On Oct. 29th, over a hundred Zoom attendees—faculty, staff, students, and members of the public—came together to attend the third-to-last event in the #BUcity Co-Lab Week, entitled “Anti-Racist Cities: How Planners Can Champion Racial Equity in the Field.”
The event was moderated by CPUA’s very own Beya Jimenez, who now serves as Director of Economic Opportunity with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and who focuses on engagement to close the racial wealth gap.
The event featured a slew of panelists in the planning and public health fields to discuss how they have championed anti-racist policies and plans in their own work to achieve racial equity.
The panelists included: Jessica Martinez, a transformative development initiative fellow with MassDevelopment; Courtney Lewis, a regional planner with Metropolitan Area Planning Council; Joyce Sanchez, a senior specialist on the stakeholder management team and capital delivery division with National Grid; and Dr. Meghan Venable-Thomas, a culture of health leaders fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a cultural resilience program director with National Initiatives.
Jimenez began the event with a call to action to address racial inequity within planning, such as redlining and the displacement of Black and brown people from their neighborhoods through gentrification, as well as on a broader societal level, with systemic racism and the silencing of Black, Latinx, and Native voices.
“We need to act now. We need students who are engaged and ready to ask tough questions. We need planning professionals who won’t sit on the sideline,” said Jimenez.
City planners play an important role in standing up for equity and “upsetting the set-up,” or disrupting the status quo and established systems that are a stronghold of racial inequity, said Jimenez.
Jimenez began the panel discussion by giving panelists the opportunity to share how they have been taking care of their mental health as Black and brown people of color in 2020.
Sanchez responded by saying that she takes moments to step back and do things that bring her joy, like writing poetry, taking walks, and reading books. In addition, Sanchez said she sees her work as a “silver lining” and opportunity to uplift the community.
“What uplifts me is my role as a stakeholder manager,” said Sanchez. “It brightens my day when I can address a concern with a resident or business owner.”
Dr. Venable-Thomas brings together her passion for public health with her passion to decolonize wellness by working at TrillFit.
“What we know in public health is that communities who are most likely to succeed are socially connected,” said Dr. Venable-Thomas. Wellness is one way to establish social connections between communities and encourage better mental health, said Dr. Venable-Thomas.
Jimenez then asked the panelists about the racial and gendered disparities that have been revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how to address the call to action against racism under the looming public health threat of the pandemic.
Dr. Venable said in her work with Mass Design Group, she has come to realize that design is not neutral––it either harms or it heals––and that planners play a unique role in impacting the future disparities of the communities they work with. “Planners have to see that they’re not just a planner or a designer,” said Dr. Venable-Thomas. “You’re also a health practitioner, you’re a cultural practitioner, you are the place where people spend most of their life.”
“Create a community that is focused on creating thriving places,” said Dr. Venable-Thomas, “where people can have dignity, home, safety, security, and feel good about where they live.”
Lewis chimed in saying that “as planners of color, we have a responsibility to advance racial equity in the community,” especially since urban planning has perpetuated institutional and systemic racism in our cities and towns.
Like Dr. Venable-Thomas, Lewis said that planners wear many hats when it comes to their impact on the community. “We [as planners] have to recognize that we are positioned at the nexus of urban design, public health, and economic opportunity,” said Lewis. “We have to be agents of change to undo disparities caused by the built environment.”
Sanchez said that the public and private sector play an important role not only in the wake of the pandemic, but in addressing and combating racial inequity. National Grid has taken up this responsibility through their Grid for Good program, which provides mentorship to socio-economically disadvantaged youth between the ages of 16-24.
The next question concerned changing demographics in gateway cities, a designation that describes post-industrial cities in the state of Massachusetts.
Martinez took the floor to answer this question, explaining that her recent work with Lawrence, MA has worked toward establishing dignity and stable schooling and jobs.
“Gateway cities offer really good bones to a city,” said Martinez, who said planners should see their work as “gardening,” as putting work and love and care into the community in order for it to grow and thrive on its own.
Lewis said his work at MACP has focused on using an equity lens to take an introspective look at the policies and practices planners use, and making sure planners “are actually walking the talk.” Specifically, Lewis said MACP has created the REMAP program, which works with six different communities to develop and operationalize racial equity plans.
Jimenez then asked the panelists what advice they would give current Black and brown student planners, as well as advice they would give to themselves five years ago?
Sanchez listed three tenets of advice she would give to current students and herself: 1.) Don’t underestimate networking, 2.) Never stop networking, and 3.) Know your worth.
“As a person of color, as an educated person of color, don’t sell yourself short,” said Sanchez. “Ask a company how effective their current diversity initiatives are and if they have any benchmarks tracking how effective those initiatives are.”
Lewis said to learn as many different topic areas within the planning profession as possible and take advantage of every opportunity to express thanks and gratitude to those working alongside you.
“You are worth more than anything someone can compensate you for,” said Lewis, “because of the unique blessing you bring to the world. Your best should bever be compared to someone else’s best.”
Dr. Venable-Thomas said that student planners of color should “use their experience as a person of color as their expertise,” and to see that experience as that which should be lifted, heard, and valued..
“When we show up as our full selves,” said Dr. Venable-Thomas, “we lift up those residents whose voices and bodies and experiences are at the table in how we do development and design.”
Then, the panel discussion ended and Jimenez encouraged the audience to ask the panelists questions.
One of the questions asked was: How do we inspire underrepresented students that aren’t typically exposed to planning and design?
Martinez said we need to teach young people that planning is a survey course, and that you can go into so many different fields with a planning background.
Lewis said it’s important to create a pipeline that exposes high school students to planners of color, because representation matters.
“My first introduction to urban planning was Sim Town,” said Lewis, “It wasn’t until I was in college as an undergrad that I understood that this is what I want to do.”
Another question posed by an audience member asked how safe and inclusive streetscapes can be planned and designed for people of all backgrounds, and what a paradigm looks like.
Martinez said that inspiring imagination in people––planners and community members alike–– is important in the design of inclusive streetscapes for communities, as well as piloting to engage with the community.
In response to an audience question about how to use the current moment to champion racial equity and public health, Dr. Venable-Thomas said the current moment is “an opportunity for Black, indigenous, people of color to interrogate their own trauma and healing, because decolonization starts with you [an individual] in addition to the system.”
Lewis said we should “capitalize on this moment to push for zoning reform across the Commonwealth.”
Anne Jonas, CAS ’21