People Behind the Plans: Anaid Yerena and Rashad Williams on Building an Equitable Future of Planning

About This Episode

The history of planning includes racist policies and practices that have resulted in entrenched inequity and enduring systemic barriers. Understanding the complexities and impacts of those barriers is necessary to dismantle ingrained inequalities and achieve transformative change. A recent edition of the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA) called "Antiracist Futures: Disrupting Racist Planning Practices in Workplaces, Institutions, and Communities" centers on racial justice in the planning field, documenting the current state of the profession and planning education, and offering tangible strategies for implementing anti-racist practices that are adaptable and responsive.

In this episode of People Behind the Plans, JAPA contributor Rashad Williams, Assistant Professor of Race and Social Justice in Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, joins Yerena to speak about anti-racist community planning concepts that lay the foundation for planners to reckon with history, disrupt the status quo and find new ways to pursue equity in every community.

Episode Transcript

Anaid Yerena: We identify that for planners, our primary focus is on institutional or structural racism. And that means that as planners, our attention is directed towards the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded within policies, practices, and structures rather than solely on individual beliefs or attitudes. Yet when thinking about ways to define anti-racism for the individual, we still need to start with our internalized as well as individual practices.


Meghan Stromberg: Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I'm Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief of the American Planning Association. I want to talk today about something I've been reading lately. One of the recent issues of JAPA – the Journal of the American Planning Association – is a special issue called Antiracist Futures: Disrupting Racist Planning Practices in Workplaces, Institutions, and Communities. And some pretty bold ways, it points out that while planners and planning scholars agree on the importance of promoting equity and social justice in planning practice, there's a notable gap between how institutions train planners to work in diverse communities and the actual knowledge, awareness and skills required to become culturally aware, humble and competent practitioners.


Then there's the issue of how urban planning addresses systemic racism, particularly in urban policies in the built environment. Planning scholars featured in this issue of JAPA introduce new and important concepts like reparative planning, that lay the foundation for planners to reckon with history, disrupt the status quo and find new ways to pursue equity in every community.


Today's episode brings together two key contributors to that JAPA special issue. Anaid Yerena is an associate professor of urban studies at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and the co-editor of JAPA's Anti-Racist Futures special issue. Anaid is joined by Rashad Williams, who is an assistant professor of race and social justice in public policy at the University of Pittsburgh and a contributor to the JAPA issue. Let's get started. First, both of you, welcome to people behind the plans. Thanks very much for being here.


Rashad Williams: Thank you so much for having us.


Anaid Yerena: Yeah, thanks, Meghan. Good to be here.


Meghan Stromberg: My first question is how did this issue come about?


Anaid Yerena: Absolutely. This is a special issue that I co-edited with April Jackson, an associate professor of urban planning and policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. And this issue lays out an important conversation about what constitutes anti-racism and why it's necessary in this moment. We decided to pursue this issue shortly after the nationwide anti-racism protests of the spring and summer of 2020, when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, amongst others, died in police custody. At the time, we found ourselves at a crucial juncture in history that was marked by heightened public awareness during a period of racial reckoning.


As co-editors, we believe it is imperative to document the response of state, regional or municipal planning in higher education to the changing landscape centering racial justice in the planning field. We believe that the work of anti-racism and decolonial planning practices is needed to challenge and dismantle the systemic barriers and inequalities that are perpetuating injustice in our society. So we were hoping that we could offer tangible strategies for implementing anti-racist and decolonize planning practices that are adaptable and responsive, rather than fixed or everlasting.


Rashad Williams: Well, I saw the call come out for the special edition, and my work is on reparative planning and racial capitalism. And I thought, of course I have to contribute. So my co-author and I – Justin Steele, who's at MIT – put our minds together. He's the author of an article called "Anti-Subordination Planning." And we saw that together we have a lot of overlapping concerns, a lot of overlapping interests, and a lot of overlapping ways of understanding the root of the problem. So what better thing to do than to put both of our minds together to hopefully move us forward?


Anaid Yerena: Our focus as co-editors was to ensure that the articles were providing ideas of how to move forward, and not just focusing on defining the problem.


Meghan Stromberg: Speaking of definitions, I think it's important out front to give some or at least give one definition. Anaid, I wonder if you could define for us what anti-racism means and particularly what it means to planning practice.


