Interview with Nina Jean-Louis
Founder & President
What got you interested in preservation and how did you make the transition from engineering to preservation?
As a kid, I wanted to be a National Geographic Explorer. I had this infatuation with the human experience and understanding what tangible and intangible items people feel connected to that represent their identity. My dream was to either be a pianist or an archaeologist, but my father was an engineer and so naturally he says, archaeology is an amazing field, but imagine if you had a structural engineering background—you’ll be able to assess any failures that happen to those sites. Engineering was never fully an aligned fit for me because I’m somebody who really wants to hear the stories behind certain things, while engineering is very formulaic. I consider myself more of a scientist than anything else, because I'm always interested in the problem-solving aspects. The way to merge my passions for archaeology, cultural identity, and cultural anthropology was to go down the historic preservation track. For my master's degree, I specialized in historic preservation, specifically materials conservation, building technology, and climate change adaptation. That's how the bridge to preservation came together in climate resiliency and adaptation. I think climate change has always been on the minds of many of us in the field, but it really didn't make its real breakthrough until 2017. That's when I met Lisa Craig; she was my first mentor in this field when I was wondering how I could combine all these passions together. Climate change is a very big issue, and it puts our historical communities at risk. Instead of being reactive towards it, we should be understanding proactively what we can do to triage some of these structures and understand how we can adapt some of them for future climate change issues, such as rising sea levels.
Preservation is incredibly interdisciplinary, and that's what allowed me to gravitate toward it. I'm very much a collaborator; I love working with other teams and getting that other perspective. I come from the engineering and architectural perspective, and from the community advocacy perspective. Having other fields in the mix creates a solution that's a lot more holistic.
What kinds of projects do you get to work on through your consulting firm?
Through my consulting, I primarily work with nonprofits. A lot of what I'm doing is historical resource surveys, but it's different than just your typical historic resource survey, especially in African American communities right now in South Florida where we're getting a lot of grants to do some of that work. What makes my consulting a little different than doing your typical historic resource survey is that I come in with climate change adaptation and engineering. We have a story to tell about these historic resources in the community. I consider how I can bridge science, technology, and engineering, and utilize those tools to tell that story. I also provide a bigger perspective on how some of these issues, such as rising sea levels, can impact the community through using drone assessments. I think it's very important because people are very visual, and they think, as preservation is sometimes, that we go into community with all this lingo and highly technical verbiage that the community wouldn’t understand. It's our job to utilize whatever tools we have to visually tell the story, because visuals really help people understand the breadth of an issue and the vulnerabilities to their community.
What strategies have you found to be successful in getting communities to engage with planning for resilience? How do you build trust along the way?
The hardest step is building trust within the community. Oftentimes, subject matter experts don’t build the best foundation with a community. The first step to building trust is that mindset switch. You need to recognize that you are working with the community; they're not working for you. I put this as a long lead item in my consulting packages where I spend several months seeing who the community leaders are, and meeting with them, having coffee, and getting to know their stories. If you understand their stories and have a listening ear, you have a foundation for trust. When you're doing community work, you're playing the role of the observer, initially, and you need to create the space necessary to allow the community to be open and vulnerable and tell their stories—why some of these heritage and cultural resources are so important to them. It's a lot of oral tradition-based work just asking those questions and showing that you're engaged. It's about having conversations, and I don't believe we do this enough when it comes to community work. From there, once you identify some of the key leaders in the community, the residents that are active and that want to be a part of it, that's when you start collaborating and understanding which cultural assets are most valuable and vulnerable.
If you are serious about doing community work, you need to dedicate the time and resources to build that relationship, and I'm very upfront with my clients when it comes to what I do and who I work with. One of my caveats when you're working with me as a consultant is that if you're not willing to take the time and space to create a relationship with a community, then I'm not your best person for the job.
What does community outreach look like for you?
If I'm in a community that I have absolutely no clue about, I first identify and meet with some of the community’s preservation and environmental organizations. I try to understand the work they have been doing and to identify the key leaders in the community. I always try to identify one or two people that are community liaisons. For example in my project in Little Haiti, I have a colleague and a good friend who lives in a Little Haiti community. He already has relationships with the people there, and they trust him. I always try to identify that liaison because regardless of what community we walk into, if it's not an area we grew up in or a culture we identify with, we're always going to be the outside person. I find out about the involvement of the municipality and meet with municipal members to understand the inner workings behind like their involvement in the community. Ultimately, they're the ones that have the funding necessary to do projects, so it's important to create a relationship with them. Outreach takes a long lead time because you're going into something that you don't know, and you have to work with the people who've already done the work in the community. From there, you ask, who else should we invite to the table? It's a lot of phone calls and email exchanges, and when I have a good feel of who the key players are, that's when I do my first collaboration meeting where I gather everyone together. I introduce myself and then start on that series of individual meetings with people in order to understand their stories.
I developed a model for outreach, but it changes depending on the issues of the community and the demographics. Before you implement your mission, you have to make sure that you're serving the community in the right ways and understanding their needs. It’s really important to have a flexible model because not every community is the same.
The Craig Group has evolved the firm's work in historic preservation to focus on adapting older and historic communities to a future of rising seas and extreme storm events. What role do you see for preservation-based firms in your community?
I'm really seeing a shift from the tangible to the intangible, where we have been so focused on tangibly recording heritage assets. The pandemic showed that people's sense of place was disrupted: where they would go to gather was no longer. Even though in some communities preservation has kind of fallen off the priority list, the new task for us is advocacy and engagement. Now more than ever, individuals understand the value of their assets by having a platform to share their stories; the pandemic really illustrated that. When we go through something disaster related, we have that flight or fight response, and a lot of people are still in that mode where it's about their self-preservation, so we want to provide them the platform to share how this affected them. I foresee that the biggest need will be the more intangible part of our business and having those conversations and providing those platforms to have those conversations.
Currently, I'm rebranding my consulting firm because I really want to connect with what my core values are as an individual. The two main ones that I have are openness and vulnerability. You need to have a big degree of that in order to connect with people and create meaningful bonds. It's our job to be facilitators. At the end of the day we're facilitators, and our job is to create a space of openness, vulnerability, and collaboration.
For discussions on openness and vulnerability: The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown
For preservation, community engagement and advocacy: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, The Economics of Historic Preservation by Randall Mason, The Past and Future City by Stephanie Meeks, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, and Place, Race, and Story: Essays on the Past and Future of Historic Preservation by Ned Kaufman
Nina has a passion for bridging engineering, technology and historic preservation such that communities have the resources to tell their story, whether it is of a historic building or a tradition that is central to their cultural identity. She believes that communities have the power to be their best advocates in protecting what is significant to them.
Nina started out her career in the aerospace industry asa structural analyst and systems engineer on a variety of defense aircraft repair programs. She returned to the structural design and building envelope industries conducting existing condition assessments, drone flights, water leakage investigations and critical load analyses on a variety of rehabilitation projects that have included Douglass High School, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Netherlands Carillon and several projects throughout the New York and DC metro area.
Nina made the transition to historic preservation and documentation technology to not only pursue her passion for rehabilitating and documenting historic structures but to also aid communities in providing them the technical resources in saving significant places that define their cultural and historic identity.Her specializations include heritage asset planning, engineering and documentation technology advisement, disaster resiliency, community engagement/advocacy, as well as racial diversity, equity+ inclusion advisement.