March 1, 2021
Cherie Jzar, AICP, has been a planner for almost 20 years, with a wealth of experiences. She started in neighborhood planning and community development in her hometown of Savannah, Georgia, followed by stints in airport, transit, and comprehensive planning, then community outreach and engagement, and a nine-year position as the Membership and Diversity Committee chair for the North Carolina Chapter of APA.
Now she's in Gastonia, North Carolina — for the second time — as that city's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Coordinator. She spoke with Planning recently about her role, why a planner is the perfect fit for the job, how the pandemic has impacted women and people of color, and how we can work to better understand one another. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
PLANNING: Can you tell me a little bit about your new position?
JZAR: I'm responsible for developing and implementing the city's efforts to instill diversity, equity, and inclusion as a central part of the city-making process. As public servants, we serve the citizens, business owners, visitors, and we provide a number of services to do that. I'm taking the lead on facilitating the development of strategies and policies and guidelines that advance an understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion, within the workforce, as well as with community partners.
I will work to engage with city employees to have deep conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion to understand how we can improve our organization's culture and develop informed strategies to improve the delivery of services for the citizens.
The tremendous growth occurring in our city brings many diverse perspectives. My work will also include engaging and convening community partners to build a coordinated approach to promote DEI in the community as well.
PLANNING: I applaud Gastonia — and you — for focusing on this important DEI work. And I love seeing a planner in this role. But you're not just working with the planning department, right?
JZAR: My experience as a planner has prepared me well for this position. As planners, we don't just work with the planning department in general, do we? We work with every city department. When I worked in the Gastonia planning department for the first time, from 2006 through 2012, my primary role was to create the city's comprehensive plan.
It was a great opportunity to work across all departments, looking at our electric system, our water system, all the different systems that make up the city. Along with working closely with citizens and key stakeholders, that cross-departmental work helped to map out strategies for future growth and what we want our community to look like. And now, I'm doing the same thing. I'm just looking at it through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It's just a transferring of skills.
In order for me to even begin that work, I have to understand: How do these services function? Who's benefiting from them — and who's not? And how do we break down barriers, if they exist, and work with city staff to map out an equitable and inclusive plan for each and every one of these departments?
PLANNING: What does your job look like right now and how might it evolve?
JZAR: Right now I'm in the discovery phase. I'm doing the scanning and scoping that planners do all the time, building that data, collecting it, understanding what our organization looks like from a diversity perspective. That's really where you need to start: reviewing the characteristics of our employees to see how this data compares to the demographics of the community.
Gastonia has a population of about 77,600 and of that population, 56 percent are white, non-Hispanic or non-Latinx. And then there are people of color: Asian, African American, Hispanic, people of two or more races. Does the community's population and data look like and mirror the city workforce? And if there are any discrepancies, why do they exist?
Along with that analysis, I'm finding ways to have conversations with coworkers. One of our biggest challenges is our hiring process. What does the recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion process look like? Who's being hired and are there any barriers? There's the equity part.
And then what is our environment like? Is it inclusive? Can people bring their full selves to work? Are we seeing an innovation in our service delivery because we have diverse perspectives at the table?
Externally, we want to build an understanding of why it's important for city government to do this work. Residents should know why we are looking at diversity and why we are breaking down barriers.
And the reason is that we want to have a city that works for everyone and that means finding out what everyone's needs are of the. Planners do that all the time. How can we talk about affordable housing or decent housing if we don't know what the community wants in housing — or in transportation? I'm going to be finding out what those needs are and how we can address them.
PLANNING: Working with the community as well as internal staff sounds really cool. I can tell you how excited you are.
JZAR: I am! But it's going to be a challenge because we're dealing with what seems like one crisis after another, especially with COVID-19. Planners are used to engaging with the community to get their input in many different ways, not just online and with so many limitations, as we're all facing today. We're really trying to be creative in how we do that. That's the challenge that I face, but I'm also excited about the possibilities.
PLANNING: You're certainly not alone in trying to figure out how to have meaningful engagement with the community during this time.
JZAR: Yes, and, I think it's worth remembering that people have varying priorities in their lives that may not always fit with the city's priorities. We've got to understand where they are and start there — instead of starting with what our priorities might be.
PLANNING: Tell me what inspired the creation of this position.
JZAR: Three years ago the city's leadership really started to look at our organization's makeup and began wondering what things we could do to be more inclusive.
