Diversity workshop aims to inspire future planning leaders, give every community a voice

November 29, 2017

Sixteen people attended USC Price’s Diversity in Planning Workshop from colleges across the U.S. (Photos by Deirdre Flanagan) More photos available on Flickr »

By Matthew Kredell

USC Price School of Public Policy Professor David Sloane opened the recent Diversity in Planning Workshop by telling the undergraduate students and recent college graduates in attendance that this is an incredible moment in urban planning — with state and local governments, as well as grassroots efforts, taking more ownership over how their own communities are being built.

Professor David Sloane (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

“Everywhere around, we’re having these really significant debates about how we construct cities, how we support the people who live in those cities, and how we respond to the kinds of disparities that exist around parks, food and other resources,” Sloane said. “There’s a lot of planning to be done.”

The workshop, held in November, was the latest in the Price School’s four-year, ongoing effort to increase diversity in Master of Planning degree programs. Sixteen people attended from colleges across the state and country.

“It’s become increasingly clear in the planning profession, just like every other profession in the United States and around the world, that we need to have people with the right voices, right backgrounds and right competencies so that they can represent neighborhoods or talk with neighbors about what’s happening to them,” Sloane said.

‘Revolutionary’ power of planning

USC Price’s Deepak Bahl, right, leads students on a group activity (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Keynote speaker Tamika Butler of the LA Neighborhood Land Trust (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Tamika Butler, executive director of the LA Neighborhood Land Trust, echoed that sentiment in her keynote address. She started her career as a lawyer but realized there is something revolutionary about going into planning.

“I think too often folks of color don’t think about this space because there’s a lot of pressure on us to be a lawyer or a doctor,” Butler said. “But they don’t realize the power of space and of who creates the space, who’s at the decision-making table deciding where the railroad tracks go.”

Adjunct Associate Professor Deepak Bahl led an activity on the Jordan Downs Redevelopment Project that mirrored the professional side of planning and development, by giving the participants a taste of the challenges, tensions and issues of the professions.

“You are thrust into these real challenges — but conversely, it is an opportunity,” said Bahl, program director of USC Price’s Center for Economic Development. “We’ve got a prime site, but there has been a neglect. What do we do as planners? Do we just depend on the market, or do we do some intervention? What are the some of the policies or inducements we can put in place to change this cycle?”

The workshop attendees broke into groups that produced ideas such as creating sustainable jobs within the community, increasing housing and green space, adding a shuttle to the blue line rail station, opening up the site to more street access, and providing supportive services.

From peers to practitioners

Panelists, from right: moderator Cliff Graves; Nina Idemudia; Olivia Joncich; Jessica Medina; Jesus Herrera; and Rigo Bejarano (Photo by Deirdre Flanagan)

Moderated by adjunct faculty Cliff Graves, a panel of recent MPL alumni discussed their early career experiences in planning. Speakers included: Nina Idemudia ’14, urban planner for the City of Los Angeles; Rigo Bejarano ’15, who works for Primestor Development; Jesus Herrera ’14, who works for the L.A. County Department of Regional Planning; Olivia Joncich ’17, project manager at planning consulting company three6ixty; and MPP/MPL alumna Jessica Medina ’16, who works for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE).

“One of the benefits at Price was the collaborative projects, to deal with different dynamics, people, walks of life and perspectives,” Bejarano said. “You’re able to be the voice for where you come from. It allows you to find that voice here and nourish it so, when you go into your career, you have more confidence and use that to be representative of your community.”

Idemudia encouraged the students to decide on a purpose before entering their career and to let that purpose be a guide.

“No matter what job or task you’re doing, they should be tied to accomplishing that purpose,” Idemudia said. “That purpose for me is making sure people’s built environment is built in such a way that they have the same opportunities as people across town. From Brentwood to South L.A., there’s about an 11-year difference in life expectancy. That’s not acceptable. That’s what drives me.”

The alumni panel was a highlight for participants in the workshop, who also got to hear about the graduate school application process from Sarah Esquivel, associate director of the Price School’s recruitment and admissions office.

“The alumni gave good insight into what the professional experience is like and how the graduate school experience prepares you for that,” said Daniel Turner, a recent graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I appreciated the diverse field of professional jobs the panelists worked in because I haven’t necessarily decided what I want to do yet. It’s reassuring to know there are many options.”