Podcast: People Behind the Plans

Todd Vanadilok, AICP

What do you do when you’re an urban planner who loves comics? If you’re Todd Vanadilok, AICP, you create your own planning-themed comic series. The small-business owner launched an online comic this spring that explores issues of social justice through a planning lens. His central characters — Emie, an egret, and Ollie, an ox — come from his firm’s name, Egret+Ox Planning. The two animals spoke to Todd because of their symbiotic relationship — one that resembles the ideal planning process, wherein seemingly disparate groups or individuals work together to achieve a common goal.

Todd and People Behind the Plans series host Courtney Kashima, AICP, take a detailed look at Todd’s background: He majored in engineering at Northwestern University but decided that he wanted to study urban planning, so he attended graduate school at the University of Michigan. After 16 years working at Teska Associates in Evanston, Illinois, he and his family moved to Colorado, where the communities he plans for are as unique as the ones he knew in and around Chicago. Courtney and Todd discuss how planning processes cannot be “one size fits all” but must be well-tailored to the specific community — urban or rural — a planner is working in. They talk about giving back to the profession and even the legacy of Roberto Clemente, the late baseball legend who also made strides in the realm of social justice.

Episode Transcript

Todd: I always like hearing how people got into planning. As I said, some people really knew that that's what they wanted to do. But I've met people who came from theater backgrounds, history, language arts, just kind of runs the gamut. I've seen actors who do it. And I kind of feel like anyone can be a planner. And I think that's how we approach — when we go to public meetings, we want people to think as a planner.

[music]

Courtney: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Todd Vanadilok, AICP, principal and founder of the planning consulting firm Egret and Ox. Todd, welcome to the podcast.

Todd: Thanks. Appreciate being here. It's nice to be back in Evanston. I actually have a lot of history here, so — I grew up in Illinois. And I had been in the Chicago region since high school, but then moved to Colorado about two years ago, which was kind of a culture shock, just being Midwest raised. But I'm really glad to be here just because I used to live in Evanston and went to Northwestern for undergrad and then spent 16 years at Evanston-based Teska Associates. So it's like a homecoming in many different ways, so, really glad to be here.

Courtney: So let's talk about that. You originally studied engineering. How did that lead to a career in planning?

Todd: I think, like many planners, we kind of stumble upon the field of urban planning. I know some people really understood what planning was going into either undergrad or master's and really knew that was their path. My path was — I guess, as an Asian-American, there's, there's always, especially with being a second-generation Asian-American, there's always like only three paths that you could really take. Be a doctor, an engineer, or an attorney, because those were like the highest paying fields. So I chose engineering because it was one of the three, and I did study civil engineering here at Northwestern. But I wasn't really feeling that that was really the path that I could see myself doing for 30, 40 years and retiring. And then a family friend told me about urban planning and design, and I studied that for a summer in Boston, or I guess in Cambridge, at Harvard. They had a summer program called [Design] Discovery. And that was kind of in between my junior and senior years at Northwestern. And I really liked it. It was like a crash course about what planning and architecture were about. And [I] really changed my mind about moving, shifting gears in terms of how I wanted to, what I wanted to study, but I was so far along that I wound up deciding I'll still complete my engineering degree, since I was just one year away at Northwestern. So I got a civil engineering degree here at Northwestern but immediately jumped to University of Michigan, where I got my master's in urban planning in Ann Arbor. And from there [I] got a job right away at Teska Associates here in Evanston, spent 16 years there, so it's kind of a ... yeah, I kind of jumped in real quick. So [I] didn't really plan on doing that, but that seems to be a common story amongst a lot of planners that I talk to.

Courtney: That they're surprised where they end up but it all seems to work out?

Todd: Yeah, I think so. I think it's always, I always like hearing how people got into planning. As I said, some people really knew that that's what they wanted to do. But I've met people who came from theater backgrounds, history, language arts, just kind of runs the gamut. I've seen actors who do it. And I kind of feel like anyone can be a planner. And I think that's how we approach — when we go to public meetings, we want people to think as a planner. I always joke that that doesn't always give us as planners job security, because not everyone can be a physician or an attorney, but we feel like anyone can and should be a planner. Or at least think like a planner. But I definitely support how we all approach and get to where we are as urban planners. It's not always the same path. It's not linear. But I think hearing everyone's stories about how they got to where they are is always interesting to hear and I think everyone has a story to tell.

Courtney: Let's talk about before you chose engineering as a career. How did where you grew up maybe influence your path and interest in places and people?