They knew that our demographics were not what they used to be. We have grown very rapidly in our city through annexation and people moving in from other areas of our city, the state, and the nation — including an increase in our Latinx population. The mayor, city council, and city managers wanted to make sure we were properly serving everyone in the community. That started a journey to learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how that could really strengthen the work that they were doing. After considering a consultative approach, they decided that Gastonia needed a full-time, dedicated staff person to take us through the planning process and come up with a plan, monitor it, make sure it gets implemented and then change it up as needed.
PLANNING: And were you excited to come back?
JZAR: Oh, most definitely. I served as the Membership and Diversity Committee chair with the North Carolina chapter of APA, and in that role, my charge was really trying to increase the number of planners of color and women in the profession. We know that there's a need for diversity in our profession, and I worked for nine years doing that work.
It started off with professional development and outreach to schools, particularly historically black colleges and universities, introducing the profession to students of color and to women. And then it quickly turned into realizing that we need to really understand the historic legacy of how our communities got created and the plight of marginalized communities. Further, it became clear that we need to educate current planners about that legacy. So, when I saw this role in a community I already know well and helped write the comprehensive plan for, it felt like a perfect fit for me.
PLANNING: You have had a varied career. Who has inspired you along the way?
JZAR: My first planning job was in Savannah, Georgia, and at the time, the community planning administrator was Alex Ikefuna. (He's currently the director of neighborhood development services for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia.) He really took me under his wing and showed me that that planning is really about understanding the issues and needs of the people within the community that you serve. He also taught me how essential it is to build relationships with the people in order to build trust. Planning is about people and getting that engagement and feedback — hitting the streets and learning about the communities that you're going to impact.
Savannah's way of approaching planning was really informed by former assistant manager Henry Moore. He was creative and innovative at the time, and helped me understand that communities have assets. They don't have deficits, they have assets — and you have to go and discover them. Discovery, of course, is just using those basic planning processes and you can discover how to create a resilient place and a place where people can thrive. That really inspired my work — being a young planner, planning in my hometown — and I have taken that with me ever since.
PLANNING: So, what are some of the assets of Gastonia?
JZAR: So Gastonia, of course, is in the Charlotte region and it used to be heavy in manufacturing. It's currently going through a rebirth. We just built a ballpark and the owner, Brandon Bellamy, is the first African American majority owner of a professional baseball team. The ballpark is the centerpiece of our Franklin Urban Sports and Entertainment (FUSE) District. It's going to be the catalyst of so much in our community on this side of town, which really has suffered from disinvestment for a long time.
And of course, being in the Charlotte region, there's lots of people moving here from all sorts of places. It's also on the Piedmont of the mountains, and we have really wonderful views of those, particularly Kings Mountain.
PLANNING: Sounds like a wonderful place.
I'd like to transition to this current moment in time. It's been a rough year for everybody, in so many ways. We really have put a national focus on racial injustice and an urgency in our efforts there, both because of COVID — which you mentioned before and has disproportionately affected people of color — but also, of course, everything that happened this summer following the killing of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans.
Can you talk a little bit about the moment we're in as a profession? Is it a hopeful time? Is there a lot of work to do? Is it both?
JZAR: I see it as hopeful — glass half full. We are centering our work on, once again, people. That means understanding the impacts of every single decision, all the policies that have been crafted over time, how they work, how those decisions have really impacted people. And we know that COVID has far-reaching impacts beyond just the health implications: People have lost their jobs, they may be behind on mortgages, there are so many people struggling.
I think that this is the time for planners to be highly creative and to reimagine how we approach our work. Let's look, again, at who is benefiting and who is not, and really, really try our best to figure out how we can break down barriers.
We also have to think about the legacy that we inherited. You better understand the history of the community that you're serving and what sort of issues have come out of land-use planning, transportation planning, and everything else that we do as a community. We're at a really critical time where we can recenter our work on people and then understand the legacies of our policies on communities of color and really build them up, as well as come up with creative ways to restructure how we do our work.
Finally, we can center on healing. That's big. How do we do that?
PLANNING: Do you think that most planners are sufficiently aware of the legacy of the communities? I don't want to imply that planners don't know their own communities. But do you think that as a profession, planners are aware of the legacies of, as you put it, the people who have benefited and the people who have not?