Anaid Yerena: We start by defining racism and by using the commonplace definition of racism, which is the belief in the superiority or inferiority of one race over another and understanding that there are several levels of racism. So, there's the internalized interpersonal, institutional and structural levels. We identify that for planners, our primary focus is on institutional or structural racism. And that means that as planners, our attention is directed towards the systemic and institutionalized forms of racism that are embedded within policies, practices and structures, rather than solely on individual beliefs or attitudes.


Yet, when thinking about ways to define anti-racism for the individual, we still need to start with our internalized as well as individual practices. We talk about dimensions of six functions of anti-racism, where we're talking about reducing the incidence of racist practices in everyday and structural racism, supporting victims of racism, empowering racialized subjects to fight racism in the long term, transforming racist relations into better alternative relations, and fostering an anti-racist culture in which racial identification is no longer a relevant or salient form of identification.


Anti-racism work must also be intersectional and address other forms of oppression or power. Otherwise, anti-racism can reproduce the subordination of other identities such as women, individuals with disabilities or trans folks.


Meghan Stromberg: I really appreciate you bringing into focus that it's not just one thing, it's a set of definitions that deserves further understanding.


Both of you are planning educators. We're becoming much more aware of anti-racism and how the planning field has historically contributed to oppression and inequity. Institutions such as planning departments, cities and universities have taken steps to address that, including adopting equity policies. I'm wondering what kind of anti-racist action you're seeing in planning education.


Anaid Yerena: Thanks for that question, Meghan. So the best way for me to answer that question is to go into my personal practice. So what changes have I done to foster and nurture an anti-racist space in my classroom? And that started around five years ago when I looked at my syllabus as a document that structures the relationship between my fellow co-learners and myself, and questioned or interrogated each one of my policies as practices that were either supporting individuals experience in the learning process or perpetuating oppression and providing rigid structures that further caused harm and stress.


I teach at an urban-serving campus with a lot of racial and ethnic groups in the classroom, and noticing that I could be perpetuating harm and oppression in that space which ones were the traits of dominant or white supremacist culture that I was upholding, mostly because that was the way that I experienced education imposed upon me as a Latina individual. And that was a lot about following rules and very strict timelines, punctuality and being rewarded. And quite frankly, at many points as part of my integration, realizing that punctuality was not related to the individual's learning and was more related to maybe my need for efficiency and to get all my grading done at a certain point.


And so I identified the ways in which I could redress those policies and change them, so that I could foster a culture of support and care in the learning environment that I am a host of. And so that means that I changed due dates. That means that I got rid of late penalties, and that's something that I can arrange and something that I can make happen. It's been five years since I've made these changes, and now as part of my journey, I've now moved into a space where part of this practice creates a community of support amongst the students, my fellow learners and myself. As we're all here to support each other, we will get through this quarter together and we will thrive together. We will learn from each other, and again, moving and shifting that locus of power in the space that is the education system.


Meghan Stromberg: Certainly, your way of approaching the classroom has very likely had impact on other professors and other aspects of the university, but I appreciate you sharing that story about it's really starting with you personally and examining what you're doing. And I suspect that that's the case in a lot of this work.


Rashad Williams: I want to kind of put that in a broader kind of frame as well, because what Anaid is pushing back against and what I'm trying to also push back against, within my own teaching, is what higher education has become. And Wendy Brown has a fascinating book that speaks to this. With the rising cost of college education and the gutting of public support, higher education has become – in some ways necessarily – glorified vocational training. And that's because the question for students who are taking on this enormous debt increasingly has to be, what will be my return on investment?

And so when this becomes the principal stress of education, colleges and their administrators begin to prioritize the preferences of employers: the hard skills, can you do a regression analysis, can you do GIS, and so forth. And they de-emphasize questions of political philosophy, of ethics, of democracy, of citizenship, critical history, and so on. And so it's now become a luxury to get an education that develops you as a whole person, as a human and ethical being.


Anaid Yerena: I'll add that, I mean — I want to be very specific here — the field of planning is very vulnerable to falling into this trap, because there are very specific tools and skills that we're seeking to have new practitioners show up being able to perform. I would ask us to think less about those hard skills as a priority, and welcome the insight and perspectives that early career planners will bring into the profession by asking these critical questions around, how are we doing community engagement? What is our culture of engagement in this space? Because those are honestly some skills that are not as easily picked up with a tutorial or going to a workshop. It's a type of learning that takes way longer to happen and to be understood by the individual, so that they can apply it into the world.


Meghan Stromberg: This is an audio program, so you can't hear me nodding along. But APA is working on its upskilling initiative, where it's identified what skills planners need to develop in order to do the work they need to do in a rapidly changing world. There are some hard skills there, but there's also skills like empathy, critical thinking, systems thinking and listening.


