Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Seeking Justice and Showing Communities Love Through Planning
When social justice planner Monique López, AICP, MCRP, MA, talks about her anti-racist, values-driven participatory planning and design firm called Pueblo Planning, she describes its work in no uncertain terms: “I still very much see this as an experiment in love … an experiment in justice. … And coming in with that particular mindset allows me to be flexible, allows me to be open-minded and open-hearted when I am held accountable by community members, when I am held accountable by, by social-justice movements that maybe say, ‘You know, that planning process that we engaged in? It should have been done this way.’ ”
“What drives our creativity is the compassion we have.”
—Monique López, founder and social justice planner, Pueblo Planning
Pueblo Planning has done work with people who are unhoused, earn lower incomes, do not claim English as their first language, are senior, and are part of the LGBTQ community. Monique tells host Courtney Kashima, AICP, stories from some of Pueblo’s projects, merging anecdotes with the wisdom they brought her to create poignant takeaways for listeners. From divulging her planning “origin story” (in her early twenties, fighting a sewage sludge treatment plant that was threatening to come into her neighborhood), to musing on why Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 JAPA article on citizen participation is still relevant today, to revealing why Pueblo Planning couldn’t run headlong to the Zoom platform when the pandemic hit, Monique displays a passion for social justice that will inspire planners working in every sector.
Discover more about Monique’s career path in her Planner Profile.
[00:00:00.720] Monique López, AICP: Now, if I would have gone into that space and said, "Here are some potential alternatives and potential solutions and —" you know, really box things, right? I would have missed an important and a simple policy change that the transit agency can do right now to help all those parents who are traveling with kids on the autism spectrum. And there's a million stories like that, not just in this project but in other projects as well — is acknowledging your positionality as a planner, what you know and what you don't know. And being OK to ask that open-ended question and let people take it where they go.
[00:00:48.630] Courtney Kashima, AICP: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I'm also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Monique Lopez, AICP. Monique is founder of and social justice planner at Pueblo Planning, an anti-racist, values-driven participatory planning and design firm. She's also a lecturer at Antioch University, Pitzer College, and Cal Poly Pomona. Monique, welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:38.330] ML: Thank you so much for inviting me here today.
[00:01:41.030] CK: So how are you holding up these days as we enter month eight of the pandemic?
[00:01:46.970] ML: You know, it's, it's been exhausting on a number of levels. But my family and I are healthy and well at the moment. So very, very blessed in our current situation. But, yeah, thank you so much for asking. How have you been doing these past eight months or so?
[00:02:08.000] CK: Certainly never a dull moment. I can also say, yes, everyone in my immediate family is healthy. I have two young children, so the whole remote schooling was a bit of a learning curve, but we're in the swing of it now. Yeah, I think it's a good reminder of the way you put it, to count your blessings and focus on the things we're grateful for.
[00:02:31.100] ML: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I could definitely empathize. I have a toddler, a two-year-old. And so between my wife and I just, you know, coordinating our daily schedule and getting the support we need now. But the first, like, six, seven months was — it was quite a challenge with that. Balancing, you know, being fully present for your child but also trying to be fully present in other spaces has certainly been a challenge that I know that many, many are facing this moment.
[00:03:05.850] CK: Yeah, pretty much everyone I talk to, they're figuring it out somehow. I wouldn't say — you know, it's more towards surviving rather than thriving, perhaps. But good reminder about the resilience of people and children in particular, I've noticed. I'm really grateful for their ability to, to roll with it because we don't really have a choice.
[00:03:28.560] ML: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
[00:03:31.560] CK: So another aspect of where we need to be present, right, is in our work, and you and I both run consulting firms. So I'm curious how you came to found Pueblo and what you're working on at the moment.
[00:03:45.720] ML: Yeah, thanks for that question. So I founded Pueblo Planning about four or five years ago, and I was really at a pivotal, pivotal point in my own growth and development. Before founding Pueblo Planning, I had primarily been in the nonprofit sector working at a wide variety of community-based organizations, particularly focusing on social justice issues. And I'll talk about, a bit later about my origin story and how I got involved in those spaces, but what I was finding in those spaces was that — two things. One is that community-based organizations like the ones that I was a part of and working alongside with community would often be invited by planners who are working on different projects throughout the city or county to bring folks into the planning process. And I saw the manner in which that those assets were made, where we wouldn't be compensated, nor would the committee members be compensated for their time and expertise in bringing folks into those particular spaces. And then oftentimes we wouldn't even get a copy of the planning document that was developed based upon the feedback from the community. And when we did, sometimes we would see that things were maybe taken out of context, or committee members really had this feeling like they were being tokenized in the process where folks are going through the motion of checking the box and and then pointing at sign-in sheets rather than pointing at community-driven solutions and really seeing that practice happen a lot again and again. And then the second thing as well is in these spaces, I've been able to bring in planning and design tools and resources and really seeing how these resources can really help advance social justice movements and campaigns and really seeing a need for grassroots and community based organizations to be able to access those tools and resources in one an affordable way, but also in a way that has community competence and being able to provide those services to folks trying to advance social justice on many different fronts. But in particular in terms of transportation or public space access, we saw that there is a need to fill there. And so I started Pueblo Planning a number of years ago, really as an experiment to say, like, can we do planning in a way that one really honors and respects the genius, the value, the the expertise of community members, particularly community members who are going to be most impacted in any kind of planning decision or process. Can we do that? And secondly, could we also set up a social enterprise or business model that could also provide the similar access to resources and services to communities, organizations and grassroots groups so that they are able to advance their campaigns and policies. So this is an ongoing experiment. We are continually learning and growing and shifting our approach to be more responsive and respectful and ensure reciprocity in that process when engaging with community members as well. So I still very much see this as an experiment in love, honestly, an experiment in justice, in this space. And coming in with that particular mindset allows me to be flexible, allows me to be open-minded and open-hearted when I am held accountable by community members, when I am held accountable by, by social justice movements that maybe say, you know, that planning process that we engaged in? It should have been done this way. So it allows me to to keep that openness and continually learn and grow as I'm moving forward as well, and and also that allows folks that I'm engaging with, allows folks to provide me some grace, too, in the space and understanding that there are certain systems in which we are, are, are plugging into, but how do we do our best and use our positionality in those spaces to shift those systems or maybe put some cracks in those systems to reinvision? How things could be maybe done differently.