Todd: So I grew up in southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis on the east side of the Mississippi. So I lived in rural Illinois. It's about 3,000 people, my hometown. Grew up in Nashville, Illinois. It's in Washington County. And back then, I mean, I grew up — I really enjoyed my childhood. Just a small town, you could — everyone had their doors unlocked. You could just ride your bike everywhere. And I never really thought — at least at that time. I mean, you're a kid, you just do kid things. But looking back now, especially 18 plus years into my planning career, I have worked with various communities from rural towns, like where I grew up, to big regions like the Chicago metro area. And it really gives me appreciation as to, the way you plan is not always one size fits all. The issues we deal with here in Chicago metro, you can't shoehorn a strategy that works in Pilsen or Back of the Yards or northern neighborhoods in Chicago to a small town like where I grew up in Nashville. I've done a lot of work in central Illinois, and there's a lot of similar issues that central and southern Illinois and just rural towns in general they deal with. And I think when I plan for communities, I never want to trivialize what communities go through because — just because what they consider traffic or a parking issue, like, it matters to them. And it really defines what their quality of life is. And I never want to roll my eyes or say that's not a big deal. I mean, a traffic jam in Chicago, that's like, that could be 10, 20 minutes, but in a rural town, a traffic jam's like one, one light cycle, or two minutes tacked on to their commute, so to speak. But that's important to them, because that's just what they're used to. And I always keep that in mind. And I think growing up in a rural town, I think, helps my perspective on that, but also gives me, it makes me ensure that I stay humble and not — since I kind of grew up since high school in [the] Chicago metro [area], not to get blinded by what I know now as more of a city, urban person. Although now I'm in kind of a suburban — northern suburban Colorado. So I'm kind of getting a taste of different worlds now, growing up rural and then many years here in Chicago, [which is] urban, and then shifting since 2017 to kind of like a mountain foothills type community. It's, it's a rollercoaster, but I think gives me just different perspectives to move on from.

Courtney: I definitely can relate to that, having grown up in a small town, but I'm coming up on 17 years having lived in the city of Chicago. So one thing that sticks out to me is really understanding some of those nuances. You know, like, I kind of joke if you go south of I-80 in Illinois, you need to be aware that you're not having community meetings on Wednesday night because it's church night. And a key stakeholder group is probably the, the retired guys who meet at the McDonald's or the donut shop. And so I found something very similar to you, and I actually think that's an important quality of a planner to not be presumptuous and to really understand the context in which you're working. So after living most of your life in the Midwest, you mentioned a couple of years ago you made the move to Colorado. Tell us about that and what's different or similar — things you've noticed in the past couple of years having made a big geographic shift.

Todd: I think as I've spent most of my — all, all of my career in the private sector. Again, as I mentioned earlier, I started my career with the private planning firm Teska here in Evanston. And I really enjoyed my time there. I had, had a lot of mentors there, and I think that really kind of set the tone for how I approach my career. And then when I moved — my family moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2017. So after 16 years at my old firm, we moved. And it was more a move for my wife, for her career. She's a professor, and she was really heavily recruited. And I think it was a great opportunity for her. And so we made the jump. And moving regionally, it was somewhat of a culture shock for us because we're both urban people. Me as Chicago for a good portion of my life and her, she grew up, she grew up near Boston, and then kind of jumped around to D.C. She got her PhD at UCLA. And so we've always been urban people who always relied on transit and more density. And then moving to Colorado, I mean, you have Denver and Boulder, which are definitely urban cities. Fort Collins is, is urban. But I kind of liken it to somewhat like Naperville but kind of its own city. So it's really hard for me to define it as suburban because it's not really suburban to Denver or Boulder. It's kind of a — it's own little area. But I really liked being in Colorado because it was new to me, because I had spent my entire life in the Midwest, mainly here in Illinois and two years in Michigan. But, but it was a culture shock for me and my wife just because I think now we're, we're realizing that we're not, we're definitely not Colorado people. We kind of feel like we're wasting two spots that people who really like outdoor living and being active and skiing and snowboarding — we're like, "We don't do that stuff," and we don't ... I joke with people, like we don't have a Subaru, we don't have a dog. It takes me forever to grow a beard [laughs]. So I think it's just — all joking aside, it's, we do like Colorado, but it has given me perspective in terms of, you have to adjust not only the way you live personally but just how you approach your life professionally too. I think since leaving Chicago I had to really get to know and kind of rebuild a network in Colorado. So, I mean, this year I'm here at the APA Illinois state [chapter] conference. But the previous two years I went to the Colorado state [chapter] conference, which was nice to kind of network there and kind of get a feel for how other state chapters run their chapters and their conferences and get to know people there. So, and then I think I mentioned to Courtney earlier off the mike that before, when I was here at APA Illinois, I was really involved with the state chapter here, especially with the Chicago metro section, and so did a lot of programming. And being in Chicago we, we always did a lot of programming that was kind of mostly in Chicago, and then we always heard from our constituents that, "Why don't you do programming in the suburbs or downstate?" And we always heard that and we did our best to accommodate that. And then when I moved to Colorado, I'm more than an hour north of Denver, and now I understand that's what they're saying. Because it takes — I had to really plan to do something in Denver, even if it's just meeting someone for coffee. It's kind of a day trip, and it really gave me perspective that you really have to understand when people give you their thoughts, whether it's critiques, positive or negative, it all matters, because they just want to know that there's a balance in, in programming. And same goes to, like, when we're actually planning for communities. When you're at a community meeting and someone gives you a thought or idea, positive or negative, you have to internalize that and realize that, that point that they're making to use is very important to them. You don't want to trivialize it. You don't want to just shake your head and say, I hear you, and not do something with it. Because I think in the end, people just want to be heard but also know that what you've heard translates to something, like, to something actionable. And when they actually see it materialize, it doesn't have to be like right away or — especially as planners, we know, like, we plan 15, 20, 30 years down the road. But I think whether it's professionally or working with the communities that we serve, I think just hearing people's stories and kind of making sure that what you've heard turns into something that they can see. That, "Oh, they actually heard what I said." I think really matters and I — that's something that I've always learned, is one of the biggest lessons I've learned in my career is never trivialize anything given to you and do something with what you've heard, no matter how big or small that actionable item is.