I want to shift the conversation a little bit to talk about Rashad's research in reparative planning. I know it's a deep and complicated concept that you continue to explore, Rashad, but can you tell us what reparative planning means?


Rashad Williams: Absolutely. Reparative planning is a planning tradition that explicitly sets out to create a world, through the levers of urban governance, where life chances can truly become independent of race. In this way, it's meant to complement the national and international reparations movements, not replace them. But reparative planning is also a contestable concept because, as Anaid was just mentioning, there are many different kinds and forms of anti-racism, many ideas about what anti-racism even is. And so when I was developing the term reparative planning, the concept reparative planning, I wanted to make sure that this would be a concept that was structurally informed, so to speak, so that we can really get to the issues of structural racism, as I understand them.


When I began to work on my dissertation, I found that this was extremely important. In 2020, after the George Floyd protests, the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul both launched what you might call reparative planning programs or efforts. In the city of Minneapolis, they created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the city of Saint Paul, they created a community reparations commission. And what's so interesting about these two different approaches to what we can call reparative planning is that in the city of Minneapolis, they explicitly led with a politics of recognition, getting to the sort of interpersonal racism that Anaid just mentioned. And so their goal was to bring people together and quote, have bidirectional learning spaces, opportunities for self-reflection, and so forth. Curiously, there's nothing redistributive about that approach.


And in the sister city, the twin city Saint Paul, there was an explicit focus on redistribution. They explicitly mentioned that they wanted to close gaps in home ownership and wealth and in education, to whatever extent a city could, and that they would work out the process for doing that. And so again, you have a politics of recognition in one city and a politics of redistribution in the other city. We have these different underlying ideas about what anti-racism is. The weight of evidence in social science, literature and planning literature tells us that reparative planning has to be more of a redistributive effort and more of an effort that is transformative spatially and structurally as well. And so that's what Justin Steele and I, my co-author, wrote about in our piece.


Meghan Stromberg: So we have this awareness of what anti-racism is. Hopefully this conversation and conversations like it that are happening all over the place are increasing that awareness and understanding. But as both of you have mentioned, there's racism at various different scales, and I'm curious as to what cities can do to ensure an anti-racist future for their communities.


Rashad Williams: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think when we talk about cities, we have to be very specific. There's the state apparatus or government or political class, if you like, there's the business sector and then there are the people. And even within the people we have different cleavages, right? We have cleavages along the lines of social difference, along race, gender and so forth, class, of course. And so if we're talking about reparations or something like reparative planning, these are radical anti-racist programs, or at least they should be, if we understand the problem to be one of structural injustice.


If that's the case, I don't necessarily see cities leading this effort. Or as Fredrick Douglass says, power concedes nothing without demand. And as we know, radical change is often preceded by a crisis or radical change is achieved when there is an opportunity window for that change to actually be taken seriously, or for the proposals for change to be taken seriously. And so I think the impetus for reparative planning really comes from the grassroots. I think it comes from the people.


If we're speaking about planners specifically, what can planners do to assist grassroots movements in achieving radical change? I think they have to get an education that provides this kind of critical analysis, this kind of urgency to these questions that Anaid and I were discussing. And I think they have to have a deep sense, morally and politically, of just what is wrong in society.


Anaid Yerena: The more you understand what's going on, the more you raise awareness on the issue, and there's a lot more that we can learn. Identifying the place to start in this learning journey, we're not hoping that people wait till they have full awareness and complete understanding of the issue before they start to take action. It's what you can do in the meantime, as you're learning more and reading more and interacting, and again, continuing your process of becoming more aware of what's going on. And that is, to put it succinctly, identifying ways to honor our own humanity. And so that is identifying ways of self-care, knowing that this is one of the steps to becoming an anti-racist individual that can then pull levers and change structures and ideologies and hopefully bring about the larger change.


Meghan Stromberg: Well, thank you so much for this conversation, for exploring these issues and sharing your personal journeys with us, but also helping us to understand some of these very complicated issues.


Rashad Williams: Thank you so much for having us.


Anaid Yerena: It was lovely.


Meghan Stromberg: Thanks for listening to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. If you want to hear more great conversations from experts from across the planning landscape, subscribe to APA podcasts so you'll never miss an episode. And if you like what you're hearing, rate us on iTunes. You can find people behind the plans on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also find our entire library of episodes at

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