Creating a Diversity Committee: Lessons from APA's New York Metro Chapter

The APA New York Metro Chapter’s Diversity Committee, also known as DivComm is one of the most active local chapter committees across the country.

DivComm hosts annual conferences, issues statements, and meets monthly with its 18-plus active members to organize events, discuss equity issues, and come together as a community.

The following Q&A features an interview with DivComm Co-Chairs Giovania Tiarachristie and Tiffany Ann Taylor, and Vice Chair Daphne Lundi, who discuss the committee’s origins, activities, and tips for other APA chapters that may be interested in starting their own diversity committees.

DivComm Cochair Giovania Tiarachriste and Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP. Photo courtesy the New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee.

Q: How exactly did the Diversity Committee start?

The Diversity Committee of the APA New York Metro Chapter actually has two birth stories. It was formerly known as the “Planners for Ethnic and Cultural Diversity Committee,” founded in the '90s during a time when there wasn’t really a centralized organization for planners or urban designers of color in the area.

Mitchell Silver, currently NYC’s Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner, was one of its original founders. One of the committee’s most important achievements was Lagging Behind: Ethnic Diversity in the Planning Profession (2001). The report was one of the first of its kind to highlight the ethnic and racial disparity in planning, and provided important recommendations for supporting people of color in the profession.

The committee fell dormant around 2010, until the chapter recruited Tiffany Ann Taylor and Giovania Tiarachristie to help revive the group in 2015. Giovania had previous experience establishing a Diversity Initiatives Group (DIG) at Pratt Institute and had decided to focus her graduate thesis to update the 2001 report with updated and more comprehensive data on the current state of diversity in the Metro Area.

The nationally recognized study is known as Elephant in the Planning Room, and includes findings from over 300 surveys and 45 hours of interviews, as well as implementable strategies to overcome barriers to recruitment and retention of racial diversity in the profession.

Reviving the committee would become an avenue to implement recommendations. The committee was renamed “Diversity Committee” in response to a collective desire to broaden the scope of the group to cover race and ethnic issues, as well as  intersections with gender, sexuality, class, disability, and more. The name “DivComm” was coined by member Athena Bernkopf in 2017.

Professional Development and Networking for Underrepresented Planners Panel in 2017, (from left) Mitchell J. Silver, FAICP, New York City Parks Commissioner;  Kerry McLean, Vice President of Community Development, WhedCo; Athena Bernkopf, Professional Development Coordinator, APA NYM Diversity Committee; and Yvonne Lopez-Diaz, Vice President–HR Director at HNTB Corporation. Photo courtesy the New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee.

Q: How does one “revive” and “establish” a committee?

Over the course of three to five months, Giovania and Tiffany recruited new members and held brainstorming sessions to identify a vision, mission, and goals for the revived committee.

To find new, interested members, they reached out to personal networks, posted through the chapter newsletter, and co-hosted happy hours with other committees to get the word out. They even sent out questionnaires on what potential members hope to get out of the revived committee.

As part of her graduate thesis on diversity in planning, Giovania conducted focus groups and interviews with various planners of color, and recruited from there as well. Membership fees were also waived to enable accessibility. The process was an iterative one to ensure that the mission, vision, and goals of the committee aligned with the values of interested members.

While identifying potential goals, the group conducted asset mapping to identify members’ skills and networks. They created a document outlining the vision, mission, and goals, and worked with the executive committee of the New York Chapter to get it approved and live on the website.

They also established frequency of meetings, member directory, and bylaws — all organized in a shared Google drive folder, where we also save our meeting agendas, event planning notes, and event photos.

Q: What are the vision, mission, and goals of the committee?

The vision of the committee is more just and equitable communities that enable opportunity, quality of life, and a sense of belonging for all; a more diverse planning profession working together to make this vision a reality.

The mission is to increase diversity and cultural competency within the planning profession and provide a resource for planners of different backgrounds in the NY Metro Area to build meaningful connections and share ideas.

The committee identified four main goals to guide activities for each year:

  1. Foster a welcoming environment, safe space, and community for planners of varied backgrounds to share experiences, find mentorship, grow personally and professionally, and make deep connections.
  2. Actively address barriers to recruitment and retention of underrepresented peoples in the profession, including but not limited to people of color, women, and LGBTQ-identifying individuals. This includes assisting the national APA’s Diversity Committee  in implementing objectives towards improving diversity, and turning the lens on the planning profession.
  3. Serve as a resource for information on diversity and planning issues, success stories, events, leadership training, workshops, etc., especially for institutions.
  4. Work together with other APA NY Metro committees, sections, and national divisions to ensure that content of programs include diverse voices/panels and cover concepts of equity and inclusivity.

DivComm member Daphne Lundi with students during the Harlem Children’s Zone Workshop in 2016. Photo courtesy the New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee.

Q: What are some of the committee’s activities?

