Changemaker: J’reyesha Brannon shares her journey from Lego robotics to a career in civil engineering and environmental equity

Changemaker: J’reyesha Brannon shares her journey from Lego robotics to a career in civil engineering and environmental equity

This is a part of a series of blog posts amplifying community voices.  

J’reyesha Brannon is an engineer for the City of Portland, focusing on civil and environmental projects such as collection systems for wastewater and stormwater. Her passion for community and bringing diversity to STEM fields led to her role as president of the Portland chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). She is also the outgoing environmental justice chair for the Portland NAACP, where she leads a Nature Leadership program for BIPOC youth that gives them positive memories in nature and puts them in touch with professionals of color in environmental fields. 


Q: How did you decide on a career in civil engineering? 

I grew up in Portland—my family has been here since the 1940s. This city raised me. And as a kid, I loved Legos, so the “sport” I was into was Lego robotics, which naturally led me to engineering. I’ve also always been civically engaged, with service being a huge part of my life, and I wanted my engineering path to help people. Being a civil engineer isn’t just bridges—it’s roads, water, sewer pipes, treatment plants—things that are vital for a city to run smoothly and be healthy. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in advancing sustainability efforts in your field? 

Sometimes the priority with our city’s infrastructure is to fix or maintain it at the lowest cost possible— and as quickly as possible. But sometimes the most sustainable options for the long term are not the fastest. These not-as-fast solutions can have a more positive impact and longer lifespans—not just in civil engineering but across the field—and we need to make them as important as scope, schedule and budget. 

Q: What do climate and energy mean to you and the community you serve? 

Leading the NAACP’s environmental justice committee has allowed me to revisit and address what I knew growing up in North Portland: displacement, air quality and the proximity to railroads, highways and a lack of green space, my whole family having asthma, etc. Historically it’s frontline communities or BIPOC folks who are most impacted by these issues of environmental justice. We look at opportunities to address it with legislation and restorative policy, mutual aid, resilience, and future workforce opportunities. Such as advocating for our communities to go into STEM fields or the trades by way of green jobs, which not only provide economic stability but also gives us a seat at the table for sustainable and energy-efficient infrastructure in their neighborhoods. 

Q: How does your work with NSBE address issues around equity? 

Our mission is to increase the number of culturally responsible Black Engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community. Statistically, particularly in Oregon, there are a low number of us out here. A lot of our work is around STEM representation that includes outreach to schools and career talks for youth so they see themselves and will consider engineering as a career. We are reaching out and showing folks that we’re in these careers and that it’s worthwhile to go for it and create your own space in these fields. We are all changemakers and we try to be a reference and resource for young people interested in STEM. 

NSBE also provides access and awareness around environmental concerns such as climate change and environmental justice on some level. People just starting on their career paths need that exposure to know there are opportunities out there for them to make a difference, such as an Energy Careers event we’re hosting in September to provide exposure to a different way electrical engineers can use their degrees. We also have events that focus on the holistic engineer—not just their engineering career but their financial wellness, mental health, and stress relief. We partner with like-minded orgs like Blacks in Tech and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers on these efforts as well. 

Q: What do you wish everyone knew about civil engineering?

I wish more people looked around and noticed the things the city’s infrastructure is doing to make their lives easier all day long. When they flush the toilet, drive down the street, or drink a glass of tap water, there is privilege and ease in all of that. People are working every day to make that experience possible and consistent. If we stay curious about the infrastructure we use in our daily lives, we might appreciate it just a little bit more and want to put resources and support into keeping it sustainable and healthy. 

Q: What excites you most about the future of your work? 

It hasn’t been the norm for an equity lens to be applied to engineering because we are often working on things that are damaged and need fixing. Recently engineers have begun looking into who our work impacts the most, and who we should consult before starting or updating a project, such as people impacted the most by freeways, treatment plants or airports. And we are prioritizing resilience more than ever, such as earthquake readiness, sustainable building materials, and clean energy components. 

Q: What is your advice to people of color and/or women entering your field?

Representation is important. I’ve almost always been the only woman and only brown woman in the room, which makes it that much more important to be there. You have to ignore the noise, not take it personally, focus on doing your job well and sharing your own experience and perspective. The work speaks for itself and your approach to it is valuable. And with your presence, you’re opening the doors for someone who looks like you to be there too, which can continue to increase representation and equity in decision-making and creating solutions to problems. Sometimes you have to create your own spaces too, such as finding or creating an organization like NSBE to make your own community where you may not have one in your field at work. 

Also, in the first five years of your career, always say “yes” to new things. You don’t have to stay in a place that doesn’t promote you or value you, but you do lose the jobs and opportunities you don’t apply for or speak up about. I never thought I’d be involved in environmental justice, but it’s become a great place to immerse myself, to share what I know, and to learn.