Dec. 21, 2023
U.S. history shows us how racism is woven deep into the fabric of our society, and planning is no exception: zoning laws, federal loan programs, and highway construction have all been complicit in creating and maintaining inequity. Planners today have an opportunity to be at the forefront of assisting changemakers to create equitable and just communities for everyone.
In a recent special issue of JAPA (Journal of the American Planning Association) titled "Antiracist Futures: Disrupting Racist Planning Practices," planners and scholars emphasized the imperative to promote equity and social justice in planning practice.
The six functions of anti-racism, as articulated by the issue's coeditor, Anaid Yerena, associate professor of urban studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma, encompass reducing racist practices and empowering planners for long-term anti-racism efforts.
On this episode of People Behind the Plans, Yerena and Rashad Williams, assistant professor of race and social justice in public policy at the University of Pittsburgh, speak with Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief at the American Planning Association (APA), about anti-racist community planning concepts that lay the foundation for planners to reckon with history, disrupt the status quo, and find new ways to pursue equity in every community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
STROMBERG: How did this special issue of JAPA come about?
YERENA: I coedited the issue with April Jackson, associate professor of urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois Chicago. It lays out an important conversation about what constitutes anti-racism and why it's necessary in this moment.
We decided to pursue this issue shortly after the nationwide anti-racism protests of the spring and summer of 2020, when George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, amongst others, died in police custody. We found ourselves at a crucial juncture in history that was marked by heightened public awareness during a period of racial reckoning.
As coeditors, we believe it is imperative to document the response of university planning departments to the changing landscape of racial justice in the planning field. So, we aimed to offer tangible strategies for implementing anti-racist, decolonized planning practices that are adaptable and responsive — and to provide ideas for how to move forward.
STROMBERG: How would you define anti-racism in relationship to planners and their work?
YERENA: We start by using the commonplace definition of racism, which is the belief in the superiority or inferiority of one race over another, while also understanding that there are several levels of racism. Racism exists on internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and structural levels.
As planners, our attention is directed toward the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded within policies, practices, and structures, rather than solely on individual beliefs or attitudes.
"As planners, our attention is directed toward the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded within policies, practices, and structures, rather than solely on individual beliefs or attitudes."
Yet, we still need to start with our individual practices and beliefs. In the issue, we talk about the six functions of anti-racism, which include: reducing the incidence of racist practices in everyday and structural racism; fostering a non-racist culture; supporting victims of racism; empowering racialized subjects to fight racism in the long term; transforming racist relations into better alternative relations; and, ultimately, fostering an anti-racist culture in which racial identification is no longer a relevant or salient form of identification.
STROMBERG: Rashad, where did your research on reparative planning originate? What definition did you arrive at?
WILLIAMS: My dissertation research focused on a recent case study in reparative planning.
In 2020, after the George Floyd protests, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, both launched what you might call reparative planning programs but using different approaches. In Minneapolis, they created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, while in Saint Paul, they created a Community Reparations Commission.
What's so interesting about these two different approaches is that in the city of Minneapolis, they focused on the sort of interpersonal racism, so their goal was to bring people together via bidirectional learning spaces and opportunities for self-reflection. Curiously, there's nothing redistributive about that approach. Meanwhile in Saint Paul, the commission focused on closing gaps in home ownership, wealth, and education.
So, as you can see, we have these different underlying ideas about what reparative and anti-racist policy is. The weight of evidence in planning literature tells us that reparative planning has to be more of a redistributive effort in order for spatial and structural transformation toward equity to occur.
Reparative planning is a planning tradition that explicitly sets out to create a world, through the levers of urban governance, where life chances (an individual's opportunities to improve their quality of life) can truly become independent of race. So, reparative planning is complementary to the many diverse movements for reparations and anti-racism across the U.S. and internationally.
STROMBERG: You are both planning educators. How are you advocating for institutional change in your own work?
WILLIAMS: Within my own teaching, I am trying to push back on what higher education has become. With the rising cost of college and the gutting of public support, higher education has become — in some ways necessarily — glorified vocational training. And that's because the question for students who are taking on this enormous debt increasingly has to be, "What will be my return on investment?"
"I am trying to push back on what higher education has become. With the rising cost of college and the gutting of public support, higher education has become — in some ways necessarily — glorified vocational training."
— Rashad Williams
And, so, when financial prospects become the principal stress of education, colleges and their administrators begin to prioritize the preferences of employers: the hard skills. And they de-emphasize questions of political philosophy, of ethics, of democracy, of citizenship, critical history, and so on. It's now become a luxury to get an education that develops you as a whole person, as a human and ethical being.
YERENA: The field of planning is very vulnerable to falling into this trap. The skillset necessary to engage in anti-racist planning requires a type of learning that takes way longer than just one workshop or course to be understood and eventually applied. I try to model that approach in my teaching practice.
Five years ago, I looked at my syllabus, a document that structures the relationship between my fellow co-learners, and interrogated each of my policies. I teach at an urban-serving campus with a lot of racial and ethnic groups in the classroom, and I acknowledged that I could be perpetuating harm in that space if I chose to reproduce the rigid policies that I experienced in my education as a Latine individual. I realized that punctuality and strict timelines, for example, were not related to the individual's learning and were more related to maybe my need for efficiency and to get all my grading done at a certain point. So, I restructured my expectations.
STROMBERG: What first steps can planners take to create an anti-racist future for their communities?
WILLIAMS: As Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing without a demand." And, as we know, radical change is often preceded by a crisis, when there is an opportunity window for that demand for change to actually be taken seriously. I think the impetus for reparative planning really comes from the grassroots. And, to enable this type of future, I think planners have to get an education that provides this kind of critical analysis and urgency.
YERENA: Anti-racism is a learning journey: the more you understand what's going on, the more you raise awareness on the issue. We're not hoping that people wait until they have a complete understanding of the issue before they start to take action.
It's about what you can do in the meantime, as you're learning more and reading more and interacting — continuing your process of becoming more aware of what's going on. And that is, to put it succinctly, identifying ways to honor our own humanity.