Growing up in the Gage Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, baso Founder and President Claudette Soto first became aware of the potential that existed for her in the building industry by looking at an old plaster wall. As her father demolished it, the inner workings of the apartment building where he was working were revealed to Soto as the laths, electrical conduit, and other materials hidden behind the wall began to appear.
Seeing the “whole world” that existed out of everyday sight sparked an interest in Soto that ultimately led her to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), where she earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and later a master’s degree in structural engineering.
Not that getting there was easy. With few members of her predominantly Latinx community working in architecture and engineering, Soto had limited exposure to role models who could help guide her own path through school and into a career in the building industry. While she was able to overcome this challenge, Soto decided more needed to be done to help students of color in Gage Park and surrounding neighborhoods understand the careers available to them in STEM-related fields and to support them in their pursuit of those careers. While still an undergraduate at IIT, Soto founded an organization now known as VAMOS to mentor and provide hands-on STEM experience to middle school students, making careers like architecture more accessible to them.
Soto’s focus on strengthening and empowering communities has been a consistent theme throughout her career. After serving as a project manager and owner’s representative at several organizations over the course of 17 years (including IFF) and working on a multitude of community-driven projects, Soto founded baso in 2019 to provide communities of color with quality, equity-driven owner’s representation that helps build and maintain community wealth.
With a shared commitment to equitable community development, IFF has worked with baso on several projects – including The Hatchery, the Chatham Education & Workforce Center, North Chicago’s Neal Math & Science Academy, PODER’s new headquarters, and scattered site affordable housing in the Homan Square community.
We sat down with Soto recently to discuss what it means to her to lead with equity on development projects, how that strengthens communities, and what she’s doing to prepare the next generation of young people in her neighborhood to pursue STEM-related careers in the building industry.
IFF: What does equitable development mean to you?
Soto: Equitable development to me means that the projects are happening with community instead of to community. You’re elevating those voices that are otherwise silenced and giving them the opportunity to opine not only the finishes or what the building is going to look like, but also how the community can contribute to the design, construction, and upkeep of the facility.
Equitable development to me means that the projects are happening with community instead of to community.
Chicago is very segregated in terms of our communities, and churches often define neighborhoods. The first question that’s often asked is what parish you’re from. One of the reasons people define their neighborhood in this way is because when these churches were built, it was a full community effort, and there’s pride and ownership of that all these years later. When I think about equitable development, it’s this principle we’re focused on. For the community to be fully invested in the project, members of the community need to be able to point to the facility and say, “my uncle was the architect for that”, or “my sister was the person who did all the plumbing on that job.” That instills a legacy and a sense of pride that spans generations, and that’s not possible when someone comes into the community, builds something new, and leaves.
IFF: Beyond instilling a sense of ownership and pride in the finished project, how does leading with equity in development benefit the community?
Soto: When equity is a core component of development, it helps build and maintain community wealth. The number one complaint that I hear as to why general contractors don’t hire smaller subcontractors from the communities where they’re working is that the subcontractors don’t have the capacity needed to complete the work. But it’s a chicken and the egg scenario.
If the general contractor hires the same subcontractor they always work with, that subcontractor is able to increase their capacity but the community doesn’t benefit. If the general contractor instead hires a plumber based in the community as a subcontractor, that plumber will be able to increase its capacity by hiring more employees. That gives them the opportunity to demonstrate the quality of their work, and, over time, enables them to grow and take on increasingly large projects.
There are less tangible benefits too. When the local subcontractor gets hired to work on a project in the community and is able to increase their capacity, it’s exposing other members of the community to the idea that entrepreneurship is a viable option. In turn, they dream bigger. All of this trickles down to the next generation, who have been able to see firsthand the opportunities their parents had to grow their businesses. That’s how you build generational wealth that stays in the community.
IFF: As an owner’s representative, how does baso ensure that equity is a core component of development projects the firm is involved in?
Soto: When baso is the owner’s representative for a project, the first question we push everyone involved to answer is who benefits and who is harmed by the project. Then we continue to ask that throughout the project as decisions are made. Equity comes into play with something as simple as picking a floor tile for an affordable housing project, for example. That sounds benign, but there are biases inherent in the decision. If the architect comes into the project with the assumption that affordable housing is for low-income residents who won’t respect the facility, they might choose a tile that’s super durable but not best for the individuals and families living there.
