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What's It Like to Be a Black Planner in California?

Bill Fulton & Josh Stephens on
Sep 13, 2020

The death of George Floyd and the strengthened, nationwide interest in the Black Lives Matter movement has naturally and crucially highlighted urban inequities. Issues including segregation, economic disparities, environmental justice, housing justice, and a great many others fall within the purview of urban planning. Planners face, more so now than ever before, the opportunity not only to promote equity but also to correct historic injustices--especially those that marginalize and disadvantage Black Americans. The fulfillment of these goals of course involves Black planners. And it calls upon planners of all backgrounds to support the Black community.

CP&DR welcomed a panel of Black planners to share their personal perspectives on the current historical moment and on the future of planning in the era of Black Lives Matter. Bill Fulton and Josh Stephens spoke with Courtney Brown, a planning associate with Michael Baker International, based in Stockton; Warren Logan, Policy Director of Mobility and Inter Agency Relations at the City of Oakland; and Eric Shaw, Director of the Office of Housing and Community Development at the City & County of San Francisco and former planning director of Washington, D.C. and Salt Lake City. 

What is it like to be a Black planner in California? How does that influence your role in the profession and your outlook on the profession?

ERIC: How do we advance Black interests? How do we move our leadership to really make sure that the information we see on the ground and in the bureaucracy translates into good for Black people. The process for California is so regimented that there is sometimes a mismatch between the real desire to do good in communities and to create outcomes for Black people while doing the checklist and thinking about climate change and thinking about larger systemic issues. I think that there is a need and a challenge to merge the two together.

WARREN: As a young Black planner, I've found my career to be challenging for a number of different reasons. And sometimes I feel like maybe it's racism that people don't listen to me. And other times I think that it's because of my youth. It's interesting to kind of challenge (Eric’s) experience in San Francisco because I just came from San Francisco a little over a year ago, and I found myself to be the most senior African-American planner, to my knowledge, in the entire city government. And I wasn't even like that high up. It was exceptionally challenging then to try and focus people's attention, not only on my perspective and my background, but also to connect the dots with my entirely white cohort of other senior-level planners.

The other thing is trying to speak knowledge to power and bring your thoughtful experiences while trying not to lose your job at the same time. What has been so special about this moment is that during (a recent) emergency, we set up an operations team for that emergency. And we bring the sharpest, brightest minds into one room and say, “I don't care what you used to do. You are now working on this because you're smart.” And a lot of those people are the senior Black leaders in our city. It was the first time that I've ever actually worked with almost only Black people in senior leadership. It is a very different style of work, which I have found very comforting. I'm almost frankly terrified to go back to a different style of work that is, frankly, riddled with passive aggressiveness and micro-aggressions. Right now I have this privilege of just saying, “I don't like that idea.” And we can trust each other enough to just have it out in the way that I think only Black people can.

COURTNEY: I went to school in Humboldt County, which is predominantly white, and that was my first exposure of acknowledging, "Oh wow, I’m in a completely different environment. And how do I navigate this?" Not only in higher education, but being around people who don't look like me and going into a field where there aren't a lot of Black people. I'm coming up almost on five years of working in this industry. I’m looking around and wondering, who is here that I could have a mentor relationship with? And how can I also express my ideologies of how we can improve, not only in the community at large, but in the work environment, without having this fear of having my job taken away from me or having the threat of being seen as too outspoken?

I’m still learning the tightrope of navigating how to be professional and how to not be so radical. I think working for the City of Stockton has allowed me a bit of that balance because it's such a diverse environment. I don't know if I could really go back to what Warren said—to a community where it's predominantly white, where you're almost censoring yourself.

Eric, you implied that in pursuing your interests as a planner sometimes you have to be “subversive” about it. Could you elaborate on that?

ERIC: I think maybe subversive is the wrong term—but, no, it’s the right term. Planners are taught not to be personal. And so the subversiveness is saying, “I have an opinion as a director, and I have an opinion as a person who lives in the city.”

I remember being in Washington, D.C., a person came and presented some idea to me about gentrification or something like that. And I had to stop the meeting. I said, “I want to let you know, as a Black person, I am deeply offended by this presentation and all of your assumptions.” And I just walked out of the room. I had to own it. I didn't want to smile. I didn't want to have a BS conversation about it. I had to put it on the table.

I am also openly gay, very happily queer. And when we were doing some work around queerness in Washington, D.C., Black queer experiences and white queer experiences are very different. And when we did our work, I had to lay it out and say, you know, we can't publish a list of all the gay bars of D.C., because some of these are Black gay bars and Black people don't want white folks to see it. We had to lay that out and have some real conversations.

WARREN: I think the other part of that subversiveness that you're talking about is sometimes I will be participating in these meetings and we'll hear from community groups that are saying things that I know are not registering with…whether it’s my planners, other directors, what-have-you. One of the things I've found is that I've taken on the responsibility of repeating even ideas that I don't necessarily agree with, but that I know need to be heard. I'll say, “I'm going to champion this cause not because I even agree with it, but because I know that if I don't, nobody in this room is going to give these people the time of day, and that's not fair.”

