‘There’s always a tension around both wanting to bring young people into the process and being uncomfortable and resistant to what young people actually say. We all do that. We all have notions of what needs to be achieved and it’s hard to lose control.’
Government partnership with community organizations is often fraught with challenges around clashing visions, power struggles, tokenism, and marginalization, whether it’s designing service investments or physical spaces.
Damon Rich and Jae Shin, partners in the Newark-based urban design, planning and civic arts practiceHector, have worked within and in partnership with government. Jae was recently an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and Damon was the Newark city planning director for 7 years. At the same time, their focus is on building accountable partnerships to develop community-driven neighborhood planning and design. In Newark, for example, Damon led a waterfront redesign that brought 2% of Newark residents—5,000 people—into the planning process.
Here they describe how they approached a Detroit collaboration that centered youth in an urban redesign partnership that included both community organizations and city leaders.
Q: Your project in Detroit, in the Cody-Rouge neighborhood, was about creating a youth-centered neighborhood. How did you approach that?
Jae: Our project in Detroit started because the city wanted to do youth-centric planning, and a bunch of firms proposed their vision of what that could be. I felt this was such an important project for us and all the adults involved because we were designing a neighborhood together, with young people in the middle of the planning process. Broadening the constituency of people who get involved in the planning process is generally a good thing for planning your neighborhood, whether it’s Black and brown people or young people or any other group in that community. I’m Asian American, and I know there are many people who are not necessarily part of coming together and talking about the future of their neighborhood.
We had an 18-month timeline of program components (extended because of the pandemic). But even before creating an opportunity for residents, including young people, to come together and think, we had a “door knocking” phase where we did quite a bit of looking into who already played a leadership role or was doing work in the neighborhood. We made a long list of community groups and leaders, and spent a month or so talking to people to understand the conversations out there.
It was clear there was capacity in one group already, which had a youth leadership program. We decided that we would work with young people they already had recruited. They had an experienced youth organizer. It was important that we work with someone who had been organizing young people in the neighborhood and that our program was part of what they already do
With them, we created the Neighborhood Frameworks Investigators Program, a group of 12 young people. They joined the Steering Committee with a dozen other community leaders. For the first few months, the Investigators went around to try to understand: What does the city even mean by “neighborhood planning” or a “neighborhood framework”? Then they spent two months preparing presentations to inform residents about what the city had hired us to do. For example, they got to go downtown and interview city agency staff at City Hall.
Damon: It was important that young people were the ones who set up the table. Their presentation explained to other residents: This is typically what neighborhood planning is all about. Residents had to be convinced it would be worthwhile for them to spend time giving their two cents to the city and neighborhood to negotiate toward the kind of neighborhood they had been advocating for.
Q: How did you bring together young people and other community stakeholders to develop their community vision?
Damon: The Organizational Steering committee included the young people and the leaders of existing community groups. It was 12 organizations, and not all of them really got along, but they committed to meeting every month for 18 months. One of the commitments that the city had to make was that they would attend these 18 monthly meetings too.
We also ran community feedback sessions. One of the classic discussion starters is: Where do roads come from? Everybody sees roads and has experiences or ideas of where they come from. That’s a way to get into the bigger issues of resource decision-making in a democracy. Some people in the project were only involved in short workshops at their school, but I feel like it was useful for that reason. We went from there to being able to dig into it a little bit, into their ideas about physical amenities to add to the neighborhood, and all of the problems they had, like with bus services.
Q: A lot of people have opinions about their communities but don’t feel a lot of entitlement to think, imagine, envision, plan, make demands. What are some things that help people participate and lead?
Damon: There’s always a tension around both wanting to bring young people into the process and being uncomfortable and resistant to what young people actually say. We all do that. We all have notions of what needs to be achieved and it’s hard to lose control. When it comes to the city or Steering Committee members actually participating in consensus building, it’s a challenge actually having a democratic process.
