On engineering and social justice

Talk presented to an audience of primarily black engineering students at a fundraiser for EnergieRich, whose co-founder invited me to speak.

Excerpt: We are here today to talk about how to make the world a better place with engineering. So let us ask ourselves: how does an engineer do "good" in the world? It is one I get frequently, and to which I have never bothered to write down a set of coherent thoughts. These are some rough reflections. If I offer more questions than answers, it is because engineers have for far too long peddled answers without questions....

Read the rest of prepared transcript here, or listen to the full talk (which is longer) above.

(Note: This transcript omits the beginning of my talk as it was delivered, in which I provided an overview of my work in Mexico City - which was essentially the same as the talk below "How to Engineer a Water Crisis." This was given as an example for the students.)

Unintended consequences

Talk delivered to Stanford's Hard Earth seminar series on sustainability in 2016. In the talk, I elaborate on how engineers’ supposed sustainability solutions can unintentionally worsen the problems the engineers are trying to solve through the case of Mexico City. My talk starts around 12 minutes in. 


How to Engineer a Water Crisis

Talk delivered to Stanford Alumni in Palo Alto, CA in 2016. In the talk, I provide a short historical narrative describing how early solutions to Mexico City’s water crisis diffused, rather than completely solved, the problem over time.


TEDxUofW: The False Hope of Technology

Talk delivered to TEDx audience at the University of Washington in May 2014. In the talk, I aimed to sum up many of the discussions from our Engineering for Social Justice seminar for a public audience.


Grass Without Roots:

Funding and Accountability in Nicaraguan Civil Society

Lecture presented at Spring 2010 Department of Global Health graduate colloquium on Accountability, Transparency, and Corruption in Global Health at the University of Washington in Seattle. 

(Thanks to Stephen Bezruchka for both the invitation and the audio recording.)

From Good Intentions to Praxis:

Learning from the Successes and Failures of the Critical Development Forum

Talk presented at 2013 Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace conference in Troy, NY


Many have called into question the efficacy and ethics of sending Western students abroad to “help” in the global South. Critics lament that students often arrive with little understanding of the broader context of the problems they work on, leading to poor results if not outright harm. Yet as students fly abroad to “solve” the problems of the global South, fewer critics have addressed the elephant in the room: how can we encourage students, particularly engineers, to work more on global injustices at their roots here at home?

Walking the path towards this kind of deep solidarity is arduous alone: it requires critical reflection on one’s own privilege and positionality in a profoundly unequal world. For engineers, it also requires leaping out of our narrow technical disciplines. Yet one way forward is through the creation of communities of praxis, horizontal student networks, and interdisciplinary education rooted in critical pedagogy. In this workshop, we will all contribute ideas around the guiding question: how do we encourage the critical self-reflection needed to create communities of praxis out of communities of good intentions?

To frame the discussion, I will share the successes and failures of the Critical Development Forum (, a student-driven organization founded by three disillusioned Engineers Without Borders members. Our goal was to channel the good intentions of the University of Washington campus away from paternalistic and often unethical voluntourism and towards a commitment to solidarity that starts at home.

For two years, we developed a community of praxis through teach-ins, discussion groups, and an innovative student-designed seminar ( The response of students and faculty was overwhelmingly positive, especially among engineers rarely exposed to critical thinking about the context of their work. While we ultimately were unable to institutionalize ourselves to sustain the momentum of the organization, we hope that by sharing our story and lessons learned we might find new inspiration and inspire others to build on our model in their distinct communities.

Read the full transcript of the talk here.