The committee has a wide variety of activities that align with the goals  established by group members. The committee generally meets monthly and organizes two major events per year, with casual gatherings in place of or in addition to certain monthly meetings. The committee continually reflects and revises activities to ensure alignment with the established vision, mission, goals and member interest. Activities include:

  • In-person Monthly meetings: The first hour of the meeting is “Safe Space Hour,” reserved for discussion of current issues or for sharing personal experiences and advice, while the second hour is reserved for business items, such as organizing events. Meetings are usually held in an office conference room on the second Thursday of each month.
  • Bi-weekly emails: These messages include meeting reminders and agendas, as well as highlighting job, volunteer, and other planning and equity related opportunities.
  • Youth Planning Education: “APA Ambassador” activities, including interactive workshops with young people across the city to introduce concepts of planning and increase positive early exposure to the profession.
  • Professional Development Events: Once per year, panels featuring diverse planners of color and discussing leadership, growth, entrepreneurship, and accompanied by resume workshops, mock interviews, and networking sessions. CM credits available.
  • Conference: Annual Hindsight Conference — a national conference on social equity as a planning lens held in November, with its first in 2017. CM credits available for the full day.
  • Issuing Statements: Responding to current events and issues related to diversity, equity, and planning. For example, responding to ACSP accreditation changes, local university diversity issues, new federal policies, and more.
  • Pamphlets: Creating useful materials to promote diversity, including a one-pager on strategies to promote diversity in planning schools; currently, the committee is working on a guide for students of color in planning, featuring planners of color and their advice.
  • Inter-committee Partnerships: Coffee talks, panels, or neighborhood tours that highlight social equity and a specific topic in planning, in partnership with other chapter committees, including the School Relations Committee.
  • Community Gatherings: recreational, creative, healing activities to build community, such as happy hours, field trips, and recently an arts, crafts, and music night.
  • Social Media: Facebook, Using Twitter, and Instagram accounts to help document activities, share relevant articles, and events.

Q: What have been some of the challenges in running a committee?

Because the committee had been dormant for some time, there was the space to reimagine what a diversity committee could look like and what changes it could help to shift. From the beginning, the committee members advocated for the centering of social equity in planning practice. This meant pushing chapter leadership to be more accountable around diversity issues especially around race and gender issues.

There was also the challenge of initial recruitment and leadership as the committee grew. Being a part of a committee can be perceived as a lengthy commitment that might not align with individuals’ busy schedules — especially in New York City.

The committee didn’t require a paid membership, and in hosting successful events, helped to spread the word and positive reputation of the committee and, overtime, expand the network. The committee put on three events in the first year of the group revival, making it one of the most active committees in the NY Metro Area.

This level of activity also meant increased responsibilities for Co-Chairs Giovania and Tiffany. The committee created coordinator positions in order increase the capacity of the group, and also as a way to create ownership and leadership opportunities for active members.

Hindsight Planning Committee of DivComm (clockwise from left): Maggie Calmes, Gloria Lau, Daphne Lundi, Tiffany Ann Taylor, George Todorovic, Nate Heffron, Jonathan Marable, Ciera Dudley, Emily Ahn Levy, Kate Selden, Giovania Tiarachristie, and Catherine Nguyen. Photo courtesy the New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee.

Q: How is the committee leadership structured?

As the committee took on more responsibilities, it needed to more effectively delegate coordination amongst its different projects. The following leadership positions and division of responsibilities were created:

  • Co-Chairs to represent the committee, liaise with the New York Chapter executive team and sister committees, manage the budget, set meeting agendas, and facilitate meetings
  • Vice-Chair, to represent the committee and support the responsibilities of the co-chairs
  • Communications and Design Coordinators, to manage the website, social media, marketing, design, and other public-facing committee outreach
  • Training and Professional Development Coordinators, event planning coordinators, specializing in training and professional development opportunities for planners to build cultural competency, grow a diverse planning leadership, and other skills
  • Youth, Schools, and Planning Coordinators: event planning coordinators, specializing in Ambassador work and educating young people in the area, especially from underrepresented groups, about urban planning
  • Events Planning Squad: event planning team leaders to assist coordinators in implementing the calendar of events

Appointments are based on member interest to take on the coordinator role and its responsibilities.

Q: What would you say are some main lessons learned?

There have been several, just in the last few years alone. Here are some of our favorites:

  1. Don’t be afraid to break the rules. Part of our committee’s success is due to courage and persistence to try new ways of doing things, even when it means occasionally breaking some rules (as long as you fully understand the consequences). In order for planning to become a more inclusive practice and promote equity, it is necessary to push and shift the status quo.
  2. Ask and you shall receive. As the committee has grown and we’ve taken on more projects, we’ve also learned the value of coalition-building. You can’t do it all alone--don’t be afraid of partnerships, or shy to ask for help. Whether it’s raising funds, finding a space last minute, or getting a high-profile speaker for an event--ask, pitch the relevance of diversity and equity in planning (and the lack thereof), and you are likely to receive.
  3. Create the space you need. In establishing the committee, as founding members, we started by asking ourselves what is the space and community that we need as planners of color? Ask yourself, and have a conversation with others. You’ll soon find out that other people need those spaces too.
  4. Centralize community. In the hustle and bustle of city life, it can be challenging to go to another meeting or expend energy planning another event. The thing that keeps us coming back is the growing community we’ve created of people who share the value of equity and justice in planning, and share similar struggles and experiences. Meeting in person is perhaps key, which was slightly easier for our committee because many of our members are based in New York City, and we’ve considered call-in or video-conferencing for members in outlying counties.

Top image: DivComm members (from left) Kate Selden, Sabrina Bazile, Tiffany Ann Taylor, Athena Bernkopf, and Daphne Lundi. Photo courtesy the New York Metro Chapter Diversity Committee.

About the Interviewees

Giovania Tiarachristie is a senior neighborhood planner at the Office of Neighborhood Strategies in the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Tiffany Ann Taylor is a senior project manager at the New York City Economic Development Corportation (NYCEDC).

Daphne Lundi is an urban planner focused on climate resilience and neighborhood planning at the New York City Department of City Planning.

Catherine Nguyen is a senior project manager in development at the New York City Economic Development Corportation (NYCEDC) where she manages projects in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island.

April 3, 2018

By Daphne Lundi, Tiffany-Ann Taylor, Catherine Nguyen, Giovania Tiarachristie