Inside Look: Ellen Forthofer

Inside Look: A Conversation with APA Student Leaders is a series of conversations with current SRC Executive Committee representatives. The purpose of the series is to spotlight each of the representatives by providing their background, their role(s) in APA, and advice to future committee members.

In the first post of this series, SRC Region V representative George Benson interviews current SRC Chair Ellen Forthofer on her journey towards becoming a planner, how she got involved with APA and the SRC, and why others should too.

George Benson: So, joining the PSO and then getting involved with the APA almost seems to have emanated from a place of curiosity: what is all of this about? What does planning mean? After being involved for a while now, particularly after Chairing the SRC for almost a full term, what do you think the value of the organization, or the SRC in particular, is to students?

Ellen Forthofer: Yeah, I think that would be an accurate statement. I kind of fell into the profession — originally I thought I wanted to be an architect or a journalist. Getting involved with SPA and APA originally served to just help me get acquainted with the field and understand if it was something I was passionate about.

After serving in some type of leadership capacity in the SRC for 3 years now (WOW!) I think the value truly shows itself in the connections you're able to make — both with people and subject matter. In general, APA helped me to expand my network of professional planners far beyond Indiana, and it also has helped me to understand what niche areas of planning appeal to me most.

Specifically in terms of the leadership positions I've held through APA, I think the value shows itself in having helped me to learn how to conduct myself professionally. Those skills have been invaluable as I navigate the beginning of my career.

George: And passionate you are! We're lucky to have gotten you out of the deal.

Ellen: D'awh shucks, you're too kind.

George: Not at all! That's a fabulous answer, and I think in keeping with what a lot of other SRC members have said. There's a sense that these leadership opportunities show you what a community planning really is. I think you show just what a long-standing thrill that can bring.

So, over the time you've been involved in APA, you've gone from undergrad, to master's student, and to practicing planner, right? Can you tell us a little bit about what you do for work now?

Ellen: Sort of. I'm actually in a communications position now for Indianapolis's transit corporation, IndyGo. So while I'm not technically in a traditional planning position, I navigate planning issues daily. I love my job. I help riders and community members better understand transit in Indy. So often, people are hesitant or even afraid to use transit here, because it's largely not an environment built around multi-modal transportation — it's very car-centered. I see a big part of my job as helping to improve transparency and understanding between IndyGo and the community. With understanding comes empathy and empowerment to make the system better on all sides of the table.

George: Spoken like an interdisciplinary, intersectional planner! Some of the other SRC members have touched on this idea about navigating public perceptions of different aspects of the built environment, or of planning policy, and in many ways it's a classic challenge of our profession. What do you see as some of the other, major challenges facing planning as a profession as you get started in your career?

Ellen: Yeah, first of all, I'd say that is a huge issue. We've gotten so used to viewing the built environment as a binary environment; it's this or it's that, no in between. That view is just not feasible today. I think another major issue is the lack of willingness on many people's parts to reconsider the norm, to try something new.

The built environment is a laboratory, and I think we've largely moved away from that kind of understanding of our environment. I think a related, but altogether different, issue is NIMBYism. The public often does not think as a collective whole, but rather in terms of the impacts and effects to individuals or smaller groups.

In order to make broad change, especially in transit, we have to think in terms of systems and networks, while remaining at a level of detail granular enough to create human-scaled and walkable environments. It's a tough gap to straddle.

George: That's a fantastic answer. I love especially that what you say applies as equally to a local, community planner as it does to someone working for say... the Federal Highways Administration. That systems thinking approach is clearly something we're all still learning to apply.

George: Related to your comments there, do you feel that there is a distinctive approach to planning that people from our generation are bringing? Not to say that others have been bad or wrong, but is there something new that today's planners are doing that you think stands out?

Ellen: Honestly, I'm not sure I have enough experience or expertise to give that question a fair answer. However, I can tell you what I've noticed through my experiences and working with younger planners:

  1. Millennial planners — please excuse me from using that tired generational label — tend to have a drive that doesn't stem from personal gain, but rather from knowing that their work makes a difference. Many young planners I've met get into the profession because they are interested in helping people.
  2. Technology is totally changing the game, and I think planners of all ages are changing their courses to react to that. Are public meetings the best way to reach a telling sample of the public? Probably not. Do we know the best way to engage the public in the 21st century? Probably not, but we're sure as heck trying lots of different things to figure it out.
  3. Most of the younger planners/professionals I've met are incredibly collaborative in nature. As these individuals move up throughout their career, I can only imagine the awesome partnerships across political, organizational, and institutional boundaries that will inspire.

George: AWESOME! I think those are some great insights. Certainly from the SRC, I think I can also attest to young and emerging planners' collaborative nature.

George: So, from your work in the SRC, what's next, Ellen? You'll be Past Chair I understand for the next year after finishing this term, but afterwards. Will we be seeing you on the Board of Directors for the APA under a different designation some day?

Ellen: Haha, who knows! I'll be Past Chair for the next two years to help provide continuity as the 2016-2018 SRC hands off the baton to the incoming group. I think there is a lot of opportunity to engage with the Divisions — I'm a member of Women and Planning Division and the Urban Design and Preservation Division — and State Chapters to fill the void that leaving the SRC will create. And I don't intend to fully leave the SRC — APA content catered to emerging professionals and students aligns with my life pretty well at the moment.

You'll definitely still see me hanging out at the Career Zone at future National Conferences!

George: Haha. Well, I'm glad you'll be sticking around for a while yet. It's been a pleasure to work with you and I know you'll bring a lot to the table for much time yet to come.

Ellen: Appreciate that, George.

George: I'll round this interview out by asking: What advice do you have for anyone looking to get involved with the SRC? Potential future representatives or Chairs, or otherwise?

Ellen: Network, network, network.

Many of the opportunities I've capitalized upon have started with a conversation. Reach out to the current representatives. Ask about their roles; see if it's a good fit for you. Think about your goals within the profession, and how becoming more involved with APA can start to lay a path to those goals. I guarantee involving yourself in APA leadership will bring many more opportunities than you will be able to predict.

Think outside of just the SRC, too. Many state Chapters and Divisions have positions for younger members and/or specifically students. Find your interest or passion, and chase it!

Top image: Student Representatives Council Executive Committee: (from left) Lisandro Orozco (Immediate Past Chair), Anna Ma (Region IV), Sophee Payne, (Region III) George Benson (Region V), Ellen Forthofer (Chair), Lance MacNiven (Region VI), Paige Peltzer (Region I), Shelley Price (Region II). Photo by Dustin Calliari.

February 27, 2017