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Take it From Them

"Take it From Them" profiles community leaders, entrepreneurs, business owners, and artists who have inspired change, brought communities together, and made valuable contributions to their professions.

Interview with Melissa Johnson: President and CEO of Melissa Johnson Associates

When it comes to building infrastructure in New York, community engagement is everything. Melissa Johnson and her team know how to strengthen public consensus around some of the city's most transformative projects.

Melissa Johnson, second from right, and her team celebrate the firm's five-year anniversary in Manhattan.

In 2018, Melissa Johnson launched Melissa Johnson Associates (MJA) – a Women-owned Business Enterprise (WBE) specializing in community outreach, stakeholder engagement, diversity programming, and public relations for the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (A/E/C) industry. Her vision was to partner with government agencies to build relationships with their stakeholders, educate the public, and work with communities impacted by construction, transportation, and environmental projects throughout New York City’s five boroughs.

She started out with one employee and by the end of her first year was working on seven government contracts for different agencies. MJA now has 15 employees, and the firm is working on 70 different projects for agencies and authorities – not only in New York but in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The team is involved in feasibility studies, planning projects, design projects, and large-scale construction and development undertakings.

In just five years, this small business owner, who is not yet 40, is leading a much sought-after community outreach firm and was named one of Engineering News-Record New York’s Top Young Professionals in 2020 and one of Professional Women in Construction’s 20 Under 40 Outstanding Women in Construction in 2022. She is a member of Professional Women in Construction (and serves on the MWBE committee for PWC’s New York chapter), Women’s Transportation Seminar International, the WTS Greater New York Chapter, Design-Build Institute of America, Society for Marketing Professional Services, American Society of Highway Engineers, Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, and the Public Relations Society of America as well as its New Jersey chapter.

Melissa, did you always see yourself as an entrepreneur and think that one day you would run your own firm?

Not really! I always thought I would work in a large corporate environment. I was introduced to the community outreach space after college – I didn’t even know this realm existed. I loved the work and being able to inform and engage stakeholders and communities, and over time I realized there might be new and better ways to reach constituents and facilitate the community engagement process, so I went out on my own to make that happen.

There are so many moving parts when working for numerous government agencies and their consultants, such as different projects, deadlines, stakeholders, and impacted communities. Let’s talk about MJA’s primary mission and methods when approaching each new contract.

While our overarching goal is to work effectively with all stakeholders and communities impacted by construction, we focus particularly on inclusion and ensuring that all parties are brought together and consulted at the onset of a project and are continually updated as work progresses. This means we must come up with innovative ways to accommodate and meet needs and schedules. With every public project there should be an effective community engagement process in place. But not everyone can get out to traditional public meetings to voice their ideas and concerns. I view community outreach and engagement as an opportunity to bring information out to the public where we can engage with a greater number of constituents, listen to and document their feedback, and bring their ideas back to our clients. It’s not just about checking boxes – it’s about creating opportunities. We need to meet people where they are.

To help build public support, we think it’s important to offer a variety of platforms to gather community input. For example, we hold pop-up informational events at neighborhood fairs and carnivals, shopping centers, children’s events, athletic events, parent-teacher nights, and apartment complexes. When we are out in the community making a presentation, we often have a table for children’s activities, and we are also mindful of creating materials in different languages and having translators on hand when possible.

Without effective community engagement, people will pursue other avenues to express their opposition or concerns about a project, which can cause delays. Additionally, facilitating effective communication and public input from the beginning results in improved community partnerships and projects that are more reflective of the many diverse neighborhoods and cultures that comprise New York and other cities.

You and your team are the eyes and ears of many communities impacted by new projects. What are examples of some of the challenges and rewards you experience in such a public-facing role?

It’s challenging when changes or additions proposed by community groups cannot be incorporated into a project. Their ideas and requests may not be feasible for a variety of reasons, such as zoning, costs, engineering constraints, or timelines. But we make sure that community groups are heard and that their input is documented and presented to the agencies. We take the time to explain why something can’t be done, and we make sure they know their ideas have been taken into consideration. At the end of the day, not every member of the public is going to get everything they want out of a project, but if their voices have been heard along the way, people are happier.

Conversely, it’s always wonderful when the community’s ideas can be integrated into the design of a project. This can range from adding bike paths to modifying a bridge design, changing landscaping based on residential needs, and making modifications that reduce noise in bustling residential neighborhoods.

How do you manage the many different challenges that come along with juggling multiple projects and running a business?

I have an amazing and dedicated team in which everyone brings together different areas of industry experience and expertise. We work really well together to focus on client needs and deadlines, respond to requests from stakeholders, disseminate timely project information, and plan outreach events. We are growing quickly, so we’ve learned to pivot and support one another as needed. We are continually evolving as a team.

You’ve worked on dozens of projects over the past five years – what are a few highlights?

We are fortunate to be part of some of the region’s most transformative projects, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Penn Station Access project, which is providing passenger rail service from New Haven to Penn Station on Manhattan’s west side, and the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, which is one of New York City Department of Design and Construction’s major coastal resiliency initiatives. We have also worked on many design-build projects for the New York State Department of Transportation, including two contracts for the Van Wyck Expressway Capacity and Access Improvements project, which focus on widening the expressway, rehabilitating and replacing multiple bridge structures, and other improvements. This contract is also part of the state’s $13 billion plan to transform and modernize JFK International Airport – so we are proud to be a part of this much-needed initiative.

As someone who is involved with numerous projects from planning and design through all of the construction phases, what is changing the industry and impacting the future of infrastructure?

Construction and transportation projects have historically been “design-bid-build,” which involves separate contracts for the designer and the building contractor. The architect or design firm will create plans for the project and then the client will solicit bids from contractors to complete the work alongside a construction management or resident engineering team. This method can sometimes be more costly and is almost always more time-consuming.

An increasing number of public projects are now using “design-build” delivery. This is when one entity (the “design-builder”) bears sole responsibility for both the design and construction of a project as part of a single contract with the government agency. With this approach, there’s a higher degree of collaboration among design and construction professionals, which is far more efficient and helps prevent cost overruns and project delays. This benefits timelines, cost, and the way projects are being managed, and it allows the design and construction phases to overlap, which is a benefit to the community.

What’s your vision for MJA over the next five years?

We want to continue growing and expanding as a firm. We’ve built a great base in the New York market and now we’re busy developing our services in our other MJA locations. Lately we’re focused on bringing our public engagement expertise to Boston and the D.C. metro area.

What advice would you give to anyone starting a business?

Trust your gut! Think hard about the decisions you’re about to make and if your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, it probably isn’t. Work hard but don’t be afraid to delegate. Find people you can trust and work with and give them everything they need to excel at their jobs. Let your team do what they need to do and make sure they’re equipped to do it.

You welcomed a daughter to your family in 2020! How do you find balance in your busy life?

I have a fantastic, wonderfully supportive husband and a great support system of extended family and friends. I couldn’t do anything without them. Every week involves juggling schedules and trying to find that work-life balance. We maximize every minute of the weekends, and we love to travel – our two-year-old is a super-adaptable frequent flyer now. I am also extremely fortunate that I can take a breather and get away for a vacation—I know my team has everything covered while I’m gone!

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