When baso is the owner’s representative for a project, the first question we push everyone involved to answer is who benefits and who is harmed by the project. Then we continue to ask that throughout the project as decisions are made.
baso’s role at that point is to identify the bias and challenge those involved with the project to shift their thinking. People deserve to live in beautiful apartments whether it qualifies as affordable housing or not. So, that’s where we push, not only with architects and contractors, but with our clients too. We’re hired to help them realize their vision for the project, and sometimes that requires uncomfortable conversations along the way.
Another example are the teams we bring together to complete the work. One of the reasons I decided to start baso was because I’d seen various projects throughout my career where the architects, engineers, and general contractors sent their B teams to complete the work because the projects were taking place in under-resourced communities. We’ve recruited design and construction teams that really believe in our clients’ missions and are fully committed to the work, and we now have a network of minority- and woman-owned firms who we’re able to pull into multimillion-dollar projects.
IFF: Shifting the focus a bit, what needs to happen to create more opportunities for young people of color to pursue careers in the design and engineering fields?
Soto: Exposure levels the playing field. When I started VAMOS, I was a student at IIT and I had my own little workshop at home that my dad built for me where I could make my models. I’d be in there studying or working, and then I’d hear gunshots ringing outside of the window. And if you’ve ever built anything that requires a steady hand, you can understand how jarring that was. I remember getting angrier and angrier each time it happened and wondering why this was happening to me. I’m doing the right thing, but a bullet can fly through the window at any moment and everything can end. After thinking about it, I decided that instead of getting angry at the situation, I was going to do something about it.
Growing up in Gage Park, we didn’t leave the neighborhood. You didn’t see or hear from the people who were going to college, and the gangs had the loudest voice in the community. That’s what kids in the neighborhood were exposed to. I decided I was going to bring kids to IIT to get them out of the neighborhood and expose them to architecture, engineering, and all of these other things they hadn’t seen before. I asked my friends to help me and within a few months, we had 15 kids from Gage Park on campus learning about the STEM fields. VAMOS has grown and evolved since then, but I think that type of opportunity is still something that’s really lacking in many communities.
Using Chicago as an example, the vast majority of after school and summer programs available for architecture or other STEM fields are on the north side of the city. Why is that? Why aren’t there more programs on the South Side? Instead, the programming in those communities focuses on things like how to operate a forklift or other forms of manual labor. The trades are awesome, but that shouldn’t be the only thing that’s offered to kids in these communities. I didn’t have the exposure to architecture or engineering growing up, and I had never drafted anything in my life before getting to IIT. If I could succeed in one of the most rigorous programs in the country without exposure to that type of work growing up, imagine what’s possible for kids growing up in neighborhoods like Gage Park when they get that exposure early in life.
IFF: Beyond exposing kids in neighborhoods like Gage Park to STEM-related careers, what’s needed to help support them on their path to one of those careers and to help them succeed once they’ve gotten there?
Soto: We have programs for middle school students through VAMOS, but I now also mentor first-generation university students, which is important. It’s about pushing them beyond their comfort zone to help them to develop their voice as a professional, gain confidence, and find the strengths that are within each and every one of them so that they can persevere in this industry. They’re going to face challenges at every step along the way, and they need that level of support to prepare them and show them what’s possible if they push through the challenges.
I look at [baso] as a dream incubator that can help ensure that there are more people of color within the architecture, engineering, construction management, and owner’s representative fields.
That carries through to baso too, which I look at as a dream incubator that can help ensure that there are more people of color within the architecture, engineering, construction management, and owner’s representative fields. Obviously, I want every employee to stay as long as possible, but, realistically, growing in your career often means moving on to new opportunities. Mentorship is an important part of what we do before then, because it’s giving them the strong foundation they need go out into the industry and create change.
Learn more about equitable community development by reading about several projects IFF and baso have collaborated on, including The Hatchery, the Chatham Education & Workforce Center, North Chicago’s Neal Math & Science Academy, and PODER’s new headquarters