For youth, part of being on the Steering Committee was about dealing with frustrations, fights and bickering. Planning is not about winning and getting everything you want. You develop relationships with people, your city and neighborhood, and the nuts and bolts of planning is no more than people negotiating and making decisions. Basically, it’s a long haul.
I’m remembering all of the conflict around setting the agenda for the meetings, and who would hold the mic, and the ongoing struggle to take the mic away from city government. It’s not just about making a space for youth. It’s about making spaces within the spaces. The first step is that you agree to do all these meetings—that’s some kind of step forward—and then you make spaces within those spaces, because institutional forces try to monopolize the attention of the meeting.
I can’t say it was foolproof, but a lot of the lingo we used was to name that conflict is part of the process. We’d say, It’s gonna be a negotiation, different groups want different things, and there’s what you want, and what the city wants, so can you communicate what you want and have reasons and persuade people? It’s a bureaucratic context, so people are going to out-lingo you and out-filibuster you, but there’s going to be a specific point where different people write down on paper what people want, and we’re going to work through the conflicts. Naming that was important.
The young people were in the middle of a bunch of adults acting like adults do, and there were some wild exchanges where adults were out of line speaking to young people. But another thread through it was that being at the adults table brought some reality and urgency to it for the youth.
One time a young person, who played a leader role, called the whole group of adults to task, in a smiling way. She was someone who was very brave and in tune and honest, but the fact that she had been to 10+ meetings as well as been in more intimate work settings with authority figures in the room hopefully made space for her to pull some adult shit on those adults.
Another time, there was a discussion around residential streets in this five-square-mile area. The Public Works department had basically said, “We already did a lot of work on streets in that part of the city and we’re not doing any more.” Then there was an event to bring public attention to the project. The mayor was invited; the city planning director came. Preparing for that event, the big conflict was whether young people would actually be allowed to chair and open the meeting, and they did hold the mics, and they did presentations about different aspects of the neighborhood, including the streets and how people get around. This one young person was like, “I have extreme anxiety every time I cross the street. My mother did not let me cross the main street until I was 16. I have three friends who were hurt crossing the street.” It did not completely turn the tide, but it changed the context of the conversation, and it really did change what people thought was important. There are a lot of less dramatic examples of how youth affected the framing of a lot of the issues.
The most productive aspect of this project was adults behaving in the sight of the honesty and humor and genuine interests that come from people who are young.
Q: Working inside, outside and with government, what have you learned about the forms of power that help communities move their own vision forward?
Jae: It always struck me that when the city or planners come into the neighborhood to have engagement sessions, there’s such a gap between what it’s supposed to be and what it actually was—and what it became reported as. Something will have the look and production of community engagement for a Twitter feed, website, or report, but there’s no actual decision-making.
Damon: Some of those dynamics are because of people’s understandable conflict avoidance. Usually the way things work is to stifle conflict and make the squeaky wheel feel out of line.
Jae: And so much of neighborhood or city planning is still from the attitude of “we bring tools and expertise to resolve your problems.” Planners should be seeing themselves as the locus of problems. Your own policies have historically caused the conflict! Do-gooding in itself is toxic, and causes a toxic environment.
Making space in expertise and understanding the reality of the places you’re trying to design is important. It’s a big lesson to actually be part of and get to see the nitty gritty negotiation of residents, government and stakeholders, and to let go of this privileged position of a do-gooder.
Having young people in the process accentuates that gap between the actual making of democracy versus the production of the look of democracy, because they are honest and vulnerable and critical and really fresh eyed. Their presence is really helpful in helping us see that—and change that.
Those gaps are smaller when a community is already organized before planners come in. We are working now with a community out in Denver and they have been organizing against the city’s big plan around their neighborhood. We can make contributions around that organizing work as planners invited to play a specific and productive role. They already have a network and agenda and the force of people speaking for their needs.
— Interview by Nora McCarthy