COURTNEY: I think it’s weird trying to navigate multiple lanes. Like, you may want to be able to push one ideology forward, but then you're like, “Oh, shoot, I'm leaving other thoughts and other beliefs behind.” You’re trying to be the shepherd to all of this. And it honestly feels like a lot of weight being put onto you, like racial weathering.

ERIC: There becomes a situation where planners of color become ambassadors to the respective communities. But if you're in South L.A., they haven't pulled a permit in 15 years. So you're just doing, sort of, “Black community planning.” The white planners get downtown jobs and they're building high rises and redesigning the Staples Center. I hired some people from L.A. and they're like, “please do not put me in that lane.” They think they’re not going to advance because their portfolio is going to be, "I'm really great at community engagement.” But what have you done as a planner? What are the complex issues that you've done?

You have to demand the leadership opportunities and professional opportunities, not just be a glorified brown person doing community engagement. And I think that very progressive cities have good intentions, but the outcomes don’t benefit Black planners as individuals who want to lead.

WARREN: And it's not enough to just say, "Oh, I wanted to talk to the Black people in that community…and they said, 'no,' so now we're going away." That's not how this works.

I'll use a really specific example: Slow Streets. In Rockridge and Temescal: people are like, “Oh my gosh, make this permanent yesterday!” Then when you go to East Oakland, you've got a lot of people who are like, "What is this? What's going on?" Our entire safety team is white and they're like, "Oh my gosh, everybody's mad at us. We’ve got to take these out!” And I was like, “No, you need to go back and understand why they're angry because I'm guessing it isn't about the Slow Streets.”

Every week we have like two meetings with all of the East Oakland advocates and come to find out, “Actually, it's not the Slow Streets that are the problem, it's that we don't trust that these flimsy barricades are going to do the trick. You should go in and put something much heavier.” Well, that's actually not a “No,” that's a "Heck, yes!" You don't get that without having really deep conversations.

I think we do play that role where we say, "Go back and get the actual answer.” But I don't know if my white planners feel comfortable doing that. And I don't think that our Black colleagues in East Oakland would feel comfortable giving them that authentic self. So how do we kind of bridge that at the same time?

There's been a lot of criticism, especially on Twitter, about what one might call “white urbanism.” Particularly when you have white planners working in communities of color, as we do throughout California, that’s something that white planners are going to have to figure out how to navigate over the next few years. What's your advice to people who might be different than the community, about how to navigate this question of white urbanism versus Black urbanism or multiracial urbanism?

WARREN: I tell this to my white planners: you have to take your lumps. You have to acknowledge that people who look like you have done irreparable harm to these communities and that if they fight you on something that you probably know statistically is going to help them, you’ve got to keep coming back and having that conversation. That's one. The second is, I don't think that the way we do planning — the town halls, the let’s-shout -until-we’re-upset — that's just not going to make anybody happy.

Somebody came to me and said, “You don't understand what my street is. You should just show up on a Friday night and you'll see.” I'm like, "Great. I'll bring the chips. You make some guacamole and we’ll watch.” And that engagement was far more powerful, I think, because I was literally on their front doorstep watching these cars speed down. I was like, "Yes, I see what you're saying.” But you can't invite somebody to your space and expect them to feel comfortable? You have to go to their house.

I think that there's some part that falls back on the Black community, which is to say that we also need to find ways to heal and to see opportunities when they present themselves. I've seen this a lot in Oakland where very well meaning white planners are showing up with money in hand to do, like, whatever. And I've seen Black business owners right here in downtown, say, "You all need to go away," and at the same time decrying the fact that their businesses are falling apart. There's a disconnect here that we need to bridge. And it's going to unfortunately take both of us. If I show up with an idea, don't say no; say, "yes, and…"

COURTNEY: I feel like I’m learning how to navigate how to feel comfortable enough with pushing back on projects, but also actually expressing my thoughts, like what Warren was saying: "OK, I know you're holding something back. What is it that you're holding back?" It's like you're almost trained to keep your mouth shut. You don't really want to stir the pot because you're new, you're still trying to learn the ropes, and if you do say, "Hey, I'm actually questioning: who is this actually benefiting in this environment? Is it only benefiting the people who have the money, or is it benefiting the people who actually need these jobs?"

Even when it comes to fueling stations, are we just putting more money into the gas industry's pockets? Or are we actually making sure that the community members have job opportunities to expand themselves and to build themselves up? And one day, will they be able to buy a parcel and develop on it themselves? What are we doing as planners to help advocate for them to get their footing?

At the beginning, Eric pointed out that California land use planning is very regimented. And for Josh and (Bill) that's a good thing because if it wasn't, we'd be out of business. What challenges does that create for you as Black planners and for us to create a truly inclusive multiracial society? Is racism embedded in the California planning system?

WARREN: Yes. When I look at the way in which I was taught as a planner, it’s like, “Here's how you do a plan: You do an existing conditions, you talk to nobody, you just take lots of notes, take lots of counts. Then you go back into the office and you present ideas. You crystallize those ideas and bring them back to the community. You have a shouting match. And then you come back, do a bunch of political machinations and then you have a plan done.