[00:08:40.360] CK: And definitely relate to that, it's interesting to be in the space where you're working with communities, but subject sometimes to some very rigid procurement processes. So that's probably something I'll return to. But I'm curious to hear what some of your current projects are.
[00:08:59.350] ML: Yeah, absolutely. I am so excited. I have a handful of super meaningful projects and really appreciative of of the clients I've been working with. One right now is in the City of West Hollywood. I'm part of a larger team working on a climate action and adaptation plan. In that process, you know, we were about to start our engagement in the typical ways we do in person, in groups and so forth once the pandemic hit there. And so we really needed to pivot in that moment. And for us, the main thing for us is really, really centering and engaging and targeting individuals and including individuals in the planning process who, again, are going to be potentially most impacted, both negatively and positively from that from those decisions that are happening. So in the case of West Hollywood, we were looking at the unhoused population populations with low wealth populations that that English wasn't their, their first language or isn't their first language. Right? We were looking at populations in terms of like low income families, senior citizens, the LGBTQ community that may be immune compromised as well. So what we did is we partner with community based organizations that had those deep, meaningful, existing pre-existing relationships with those different groups of community members. And what we did is we did something really old fashioned. We developed flyers, which they then disseminated to, to their committee members, to some of the flyers went out for the seniors Meals on Wheels and, you know, meals that went directly to the home. Some of these flyers went were taken by case workers that were working with the house population. We work with with the library system to make sure that the flyers were put in when people were families were coming to pick up, books were put in with the children's books who were making sure we're reaching that family, working with Headstart so that they're giving that to their preschool-age students and their parents. And then there is a hotline that people could call. And then we engage people in these storytelling sessions via phone. And we ensured that as people were sharing, if there is an issue in terms of food access, we would immediately share what those resources, local resources are so that we can we can connect them to those resources. Now, this is something we even did precluded when people a lot of times in these spaces are sharing trauma, are sharing particular needs that they have right now. And we don't just sit back and say thank you and I'm taking my notes, but we —
[00:11:50.890] CK: — but back to the, let's get back to the climate.
[00:11:53.020] ML: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. Let's immediately, like, like, respond to that. So that's one project there that has a lot of meaning. And addition to that that I would add, we're also working with Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples to bring in the local Tongva and non-Tongva Native American population into the conversation to help shape what does climate adaptation mean and look like for them as well. And making sure we're centering those voices that are often excluded, maybe because the population sizes aren't great, and that's deeply connected to colonialization and genocide, right? But making sure that we are working with folks intentionally and bringing folks into the conversation.
[00:12:41.200] CK: That's a great example of what I like to call "think outside the scope." So even though your scope — I can make a, a good guess — did not say "help address food access issues" or "help people — connect people to resources for their urgent needs," if you're oriented that way, you're always thinking outside the scope. So I appreciate that.
[00:13:02.140] ML: Yeah. No, I appreciate you for, for really seeing that, because that's sometimes — and, as you know, as someone who is a practitioner, that's sometimes a challenge in these spaces when you're trying to engage with the client is to, to provide something outside of the scope of what the expectation was or what the norm is. And that's challenging for a number of reasons. One, because that takes more time and effort and actually essentially more funding. Right? More money to be able to do those additional things. And it's sometimes hard to, when you're in these budget negotiations, to justify the importance of expanding that scope and the importance that that the process itself and the relationship building that you are doing, but also on behalf of your client, is much bigger than just the project itself. And so that — that's been a really big challenge as a practitioner in these spaces is to really expand the imagination of the client, but also expand their budget as well, to really incorporate these other things that, that may seem beyond the scope. But what I say is that it's critically important to ensure that we're able to do the scope done in a respectful and meaningful way, but also to, to yield from the process a richness and deepness of understanding of how the planning process and also outcomes should be informed as well.
[00:14:36.850] CK: Thank you for sharing a little bit about your work. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself, where you're from and how you came to planning?