Courtney: So, as you know, I own a small consulting firm too. And something I'm really trying to work on is along the lines of what you just said, in that, you know, we respond to an RFP. We draft a scope. It's housed within a certain department, usually planning or maybe transportation. But once you start engaging the public, which is crucial, they don't know or care what the scope is. And so I really try to make a point that no matter what someone says, whether or not it's technically in our scope, I try to make sure that that goes somewhere. And I think it's difficult for clients and consultants. It doesn't come naturally to make that effort and think that way, but it creates a much more meaningful process and eventual outcomes. And I really like thinking about those small wins or those small moves you can make to make a difference. Have you found something similar?

Todd: Yeah, that's a really good point. Both as my career with a medium-sized firm like Teska and then being on my own as an independent consultant, I have learned some of this, kind of the same things that you go through. I think the idea is that, yeah, the public or the committee that you serve, they don't really see the scope unless they really dig on the project website or they ask you about it. But in my career, another lesson that I've learned is that you just go the extra mile for who you're serving. Yeah, there's a budget and, and time frame that you really need to adhere to, especially a timeline because you don't want to be behind schedule, and budget, you don't want to go over budget. But sometimes you have to go put in that extra half hour, a few hours, just to do a little more research if you get a question at a public meeting, whether it's from the public or even the client and it's not in the scope. I always feel like you just do that extra work because it's important to them that they get that answer. Another thing that I've learned is if you're at a public meeting and you get stumped by something, they say, like, "Have you considered this?" And you may not have. I've learned that it's, it's OK to say, "No, I haven't." Or, "We haven't, but I'll look into it for you." And then if you return and you give them an answer, it doesn't have to be the next day or later. But if they see that materialize in a response by email or you see them at another meeting, you never know if they really appreciate the work that you put into, because you just, you just do it because I think that question or that point was important to that person. And the fact that you go that extra mile or put in that extra time to really find an answer for them, whether or not it really satisfies what they're looking for but the fact that you actually did the work I think really matters. And that's just — there's little nuggets of lessons that I've learned throughout my career that I really hang on to and try to build upon. Sometimes they're experiences that materialize because it was a positive out— positive experience, but sometimes I learn from things that didn't go so well. Like at a public meeting, and you're like, "Oh, I didn't really handle that all that well." And it's like one of those teaching moments for yourself as a professional. But I think no matter what your profession is, that's always going to happen. And especially as planners, where we're, we're always constantly dealing with the public and community. They're just like mini-planners that you're working with, and you want to just make sure that if they ask you a question, you answer it, and it doesn't have to be right away like I said. But if you can give them an answer later and it's well researched, or if it's something that you're just like, "I looked into it, I don't really know, but we'll work through it together as a community." Or if you work with that person and say, "Can we, can you help me understand, like, what you're looking for?" Just that extra mile I think really matters, both to you as a professional to grow, but also to that person who asked the question, because there's a reason why they asked it, and they were looking for something in return. And if you can give them something to grab onto, I think that's always positive.

