She says she comes from a privileged place and has a non-Indigenous, white, female perspective. “So even in the moments where I see injustice, that’s a fraction of what people are really experiencing.”

For Black, it’s about enabling and facilitating for Indigenous people and giving them the space to do it their way. She advocates with communities, not for them. She’s a voice at the table to call out when things are unjust—humbly and gracefully, “because we are all learning.”

Oftentimes, Indigenous Nations won’t have enough resources to comprehensively complete projects, states Black. “For example, we fund a water treatment plant, but we don’t fund the process that we’ve taken to decide what kind of water treatment plant we’re going to have, or we don’t fund a process to ensure community buy-in and uptake afterwards.” Black’s research prioritizes engagement and project planning decisions, which she says ultimately lead to greater community uptake and satisfaction. “They feel that there’s people who care about the ultimate health and well-being of the community, and not just the one piece.”

Teaching future engineers how to swim

Black, Canada research chair and assistant professor at Schulich School of Engineering, shares advice with her students that she once received. When Black was figuring out whether to become a civil engineer or a physician, her mentor said, “There’s nothing wrong with going to become a doctor, but you’ll only be able to solve problems once they’ve already happened. The reason I think you should consider civil engineering is you can ensure problems don’t happen in the first place.” What Black realized is engineering is the most direct connection to the people, public health, and well-being—to preventing problems, not only fixing existing ones. “She just spoke my language in that moment, and I got it.”

This predilection to fix social inequalities and injustices is how she approaches her practice—through a social lens first. “If engineering innovation and technology are at the centre of the design, I’m looking at the bookends of it.” She explores the context under which something is designed or developed and makes the connection to why it matters and who it’s ultimately for.

Black ushers her students into the same arena of diversity of thought, to help them tackle problems by understanding the complexity of the world and focusing on who and what they need to include in a project’s decision-making process.

A fish out of traditional water

While she recognizes her practice is inherently different than traditional engineering approaches, she finds it fits with the communities she spends her time working with and sees the value in her people- and values-first approach. “It’s the hardest work to do, and that’s what people take for granted.” She sees engineering as a tool for social justice, leading her work to transform policy and decision-making structures and advance Indigenous rights and self-determination.

A struggle—one Black fights daily—is getting people to recognize the value of these non-technical attributes as equal to technical ones, especially because these traits can be deemed feminine in a historically male-dominated profession. While it’s challenging to maintain her voice in some arenas, “it's a battle I am willing to fight because I do think it’s the key to increasing diversity within the engineering space.”

She does things differently, saying it’s inherent in those driven to be change makers, and explains it’s a role she’s had to get comfortable and confident in. “You can so quickly think that you can’t achieve that change because of this restriction, or this challenge. Sometimes you must push against what’s there, and that’s OK, because you’ll find as soon as you do, there are other people there willing to give support. Don’t take no for an answer, take it as an opportunity to rethink how you might approach a problem.”

An open ear, an open mind

On her wall hangs a circular depiction of the Blackfoot Confederacy, a visual representation of the four nations the confederacy comprises. Black explains often people think the Blackfoot Confederacy is made of three nations, because one is located south of Canada’s border. “But that’s a border imposed by non-Indigenous people,” she clarifies, telling how the piece is a visual reminder of colonially imposed boundaries, where she’s located, and her responsibilities in her work and in reconciliation, not to mention the complexity of the waters in which she wades each day.

Her advice is clear: she says active and open listening is pivotal. “I’m humbled to work with Indigenous nations. I’m always reminded of how little I know, and how important it is to be open and reflective.” Listening, she clarifies, is what brings context and perspective—understandings of the utmost import.

She’s gleaned some context by listening to Indigenous water stories, carried from generation to generation. “I find it so powerful that these stories contain so much rich information, what we consider science and data. If we stopped to listen to more Indigenous ways of knowing and doing, would we understand the world a whole lot better than we do now?”

As she swims upstream in the proverbial water, current plying against her will to change how the story arcs for Indigenous communities, she recognizes she’s choosing a challenging journey. Yet, as Black demonstrates, it’s worth the plunge.

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Kerry Black, P.Eng.

Kerry Black, P.Eng.