[00:14:46.100] ML: I really appreciate that question because my origin story of sorts really is a defining moment in how I practice what I do today. I grew up in Imperial County, which is a small, rural community in Southern California. You know, growing up at the time, I didn't understand or realize that I lived in an environmental justice community, and what that meant in terms of the type of planning that was done, what that meant in terms of my own personal health and, and my, my own economic well-being and my family's economic well-being as well. I didn't know what planning was. I went off to school, the first in my family to have gone to college. I went to grad school because an undergrad professor believed in me and provided me a letter of recommendation to apply to grad school before I was even thinking of applying. And so there was these little moments of encouragement along the way, and, and definitely challenging as first-generation college student, where I worked two or three jobs to basically help sustain myself through, through school. And I was doing my, my policy — I was studying actually political science at a graduate level, and I was doing my policy analysis on an environmental issue in my home community. So I had convinced my professor to let me go back to my hometown for about six months to finish up my, my thesis research. In that — six months turned into three and a half years. I'd finished my research, but what happened was I was invited to a community meeting, a community-led meeting, at a local bar in my community. So a bar where all revolutions start, right? And they shared with me that a company wanted to come in and build a sewage-sludge incinerator. And sewage sludge is the stuff at the bottom of a wastewater-treatment plant. And this company wanted to come in and basically import sewage sludge from all over Southern California [and] beyond and burn it in my hometown. You know, at the time, I didn't understand what planning had to do with that. And I'm — here I am in this bar. Everyone's loud. I stay after, there's about ten people left in this bar, and then I learn more about what's going on. And at the time, the Board of Supervisors, who had jurisdiction over land use decisions because we were an unincorporated area, had already stated in the record their support for this industry before an environmental impact report or anything had been done. And just by, you know, doing some, some basic research, you know, we, we saw that burning sewage sludge is not particularly healthy [laughs] for communities. So I ended up getting involved in a grassroots campaign, and a friend of mine and I, Rosie Nava, we ended up coauthoring a ballot initiative. So here I am, this young, fresh graduate saying, yes, you know, direct democracy. And in that process, I would go to the county planning department, to the counter — I didn't even know what planning was, and I — but I knew I needed to go there to get some information on where this, where this project was in the process. I'd go back three, four, five times, right? Asking for the same information, but because I didn't have the language of planning, I was denied the information. But I kept going back, and I kept asking to better understand where this company was in the process of bringing this industry. And then at this time, I understand and I realize that what was being proposed in my community had been planned five, ten years prior. But typically how the planning happened, would — there be a public hearing notice in the newspaper, really small, you know, in the middle of a lot of text, in, in a language in which, like, is very technical, and we didn't understand the direct relationship to what that means for our own well-being and, and so forth. And then held at the county, which was 30, 40 miles away in the middle of the day while people are working. So I came to this understanding of the importance of planning and what that means for communities such as my own. But I also came to the understanding that, you know, checking the box planning — right? — was actually of detriment to communities such as my own, and started to connect the dots between the type of land use planning that was happening in my own community and why there were so many cumulative environmental injustices. And having that awakening moment. But at the same time, I was also experiencing, as we were developing this, this land use policy campaign to really prohibit the importation of these types of industries from coming in and, like, importing sewage sludge into the county, I understood and realized that community members have a vision for what they want and they have the solutions and the know-how to make that happen. So I'm having these two very simultaneous experiences at once: one of disempowerment and one of empowerment. And to make a long story short, or a longer story a little shorter, we ended up beating this company. Our ballot initiative passed by, by 68 percent of the countywide votes, and now Imperial County — and this was about 14, 15 years ago — now, Imperial County is protected from this type of industry from ever coming in. And the voters themselves were able to make a decision on environmental health and, and land use policy, as to what kind of uses would be allowed in their community. And so still to this day, that particular experience in my early twenties has really shaped so much of what I do. And when I come to the table with the label as "planner" and a community member that has been consistently disenfranchised by the land use decisions that have been made — and been left out of that decision — and when I come to that space with the label of "planner" and they hold me in contempt, I understand. I need to earn their trust. And I also need to come to the table and share my own story, too, and not exploit it, but to really come with an open heart and not to take offense of being held in contempt, because if they trusted me completely, I, I, I would be concerned. And so that's just really influenced how I engage in these spaces and really try to come at these types of conversations with, with an open heart, but also coming from a space of really understanding trauma, because oftentimes as planners we're asking people to share traumas. And how do we come into these spaces in a trauma informed way but allow spaces of healing to take place too, regardless of whatever and however long a planning process takes or implementation takes. How do we also incorporate immediate healing in these spaces as well?
[00:22:07.000] CK: Yeah, probably best-case scenario, our processes are ignoring trauma, but worst-case scenario we're, you know, asking people to share them and relive them. That's sort of the spectrum as I see it, if you're not, if you're not paying attention. That's a great point.
[00:22:25.480] ML: I think, I think you summarized that incredibly well. And, and it's something that I am consistently trying to be mindful about in these spaces, for sure.
[00:22:38.770] CK: Yeah, I know more than once I've been in a situation where my task might have been, or the scope might have been, OK, you know, our expectation is you're going to talk to folks about this topic at a Tuesday night workshop. And I really resist and reject a lot of that and do everything I can to take the constraints or, you know, framework that I've been given and make it more impactful and be mindful of those very things we were just talking about. It's not easy, but I find it satisfying, and it's sort of a calling, I guess.
