Member Perspectives: It is Hard to Step Aside, But We Need to Listen Now

Janet Wright, AICP | [email protected]

While the pandemic of COVID 19 still spreads within our communities with devastating impacts to employment, education, health care sectors and more, it has also provided a unique opportunity to deeply examine the practices and policies at all levels of government leading to the present situation. For many low wage earners (now renamed as “essential workers”) who are often people of color and undocumented immigrants, the “old normal” was not a magical time of justice and plenty. There is a growing understanding of the connection between the pandemic and racial injustice, and an increasing number of white Americans are becoming more aware of the injustices in our societal structures and are joining the effort to address these inequities. 

For the past two months, I have watched the focus of webinars for planners expand from the topic of the pandemic and its repercussions to now include the topic of racial injustice. These conversations within the planning community are very important because our profession seeks to serve the public interest.  There are a number of principles set by the American Planning Association to guide the work of practicing planners, including: “Strive to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of disadvantaged groups and persons”. 

I am heartened to see an increasing number of planning webinars addressing racial inequities to promote more inclusive planning, ranging from open space planning to community engagement efforts and more.  These webinars also offer an important opportunity for us to practice respect for diverse colleagues and community members and their viewpoints. What I have observed in some webinars, however, is that the time allotted to different speakers is not equally shared and the role of moderator is still mostly assigned to white professionals. This observation is not easy to share, however, I believe that we will make greater progress as planners if those of us who are white and therefore, of the dominant culture, make a conscious effort to step aside and listen. In regard to webinars, this effort should begin from the task of webinar planning to its actual realization. Our socialization can often lead us to act in familiar patterns that are unconscious, so I believe that we need to actively counter the narrative that white people are the ones who normally take charge and lead. All of us will be enriched not only by listening to diverse groups, but also through our support of colleagues and community members of color as they step forward and lead.