I'm going to draw on Slow Streets again—not that it's a panacea for anything—but if anything, we have relearned that planners and, by extension, the government makes a lot of promises that either are delivered way too late or never delivered. And what's been interesting about COVID is it has shined a light on this issue though, which is that planning, I think, moves too slowly. Which is to say that if it really is an emergency, that people are losing their homes, getting evicted, or that people are dying on our streets every day, whether it's because they're getting hit by cars or because they're homeless, right?

If those are actual emergencies, we should treat them as such and take steps on a regular basis. Not just, "Here's our plan, we're presenting it. And we will do it in five years." By the time we get around to doing that thing, whatever that intervention is, whoever we're trying to help, they're gone, they're dead. They’re moved on. And COVID has shined a light on this. You don't get to have a five-year plan because you need to do it today. Or else people will die today.

I don't think that planning is set up as an institution to do that. I don't think that we are trained to have an iterative approach to, not just phase one, phase two phase three, but could you do planning on a weekly basis instead of on a 30-year horizon? I think that there's a lot of distrust that if we take a lot of bite-sized pieces, we won't perhaps ultimately get towards the goal that we see as this beautiful vision of a perfect city, whatever that means.

ERIC: I think there also just needs to be a point of reflection. Most plans say, "do another plan."

WARREN To your point, Eric, about reflection: something that we're really taking a big stab at here in Oakland is owning our s--t. If we made a mistake, we should acknowledge it. Nothing pisses me off more just as a person in the city. To just be like, “Oh, so we're just going to pretend that that didn't happen.” I personally find that people trust me more, as someone working in the government, if I don't try and gaslight them and instead say, "Yeah, we made some mistakes."

I'll give you an example: here in Oakland, we are almost done building a bus rapid transit system. I think ultimately it's going to be a really big boon for transit riders along the corridor. Unfortunately, everyone along the corridor hates that project. And it’s because it took too long, tore up the whole neighborhood, and didn't deliver on a bunch of the community benefits that it was supposed to. And we should own that. We should say, "Hey, East Oakland community, we recognize that this wasn't done the way that we promised.” We should probably start by acknowledging the challenges and then say how we're going to commit moving forward to not making those same mistakes.

Courtney, as someone who's recently out of planning school, what was your impression and what did you think of going into it versus being in school? And what’s your response to Warren's characterization of the planning paradigm?

COURTNEY I think in university, a lot of the conversation was only big picture. And a lot of the conversation didn't involve minority communities. It didn't involve rural communities who don't have access to transit or don't have access to water infrastructures. But they're like, "Look at what we can do! We can beautify this strip of area and look how walkable it is!" But is it really walkable if there's no infrastructure that can actually like benefit the people? Why are people walking on the streets if there is no grocery store on this reservation? They have to drive down rocky terrain and some people don't have vehicles. So how do you get to a grocery store that's five miles away? Sometimes I have an issue with planning where it's just all about this romantic beautification of neighborhoods and not really acknowledging the people who are hurting the most.

ERIC: It's a structural issue, though, because planners don't follow their own plan. Right? When I was the planning director for Salt Lake City we had Goldman Sachs come in. We're their second largest office outside of New York. But all of our data showed we would be a majority minority city comprised of immigrant families by 2040. Every time someone came in with a micro-unit building for Goldman Sachs executives, my staff got really excited and I had to say, "Hey, you guys, our own plan says we will be majority minority families by 2040. Why are we approving this deal? Our own plan says this."

The reason we've convened this is, of course, the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests and this new upwelling of activism and consciousness. Does this new wave of activism change anything? Or is it just another moment in a long history of challenges?

WARREN: I want this moment to matter and, by extension, I think that means it will. I will admit that I have my concerns, my reservations, and there are plenty of ways where this could just be one more iteration where we don't get very far. But I'm noticing that we're having the deeper conversations within the city government to say, “Maybe we should reinvest some of our police money into our homelessness program. Maybe traffic enforcement shouldn't be done by police.” We are having those conversations at a level that is not just pontificating.

ERIC. I’m going to be really crass, I’m going to say the word: Karen. I think we realize white people are mean. That same woman who's telling that guy he can't paint on his own property is the same person talking at a community meeting. Hopefully the agency of mean white people diminishes.

The mayor is explicit and investing in Blackness. It does not mean that we're anti-brown, it does not mean that we're anti-white. It means that the mayor said she wants to Black success to equal San Francisco success. And I think that in California, Black California success has to equal California success. I hope that with the new leadership coming on board, either grassroots or political that some changes are going to happen. And then once again, this requires reflection, personally being centered, all those things we talked about before, but I think it's there.

COURTNEY: I agree. I'm really hoping that this movement is not just a phase for a lot of people and that it's allowing people to remove the cotton balls that were stuffed in their ears for so long and take off their blinders because a lot of the inequity is all around us, but we choose not to look at it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The full, original version is available on the CP&DR podcast


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