[00:23:14.350] ML: Yeah, and I appreciate you, Courtney, like, like, uplifting that. Like, that is a struggle that many practitioners of conscience face. Right? And, and this push and pull in, in this industry to, quote unquote, talk about this particular topic. And when you bring that sometimes to the table with community members, they may bring other elements to the table, and you just may not completely understand or be aware of how what they're bringing to the table is also about this topic or this process. And allowing ourselves to be OK with the discomforts of not knowing how those thoughts are going to connect just yet. And also being an internal advocate at the table when we are having those hard conversations with our clients to let them trust that process as well. And there's risk involved, right? It's easier to just have people put dots on predesignated alternatives and solutions because there's a lot of control that goes into that. But when you ask open-ended questions that then bring in other types of issues, there, there's risk and, and people fear that loss of control. But essentially, you know, in these processes, we need to, in our own positionality, redistribute that decision-making power and control. And the discomfort that we may be feeling in those spaces, that is the redistribution of power. And we should, we should not shy away from that discomfort, but embrace it and push ourselves to that limit as well, not only as practitioners, but also as clients, part of these public agencies as well. Because we're all operating under a certain assumption of risk. One, right, as a, as, as someone who owns your own firm, the — what is the risk you're operating under, Courtney, if you allow that to happen? What are some things that come to mind?
[00:25:22.540] CK: Losing clients.
[00:25:24.220] ML: Absolutely. Yeah. And for, let's say, the project manager, let's say, at the city, what's the risk that they have?
[00:25:31.690] CK: Yeah, probably not getting fired, but getting in the crosshairs of someone.
[00:25:38.320] ML: Absolutely. Now, let me ask this question, what is the risk the community has in terms of outcomes? Some of the risks that I always try to keep in mind could be displacement, could be increased police presence. Could be having access to particular resources or opportunities. So when I'm in these spaces, I'm well aware of the risk I take as, as someone who is a practitioner and owns my own firm and what that means of maybe not getting that client again. I'm empathetic and well aware of the risk the individual, the project manager at the city, or the county, or wherever, they have. But I also try to keep in mind the risk — the real, real, visceral, immediate risk — that the community has as well. And that is a risk in which they have been consistently living under every single day because of generations and generations of planning decisions before them. And we need to have a conversation around power and risk, because what has happened consistently is the risk has been consistently put upon those that have the least and have the most to lose. So when we, when we enter into these spaces, into these conversations, for me, having a person that has consistently the most to lose — right? — or even the most to gain in the process, them being a part of the process is an act of courage. It's an act of bravery that should be commended. Me maybe pushing a little bit back on a client — sure, it's an act of courage, but in proportion to the act of courage of someone who has been consistently disenfranchised, being willing to come back to the table, it doesn't compare. And that's one thing I try to, like, always personally keep in mind is, what is the risk of everyone in this conversation? We're, we're making these decisions based upon these real or perceived risks. And how do we honor those in which the risk is actually going to manifest quite physically within their bodies — whether they're going to be fed, whether or not they're going to be able to cross the street without being harassed by a police officer or hit by a car. Right? Whether they, they are not going to have a roof over their head.
[00:28:21.420] CK: Develop asthma.
[00:28:22.970] ML: Develop asthma. Exactly. Cancer, right? And so I always try to keep that in mind and I try to share that, you know, as openly and lovingly with folks that I am working in the space with, right? Whether that be a prime contractor, whether that be — because they're taking a risk, right? [laughs] Putting — putting me, putting Pueblo Planning on the project, but also, you know, in terms with clients as well that we end up partnering with on these projects.
[00:28:53.680] CK: I really appreciate that because I think of burden, I think of unintended consequences, but you saw it took me longer to answer that one, even though I wasn't surprised once you listed them out. And so I think being very intentional and taking it to that next level about risk is a way to get towards authentic, meaningful processes, to really lay it out in that way and keep it front of mind. So I appreciate that.
[00:29:25.500] ML: Yeah, absolutely.
[00:29:27.480] CK: And on that subject, I see on Pueblo Planning's website that you are a values-driven social enterprise. And I want you to stay a little bit more, if you could, about what that means and why it's important.
[00:29:41.560] ML: Absolutely. For us, we want to be really upfront and transparent with anyone we'll potentially be in relationship with, whether that be a client or whether that be a community member in terms of — you know, that's looking at our site to get more information on who we are. We want to, we want to come into the space as transparent and honest as we can. You know, there's this old notion of planning, which is still very much prevalent and planning, which is this notion of, you know, that emerged in the 1950s around rational planning, right. Like the planner comes in, right, and we're supposed to not necessarily be informed by any of our lived experiences and our biases, but we're supposed to just come in as this rational, neutral actor. I think that's false. Even though, you know, folks have tried to move away from it, I still, I still think it's very core and fundamental to how we see planners and think of planning in general, which is harmful. And I come at this —
[00:30:52.450] CK: Because there's an implicit value. Right? There's an implicit —
[00:30:54.630] ML: Absolutely.
[00:30:55.310] CK: — value there.