Courtney: So when your family decided to move and take this great opportunity for your wife — and at that point your family also included a young daughter — how did you evaluate what you might do and how did you end up opening your own firm?

Todd: I think when we moved to Colorado in 2017, I think at that point in my career after 16 years in the private sector, I was kind of at a crossroads figuring out like, "Well, now I kind of have an open road. Do I stay private?" I've always — with so many clients both in public and nonprofit, I always felt like perhaps I can explore something in, that wasn't in the private sector just because I understand both sides of the table. And I thought maybe this being a great opportunity to figure out, kind of take a new road. But there were opportunities in Denver, I mean, it's booming in Denver, I guess Colorado in general. But I just found, like, the opportunities either weren't presenting themselves, or I was overqualified, or I just would apply for a job and wouldn't get, advance very far in the process. So, and when you're in a career where you know what to do, like, I did consulting for 16 years. Well, I know how to do this. I can do it on my own. I mean, obviously when you're on your own and — Courtney, you know this — starting out, you're basically everything. You're your IT person, you're your promoter, you troubleshoot on the fly. And I just found, like, you have to be very efficient with your time and your money, especially starting out. And I tell people, it's like, it's not like we're selling T-shirts, where you sell a T-shirt and you get your money right, right then. I mean, planning work is — yeah, you have a contract but you may not get paid — I mean, if it's a two-year, 12-, 16-, 18-month process, you get paid monthly and you invoice, but you may not even like build that up until like a year or two down the line. So those were stumbling blocks and, I mean, I've always heard the stories, not necessarily about planning but starting your own business. I mean, it could take two to three years before you really start seeing successes and building up your network and and your business. And I'm about a little over two years in, and I'm starting to see those, the work I put in kind of being a little more fruitful. I've been very fortunate and privileged that I had a great network here in Chicago that, that really helped me kind of get some projects under my belt in those first two years. It definitely eats into my travel budget to come back to Chicago a lot, but I've always enjoyed coming back because it's always a homecoming. But as I said, it's like you have to be more efficient with how you use your money. Obviously I work out of my house so I have low, low overhead. I usually just work in the kitchen and ... But I think, even just looking at Courtney,  your business, you started your business more than two years — five years — [ago]. And I've really enjoyed seeing you grow professionally. And just seeing the successes. I mean, you started on your own, and then you added Romina [Castillo], and then Vitaliy [Vladimirov], and then you just added a fourth person and then you moved to an office. And, I mean, I've always looked to you as a leader and kind of as a role model, so to speak, just because I think as a minority, as a women-owned business and then for me as a minority-owned business, I think one,  one lesson that I've learned in the past two years is that we're already behind the eight ball, in terms of people already have assumptions of who we are and what we bring to the table as minorities. And one lesson that I've learned is actually from a trans person of color, is that since you're already behind the eight ball, don't be afraid to put yourself out there. I mean, ironically as, even though I do a lot of public speaking as a planner, I'm actually very shy and kind of a recluse. I mean, my dad was that same way. So I take after my dad, but I have, I really had to push myself to just put yourself out there. Before I started my own firm or my own business, I never really was active on social media. I never really wanted to, like, broadcast my life, and I've always wanted to protect my daughter on social media because online can be a creepy place for kids. So I've always protected my daughter. But as a business person, a small business person, I've really learned that you do need to put yourself out there. Don't be afraid to promote yourself, self-promote, because you're the only one who's going to do that for yourself. And if it sounds like you're being kind of too self-promoting, I think that's OK, because no one else is going to do it for you. And that's one of the more recent lessons that I've learned. And seeing Muse grow from where you started and five years later to today, I think is kind of like the goal where I want to be, but, so I'm kind of following your star [laughs], in terms of trailblazing in the industry, because there's a lot of really great firms that have been around for 20, 30 years like Teska. Houseal Lavigne hasn't been around as long, but they have been in the industry, John and Devon have been in the industry for longer. And just seeing how they've grown and kind of trailblazed about how they used GIS has been great to see. But then there's younger firms like your firm, and I guess me, and some other firms that I've seen both here in Illinois and, and even Colorado. Because I think one thing — before we decided to move Colorado, I really wanted to be part of, kind of the new generation who pushes the envelope and and provides new perspectives on how Chicago grows sustainably and sensibly in the region. But also I think even using that social justice lens of planning, because I think that has definitely become more at the forefront in the past several years. And I think planning has made headway in terms of looking at social justice, but we as kind of new leaders and emerging leaders in the field, I really wanted to be part of that, but now that I'm in Colorado I can't really be as active, but maybe I can. I just have to be a little more proactive about it. And it doesn't have to be in Chicago. Obviously I — like, with my comic series, I kind of feel like that's one avenue where I can do that.

