2009 National Planning Conference

Diversity Forum

By Tre Jerdon
APA Research Associate

APA and AICP recognize social equity challenges and the importance of bridging the gaps between underserved populations and the planning profession. The speakers at Monday's Diversity Forum at the 2009 National Planning Conference in Minneapolis provided an array of information and expertise on how to better include minorities and underserved populations in the planning profession.

The three speakers on the symposium panel challenged planners to think about the terms social inclusion, integration, and diversity, and how these apply to professional planners over the long term.

A place at the table

Rosita S. Blach started her career as a community organizer with a strong desire to help immigrant populations in Minneapolis. With no formal planning background, Blach was determined to bring awareness to the overlooked communities with populations that could not get ahead in life. Community engagement has been at the forefront of her strategy to transition Latino, Mexican, Somali, and other groups to more opportunities, better jobs, cleaner neighborhoods, and an overall improvement in their quality of life.

Blach said that in 2000 Minneapolis experienced a significant in-migration of immigrant populations from California, Colorado, and Florida, mostly as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement — NAFTA. Once people lost jobs, they were forced to relocate to try and find new employment. Blach questioned whether the "system" was ready for multicultural diversity in Minneapolis. She knew that changes to provide a more socially, economically, and racially inclusive society were imperative, but a lack of support stifled her influence and passion for change.

Blach is currently working with the Latino Youth Development Collaborative, which engages Hennepin County communities, youth, and agencies in a dialogue to address the increasing high school dropout rate among Latino students, a growing concern among this population. Blach proposed that this and other problems affect everyone and must be addressed to provide more socially connected communities.

Blach said her current program has had great success, and she told the audience that diversity empowers people and groups to sit at the table with leaders and advocate for changing their own lives.

An emphasis on youth

Alexander Chen, a professor at the University of Maryland,  often engages youth in exercises to promote the planning profession. He recognizes the growing minority population (minorities will become the majority by 2046) and notes that this trend raises serious questions about the profession. Chen works closely with students in Maryland communities to expose them to planning and how it affects their own lives. For example, the box city exercise promotes the principles of mixed-use development and engages youth by providing an opportunity for them to design their ideal community.

Chen also described City Vision, a program offered through the National Building Museum and co-sponsored by the D.C. Office of Planning. Over a 13-week period, one full day a week, students participate in what Chen described as a mini-studio. Through studying, community interviews, and a final presentation to planning boards, commissions, school faculty and staff, and parents, City Vision program participants gain a valuable understanding of how planning impacts their lives. They have an opportunity to work with professional planners and ask questions. Chen has also worked with youth on the Wheaton Community Study Action Plan to facilitate exercises and discussions about community revitalization.

A community plan

Irayda M. Ruiz was a planner in Hampton, Virginia, a predominately African-American community, and was the first woman of color in the planning department. She worked on the Hampton Community Plan to reenergize and re-envision the values and goals of the community. The residents wanted to promote healthier neighborhoods, diverse communities, healthy growth and development of youth, and a healthy business climate. The plan's objectives varied, but Ruiz highlighted protecting and enhancing neighborhoods and creating great places that people care about as basic plan principles.

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