[00:30:56.110] ML: Absolutely. So I let people know right upfront, "This is the bias from which I'm planning from. I am planning from a social justice bias." And letting them know upfront how that's going to inform my methodology, which means I'm going to take a targeted universalism approach, which, you know, has been really influenced by, by John Powell at UC Berkeley. I'm going to take that approach in terms of who I'm intentionally engaging in the process. And that is going to be Black, indigenous, non-Black people of color, the unhoused, the LGBTQ community, women, folks with, with various disabilities, and other marginalized communities or folks who have been systemically harmed by these, these structures, right? I want to be transparent upfront who I'm intentionally going to engage, but also I want to be transparent and upfront in terms of, in terms of the types of questions I'm going to be asking in that process and which are going to engage in conversations of justice, right? So I say that upfront and I'm, I'm, I'm transparent on, like, page one to show this is the bias, or really the framework in which I am operating in. And I'm saying upfront that the old concept of rational planning developed in the fifties that paved, quite literally paved the way for freeway expansion in these communities, right? That, that, that paved the way for, for segregated housing, right? People were operating off of, quote unquote, innovative solutions at the time, right? But really coming at this from a critical-race-theory lens and saying we need to acknowledge and be aware of our own positionality in that space, our own worldview in those spaces, and also be aware of where our gaps are in seeing those things and really seek out methodologies that point and lead us towards justice. And so being values based is really, really important to me. And the social enterprise component, which is also important to me, is ensuring that we allow time and space and resources to community-based organizations that may not be able to access the same high-quality caliber of planning and design services so that we make sure that we offer free or subsidized rates to those groups that, that could use planning and design to really take their campaign to the next level. And that's the social enterprise. It's really about social responsibility and how we redistribute, redistribute resources as well. So if we have a public agency client, we are going to charge them, you know, the standard consultancy rate. But if we have a grassroots or community-based organization and they — and it's honor system — and they're not able to say pay what that full rate is, we'll work with them. And we'll figure out how to best support them in that process. But then that also means as well that we're making sure we're, we are holding actual space in our day, in our month, in our, in our planning season to be able to partner and, and be in partnership with those types of communities as well, so that we have the time to dedicate to them. And really, that is the heart of the work we do at Pueblo Planning, is to be able to really be able to redistribute those resources so that we can actually engage in processes that are truly, from inception, are, are driven by community. Because Courtney, as you know, right, like, a lot of these planning processes that we get and, you know, we participate in as consultants, many times, the conception of the idea to maybe pursue something was outside of the community. And so how do we, one, grapple with that too, right, in those spaces? And — but also I'm a — kind of pivot here a little bit and talk about that. And I'd love to hear your thoughts too, Courtney, but essentially, if these plans or processes or whatever the focus is of a particular project, if those aren't, weren't predeveloped and coidentified by the community — right? — you know, how are we as planners in our positionality in that space helping to reshift that so that it may not — we may not have walked in the door with that, that issue being defined by the community, but how do we facilitate spaces where then that could be shifted? And then again, that leads to those uncomfortable conversations sometimes.
[00:36:17.120] CK: Definitely, definitely. I appreciate that. Let's talk for a minute about resident experts, the idea that lived experience is just as or perhaps more important than technical experts in the planning process. I personally don't think people disagree in concept, but it's still not happening enough. What do you think gets in the way?
[00:36:42.950] ML: That's a really great question, and the planning historian in me is going to reference Sherry Arnstein's old article from 1969, right, about the ladder of participation.
[00:36:55.070] CK: The good old ladder of participation.
[00:36:56.780] ML: Right, the good old ladder [Courtney laughs]. And it's like, man, she was talking about this, right, in the late sixties. And planners are still struggling with it, right? And I'm going to paraphrase something she says, because I really, really love what she says. She goes, "The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach, right? No one is against it in principle because it is good for you. Participation of the governed in their government is, in theory, the cornerstone of democracy, a revered idea that is vigorously applauded by virtually everyone." But here's the thing, she says, "The applause is reduced to a polite handclap, however, when this principle is advocated by those that have been essentially consistently marginalized in the process," right? So that is Black people. Latino people. Right? Indigenous people. "And when these individuals, right, that have been consistently marginalized define participation as a redistribution of power, the American consensus on the fundamental principle explodes into many shades of outright racial, ethnic, ideological, and political opposition." And you know, how many decades later does that ring true? Right? And so in talking about, you know, this concept that there are resident experts, planners, of course, want to embrace that. Right? That is fundamental [to] our notion of democratic governance and why many of us do get into planning. But then when it's really about redistributing power, how many of us are like, "Well, you know, spinach is good for you, but, you know, eh, there's some challenges to eating spinach."
[00:38:53.250] CK: "I'll have some tomorrow."
[00:38:54.660] ML: Right. "I'll have some tomorrow," or, "The next — the next time we eat, I promise you we'll get that." Right? And so that, what she says, just so resonates with me because I've been on the other side of that table. And, you know, we had to do a ballot initiative process, which was a redistribution of power and a land use decision-making process, and not everybody has access to those types of tools, and I do want to acknowledge and uplift that. But when we center the residents' — community members', you know, lived experience as experts, what we learn is profound. I'm going to give you a story. I was working on a project and our client was this big transit agency, and they wanted to understand, you know, more information on, on how women travel. They realized more than 50 percent of their ridership were women, but they didn't have specific information on behavior, on needs, and travel patterns and so forth. So we intentionally engaged with undocumented immigrant women. We engaged with the unhoused women and women with, with disabilities. And as we engaged in those storytelling and art-making workshops, let me share a little bit about the process. We typically will ask one or two really big questions, broad questions that anyone can answer from their own lived experience. And in this case, we asked, what's your experience taking public transit and how can it be made better? We didn't spend 45 minutes — first 45 minutes of the meeting talking about trip chaining. We didn't spend the first 45 minutes of the meeting talking about various design elements that could be shifted in order to better accommodate women.
[00:40:46.330] CK: No PowerPoint?