Courtney: Well, I'm blushing. Those were very nice and unexpected comments to hear. And I'll just say keep at it because it took four years for my firm to get into the black, and as you said, we've grown and it is exciting. I almost forget all of the doubt and the anxiety. You mention the comic strip that you do. It's called Emie and Ollie. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how it relates to the naming of your firm, Egret and Ox?

Todd: I guess I'll start with the name of my firm, Egret and Ox Planning. I think the idea behind it was ... [it was] kind of funny. I didn't really know what I wanted to name it. I didn't want to use my name, because I've heard so many variations on my last name that I didn't want to put people through that. So I just started thinking, and I thought, "Well, I really like the interplay of that idea of how we as planners working with communities — I mean, there's so many different people kind of work, working together for a common goal. And in nature you see that quite a bit, and it's a phenomenon called symbiosis, where different species of animals can be so different, like an egret and ox. I mean, the ox is so big and, and powerful, versus an, an egret, or a bird of that size. So small and so agile that they're quite different on the spectrum of size and just where they are in nature, in the pecking order. But they work together, where the egret gains benefit from sitting on an ox because it gives them a higher perch. And then when it senses danger, it can fly away quickly, but that also gives the ox kind of like the idea that, "Oh, there's something nearby," whether it's a predator or prey for the — well, maybe not a prey because oxes are pretty docile. But they work together. I mean, even the egret will eat bugs off the ox as it's grazing in a field. So that kind of symbiotic relationship of working together even though they're so different, I think, really kind of spoke to me, the way we as people work together and we're so different and off the spectrum, whether it's politically, socially, ideologically. But oftentimes we're working towards the same goal. And just the interplay of animals, I think, is unique, and it took me a while to find the right animal combination that worked. I tried to use "buffalo" first. I'm like, "Uh, that sounds like the city," and all that. So I was like, "Ox works," and then over time, as I do a lot, I over-research things, and Egret and Ox worked. And then in terms of how that kind of spun off to the comic series, I kind of like the alliteration of Emily the egret and Oliver the ox. And just using that idea of two animals kind of working together to kind of bring to the forefront social justice issues in the field of urban planning. As I've always kind of described it, I'm not really uncovering anything new. I'm just trying to give it a creative spin so that — we do want to talk about it as planners, but we may not always know how to frame it or learn about it. And just growing up, from when I was a kid, and even now as a father, I've always really liked cartoons and comics, and it just seemed like a natural fit to do something kind of like a comic. But again, like, I had to do research on what it means to do a comic. I'm sure I'm doing a lot of things wrong [laughs]. Like, too much text or maybe not enough pictures or maybe the pictures are too bold. But, I mean, like anything it's a learning process. But I've really enjoyed it. It does — I mean, now that I'm getting a little bit busier, I fear that it may [eat] into the time that I can devote to kind of building up and maintaining the comic, but I definitely want to keep it up. So it may not be as periodic or as frequent as it is now or as it was in the past when I first started, when I launched the comic in March of this year. But I definitely want to keep it up. I was talking to other people at the conference, and I kind of liken it to, like, when — like, your favorite show, whether it's, like, Game of Thrones or This Is Us, and they'll, like, have three episodes in a row, and then it'll take a hiatus for, like, a month. And you're like, "Are they going to come back on again?" I kind of feel like I might be in that same thing. Although I guess like anything I can use social media and say, like, "I have to take a break, because I actually have to do work and serve communities." So I do enjoy hearing from people who, who do read it. I never really know who reads it. I know I have the numbers but you never — social media doesn't always tell you who they are. So to actually hear someone say, like, "Oh, I, I read your comic and ..." And I've gotten connections from people ... Actually I do have one famous follower on Instagram. If you ever watched the movie Minority Report with Tom Cruise, she played the character Ann Lively. If you remember her. She was the mother who lost her daughter who was one of the pre-cogs. She saw one of my comics and then liked it and then I was like, "Huh. I know this actress's name." I looked her up. I'm like, "Oh my God, that's Ann Lively from Minority Report!" So I had this, like, celebrity, like — oh my god, a celebrity's liked what I did. And that was really nice and kind of reinforcing like, you never know who's going to follow you or like what you do. And it doesn't have to be someone famous. It doesn't have to be a celebrity. It could be a kid, it could be another planner. I've had — actually, on Instagram, a lot of the followers that I've had who had liked some of my comics had been outside the US, and usually designers of, of some sort. And I'm just kind of, I don't know how, the underlyings of how Instagram works of, like, who follows who. And I wouldn't say I'm an influencer in any way. But so I'm learning about that, and I really enjoyed the transition from using the name of my firm, transitioning that to how I stylized the comic, but also learning from it. I think the social justice issues that I do get into have evolved. I mean, I started with kind of more simple ones like gentrification, affordable housing. More recent ones, especially this week, I talk about Jane Jacobs and her, her legacy in urban planning. I know a lot of times, as planners we kind of know who she is and what she's contributed. But then again not everyone who I guess reads my comic is a planner and knows who she is and what she contributed. But I also didn't want to get into the full history of what she did. And as a comic strip you, you can't get into too much detail, but you give them just enough. And then I hope to get into more issues like transportation equity. That's one thing that I really want to get into. Urban renewal, I think, the history of that and how it's kind of shaped our industry for better or for worse, I think is a really important story to tell, because there's a lot of social justice issues underlying that. And there's just a few others that I want to explore, and again it's just like, now that I'm getting busier with act— with projects, I hope I can get to it all. So a lot of it's kind of, like, in my notepad and seeing, like, I eventually want to get to it, and hopefully I will. But we'll see how that with — how the future unfolds on that.

