Social Justice Committee: Past, Present, and Future

This story is from the Newsletter created by the Student Planning Association under the directorship of Drew Swope (MCRP class of '12).

By Emily J. Brown

The Social Justice Committee (SJC) is a group within the Student Planning Association of the School of City and Regional Planning. According to the mission statement,  “The Social Justice Committee addresses issues of inequality in metro Atlanta through action and advocacy in planning. We provide planning-specific skills to community-led initiatives in areas that lack resources, power or voice. We seek to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with communities and raise social justice awareness at Georgia Tech.”

City planning is often a service restricted to groups that have the resources to pay for it. The Social Justice Committee attempts to provide access to city planning services for disenfranchised communities in order to improve their equality of opportunity and facilitate mutual empowerment.  We define social justice as a rejection of discrimination and unequal access to opportunity based on race, class, gender, sexuality or culture. We partner with community-led initiatives and work with local leaders in the tradition of advocacy planning. We also provide educational events to the Georgia Tech community about issues related to planning and social justice.

The Social Justice Committee aims to create opportunities for students to apply their education to short-term planning projects. Many professions have an aspect of “giving back” built into their professional codes of conduct. Lawyers perform pro-bono work, and doctors may travel with “Doctors Without Borders.” Similarly, under the AICP Code of Ethics, planners are urged to contribute time and efforts to groups lacking in adequate planning resources and to voluntary professional activities. When asked, students pursuing a degree in City and Regional Planning often cite their desire to “make the world a better place.” Learning about theories and strategies in the classroom certainly does prepare students to make a difference in their future careers, but rarely do they have meaningful experiences in communities where planning can have an immediate effect.  Participating in the The Social Justice Committee provides hands-on experience and helps students see how their city planning education is uniquely valuable to communities that have experienced disinvestment. One hope of the SJC is that through participating in these student-initiated projects, future planners will be inspired to continue volunteer-based planning projects in their professional careers.

Student alumnus Jesse Clark founded the Social Justice Committee in 2009. In its inaugural year, the SJC completed several projects. In the first project, the committee worked with the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association to plan a community garden. The SJC’s next project was a presentation to Resources for Residents and Communities of a site development and street design plan for properties they owned in Reynoldstown. The 2009 Committee also held the GT Jam for Haiti, a concert to raise funds for victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

In 2010, planning Zach Adriaenssens took over leadership of the committee and the group’s scope began to grow. In October, the SJC held “Battleplans,” a four day film festival and speaker series focusing on the intersection of planning and community organizing.  Georgia Tech involved the group with a study of lighting in the adjacent neighborhood of Home Park in an effort to cut down on crime in the area. A bus tour entitled “Spectacle is Not Development” provided perspective into the disadvantages of uncontrolled development, especially the effects in disinvested neighborhoods. As a result of this tour, the SJC approached the Peoplestown Revitalization Corporation to discuss a project focused on an open landfill that was being actively mined for scrap metal. This project continues to develop. The SJC also advocated for the rights of citizens who would be impacted by the development of a new Falcons stadium by attending meetings and increasing awareness.

This year, the SJC has several new projects in progress.  Additionally, some projects continue from last year; the Peoplestown committee is currently addressing issues of brownfield classification and how to create an economic development initiative. Plans are also in the works for another “Battleplans” event in the Spring semester that will focus on energy and natural resource extraction.

Our new projects cover a large spectrum of planning interests. Dan Cotter, a first year planning student, is taking the lead on a housing inventory and economic development plan for the Grove Park Community Land Trust (GPCLT). Through this effort, the SJC will work with community members to inventory approximately 3,000 houses. This data will serve anti-displacements efforts by the GPCLT, which is a major concern with the impending arrival of the Beltline Quarry Park.

Margaret Lilly, also a first year student, is heading up a sub-committee to create a site-specific plan for an eight block portion of the English Avenue neighborhood. This project is particularly relevant because alumnus, Stephen Causby, who lives in the neighborhood and worked on a 2008 studio in the area, initiated it.  The team will review this studio’s work, as well as other plans for the area, and create a site-specific plan for the neighborhood. The plan will focus on neighborhood safety, vacant and run down properties, and evaluate how to best use the resource of their community garden.

Joel Anders, a City Planning/Civil Engineering joint degree student, is the sub-committee chairperson for a project to research grants and analyze data at Sopo Bicycle Cooperative, a non-profit that provides bicycles and bicycle repair to the community. The group has held events to provide bicycles to refugee communities and half way homes, but has not conducted any analysis of these efforts. They are hoping to use this information to apply for funding for a full-time staff person.

The SJC is also aligned with the Atlanta Planner’s Network chapter. The Planner’s Network is an association of progressive planners whose members are professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning. They serve as a voice for social, economic, and environmental justice through planning. 

The SJC creates opportunities for students to gain experience in the field of planning, while working to create fairer access to resources in the city of Atlanta through providing planning services and advocacy. We hope to become a resource to communities in need, and to inspire a sense of social responsibility in the next generation of planners. The SJC empowers communities by providing a needed resource and empowers students by showing that planning can be effective and transformative.


Emily Brown is a second year MCRP student.  She came to Georgia Tech with a BA in English from Allegheny College.  She is specializing in economic development and currently works in Snellville, GA.

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