[00:40:47.740] ML: We didn't, we don't even have a PowerPoint. Oh, my goodness, right? We didn't spend our time sharing with folks a limited view on what — and, and, and putting people in a box into how they need to describe something. Right. We asked two broad questions: What is your experience? How can it be made better? And then we allowed people to take the time to think about it. And we had, like, collage images that they could use. We had tactile elements very much in the style of James Rojas, right, with Place It! model. And they took 30 minutes to each of them create — and they also, you know, we also make our workshops child inclusive, so children were getting into it as well, right, with, with their mothers. And from that, folks then share out around the table. And as that sharing happens, and as that process happens, it's also a — is a process of healing as well. Because women were also sharing very vulnerable things, right? When the unhoused, unhoused women were sharing, they were talking about how they've been, been treated by both passengers and drivers, right? But as folks were sharing, consistently we've seen in these types of spaces, other folks would say, "That happened to me." Another person would say, "That happened to me and this is what I did." Right? So folks are being validated right there and then in their experience and are building community with one another. And this is really healing because people usually walk out of these spaces, even though they may be sharing a vulnerable moment, but feeling with more of a sense of being heard — not just by us, but by their peers — and validated. Right? But to get back to the point of, like, this, this story is that in these spaces, this one woman shared that she has a ten-year-old son who's on the autism spectrum. And she shared that when it's really, really hard for her, and she has, she has two other children as well. She uses transit as her primary mode of transportation. It's really hard for her to take her ten-year-old son on, on a bus because of the, the bright lights, the loud sounds, the smells are just so overwhelming for her son. And she shares that, that they can't access paratransit, but it could only be her and her son that can travel on paratransit. And so that, that excludes — she needs to be traveling with her other two children as well. Right? And so as she is sharing this story, she's like, "Why can't paratransit just allow us to travel as a family? Because I'm locked— even though my son is eligible for that service, we can't travel as a family as we normally travel." Right? Now, if I would have gone into that space and said, "Here are some potential alternatives and potential solutions," and had all these pre— you know, really box things, right? I would have missed an important and a simple policy change that the transit agency can do right now to help all those parents who are traveling with kids on the autism spectrum, because I would not have known to ask that question. Right? And there's a million stories like that, not just in this project, but in other projects as well, is acknowledging your positionality of — as a planner, what you know and what you don't know and being OK to ask that open-ended question and let people take it where they go, because it's going to expose to you the blind spots you have, and I wasn't thinking about traveling with children on the autism spectrum or traveling with children with disability. I wasn't thinking about that, because my own lived experience hasn't trained me to think of that. Now as I became a mother, right, and I started taking transit with my, my, my, my kid, you know, under a year old, I learned all about, you know, the importance of elevators working. I learned all about the importance of having spaces on buses where I can, like, easily not have to fold my stroller, but I could easily go up the— right? That comes through our own personal lived experience. But a lot of times what happens as planners, we're planning from our own personal lived experiences, and that's the boxes in which we're asking people to check. And particularly for those of us who have who have been more privileged, who have, you know, and this is, this is not, not a criticism, right? This is just a matter of fact. Right? Those who have had more access to wealth or education or opportunities. We're coming at these conversations from a different positionality, right? And so how do we allow folks to fully bring their whole selves to the table and share these experiences and stories? And then how do we ensure we are listening to those details and as practitioners being able to translate what is being shared into actual tangible policy or planning or budgetary decisions as we, you know, use our time and space at those tables to ensure that we are uplifting those stories and those voices in the recommendations that we, we push forward.
[00:46:08.920] CK: Wow, those are really powerful examples of the impact that intentionality can have and sort of proof of concept. I think everyone can relate to that sort of flipping of the script to start with the lived experience and work backwards. So I appreciate that. I want to follow up by asking, you know, in this COVID moment that has exposed or exacerbated a lot of things, what is the planners role in a lot of this? How can agencies who want to work in this manner do so? So that might include changes in procurement or how planning departments can support mutual aid efforts. What are you thinking about as far as, now and into the future, how individual planners and agencies can work in this regard? Since you and I are, you know, just a couple of consultants. What's your advice for our friends in the public sector?
