How do disasters affect people of low socioeconomic status? As a natural disaster survivor and low-income student, I have experienced what it is like to start from zero after losing everything you have worked for to overcome inequality and poverty.
That's why being the inaugural recipient of the Opportunities Unbound scholarship, which was supported by individual donors and managed by the Student Representatives Council (SRC), was more than just an opportunity to attend the 2023 National Planning Conference (NPC). It is justice and equity in action. This sponsorship helped to cover the cost of attendance, one mobile tour, travel, food, and lodging for NPC23.
Because of the support from the Opportunities Unbound Scholarship, I attended my first NPC in Philadelphia. I felt so glad, thrilled, and inspired by the amazing experience I had there.
I had the opportunity to attend a range of sessions related to affordable housing, zoning reform, archipelago planning, community engagement, climate crisis, public health, and environmental hazards. Each of these sessions are directly related to my personal and professional planning interests, allowing me to further my knowledge in these areas through experience-informed and actionable content.
One of the most informative and motivating sessions described a community engagement project where a multidisciplinary team engaged community members, survivors of Black trauma and urban trauma, youth, and citizens in general to reimagine a community-friendly police department. As a Latina woman, Puerto Rican, low-income, and first-generation prospective Ph.D. student, this project reminded me why I am in planning, and how my future contributions to planning research will help to bring justice to the underrepresented and marginalized communities.
In addition to the conference sessions, I was encouraged to take advantage of the mobile workshops at NPC23. If you're like me and enjoy learning about planning out of the office and in the field, this is a great opportunity to see planning in action while learning more about the inspiring work happening in the NPC host city. This year, I went on the South Philly Health According to Plan mobile workshop tour.
Moving around Philly by bike and on foot, we explored the planning and programming LEED Silver-Certified facility that combines a community health center, primary care practice, library, and recreation center with playground and park at the heart of the underserved communities of Newbold and Point Breeze. The project aimed to improve community education, recreation, and health services through community engagement and quality of design. In addition, the community participated in the establishment of the facility, which turned a health care facility into a multifunctional center for community engagement and civic participation. Community engagement was critical, and it has been present since design and completion.
Selfie with Latinos and Planning Division Chair Vidal Marquez.
In addition to my new knowledge, I made so many wonderful new planner friends, especially since I was directly connected with emerging planners and prospective mentors. I connected with inspirational planners such Angela D. Brooks, FAICP, the first Black woman elected as president of APA, and Vidal Marquez, chair of the APA Latinos and Planning Division.
I really enjoyed every conversation I had with each one of the planners that I met. Everyone was so clever and committed to the profession, but what I appreciated the most was hearing how many planners center their values in their work. So many established and emerging planners are prioritizing youth engagement, mental health, gender perspective, equity and inclusion, and community engagement.
I left NPC23 feeling inspired and motivated to continue the work of making our planning profession more accessible and visible to our next generation of Hispanic/Latinx, Black/Afro-American, and LGBTQ+ planners.
Recommendations for Attending NPC
If you are thinking about attending the NPC next year, I have some recommendations:
- Smart schedule. After making your registration, research the program and make a smart schedule for yourself taking into consideration your objectives. Ask yourself: why do you want to attend the NPC? What do you expect to learn? What are your two or three goals?
- Travel light. Use a backpack as a personal item and you will definitely save a significant amount of money. I did, and I didn't just save money, but I saved time. On my last day, I was supposed to check out from my AirBnB at 11 a.m., which means that I took my luggage to the conference, but you know what? I was okay because I only had a backpack, and the conference doesn't offer any storage for your luggage. So, yes, consider this.
- Be sustainable. Protect the planet and bring your water bottle. The convention centers always have water fountains.
- Maintain connections. Make a list to track your new connections. After the conference, make sure to expand your networking by following your new connections on social media (e.g. LinkedIn), send e-mails to prospective mentors, and follow up on LinkedIn, social media, etc.
Meeting with Ben Hitchings, FAICP, an individual donor, and Bianca Mers of the SRC.
Finally, I want to thank the SRC for this opportunity. This was my first (of hopefully many more) NPCs, and attending the conference has marked a pivotal moment in my career that otherwise may never have happened without the support of the Opportunities Unbound Scholarship.
I also want to shout-out to my sponsor, Ben Hitchings, FAICP, for his generosity and interest in continuing to support my journey as an emerging planner and prospective Ph.D. student. To Ben and the SRC — this scholarship will always have a place in my heart (#ittakesaplanner)!
I hope that next year, more individuals will donate to afford more students like me the opportunity attend NPC2024 in Minneapolis.
Top image: Student attendees meeting in the Student Lounge at NPC23. Photo by WiseOwl Multimedia.
About the Author
Leslie Martínez-Román is a Puerto Rican woman, emerging urban planner, and the inaugural recipient of the Opportunities Unbound Scholarship. She completed a Master's in Planning at the University of Puerto Rico and accepted an offer for PhD Studies in Urban Planning to do research in disasters and housing in Puerto Rico.