Updated: Aug 16
What's it like to be an urban planning student, especially a Black student, in a time like this? Well, I can't actually say as I graduated two years ago (sheesh) and although the racism of the urban planning profession was relevant then, the world wasn't in a global pandemic and the racism wasn't quite as blatant, sort of. Quite honestly, I can't fathom the fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, and similar emotions Black urban planning students in grad school (or in undergrad) may have as they see the world and the urban planning profession unravel in front of them. Not only are they possibly terrified of the day-to-day of being a Black person but in addition, they're probably scared shit less about how they're going to secure a planning job, or if they'll want to stay in planning after what they've heard, seen, and possibly experienced from academia. It's a shit show right now but I hope this gives a little hope, motivation, and inspiration for those Black planning students hoping to keep challenging the narrative.
Most Black urban planning students may be experiencing or have experienced the lack of representation in their classmates, professors, deans, and pretty much anyone in their program, that look like them - if not, that's awesome and consider yourself lucky! My own graduate program consisted of international students, some Latino students, about six Black students (two that graduated with me), and of course a typical large amount of white students with mostly international professors, but not Black. Nonetheless, no Black professors that I felt I could really identify with, as I would guess most Black and/or non-white students can relate to. It doesn't seem like much of a game changer at the. beginning of your planning program but it really is - the perception you receive from professors, administration, and classmates makes all the difference as you get further into the program.
From the lens of a Black planning student it's likely you have chosen projects/topics that professors have opposed simply due to the focus on racist policies of the planning past or classmates have given negative (or none) feedback on presentations you've given geared around displaced Black communities. It may even be that you feel overly defensive when you voice questions/comments about the lack of information or recognition of any Black urban planners or successful Black communities and you're met with unconcerned answers of professors and classmates - "it's not about Black and white", is a common phrase used to defer from talking about the ugliness of planning policies of the past as it relates to racism. In times like these it feels as though your white classmates are simply doing just enough or are constantly proposing projects of displacement whereas you're drafting ideas/projects that enhance ways to engage with communities that look like you and truly create equitable plans. These are the projects your professors may rant and rave about while giving barely any feedback, positive or negative, regarding your project that lies in real life experiences along with research to support your ideas - it does become frustrating as you move forward but I promise the ideas you have are worthwhile despite what academia says. As Black planning students, the notion of racism in academia becomes more noticeable as you are stacked up against your white classmates when jobs or internships are brought up - academia is the start of the stratification that creates the elitist mentality seen in so many white planners once they begin practicing.
Academia in most programs focuses on Daniel Burnham, Robert Moses, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and other WHITE, male "planners" that created the narrative you see in planning today. It's never discussed or vaguely mentioned how much each of these men along with others like them influenced policies that would separate "them" from US and lay the foundation for red lining, displacement, urban renewal, tenement housing, highway infrastructure, and more - basically all the policies that were detrimental to the Black community in every way possible. There is zero mention of Black urban planners or social advocates during these times or even mention of Black bodies, as if they were completely okay with the living arrangements forced on them or if they ever had a voice. The only thing academia teaches future urban planners is that white men control the narrative and the built environment should benefit whites and keep Blacks down as much as possible. Academia forces the narrative that Black human geography is essentially irrelevant in planning history and teaches us nothing about the ugly past - only the policies and plans that "saved" these ghettos and projects.
As frustrating and overwhelming as that may seem the fight to being a planner that changes the narrative is long yet rewarding if your intentions are from the right place. I can't say you won't encounter racism in your job search or when you land your first planning job, as it'll be present in ways you can't imagine. I also can't say the road to voicing your diligence to serving Black communities and being Black FIRST will be an easy one or one that is met with open arms but it's worth it. What I can say is the work being done right now by other amazing Black planners is setting a path that will hopefully ease some of the hurdles when getting your foot into the planning door. It's also our hope that having these conversations now, forcing the recognition of what planning has created, and speaking openly about it, will provide some sort of dialogue that allows you to exist as a Black planner without having to "code switch" or dumb yourself down to secure jobs - your worth will be top notch and no one should make you feel differently.
What academia doesn't teach you (which is a lot) is what you should research and become knowledgeable for yourself as a Black planning student, and soon, a practicing Black urban planner. No class can teach you about YOUR lived experiences as a Black person and Black planning student - that's an advantage you'll always have over your classmates no matter what. You will see some of you (white) classmates advance a little quicker than you as you transition into the thesis/graduation stage; they'll land internships, have access to amazing networking, and possibly have multiple job offers, but don't let it phase you or discourage you. Your path may or may not be bumpy just know you are capable of top internships and leadership roles in on-campus organizations for planning students; this is the time where you begin to build up your self confidence and value.
And although you may take a little longer to find yourself, your voice, and your value to this profession it's okay, most of us didn't come out of planning school with "it" - that passion was ignited after graduation or during our last semesters leading up to graduation. Turn your passion into your niche, that's going to be big in helping you navigate planning school and your first planning job - never lose your passion in planning, whatever it may be. Without that it's tough to stay motivated and inspired to keep going especially when you may not have visible representations of Black planners around you. It's important to associate with other Black planning professionals whenever possible; there's more of us than you think! Even though networking events may never bring a Black planner or a Black urban designer to talk with you just know we're out there despite what your program may not be offering/showing you. The next generation of Black urban planners (yes, YOU!) are going to be greater than most can imagine because you all are starting, finishing, or in the middle of a program in the midst of a global pandemic and the most intense era of race issues since the 1960s - you're seeing it ALL unfold, but for the better. You will be the wave of planners that take on and innovate the plans/ideas we're working on now - it's scary right now but I definitely think the next few years of urban planning students are truly going to transform the profession in a MAJOR WAY!!
If you're feeling lost, unheard, unseen, or just overwhelmed with everything in this profession (or life) please know the gap of representation is growing and there are Black planners out there looking to make sure you're in good hands! My goal is to continue creating a safe, open, and inclusive space for US that planning students and planning professionals feel comfortable in their Black skin. If you're looking for other Black planners to follow for inspiration or to connect with here are a few I follow and keep up with:
Of course, you can always reach out to me on IG (@thedee_p) or Twitter (@BLCKSPCES) or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for questions, feedback, or the like about planning school or just having another Black planner to connect with! I know how hard that is to find early on lol. Your perspective as a Black urban planning student is a unique one beyond what academia can limit or put a cap on. Keep going, keep your head up, and keep pushing the narrative for US to exist!
*Also, don't overload yourself. A LOT is happening around correcting the past of planning. It's daunting sometimes and even depressing....don't get tied down by all of it. Take breaks, disconnect, and exist as a Black person FIRST then a planner. Mental health is the biggest priority - the community can wait.*
Black urban planners matter more than EVER right now. And Black urban planning students matter just as much because you are future Black urban planners. Please don't let the past of planning and current ignorance of planners discourage you - WE NEED YOU! And definitely don't let academia, in any program, tell you you're not good enough or that WE aren't a force in planning. I'm counting on ALL of you to make an impact in some way or another and come into this profession with a ton of PASSION!! YOU MATTER! WE MATTER! BLACK URBAN PLANNERS MATTER! BLACK URBAN PLANNING STUDENTS MATTER!
Shout out to my 2018 graduate class from UT-Arlington!! Mav Up! And BIG CONGRATS to the 2020 graduating class of planning/public policy students! Keep going!
“Either America will destroy ignorance, or ignorance will destroy the United States.” ~ W.E.B. Du Bois
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