Early in her career, Lakesha Dunbar crossed paths with Jennifer Toole, who had recently started a small firm focused on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Seventeen years later, after gaining a breadth of experience in transportation, budget, and project management roles, Lakesha joined Toole Design—now over 200 people strong—and quickly stepped up as Spartanburg Office Director.
Learn about Lakesha’s path to Spartanburg and the range of skills that make her a powerhouse planner and manager.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY TO TOOLE DESIGN.
I was born in Winston-Salem, raised in the Fort Lauderdale area, and graduated from North Carolina A&T with a degree in civil engineering. After that, I interned for the City of Winston-Salem Department of Transportation. My dad was a traffic signal technician there, and they were hiring students to count cars. I had AutoCAD experience, so I got to stay in the office and be a CADD technician. That experience set me on the transportation path—I worked for a small transportation consulting firm, the State DOT division office, and then back at the City of Winston-Salem as a transportation planner and traffic engineer.
I met Jennifer Toole back in 2005 when I was working for the Winston-Salem DOT. The City had hired Toole Design to create a comprehensive bike plan, and I managed the contract for the project. Toole Design was a small company at the time, but they were already forward-thinking about the needs for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. More people in the industry are on board and see the need and value now, but I was impressed that Toole Design was already thinking ahead and doing that kind of work all around the country.
Initially I was working to get my Professional Engineer license. Unfortunately, I wasn’t supported or encouraged to grow in that area. It was when I started doing project management that I got interested in the budget side of things, and went back to school to earn a master’s degree in public administration. When my husband’s career took us to Oklahoma City in 2014, I went to work for the budget office at the City and thought I was done with transportation. But when a transportation planner position opened up, my background made me a perfect fit for the job.
Last year, we moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and I started my position at Toole Design as a Senior Planner. I was promoted to Deputy Office Director in October and then, in April, I was officially named Spartanburg Office Director. In my role, I get to be an advocate and a voice for marginalized and underrepresented people who typically haven’t been afforded the types of infrastructure they need. I think my diverse set of skills and my variety of experience makes me perfectly suited to do that work.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE PROJECTS?
One would be Rethink Folly Road: a Complete Streets Initiative. We were hired by Charleston County, the City of Charleston, the Town of James Island, and Folly Beach to implement a plan for the Folly Road corridor. This project brought me back to my days of working for municipalities and my familiarity with their experience is helping our team to implement their plan.
The Sumter Area Transportation Study (SUATS) project also comes to mind. We were hired by the the City of Sumter and the SUATS MPO, here in South Carolina, to create the Sumter Walk + Bike Master Plan. I’m enjoying this project because it allows us to build on an existing relationship with a client. We were previously hired to conduct a feasibility study for the Turkey Creek Greenway, a smaller project that will bring infrastructure to a part of town primarily populated by Black and brown residents. It’s exciting to be able to do this kind of work in the first place and then to build on to existing work.
I’m looking forward to more engineering and final design work, like the Mary Black Rail Trail. That project is right here in Spartanburg, and it’s under construction right now. It’s always a thrill to see planning work turn into design work that actually gets built.
DESCRIBE YOUR ROLE AS SPARTANBURG OFFICE DIRECTOR.
The office director role can vary a lot across Toole Design offices, depending on the region and the team’s needs. Here, I see my role as a manager, keeping the physical structure of the office running and handling whatever day-to-day things are needed. I’m here to support the staff—their morale, their basic needs, and just being an advocate for them.
I work closely with Ernie Boughman, the Regional Operations Director, especially for his local experience and history he brings. I lead our weekly staff meetings, and our team works together to develop our office’s business plan and actively use it as our guide.
My favorite part of my job is public engagement. I love planning and building toolkits for public engagement opportunities. It can be challenging—especially when we have people who are not happy with our recommendations. But I enjoy advocating for those who aren’t comfortable sharing their own voice and helping them engage in the process.
WHAT ARE THE STRENGTHS OF THE SPARTANBURG TEAM?
Diversity is our strength. Everyone has their specialty, but we’re all one unit. We’ve got designers, engineers, planners—at all different levels.
Familiarity with the area is another one of our strengths. A good portion of the team is from here or nearby. I’m relatively new to the area, so the team’s expertise in the region is a great benefit.
Spartanburg is known as Hub City because of the transit infrastructure that was traditionally here for rail. Our Toole Design office also serves as a hub for the region. This was the company’s first office in the Southeast, and the other offices (Atlanta, Orlando, Raleigh) grew as spokes out of Spartanburg. We’re really proud of our strong partnerships and collaboration across the region.
HOW ARE YOU UNIQUELY EQUIPPED TO ADDRESS TRANSPORTATION CHALLENGES IN THE SOUTHEAST?
As a company, Toole Design brings together an incredible amount of history, expertise, and diversity. I think our team and everyone at Toole Design is good at finding innovative ideas and solutions. How can we retrofit this bike lane? How can we build a floating bus stop with a cycle track where there’s a building right up to the sidewalk? We have to be innovative to work through these challenges. And we also have to be open-minded and accessible, to be accommodating to all people and all modes.
One thing that often comes up in working with clients is my municipal experience, which helps bridge the gap between consultant and client. That experience, along with my background in engineering, planning, budgeting, and project management, makes me suited to do a wide variety of work. I consider myself a liaison to help communicate around all edges of the table.
And, of course, being a brown female in a traditionally white male profession and being a representative for people like myself is really important to me.