Planners Network

The Organization of Progressive Planning

Progressive Planning Magazine

Multicultural Planning Lessons from Papakolea

March 12, 1999 by Administrator in March/April 1999

By Karen Umemoto

There is a lot of talk about multiculturalism in planning. Planning programs and agencies often stress the need for planning staff to be able to work in “diverse communities.” Sometimes this simply means placing planners of certain ethnic backgrounds in communities whose residents share the same ethnic heritage. While this may be effective in some cases, it doesn’t guarantee good working relations between communities and planners. Nor do all planning agencies have the number of planners to “cover” all the ethnic groups that may live in a city.

It is more useful to discuss what it means to effectively work in diverse communities, since planners frequently work in communities whose ethnic backgrounds are different from their own. Here I’d like to highlight two challenges in working across cultural paradigms. I refer to these challenges as “epistemological,” that is, challenges that involve different ways of knowing. Leonie Sandercock eloquently discusses this problem in her book, Towards Cosmopolis, and advocates for multicultural literacy. But what does such literacy entail? There are two challenges: 1) addressing culture, history and collective memory and 2) understanding the multiple meanings of language. I draw examples from a community-led planning process in the Hawaiian Homeland community of Papakolea where students and faculty in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii helped to facilitate a visioning process along with community residents.

Culture, History and Collective Memory

When a planner enters a community, she or he enters into a cultural setting in a particular historic moment. Culture, history and collective memory shape the way actions and events are interpreted and how meaning is made. One’s mental map and historical lens is shaped by unique personal experiences as well as factors associated with group membership such as age, ethnicity, race, gender, length of residence, membership in social networks and roles played in a neighborhood. Planners are confronted with the challenge of interacting and facilitating interaction among individuals who may see the world from distinct cultural paradigms – worldviews embedded in the history of a community and in their individual and collective memories.

In multicultural cities, planners often work in communities where the ethnic or racial background of residents is different from their own. The stronger the racial or ethnic identification within a geographic community, the more likely that the racial or ethnic background of a planner may be a factor in initial interactions. This may influence how a planner is viewed and how people make judgements about a planner’s motives or intentions.

Actions and gestures are also interpreted from a lens colored by history. For communities that have faced oppressive or discriminatory treatment, the memory of past experiences with outside institutions is often saddled with ambivalence towards those whom they identify with the dominating group. In the U.S., this tension is most often found, at least initially, when white planners enter non-white communities. With contemporary urban conflicts, these tensions also exist between racial or ethnic minorities as well.

Part of the living history in Papakolea was the memory of university staff examining Native Hawaiians as objects of research projects that were never seen by residents to produce anything of benefit to them. They felt they were “studied to death.” “Collaborations” were often weighted in favor of outside “partners.” Social researchers often focused on the “problems” in the community with little attention to its beauty and richness. Many residents felt labeled as a “problem population,” leading to further marginalization. When students and faculty from the university initially entered the community in fall 1997 to embark on a visioning project – where people envision and plan for the future of their community – we encountered the memory of this past and the feelings of resentment towards those affiliated with the university.

It was important for us, especially before diving into the project, to learn about the history of Papakolea and its living memories and to hear the stories of the residents. It helped us identify issues that needed to be clarified, like the purpose and process of visioning and the nature of the partnership between the university and community. It was important to assure residents that the planning process was community led and ownership of the project rested in the community association. And it was important for residents to receive the product of the visioning project, which took the form of a booklet containing a summary of the process and results of the visioning activities. Not only was it important to understand the past as conveyed from the standpoint of residents, but it was important that those with whom we worked understood that the university team valued that history and their worldview. While it would be naive to think that one could know the world from someone else’s shoes, it is not unrealistic to create the foundation for social learning that emphasizes multiple epistemologies (ways of knowing) in planning.

Understanding the Multiple Meanings of Language

Language carries with it the power to discourage or encourage, to repress or release, legitimize or degrade. How planners phrase what they say, how they choose their words, how they convey their message can affect the extent to which people participate in or withdraw from a planning process. Epistemology, as a lens for interpretation, mediates how messages are relayed and how they are received. Not only do problems of interpretation arise in translating between different languages, but meaning can also be distorted or misread among speakers of the same language.

Words in the English language can acquire meaning unique to a particular group. The use of some words in the planning process can occasionally trigger an unintended reaction based on differences in the meaning that they evoke. In the case of ethnic communities where both history and culture may lend unique meaning to words, planners are confronted with the task of clarifying the meaning of words or symbols to insure that participants and potential participants in the planning process share the same understanding.

In the visioning process in the community of Papakolea, the problem of multiple meanings was one of the first challenges we encountered. Among many of the elders, the term “visioning” had an almost sacred meaning. We learned after some confusion that “visioning” is a term that many of the kupuna, or elder generation, use to refer to a highly personal and private practice. It usually takes place while in a dream state and is also a form of communication with deified ancestors or Åaumakua. The term hihiÅo refers to a dream or vision and hoÅike refers to seeing, knowing and understanding. It is sometimes practiced in search of an answer to a question or dilemma. It is done under special circumstances and for situations of import that warrant such sacred practices. When it was announced that university students would facilitate a “visioning project” in Papakolea, a number of the kupuna called the president of the Papakolea Community Association to voice their objection. What business would university students have conducting visioning in Papakolea? It was only after the different meanings of “visioning” were clarified that the kupuna gave their consent and university partners were educated about this use of the term.

What should have been considered (hindsight is always much more clear) was to change the name of the project to something other than “visioning” so as avoid the unnecessary altering of the traditional meaning of the word. In other cases, there might be reasons to continue to use a word in order to clarify its meaning. “Collaboration” may be one such word. Collaboration can be interpreted in several ways. It can have a very positive connotation of working together in mutual support on equal terms towards common goals. But it can also connote working in partnership with an enemy force to sabotage another. Given the pervasive use of collaboration in the world of community building and non-profit organizations, it may make more sense to use the word and clarify its meaning in the particular situation so that people develop a shared understanding over time.

While it is impossible to know where language discrepancies may lie, knowing that discrepancies exist help us navigate the minefields of discourse. It is possible to develop a sensibility about epistemological multiplicity. A sensibility alerts us to potential language or interpretive dissonance. It helps us know what to listen for. It helps us pay attention to innuendo and connotation that can be found in narrative, in tone or in silence. And it helps us to understand the potential sources and nature of conflicts that result from epistemological differences.


Karen Umemoto is Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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