Courtney: I really appreciate how you described your approach to the comic in that you're not uncovering a new issue but maybe trying to break it down, explain it to people who might not have taken the time to think about it or may have a role to play and don't even realize that. And I think planners have a special responsibility to take the time to stop and think about unintended consequences of decisions, the impacts of their work, because it is a very special privilege and responsibility to be affecting the built environment. And I think using a comic format is a great way to get those messages across. I know you and I share a commitment to advancing diversity equity and inclusion in terms of the profession as well as the communities we serve. Can you share some of your personal experience that influenced you towards that, or who's inspiring you in this area?

Todd: Sure. I think social justice has definitely been something I've really been kind of active about. And, I mean, when I was a kid, I didn't really think about it all that much, even though I did recognize growing up that I was the only non — my family was the only non-white family in my community. So that definitely, I mean, you understood that that's what it was. I didn't, I didn't really feel treated any differently, at least by my classmates and my neighbors growing up. But then growing up and hearing stories about my parents and what they went through and what they hid from us about the racism, some of the racism that they faced, it really kind of opened my eyes more, and then going through high school and college here in the Chicago metro area was somewhat of a culture shock. Growing up in predominately white rural community and coming here to an urban area, I was exposed to a lot more diversity. And even then I was — social justice, even [then] it wasn't like the buzz word it is today. And I got more involved, especially in college. I definitely was more active, like, at Northwestern. I was on the tail end of kind of being active in terms of trying to get Asian-American Studies a minor's program at Northwestern University. When I started at Northwestern as a freshman, they just had a hunger strike about it. So I really got into social justice that way and in my four years at Northwestern. By the time I graduated, I think, maybe it was a little bit, a few months after I graduated from Northwestern, the university finally made Asian-American Studies a minor, minor's program here. And then that was like 19 — I graduated in '99. So 18, 19 years later, it's still a very, it's a thriving program. They just got a grant or some funding to really expand their program. I'm not sure if the idea is to make it a major over time, but the fact that it grew from a hunger strike to where it is now, to a thriving program, I think is a testament to that. It's all about small victories. You're not always going to see the fruits of your labor materialize right away. So that was kind of where I kind of got more into social justice. And then when I met my wife, she's in the field of education. She's a professor in the school of education. Right now it's at Colorado State University. And social justice is really heavy in the work that she does. So when we, I guess, talk shop [laughs], so to speak, at the dinner table, I really learned about how social justice influences the work that she does. She talks about race in higher education a lot. She does a lot with affirmative action at the federal level. She wrote a, she cowrote on an amicus brief for the Supreme Court, which is actually really awesome. And so I've really learned a lot from her in terms of what social justice means and kind of meeting her, her colleagues. I mean, there's, it's just a very diverse field, where she's at. And that's really helped me understand and just recognize that I — even though I am a minority myself, and my wife as well, it's so humbling to really understand like what it means to really advance social justice. Like, even here at the conference, this week here in Evanston, I was attending a panel, and the panelists were all women, but do they all identify as women? And that just goes to the idea that even though we all feel like we're social justice warriors or we're advancing social justice, there's a lot that we have, kind of, I wouldn't say "baggage," but the assumptions that we underlie, like, we see who we assume are three women on a panel, which is great to see, but I shouldn't assume that they all identify that way. But the fact that it was a diverse panel is really great to see, but I didn't, it really makes me kind of take a step back and, and remain humble that, even I have assumptions that I kind of grew up with and have to, to deal with and wrestle with in terms of, like, knowing like what — to treat people with respect and to treat the people as who they are and who they want to be, because they're not always treated with respect. And, again, one of the lessons learned I've always had is to respect who people are and who they want to be, whether that's them as in individuals or larger as a community. I guess it goes to the visioning process of a planning process is, Who do you want to be? And that's different from person, or from community to community. There's a lot of similarities, but there's also things that are specific to community, and that kind of, on the micro level, that goes to individuals, whether you're a person of color, or gender, or even physical ability. One of the earlier issues that I got into with the Emie and Ollie comic was about universal design and how we as planners can impact that in terms of physical ability, because it's something that we do have influence over, especially when we do, like, development review or site review because of the built environment. But sometimes we don't always think about it because it's not always at the forefront of our minds or until someone points out to us. Then you have to deal with, like, if you hadn't thought about it and you're dealing with retrofitting and dealing with the fact that, "Oh, we didn't think about it," and it's kind of embarrassing that you didn't. But it's also a learning process because you're never really fully there where you want to be in terms of social justice activism because [if you] take two steps forward, you might take one or three steps back. It's incremental, and I mean, I don't think we'll ever really get to where we want to be, at least in our generation, because we thought we were over racism but we're not. But it's also great to see just youth involved. I mean, with climate action and then mass shootings, it's just great to see youth get really involved. Because they, I mean, they — Whitney Houston was correct. They are the future. And I think the fact that they take it upon themselves to be active is really great to see, because they understand that they are and want to be part of the solution. Because I think we as the current and even past generations, we failed in a lot of ways. But if we can nurture them to maintain that leadership and mindfulness of where they want to be and how they can influence that, I think that's one way where we can kind of correct our mistakes and be part of the solution. Even though the youth of today may be the ones to pick up the ball from us and move it towards the goal line, I think, I think is good.

