Missouri Department of Transportation External Civil Rights (ECR) Director Lester Woods understands his division’s role in connecting the many “dots” representing the different stakeholders in MoDOT’s programs and projects. The dots Woods refers to represent all of the groups that must come together for MoDOT initiatives to be successful, including MoDOT internal staff, prime contractors, small businesses, federal regulators, and the area which often gets overlooked – the community. However, Woods has made creating strong community partnerships a key component of how he leads MoDOT’s external civil rights programs. These programs include the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program, On-the-Job Training (OJT) Program, Equal Employment Opportunity/Contractor Compliance Program, Title VI/Environmental Justice Program, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Program.
Woods has led MoDOT’s External Civil Rights Division for the past 12 years, after he was promoted from a position in the Human Resources Department in 2004. Although Woods was new to several Civil Rights program areas, he had gained experience in Equal Employment Opportunity while working at the University of Missouri and in MoDOT’s Human Resources Department. Woods gravitated to the area after asking his boss at the University of Missouri if he could lead the updating process for the university’s Affirmative Action Plan. “I saw our plan sitting on the shelf, and it needed to be done, so I offered to take it on,” he said. The experience of reviewing strategies to increase employment opportunities for minorities and women helped Woods develop the philosophy that the community must be involved to make these efforts successful; and Woods has furthered this philosophy in his leadership of MoDOT’s ECR Division.
The importance ECR has placed on creating strong community partnerships has been crucial in helping MoDOT thrive, as the agency completed several major projects directly impacting the Greater St. Louis area—doing so during the challenging times in the St. Louis area following the Michael Brown shooting incident in 2014. “ECR’s role is connecting people together. We do this by engaging the community and all other stakeholders to build relationships,” Woods said. “This calls for thinking outside of the box to engage with a variety of community organizations including business associations, urban leagues, and faith-based organizations to make sure we reach all areas of the community impacted by MoDOT.”
ECR’s approach helped MoDOT achieve stellar results on the New Mississippi River Bridge Project (now called the Stan Musial Bridge) in inner-city St. Louis. The project garnered great community interest because the project directly impacted minority communities. However, through extensive outreach and community involvement, the project became a model of how transportation projects can have a positive impact by creating business opportunities and jobs, in addition to greater mobility. “This was a great project for us, because it demonstrated what can happen when people work together in partnership for the greater good,” Woods said.
To bring about success, ECR led the creation of a Workforce/DBE Advisory Committee that was selected by the participants of a series of community roundtable meetings for the project. The group met throughout the project to provide guidance and oversight to DBE and workforce initiatives of the project. This level of involvement helped the project exceed the 18 percent DBE goal by awarding over $144 million in contracts to 117 firms; and to exceed the 14.7 percent minority workforce goal by achieving 22.7 percent of total minority workforce hours worked on the project.
Woods also credits MoDOT’s willingness to partner with the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) with helping develop innovative strategies to engage the DBE community along with more minorities and women interested in employment on the project. COMTO helped MoDOT develop a community partnering approach that is now known as the “Missouri Model.” The Stan Musial Bridge was the third project that utilized this comprehensive approach to reach out to community organizations and leaders to provide meaningful input into transportation projects. “The involvement of COMTO brought a level of objectiveness and credibility to what we were trying to do,” Woods said. “They helped MoDOT remove barriers, share information, and think outside the box when it came to community engagement.”
The success of the Workforce/DBE Advisory committees on major projects led Woods to recommend transitioning the committee into two new Regional Advisory Committees in order to maintain the goodwill and momentum created. The Regional Advisory Committees now work on an ongoing basis with MoDOT district engineers in the St. Louis and Kansas City regions to monitor DBE participation and the utilization of minorities and women in the workforce on transportation projects. “Our Regional Advisory Committee will review DBE participation and monthly workforce tracking reports for over 100 projects across the state, and they have also helped developed new contract special provisions related to on-the-job training,” Woods said.
The ongoing relationship with the community helped MoDOT to respond to the push for government agencies to do more to address unemployment and minority business development after the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis area. The ECR office mobilized in the Northern St. Louis area to offer an aggressive DBE Supportive Services set of training and development courses aimed at small business owners. Courses were offered in topics such as business planning, highway transportation technical skills, financing, and bonding to offer DBE firms assistance in doing more business with MoDOT. “We knew we had to do something to address the level of unemployment and DBE business utilization to that community,” Woods said. “Our efforts were well-received and a lot of businesses participated in those programs.”
All of these efforts are aimed at fulfilling Woods’ vision for the ECR Division. “We are here to effect change in people’s lives,” Woods said. “If you are going to have success in this work you have to have people with passion and drive, led by a clear vision. And that vision has to be that the federal requirements are only the baseline of what we are here to accomplish. We are here to truly make a difference.”