Planning Magazine

A Passion for Planning and Social Justice

AAPI planner Chancee Martorell talks about raising the visibility of Thai and other immigrant communities, the three Ps of affordable housing, and dedication to “unwavering principle over political expediency.”

Article Hero Image

Students from the UCLA Community School surround Chancee Martorell and her portrait from UCLA’s Our Stories, Our Impact traveling exhibit, which celebrated those who have advanced equity and equality in America. Photo courtesy of Chancee Martorell.

Chanchanit (Chancee) Martorell has built a career in community organizing and the nonprofit sector, with many years of service on the Central Los Angeles Planning Commission. A social activist for more than 30 years, Martorell is an advocate, urban planner, and community leader, dedicated to Thai, immigrant, and local communities. She founded and is the executive director of the Thai Community Development Center (Thai CDC).

A mentor and inspiration to me personally, I interviewed Martorell in December 2021 during a virtual launch event for the American Planning Association's Asian and Pacific Islander (API interests, values, and life experiences) Interest Group. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TIPPE MORLAN: What led you to pursue a career in urban planning?

CHANCEE MARTORELL: What has inspired me and informed me — and why I'm where I am and doing what I'm doing — really stems from being an immigrant myself. I'm a Thai immigrant who grew up in Los Angeles after my parents immigrated here with my sister and me. They became part of the low-wage sector of the economy, working in multiple jobs throughout their working life.

I grew up in the inner city of LA, in a very multi-ethnic immigrant neighborhood, where I got to witness firsthand the struggles of newcomers and immigrants like my parents. I ended up interpreting and advocating on behalf of my parents as a little girl, helping them navigate two worlds. I grew up very fast and sort of became a service provider from the very beginning.

Later on, the LA Unified School District started bussing inner city kids out to suburban areas of LA to integrate the kids of color into a more predominantly white community. That was a culture shock, and really a very alienating experience for me. It allowed me to see the disparity between people like me living in the inner city and the folks out in the suburbs.

In my neighborhood, we had no access to parks and green space, and the services and infrastructure were a lot poorer. The housing was dilapidated and in disrepair. Then you go out to the suburbs, and you've got a lot of greenery and resources, and a built environment that was just better — more conducive to a very comfortable life.

Eventually, I studied abroad in Thailand at Chiang Mai University, and it sparked my interest in pursuing a degree in international development. But when I got back to the States and grad school at UCLA, where I was pursuing my degree in urban planning, there was civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992. Then in 1994, we were struck by the Northridge Earthquake.

Both crises left devastation in their wakes and had adverse impacts on the Thai community, leaving them displaced from their homes, jobs, and businesses. There were no service providers with the linguistic and cultural competency to serve them. That led to the birth of Thai CDC, and I've been here ever since.

MORLAN: Can you tell me more about those early days?

MARTORELL: We came to understand that this community was really having difficulty overcoming its invisibility factor — a lot of policymakers and elected officials just did not see us as having any significance because we lacked the political clout. We could get easily bypassed when resources come down the pipeline, so it was important for us to make our presence known and make sure that the powers that be knew that we exist, that we occupy space associated with history.

That's why we then began the campaign to designate East Hollywood a historic port of entry for newly arrived Thai immigrants as Thai Town. After a seven-year, protracted campaign we were successful in obtaining that municipal designation.

Martorell worked for seven years to designate a historically important Asian community in East Hollywood as Thai Town, a neighborhood filled with Thai restaurants, markets, and shops. Photo by Supannee Hickman/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

Martorell worked for seven years to designate a historically important Asian community in East Hollywood as Thai Town, a neighborhood filled with Thai restaurants, markets, and shops. Photo by Supannee Hickman/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus.

Thai CDC does its work around community development, economic development, creative place-making, cultural tourism, affordable housing, and small business development. While that helps build up a community and renders us more visible, it's also an opportunity for Thais to assert their community consciousness and engage in a community building process.

MORLAN: Can you tell us more about Thai CDC's affordable housing work?

MARTORELL: Thai CDC is part of a number of coalitions that are trying to protect housing — especially for low-income and very low-income people, those who are at 35 to 50 percent of the area median income — as well as address the homelessness crisis. We are trying to push for legislation in California that makes housing a form of public good — a right.

For us it's the three Ps:

  • Preservation of existing housing stock (especially rent controlled housing and units)
  • Production of more affordable housing
  • Protection of tenants

We also see a need to regulate short-term rentals. Wall Street has purchased a lot of rent-controlled buildings and turned them into micro hotels, displacing a lot of low-income tenants. What's gaining momentum across the country is not allowing the purchase of single-family homes by corporations — that was the big outcome of the housing fiasco.

MORLAN: How can the planning profession advance social justice issues for AAPI communities?

MARTORELL: Social justice is something that I feel very passionately about and that I've sought all my life, regardless of the price.

My question is: Are you willing to pay the price for justice? Because justice isn't free. Nothing worth having in life is ever free and there are a few things that are as rare and fleeting as true justice.

Ultimately, I would hope that you choose unwavering principle over political expediency, discomfort over comfort, sacrifice over privilege, change over the status quo, and action over complacency. But above all, choose social justice.

If we want to really see justice, we have to advocate for immigrant rights, workers' rights, and human rights. That is why we have taken on the heinous crime and the scourge known as human trafficking or modern-day slavery. Unfortunately, a lot of the foreign national victims are disproportionately Thai nationals. We've worked on dozens of human slavery and human trafficking cases involving thousands of Thai nationals. We're talking about labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

I like to refer back to what the legendary Asian-American activist Grace Lee Boggs talked about. She said that while we're looking at ourselves and re-ordering our priorities to save this country, this neighborhood, this community from any profound spiritual and material crisis, we really need to then undergo this kind of very deep spiritual reflection and shift our priorities if we want civil rights, if we want equality, if we want peace, and if we want justice.

MORLAN: How can planners incorporate social justice, equity, and inclusion into our everyday practice?

MARTORELL: As a community development practitioner and a trained planner for almost 30 years, and as a planning commissioner for nine years, I come to planning with a lens centered on equity, justice, inclusion, and diversity. That's because of my own background and life experience and because of what Thai CDC actually sees firsthand on the ground.

If planners are going to come from the lens of equity and social justice, you have to be constantly thinking of your actions and your decisions, and whether they are going to be for the benefit of the community as a whole, and then how to mitigate any negative impacts on the immediate community.

Take something like a transit-oriented community. If we are pressing for an equitable transit-oriented community, we should be pushing for anything that's built around the public transit, which is a public infrastructure funded by public dollars, and should be a public asset producing public benefits. That community should have affordable housing, open space, it should be walkable with amenities and green space. We always need to use equity in our deliberations in planning.

Planners also need to make sure that planning is grounded on the needs of the community. We need to create opportunities for the community to provide input, because their voice should be paramount. It's a matter of justice that their voice is part of any planning that affects the people who live, work, and do business there.

Tippe Morlan, AICP, is a senior planner for the City of Saratoga Springs in Utah, and the Director of Membership and Social Media for APA's Asian and Pacific Islander Interest Group.