A Call for Planners to Battle on Behalf of Communities

Three community organizers discussed their experience with community development projects this past Thursday, culminating a week-long series exploring linkages between city planning and community organizing.  Taking place at Georgia Tech, Battle Plans: the Intersection of Planning and Community Organizing was developed by the Student Planning Associations’ Social Justice Committee in the School of City and Regional Planning. The panel of organizers featured Dawn Phillips of Causa Justa in Oakland, CA, Lisa Adler formerly of the Bus Riders Union/Labor Strategy Center in Los Angeles, and Glo Ross, a Tech PhD student who previously worked with FIERCE in New York City.

Lisa Adler helped steer LA government funding toward bus routes that serve more poor riders, rather than new rail lines that are disproportionately aimed at suburban middle class.  She noted that planners can act as powerful community advocates by supporting community organizers in community benefits campaigning and negotiations with elected officials.  Glo Ross worked with non-profit sector planners on behalf of the LGBTQ homeless youth of color in New York City to create a plan that legitimized their right to public space and the services they needed. Lessons shared by Dawn Phillips demonstrated the importance of how a planner approaches a community by the manner in which they ask questions and listen for answers. Dawn believes that understanding the role of planners must begin with a recognition of the critical role that local government plays (as opposed to the private market alone) in the physical and economic characteristics of communities.  Planners can be agents of change in their role as the city’s “gatekeeper” for any new proposed developments that will affect their community. He called on planners to ensure that cities serve the full range of their residents. But the most critical lesson for planning students, as Dawn articulated it, was the need to position oneself ideologically in relation to the work—to understand the political and economic context of the project and decide “why you are doing [the work] and who you are doing it for.” He encouraged planners not to attempt to remain “objective” experts – but instead stressed that planners can actually have the most impact if they have a political analysis that undergirds their work.

After their presentations, the panel stayed to answer questions from the audience where the discussion turned to related topics specific to Atlanta. The discussion continued at the organizing fair where guests could interact with the presenters as well as some of Atlanta’s own organizing groups.

Earlier events in the series included screenings of three films highlighting community organizing around planning issues in US cities:  The Atlanta Way,  an investigation into gentrification and urban renewal; Neighbor-by-Neighbor: Mobilizing an Invisible Community in Lewiston, Maine;, and The Garden, about efforts by a Latino community in Los Angeles to keep a 14-acre community garden.

Battle Plans’ event organizers included Moki Macías (MCRP class of ’11), Kia Ball (MCRP class of ’11), Zach Adriaenssens (MCRP class of ’11), Jesse Clark (MCRP class of ’11), Victoria Lee (MCRP class of ’12), Hans Williams (MCRP class of '12), and Emily Brown (MCRP class of ’12). Commenting on the series, Macías remarked, “Often in our planning classes, students express frustration over the lack of political will to implement many of the progressive plans we are learning about. Part of our intention with Battle Plans was to demonstrate that—contrary to mainstream perception—there are people who fight everyday to build power among the most affected communities, and make community-led development a reality. And those are the battles planners need to participate in.”

To learn more about the Student Planning Association, visit their website here.

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