Courtney: You just described something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and that is: Some of the work around social justice is really hard and will take a long time. But some of it isn't, like considering universal design or considering another lived experience or point of view. I think sometimes it can be overwhelming if you, if you're trying to save the world, but if you think of those small steps and the places where you have influence and exert it in the name of social justice, I think that's one of the best things we can do. In that vein, talk to me about Roberto Clemente.

Todd: That's a very fun, interesting question. There is, I guess, two layers to it. Even though I grew up near St. Louis and then spent more than half my life in Chicago, I'm a huge baseball fan. But I never rooted for the Cardinals, even though I was in Cardinals' country for a long time. And then I didn't root for the Cubs, because my favorite team is the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's been a struggle to be a Pirates fan, but being a baseball fan or just a sports fan in general, you don't want to be that fair weather fan and follow them when they're great and then say, "Oh, they stink." I'm going to take a break from them. But Roberto Clemente, even though he was in a, kind of, previous era of the history of the team, he was, aside from being a great baseball player, he was a social justice activist. And the way he died was actually serving another country that went through some troubling times. When he was delivering aid, he died in a plane crash, kind of advancing his own social justice perspective of what he wanted the world to be like. And then fast forward to 2014, '15. My wife is expecting our first and only child, and, and the fun process about being a parent is, "What are we gonna name our child?" That's always a fun exercise. And we went through the list. And then, I can't remember, it was, like, it was very soon to the due date, and we had our short list. And then my wife just unexpectedly said, "How about Clemente?" Because we actually wanted to keep the gender a secret, so we wanted kind of gender-neutral names. And it was surprising because, like, why didn't I think of that [laughs], being the Pittsburgh Pirates fan? But she's a, she's a big sports fan too. She's a Red Sox fan. So I was like, "Yeah, that's a really nice name." Because it has dual meaning for baseball fans, it's gender neutral. It's the legacy of a social justice activist. So we went with it, and that's the name of our daughter, Clemente. We call her Tay or Taytay for short. Although people often ask us, "Oh, Taytay, like Taylor Swift?" And we cringe. I mean, I love Taylor Swift. I think she does a lot of great work. But I guess that goes to the assumptions that people have is, like, Taytay is that's, that's Taylor Swift's name. I doubt that's what people called Roberto Clemente. But maybe they did. I don't really know. But so that's what we call our daughter, Tay. But she actually knows — now she's four, my daughter, and she knows about Roberto Clemente. And I think as my daughter grows up and seeing how my wife and I kind of carry ourselves professionally and just so — and, and personally, as really trying to advance social justice in the fields that we work in but also in the communities that we live in, we hope that she picks up these little lessons along the way, understands the importance and legacy of her name. And whether or not she is as active as us I don't think is really the point. I think the point is, I guess I've kind of touched upon this, is just the little lessons that you've learned over time, and that builds into defining who you are as a person and who you are professionally, once you, once you start working and kind of defining your adult life. And if the legacy of who Roberto Clemente was is part of what defines her as a person, I think would be great. If it isn't, that's fine, too. We define ourselves. Earlier as I mentioned is we have to be our own self promoters, whether it's, we're our own small business owners or we're just our own people defining who we are, especially with being social justice, being socially justice minded. You yourself define who you are. You shouldn't let other people define who you are. And same thing goes with us as professional planners is, especially as, on the private side as a, as a consultant, you always want the, your community that you serve to find who they are. You don't want to come in with preconceived notions or one size fits all and you're like, "Oh, you're a rural town. This is who you are." Maybe that's who they were, because that's what you read and like