[00:47:18.020] ML: Yeah, that's a really, really great question. I think I'm going to, I'm going to start with talking about at the beginning of pandemic, the first two or three months in, or even first five months. I saw this mad dash in our industry to move towards online platforms, to engage community members. I mean, everywhere, I swear, I was looking, or even in my inbox was filling up with, this guide on how to use this particular online platform to do community engagement and this guide for that, and, and also, like larger planning firms were coming up with their, their own how-tos and guides as well. And I was taken back. Because on one hand, I heard a lot of people talking about, Oh, my gosh, we got more engagement than we've ever gotten before. You know, typically at a town hall or a public meeting, we would have had maybe 30 people if that was a good public meeting. We got on this online forum, three to four hundred people. And people were really measuring the success of a planning process on these quantitative metrics. And that online platforms have allowed, allowed and facilitated a space for those who maybe have more ability and flexibility in their day because now they're working from home to be engaged in those processes, for folks who are connected to the Internet and who also are connected to the channels in which these things are being advertised online. So I was taken back because the question of success wasn't focused around who was being engaged in these processes. And for us, because we, we have come in with this social justice ethic. For us, it's always individuals in which are those who may also be impacted by the digital divide disproportionately. For us, it's people who are in the essential worker economy. For us, it's individuals who are and communities that are being hit hardest by COVID, right? People are coming into these spaces with great loss and heartache, right? So for us, we couldn't just run to these online platforms. And ironically, we're actually one of the projects we're, we're soon to be wrapping up, in the middle of this pandemic, was a process with the City of Long Beach around developing — codeveloping with community a digital-inclusion roadmap. Right? And in that engagement process itself, we were intentionally engaging with folks who are facing the digital divide. So as this pandemic hit, one, we had to think creatively and compassionately. And I think that is our task as planners, whether you're in the private, nonprofit, public sector, is to think creatively and compassionately. I say "creatively" because for us, our ethos is to always intentionally engage those communities that are going to be most impacted. And identify the spaces in which those community members are, are engaging with and are part of. And so then that, that requires some creativity, right? It requires us to also, core to our ethos, is to build partnerships of reciprocity and relationships of trust with community-based organizations and grassroots groups that have those existing relationships. We did that before. We're continuing to do that now. Because those are the individuals who are providing that mutual aid day in and day out, right? Whether or not that was in their scope of work to do, whether or not that was in their budget to do, right? But in that process, too, in, in thinking creatively is working with their community-based partners to identify ways in which we can best engage with these, with the community members. So a project I'm working on in City Heights in San Diego, we're codeveloping with Lisk an economic recovery and resilience plan for the neighborhood of City Heights. And so we are working with a handful of community-based organizations who are directly connecting us with, with business owners, also connecting us with language-access resources so to make sure that we are approaching those spaces appropriately and well-equipped, but are also — have helped shaped what those questions we ask in those spaces in terms of economic recovery and resilience as well. And, and also they're shaping with us ways in which we're asking them this — we're not taking a cookie-cutter approach. We're asking them, for this individual, what is the best way to, to perhaps engage in a, in a storytelling conversation about their experiences during COVID-19, but also their dream for City Heights, the community in which they live or work in or own a business in, right? And some, some folks are saying, you know, they're comfortable with Zoom. Others are saying they prefer the phone. Others are saying they prefer small group in person. And so we are taking cues from them and doing things as well in a COVID-safe way and modifying our equipment when we do in-person, making sure that we have PPE also for folks there as well, when we're engaging in person, making sure it's outdoors, being creative with that as well. And what drives our creativity is the compassion we have, that it would be much more cost-efficient, much more quantitatively effective, you know, quantitatively effective, meaning getting more people, because these one-on-one conversations take a lot more time. Right? But for us, our compassion in ensuring that those individuals aren't lost again in these processes in this moment and that we don't give in to the notion that we are living during a difficult time so we'll get to them when it's less difficult. Because there is always going to be some level of challenge in engaging community members that are consistently left out of these processes. But really coming from a place of compassion and saying, no, we are going to bend any way we need to in order to engage these populations. And as a business owner — and Courtney, you could probably even see this as well — as a business owner, you're making some difficult financial decisions. And no doubt that is impacting my business financially. But for us in this moment, leading with compassion, moving forward and creativity is important to ensure in these discussions, folks aren't left out. Because what we, what we're seeing right now, in terms of the level of harm that these communities are facing as a result of COVID-19, part of that's rooted in the inadequate methods of planning that have happened for generations. Why is it that in cities that have hazard mitigation plans, in cities that even have pandemic plans, right? Or counties? In cities that have even climate adaptation plans, because there's many similarities in terms of a climate catastrophe, disaster, and what people are experiencing in their day-to-day. Why is it that in spaces we have overwhelming plans at our fingertips that our institutions are failing at protecting those that have consistently not been protected and supporting those in the way that they need to be supported? And I would say because it's been a failure on our part as an industry to ensure that when we were developing those resilience plans, those adaptation plans, those hazard mitigation plans, that we did not have intentionally the right people at the table to codevelop that. But I've also been deeply encouraged. For example, here in San Diego, there has been these informal mutual aid networks that have been developed and that have been able to provide those resources and immediately, you know, immediate resources and services that people need. And we as planners and also as, as those who may be part of these institutions that are able to lever— leverage resources and shift policies, need to do one of two things. Either get out of the way of those entities that are doing the mutual aid and not say, well, you're not in compliance with X, Y and Z. Where's your permit for that, right? Or to support them with the resources that they need. Because they have been able to, in their nimbleness, develop a social infrastructure that was needed at that given time, that these institutions just could not. Right? And so we really need to value and honor that and identify ways for partnership or identify ways to just get out of the way. Right? And how do we support that? And myself, in working in partnership and in collaboration with the community on this economic resilience and recovery plan, is, is also — as folks again, you know, I shared this — as folks, again, are sharing that they may have particular immediate needs, and we're asking people, What's your experience during COVID? And if someone's sharing with me that they're food insecure, how do I then connect them maybe to even these formal institutions that are providing these resources, but also these, these more organic networks as well and how do we support them there? But the other thing, too, like, for example, in all the work we do when we engage with community members, we make sure we compensate them for their time, and we build that into our budget. So, yeah, that cuts into, quote unquote, our profit margin. But they're, they are the experts at the table, so let's, you know, would you not pay an expert, right? So we pay them. We typically, you know, do gift cards of some sort so we can do better accounting in terms of like, OK, who got what and everything. But this time, you know, we're doing cash because that's what people really, really need to be able to access cash and be able to, to use that in the way that they see fit and really respecting that. Right? So how do we also as planners in these spaces not only think about really where justice starts — and I'm not even going to say "equity" because I feel like that's a played-out word. But where justice starts is in your timeline as a planner and in your budget. Are you building into your timeline where you can have those meaningful conversations that take a lot longer? Are you building in your budget that as well so that you can, you know, pay your staff, but also you are building into your budget as well to compensate the CBOs that have those long-term relationships with community members? Are you building into your budget compensation of these community experts? Right? But also, are you building into your methodology a process in which — that truly honors community voice. So one of the things we're doing is we're, you know, with the consent of the folks that we're engaging, we're audio recording these conversations, and then we're going to curate these audios so that there's other forms besides just the written word that are forms that influence planning outcomes as well, where people can then share in their own voice, in their own words, their experiences and the solutions and their dream that they see moving forward. So we're curating this audio. And then part of that respect and reciprocity is that we're going back to those individuals, letting them hear the audio and say, "Did we get this right or did we scrub something out by accident?" And then as we're, as we're writing the report, if we use a quote or what have you, we go back to those same people, share the quote, the context of how that quote is situated, and make sure that we're truly honoring their words. Now, that takes a lot of time. But again, getting back to the conversation around risk, I need to understand, you know, what's at risk for the community if they're not truly honored and uplifted in the process.
