By Desiree D. Powell, MCRP
During my time studying planning in graduate school, the notion of race or racism was rarely discussed beyond Sherry Arnstein's ladder of citizen participation. But becoming acquainted with the reality of planning's racist past — and understanding the ways the built environment has deprived Black communities of resources — ultimately defined the planner I wanted to become. Through redlining, exclusionary zoning, and race-driven covenants, planning has provided the justification and the means to strategically divide those with darker skin away from others, with no way to ever see the greener side of the grass. I wanted to address that legacy.
But I also knew that a field that deliberately contributed to the systemic disenfranchisement of Black communities for decades had, for at least as long, no intention of welcoming someone who looked like me into the fold. Still, I chose to pursue a career in the field.
Today, as the number of Black planners continues to grow, the profession seems to encourage diversity and inclusion. Equity is treated as the cure for racist land-use and zoning decisions of the past. It's become the ritualistic chant of our profession: equity, equity, equity. And while some planners have made and continue to make ground, we are not seeing large-scale progress. To many non-Black planners, equity amounts to little more than a buzzword, a box to check at conference sessions.
As a Black female planner, it's disturbing to face what planning has done to our communities, on top of the internal trauma I take on as I push through everyday life while pursuing my own career. I want the rest of the profession to recognize the ways planning policies have created, implemented, and perpetuated the destruction of Black communities through systemic racism — and work to remedy them. But sessions, webinars, and training alone aren't enough. The conversations held about equity are not translating into meaningful action.
"If the field is to ever change, we must confront its demons: the systemic racism planning has perpetuated. It has been ignored and pacified for decades."
—Desiree D. Powell, MCRP
For me, other Black planners, and the communities we all serve, the profession needs to show what the equity pitch is really all about. How can we guide communities of color with the promise of equity when we have yet to see true racial equity embraced in our offices, practices, policies, degree programs, and national organizations? If the field is to ever change, we must confront its demons: the systemic racism planning has perpetuated. It has been ignored and pacified for decades.
True change, change that holds us to doing and not just talking, must move beyond the uncomfortable conversations. Planning schools must tell the full, often ugly history of the profession. The voices of Black planners — in education, research, and practice — need to be listened to and encouraged in a way that dismantles planning's stratification. And the field must create more leadership roles for Black planners so we can impact and change policies and standards. Black leadership ties directly back to the notion of planning with the people being served, not for them. Black communities need Black planners as much as Black planners need the opportunity to plan for them.
No more talking the equity talk. We need to walk the equity walk — in practice, policy, and the overall presentation of planning. For Black planners, these efforts will serve as the beginning of transforming the entire narrative of our profession. For Black communities that have been systematically neglected for decades, our work has just begun.
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.