During a year of lockdown and online learning, who knew a group of planning students would become engaged armchair travellers, visiting many North American cities to evaluate their planning prowess and learn and engage with amazing Black urbanists?
York University’s Public Involvement in Planning: Engaging Black People and Power course, created and taught by Jay Pitter an award-winning placemaker, author and urban lecturer, through the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, provided an impactful learning experience for graduate students.
The course offered students the opportunity to collaborate with Black urbanists, producing a collective book of case studies, policy analysis, and recommendations for how to engage Black people and power. It brought students closer to Black urbanism, engagement, and diverse ways of knowing. The resulting publication, Engaging Black People and Power, proved that impactful learning has a place online, and for this group of graduate students, redefined what it means to move across cities, experiences, and disciplinary boundaries.
The act of co-creating encouraged students to interrogate the meaning of urbanism using an interdisciplinary approach to understanding planning and policy. They were provided with a multifaceted understanding of community engagement initiatives undertaken by Black urbanists with expertise in urban planning, policy, technology, housing, law, urban design and activism. Engaging Black People and Power particularly seeks to address a gap in the professional field and literature of planning for communities by drawing on Black expertise and experiences that are necessary to understand the complexities of cities across North America. The publication integrates and amplifies their contributions, while also providing the necessary tools to inform planning processes in Black communities.
Extending their classroom conversations to exploring real-world action initiatives, students interviewed notable Black urbanists, including NYC Parks’ Commissioner, Mitchell Silver. When asked what Black urbanism means to him, for example, he shared excellent insights by framing it as the power of lived experiences to understand place and space providing decades of expertise.
Engaging Black People and Power also includes case studies derived from conversations with notable Black urbanists and practitioners across North American cities. The principles and approaches shared by these experts describe a varied landscape of public engagement that is highly context-dependent. Approaches of engagement are contingent on how each community carries the histories of systemic racism and the degree of trust in local institutions and power structures, translating into different engagement approaches in Los Angeles through arts and education versus Niagara region through mentorship opportunities for Black youth to promote civic participation.
Despite differences across cities, key themes emerged in equitable engagement practices, such as acknowledging that urban design is not neutral and highlighting the importance of building relationships and trust. Students also discovered new ways of looking at engagement, the value of considering a broad scope of barriers and “the importance of ‘who’s at the table.’”
The case studies ask the students and readers alike to think critically on the impacts of seemingly neutral policies on communities, and to understand how engagement can move beyond extraction to knowledge sharing and community building.
Of course, academic knowledge and co-creation were only part of Pitter’s course. It also embodied emotions, relations and feelings. The course provided a space for students to be themselves and to feel seen. Students were inspired by Pitter’s practice and the way she centers joy and compassion within her work. The course forced the class to challenge traditional ways of thinking and to incorporate a sense of humanity within their work.
Students also experienced “teaching moments” where Pitter encouraged students to “be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” an approach not always promoted in academia. One student noted, “[the course] gave me hope that there is actually space for me as a Black person in the planning field.”
Pitter displayed effective ways and strategies to centre people and community within urban planning practices and processes. She taught the class that understanding people and history is a critical part of public engagement. The emotion and truth she brought into the classroom encouraged students to challenge themselves and think differently about the way people plan and develop communities.
Racialized individuals don’t see themselves reflected among peers and in successful professionals often enough. Not only did Pitter create a welcoming space, but she also centred Blackness within the course. It was the first time many Black students have ever been surrounded by so many professionals who resembled them. In fact, 92 per cent of the students who responded to a class survey noted that learning from and being taught by a Black urbanist had a significant impact on their learnings.
Having Pitter teach and develop this course reiterated the significance and necessity of having more representation within the planning profession, but also within the Faculty. Recognizing the need for racial equity in order to provide students with an honest and full academic experience, EUC continues to be committed to diversifying narratives and accurately representing the populations and communities many York students will be serving. Efforts in EUC to reduce the risk of unjust curriculum and moving away from White-dominant narratives include ongoing equity community discussions of best practices for anti-oppression pedagogy and curriculum, as well as York University’s 2021 Framework and Action Plan for Black Inclusion.
Despite students having to learn remotely, this course made virtual learning feel like anything but remote. In a year defined by crisis and a reckoning for racial justice it responded to the moment, Pitter draws upon her experience and her community to deftly fuse the professional and the personal – leading to an unassailable formative and undeniably poignant pedagogical turning point in her students’ education and future careers.
Pitter reminded students that they, like the communities featured in Engaging Black People and Power whose voices and needs have been neglected and oppressed for far too long, “don’t need to be empowered – they are already powerful.” And while nothing is certain for them in a world still in the midst of an epoch-defining pandemic which has put gaping inequities into stark relief, those who were a part of this course will be uniquely prepared to help create a more just and sustainable path, motivated by their newfound and lifelong capabilities for how to – in Pitter’s words – “speak power to power.”
Submitted by Selam Eyob, Sean Karmali, Merve Kolcak, Justin Minor, Jasmine Mohamed, Vidya Rajasingam and Corals Zheng