By Carlton Eley
I am a fan of Star Trek. My favorite series in the franchise is Deep Space Nine, which released a memorable episode in 1998 that explores the nuances of professional and social intolerance in 1950s Manhattan.
"Far Beyond the Stars" follows a science-fiction writer named Benny Russell who eventually suffers a nervous breakdown. When his company refuses to publish his story about a Black man in command of a space station, he offers a powerful statement filled with raw pathos and frustration, insisting that his ideas of hope and social change cannot be denied just because an editor is uncomfortable with them.
Although the episode is 60 minutes of televised science fiction, the story is not a stretch from reality.
Benny Russell is a relatable character. Many professional and academic planners have experienced the frustration of being in a work environment while swimming against the current and internalizing the stress from microaggressions.
But I also hold the same hope for social change as Benny. His journey in "Far Beyond the Stars" reveals some important lessons for professional planners who are striving to advance equity.
Dramatic social change requires imagination. No profession of the built environment can create a culture where equity will thrive if it stifles constructive critique or imagination.
As an urban planner committed to advancing equity, I have worked in government programs that were "market driven" with equally "market-driven" peers. Over time, I found that it is easier and more satisfying to change how I managed my projects versus trying to convince an office to change. Instead, I directed my attention to making equity a priority in my cooperative agreements, work assignments, and projects.
Eventually, market-driven programs will adapt once they realize that they are at risk of being left behind.
A second and subtle lesson is persistence and going all-in. As the nation reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, we should remember that the U.S. won the race to the moon by mastering small steps. U.S. scientists, engineers, mathematicians — including "hidden figures" — had to pull together and think it through. Instead of vacillating, all parties remained focused on moving forward and achieving the mission.
A similar level of deliberate, focused intellectual stamina is required to advance equity in planning. Ambitious goals are not achieved through serendipity.
Finally, storytelling is a valuable tool. In the episode, Benny Russell uses it to speak up for people without a voice and to encourage change in a society that is not compelled to be more equitable.
When I was a graduate student, I could have used some of these stories; the narratives of people who looked like me were noticeably absent from the curriculum. Instead, after graduate school, I compensated for the deficits in my education by researching how people of color are actively rebuilding their communities. In part, the act of speaking up for people is an opportunity for planners to identify and elevate planning solutions that have been left in the shadows.
As the unfinished business of the planning profession, advancing equity is the responsibility of this generation. Practitioners should not casually bequeath this task to our progeny. This responsibility requires planners to be bold, to be curious, and to be mindful because the public is relying on us to move far beyond our comfort zones.
Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.