JZAR: Let me tell you a story. I was fortunate to facilitate a conversation at our North Carolina Chapter conference back in 2017 that was to be about housing. Rather than a panel of planning professionals, we were able to bring in community members from the Hayti community in Durham, who told their own stories about the devastation that came to Hayti when the freeway went through it. It had once been a thriving place, described as an economic and cultural lifeblood of the Black community before the highway was constructed, and the highway totally changed it. For the planners in attendance, this was new information. They heard firsthand from the people who lived there, and the audience was able to understand the impacts of planning policy on the community.
I think sometimes we take for granted that planners know the history of everything because we do get to know a little bit about a lot of different things, but we just know don't it all.
Part of diversity, equity, and inclusion is educating ourselves, refocusing the work on asking, "What is the history of what has occurred in communities and how has that impacted people today?" You cannot create anew if you don't know what has occurred in the past because you might be making the same mistakes or overlooking something. And it's not just local history — training should be rooted in educating oneself about the history of how the United States, the impacts of the Fourteenth Amendment, and planning-specific history like what happened in urban renewal and the impacts on communities.
PLANNING: Do you have any resources that you would point planners to as they start that process of learning or to learn even more if they've already begun?
JZAR: Well, I think the greatest resource that I have found here in North Carolina is the Racial Equity Institute.
They provide really in-depth training that a professional planner can take on their own, virtually. It walks a planner through historical context for how communities around the country have been built and the implications on people of color and marginalized communities. A lot of local governments are turning to the Racial Equity Institute in North Carolina to get that grounding, not just for planners, but for civic leaders in general.
Dr. James Johnson, Jr., is a wonderful professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose research includes economic development and community development. He also explores the changing demographics of the United States, which gives planners great context to know what's going on and what's coming. He makes so many linkages between why our communities are diversifying in the first place and what they will look like, as well as the browning and graying of America.
A few more resources that I think are helpful are the books, "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America" and "Supersizing Urban America," as well as a podcast called "Scene on Radio," which explores the human experience in American society. It's made by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
PLANNING: Thank you for sharing those resources. What changes do you see coming to the planning profession?
JZAR: Well, I've seen the normalization of certain conversations — and that's a good thing. There was a time when you didn't hear at work some of the types of conversations that you may have in your social life, but we're learning we have to in order for us to even begin this work in the planning profession. We have been talking about marginalized communities and the negative impacts that our planning work has had in these communities.
We are also talking about women, which is really important. Women face profound challenges, not just with not getting paid enough or getting equal pay, but also challenges with COVID and balancing work-life struggles. I've had lots of conversations with professional women about high levels of anxiety and what that has done to their health. So many of us are having to stay at home with little ones, if you do have children, or feeling isolated if you are a single woman. It's caused a lot of women just to say, "This doesn't work. I have got to give up something." And they are dropping out of the workforce.
It's good we're having these conversations, though. It used to be that at your job you all had to be "normal," had to fit into this accepted norm. But that's not working right and we know it. People need to feel able to bring their full selves to work and be able to discuss it. We need to be normalizing these conversations.
Some planning departments are being intentional about diversity — it's not just throwing a net and seeing what we get. No, we are going to be intentional about making sure we make space for people of color. We make space for women. We make space for people of all abilities. There was a time you would never see a sign language interpreter, but now that's second nature for many local governments. Planners are also examining policy recommendations through a lens of equity.
It's a challenge to really understand what's going to make our communities resilient. It's going to be slow going. That's the thing that keeps me grounded, but I don't really lose hope that things will change.
PLANNING: Thanks for mentioning the breadth of people planners serve. It's important, and we have to think about it and challenge ourselves to understand one another.
JZAR: Yes, and if we flex that muscle enough, it'll become second nature. People are not homogeneous. People working in this field use the iceberg metaphor. With an iceberg, 30 percent of it is above the water, but 70 percent is below the water. If you're sailing along on the ocean, all you can see is that 30 percent.
You could see me and you can say she's female. Maybe you could say she's African American. You see my wedding ring, and you say, oh, maybe she's married. But there's so many things about me that are below the water line that you don't necessarily see. You don't know that I'm an Army brat. You don't know that I'm a mother of five children. You don't know necessarily where my ethnicity lies. There are other things and you will not know that unless you engage me in conversation — and do it from a point of view that tryies to understand the needs of the marginalized and vulnerable groups who are disproportionately affected by modern and historic planning policy.
And we will not know those important things about our citizenry unless we engage them in some sort of way, and then craft our processes and our policies around the needs that they have. That's when we start to make change.