Jocelyn Poe, who is heading to Cornell University as a tenure-track faculty member, is passionate about how planners can create equity and distribute power justly
By Greg Hardesty
To earn a PhD, you really must “know your why,” says Jocelyn Poe.
After earning a master’s degree in community planning from Auburn University and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Tuskegee University, Poe worked as a planner for a few years in her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.
It was during that time when she discovered her why.
Poe became interested in thinking about community development holistically and designing plans and policies that create equity and distribute power justly.
As a Black woman from the Deep South, she knew all too well about how trauma plays a role in the lives of Black people and produces a burden to carry those traumas – and how urban planners need to do a much better job creating Black-affirming public spaces.
After attending a pre-doctorate workshop hosted at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, Poe was sold – and, in 2018, she became one of the first USC Price students to receive the prestigious Robert Woods Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholars Four-Year Fellowship.
The $120,000 grant helps researchers from all fields apply their work to policies that advance equity and health while building a diverse field of leaders who reflect changing national demographics.
Her hard work has paid off. On May 13, 2022, she’ll be awarded her Doctorate of Philosophy in Urban Planning and Development from USC Price, and will lead her cohort of PhD students in the school’s commencement celebration at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall.
As she prepared to defend her PhD this May — what her mentor calls an innovative doctoral dissertation — Poe discussed her passion for academia and how scholars can shape public discourse about space and planning.
“I really wanted to understand (communal trauma) and unpack it … (and) that’s what led me to the PhD program at USC Price,” says Poe, who will be moving in July to Ithaca, N.Y., after accepting a tenure-track faculty position in social justice and equity at the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at Cornell University.
In her dissertation, “On Planning, Place and Race: How Trauma Imaginaries Reveal Communal Trauma and Impact Collective Well-Being,” Poe takes a deep dive into the ongoing Crenshaw/LAX Transit Program.
Construction began in 2014 on extending the public railway from the Expo/Crenshaw Station to the Aviation/LAX stop.
“I’ve been studying more about how Black communities along Crenshaw have been resisting the Crenshaw/LAX line and how it’s super complicated because at the same time, most people want the line to go in, but the planning and development of the line has really caused some issues for the communities there and their ability to remain in place and their ability to actually benefit from the line.”
As part of her dissertation, Poe conducted more than 20 in-depth interviews with residents of South Los Angeles.
Her interviews chronicle the way trauma affects Black individuals trying to cope with life and the dynamics of planning processes in the modern city, says Poe’s mentor, Professor David Sloane, who teaches courses in urban planning, policy, history and community health planning.
Poe’s co-mentor is Professor LaVonna Lewis, a teaching professor of public policy and associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Sloane and Lewis praise Poe’s scholarly work and believe her expertise in academia and experience as a planner will allow her to expand the frontiers of knowledge in the field of urban planning and improve the lives of residents.
“During her time as a doctoral student at USC, Jocelyn has shown the potential to be an excellent teacher, innovative scholar, and generous and thoughtful colleague who is unafraid to discuss challenging issues around race, health and society,” Sloane says.
Poe says the support she has received from USC Price faculty has been invaluable. And she’s grateful for being awarded the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation grant.
“It really situated me to help understand health policy and really understand my work as a planner through a health policy lens,” Poe says of her time at USC Price.
And she’s thrilled to be moving into her new position at Cornell.
“I’m excited,” Poe says. “Cornell is moving toward social justice and equity and is putting a lot of money into it. It’s a place where I can grow as a scholar and as a practitioner.”