[01:00:42.120] CK: Well, you've certainly given us a lot to chew on and think about, and I appreciate the conversation. I'm wondering in closing anything you're reading or listening to that our listeners should know about. And if people want to learn more about your work, where can they go?
[01:01:02.310] ML: Yeah, there's two things that have been an inspiration to me the last several months that I've, that I've read. One is an article by Charles Sepulveda called "Our Sacred Waters: Theorizing Kuuyam as a Decolonial Possibility." Charles Sepulveda is Tongva, which is the indigenous community in Los Angeles. And the term kuuyam means "guest." And he talks specifically about the Santa Ana River and how violence done to nature was very much in the same way colonial violence was done against indigenous women. But he also brings up this concept of kuuyam and what does it mean to be a guest on the land? And that has been a profound impact in my perspective, in terms [of] what does it mean to be a guest in a community that's not my own? And how do you operate as a guest? You know, for those of us who have children? Right? We, you know, pre-COVID time, right? We try to teach our children how to, how to behave as good guests and how to behave as good hosts, right? And so these things aren't foreign to us. These are things we — values we try to instill in us. But how are we also ensuring that same level of care and values in the way we operate and practice as planners? And so that's an article that, that I highly encourage folks to check out. And I really appreciate Angela from — who's the executive director of Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples for introducing me to that. The second one, the second thing that I would share that, that I've been reading and actually rereading is a book by Samuel Stein called Capital Cities. And it's essentially about gentrification and the real estate state. And it really talks about, in the narrative, about how planners have been used as a tool within the systems to really actually promote gentrification and what that harm has been in, in, in the, in this institution to really — even how we think about growth and what does that mean and look like. And he really pushes back against planners in these institutions. But I do want to, if I can, just read one little section here. You know, one thing I really appreciate — appreciate this book and Samuel Stein is the last chapter. He also offers really tangible solutions that — policy solutions and also solutions that planners can take in order to, one, be more responsive to community inst— instead of real estate developers. And so I appreciate that he shares that. But there's this, this quote in the book that I want to share, because I think it's one that sometimes with those of us that are part of institutions, especially after a conversation like today, just feel really like, Oh, what do I do? Right? You know, I'm, I'm contributing to all these harms, like, What do I do? Right? And I appreciate, I appreciate this, this, this quote here. Samuel Stein writes, he says, "For radical planners in public office, the leading task is to get organized. Find each other, meet outside of work, share information, introduce each other to new ideas, and keep each other honest. Organizing can help combat the groupthink and bureaucratic fatalism that often takes hold within city agencies and remind radical planners that while they may be alone in their workplace, they are not alone in their workforce." So he's saying, yeah, he's saying get organized, he's saying, you know, find each other, meet outside of work in these spaces, but really, really importantly, keep each other honest. Right? And so that, to me, I really appreciate what he shares in this book and kind of that, towards the end — and that's our call. Is how do we keep each other honest and accountable? How do we continue to organize outside of these spaces and be co-conspirators in these movements for social justice and use our positionality in these spaces for social justice, right? And so with that, I mean, you asked the question to how folks can, can get a hold of me and connect. I am not on social media. I prefer intentional, meaningful conversations outside of the soundbites. So folks can certainly check us out at Pueblo Planning dot com, which is p-u-e-b-l-o planning dot com, and they certainly can email me or call me. My information is on the website, but my email is basically Monique at Pueblo Planning dot com. Please connect. You want — if you want to build a relationship, have a meaningful conversation, want to organize together, want to be co-conspirators, want to collaborate in whatever place we may find ourselves in the spectrum of the movement for social justice, if that's whether within an institution or an advocate outside of, let's say, a planning institution, let's get together, let's figure out how to get organized and move collectively toward social justice.
[01:06:32.270] CK: Well, consider me signed up [Monique laughs]. It was so nice speaking with you today, and I hope this is just the first of us conspiring together. Thanks so much.
[01:06:41.380] ML: Thank you so much, Courtney. And I really appreciate your podcast and this, like Samuel Stein, I think one of the many spaces where this can happen.
[01:06:52.250] CK: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit planning dot org slash [podcast]. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to podcast at planning dot org.
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