doing your research about their history. But maybe they do understand that they have to let go of some of the legacies of what they had as a rural community or as a railroad community or even in urban areas. Urban neighborhoods, they change over time. I mean, Pilsen's changed with being near UIC. The North Side of Chicago, there's different neighborhoods that have evolved even more recently from where they are. And that's the great thing about planning is it's, it's very fluid. And as we plan, I mean, I guess that's the challenge for us is, since it is so fluid, we always have to be on our toes in terms of understanding where communities were and how they want to be in the future. And I guess that's why they call it "planning." It's not "planned" [laughs]. Because it is fluid, and we're always doing and working and, and working towards making communities better and defining — helping, helping those communities define who they are and where they want to be. And I think as planners, that's, that's one of the best things that we can do.

Courtney: Well, it was such a pleasure hearing about your work and your personal life. I'm so grateful that you agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. If people want to know more about your work, in particular the Emie and Ollie comic, where can they go?

Todd: So my business website is egretandox.com. And then my comic is linked, all my social media pages, it's on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. Those are all linked on the website, or if you're already on LinkedIn or on Twitter, just search "Egret and Ox" and it should come up. And, and then I do backlog all the past comics on my business website, because I know it can be kind of difficult to scroll through past social media since it's reverse chronology. So I have it ordered in actual chronology. So if you want to start from the beginning when the comic started in March of this year, you can definitely do that and kind of read through it there. And then I try to add new comics to the website as they come out. I haven't done the more recent ones lately. But if you're active on social media, you can just go there until it's up on the website. But I do appreciate the readership and any comments. I've gotten some comments about what they liked, and I think that's always good to hear. And yeah, we'll see how long I can keep it up, but I enjoy doing it because it's just giving voice to important issues in a creative way. As I said, I just love to — love and still, loved and still love cartoons. I still watch them with my daughter. Kind of a nerd that way. Sometimes she'll, as kids do, they'll start something and then move along and go play somewhere else, and I'm still watching the cartoon [laughing] because I got engrossed in the storyline. So yeah, I really enjoy the comic and, and still contributing to the planning field. I definitely do want to try to get more involved with APA, even though I left the Illinois state chapter, I was really involved. But whether it's at the state chapter level or nationally, I've really enjoyed giving back to APA and the planning realm, because I think that's another thing that I learned, especially at Teska, where my mentors, they're, like, Lee Brown and Michael Blue. They are very active in APA, and I've always taken lessons from them is you have to give back to the field because you learn so much from it. And if you can contribute back from kind of what you've learned, then that just kind of continues the cycle learning. Especially as new leaders emerge in the field across the country and locally at the state level, I think the contributions that we make will just make the field better. I think anytime with that we can mold the future of our field is great because as, again, just like planning evolves, the field — not necessarily, like, planning for the communities but how we learn from each other — is also evolving. And stuff like this, the podcast, is really one of the many tools in the toolkit to learn more about what's out there and how we can define ourselves as planners. And really appreciate the time to talk to you. I know we've talked over email and and text. Especially when I was starting out, I looked to you for a lot of advice on how to start a business. But I enjoyed sitting down with you this morning, and I appreciate the time.

Courtney: Thanks for tuning into another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit planning.org/podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to podcast@planning.org.

[music]

 

Other Ways to Listen

Find us on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud — or wherever you get your podcasts.