The Woman Building the New MLK Multi-Service Outpatient Center

All right, Esther Diaz, the senior project manager overseeing construction of the new Martin Luther King Multi-Service Outpatient Center in Willowbrook isn’t building the project all by herself. A crew of workers including, electricians, mechanics and plumbers have been working on the beautiful new facility since it broke ground last January.

Still, as the project manager on one of the most exciting health care construction projects in the county, she manages the $167-million project and is responsible for seeing that the center is delivered by the fall of this year. When completed, the 135,550-square-foot multi-service center will be one of three jewels on the MLK Medical Center Campus, joining the new hospital and new Center for Public Health. Together, these facilities will deliver preventive, emergency, diagnostic and wellness healthcare services to the residents of South Los Angeles in an unprecedented way. In the coming years, the campus will include a new mental health urgent care center, medical office space, residential facilities for seniors and medical interns.

Since the project broke ground last year, construction workers have been hard at work installing the multi- service outpatient center ’s structural steel frame, exterior walls, and enclosing the building. To date, mechanical, electrical and plumbing are estimated to be about 70 percent complete and interior finishes are now underway, according to Diaz.

When completed, the facility will undergo a rigorous inspection process by state and county officials before opening. The center will offer specialty treatments such as dialysis, physical therapy, urgent care and outpatient surgery. Until that time, the 41-year-old East Los Angeles native is a familiar sight overseeing the construction, amid the exposed wiring and dry wall, clad in a hard hat and steel-toed boots.

Diaz also oversees 130 construction workers, many of whom are part of the local worker hiring program, a policy championed by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas to ensure that local workers who live near the project perform at least 30 percent of the total construction labor hours.

As a 15-year veteran of the Department of Public Works, Diaz sees to it that construction projects throughout the county transition smoothly from conceptual design to actual construction. Along the way, she too has undergone a transition — from proving herself the equal of her peers in a male-dominated field to now leading the way.

“Over the last years, I’ve gained confidence and I’m more relaxed,” Diaz said. “Now I can joke a little more when I’m facilitating a meeting. In the beginning, I was serious because I had to earn the respect from the people in the room with more experience.”

Diaz visits the construction site at least twice a week, and the rest of the time she is troubleshooting issues as they come up — she’s part engineer, part architect, part construction manager.

“I go through some challenges, although they don’t happen on a daily basis, they do happen,” said Diaz. “This job requires you to be a problem solver, listener, analyzer and have the ability to multi-task well.”

As one of the youngest in a family of eight, Diaz learned about hard work from her immigrant parents. Both were blue collar workers who came from Mexico to Los Angeles where they found jobs; her father as a welder and her mother as an assembly line worker. Although her father Alberto died six years ago of cancer, her mother Elodia still lives in Pico Rivera .

“My parents were very hard workers who were very dedicated to their jobs. They never took a day off work,” said Diaz. “My mom worked in the Central Crenshaw area and had to ride the bus for an hour and a half to get to work but she still made it to work on time.”

After graduating from Garfield High School in 1989, Diaz attended California State University, Northridge, where she earned her undergraduate degree in civil engineering. For a while she considered majoring in business but after taking her first engineering class she discovered her love for math. She went on to get her master ‘ s degree in construction management at California State University, Long Beach.

“After taking an engineering class, I knew I had found my passion,” said Diaz. “I can’t say that it was easy. It was challenging but it was also rewarding.”

On her way up the career ladder, she occasionally felt the sting of being overlooked and not taken seriously; Diaz recalls one meeting in particular where a colleague gave credit for her idea to a man in the room.

“I’ve learned to deal with it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard knowing that I have to prove myself a little bit more and that I have to validate myself with facts but as a woman we have to work a little bit harder.”

But her hard work has paid off and she has the full backing and confidence of her bosses—both of whom are men.

“We are very proud of Esther,” said Diaz’ supervisor David Howard, Los Angeles County Department of Public Works assistant deputy director. “She’s an excellent employee and project manager.”

When Diaz is not at work, she enjoys hiking and traveling out of the country. A glimpse of her passport will reveal that she’s been to Spain, Greece, London, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Hawaii.

Her advice to young women eager to follow in her footsteps:

“Do it. It’s going to be hard work and require a lot of dedication, but at the end of the day it’s very satisfying,” Diaz said. “You can overcome any obstacle that comes your way. If people tell you something is hard. Don’t believe it until you try it.”