How Planners Can Change Public Policy through Social Action

By Ayse Yonder

Three long-time activist planners, during one of the main plenary sessions at the Planners Network 2004 Conference, talked about breaking down walls by building bridges at local, national and international levels. Jackie Leavitt, professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, runs the Community Scholars program and works with community/labor coalitions. Sheela Patel is director of SPARC, the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, based in Mumbai (Bombay) India. Jan Peterson is active in the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW), Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) and the Huariou Commission.

“How can progressive planners respond to the task of making social change? How can we move from the margins to the mainstream in the planning profession and create wider coalitions?” With these questions Jackie Leavitt launched a wide-ranging discussion that urged both individuals and organizations like Planners Network to go further than they have. In the discussion, a few key principles emerged for helping progressive planners break down the walls between community groups, practitioners and academics:

  • Shed the cloak of providing expertise from on high and learn new roles from grassroots groups;
  • Appreciate the power of grassroots, community and labor groups;
  • Reach across borders—national and international, between planners and grassroots groups—to ensure that resources are more equitably divided, that grassroots voices are at the table when decisions are being made and that research supports social action; and
  • Cultivate policies that originate from communities to the point that they can include broader groups and more interests.

Community and Labor in Los Angeles
Jackie Leavitt drew on the history of the public housing bill in the 1930s, recalling Catherine Bauer’s rationale for organizing union members to support it: join forces where people are already in motion. Leavitt also referred to the example of today’s burgeoning labor movement in Los Angeles and its inclusion of workers in low-wage occupations. “People in motion” have won union representation, health benefits and increased respect for laboring in low-wage jobs. Los Angeles’ landscape of social action also includes worker centers, such as those for day laborers and garment workers that fight against wage discrimination and exploitation. The centers serve mainly immigrants and a coalition of five centers is leading the campaign for amnesty legalization. Leavitt believes that new policy agendas can be set by linking urban planners to these different types of social action. The terms of the debate can be changed and the idea of who does planning expanded to include people who are “action planners.”

Community Scholars, a joint project of the UCLA Department of Urban Planning and the Center for Labor Research and Education, is one example of a bridge between community and academia that expands on the concept of action planning. This was the first program of its kind in the University of California system. It turns university resources outward by engaging local labor and community activists—Community Scholars—in collaborative projects with graduate and undergraduate students. Drawing from a paper written with Kara Heffernan, Leavitt described the program, which was launched in 1991.

Community Scholars are chosen from among activists in community and labor organizations and work alongside urban planning graduates and undergraduates for two terms of applied research. Over its lifetime about 120 Scholars and 300 graduate and undergraduate students have been involved in the program. Scholars are drawn from the ranks of staff, leaders and/or executive board members of labor/community-based organizations, including community development corporations, service delivery groups, faith-based groups, union locals, the County Federation of Labor and worker centers.

The program has multiple objectives: 1) advancing networking among activists by defusing boundary lines among unions, community organizations, community development and economic development corporations; 2) breaking down the academy’s insularity and connecting to the world beyond the ivory towers; 3) turning university resources outward through an applied research project, encouraging graduate and undergraduate students to collaborate with Scholars and by extension the groups sponsoring the Scholars; 4) exposing planning students to labor research and broadening the content of more traditional classes in community development and community-based planning; and 5) laying a foundation for future partnerships. The first Scholars’ project set a precedent for this: Accidental Tourism critiqued the city of Los Angeles’ tourism promotion strategy and proposed alternatives that would bring economic benefits to working-class communities and communities of color.

Bridging the Gap between Local Knowledge and International Expertise
Sheela Patel talked about planners who do not listen to the experiences of grassroots people or pay attention to the creative ways in which people resolve issues. This often leads to conflicts with communities. Institutions arrive with predetermined solutions and planners with approaches that begin from the top down. Patel stressed the importance of coalition-building and peer learning that crosses national boundaries.

Patel gave as a positive example the assistance given by SPARC to slum dwellers living along the railway tracks in Mumbai. The strategy there was adapted to conditions in Kenya, where Patel saw a parallel situation. Patel suggested that the Pamoja Trust and the Mungano (counterparts to SPARC and the National Slum Dwellers Federation [NSDF] in Kenya) talk to their railways and bring the communities and government to see what was being done in India. In February 2004, the government started demolishing houses by the railways in Nairobi. The Pamoja and Mungano Trust asked the railways to consider a new way of dealing with the process of clearing the land. They explored working cooperatively with the poor to solve the problem: providing alternative housing for the poor and clearing the dense areas around the railroad tracks. Two months later, a team of seven Kenyans came to Mumbai to meet with communities, SPARC, the railways and government officials who worked with the Mumbai process, and they began to explore how Kenya would undertake a similar partnership in Nairobi.

Patel also described the coalition-building of SPARC and the Shack Dwellers International (SDI), a network of community federations of the urban poor who work with and learn from each other. The international network across cities in Asia and Africa sustains peer foundations. SPARC and SDI have worked with other federations to negotiate with global institutions such as the World Bank and with local private firms. In conclusion, Patel emphasized that something has to change to open up real partnerships, that planners should not come into communities with preconceived ideas and that creative ideas arise from actively pursuing democratic partnerships.

From Local to International Organizing 
Jan Peterson talked about how her community development work in her neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (New York) led her to participate in the formation of a national organization, the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW), and then to new international organizations. Starting in 1985, grassroots women’s groups who were meeting at a series of United Nations conferences saw the need to form a global network. GROOTS was the first group to form when people from NCNW realized that grassroots women’s organizations throughout the world were doing similar work around community development, housing and infrastructure projects, and that the north needed to learn from the south. In 1995, at the fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing, the Huairou Commission was formed with a mission to forge partnerships among grassroots groups and bridges to other partners such as the media, foundations, international agencies and academia.

Peterson called for a new way of partnering between grassroots communities and planners that went beyond participation to real democratic practices. She noted that planners need to clarify their roles and learn how to best serve community priorities. Planners should provide expertise but also share practices, and really listen and learn. She emphasized the need for planners to build ongoing networks both inside their own organizations and externally so they are not acting as isolated professionals or at the mercy of management. She stressed that planners can have leverage if they build their own areas of influence by coalescing with international audiences.

In an increasingly global world, US planners should learn from other countries. There are many examples of good planning and effective partnerships, particularly between grassroots communities and local authorities.Peterson gave examples of Huairou Commission member groups’ work in the areas of the AIDS pandemic, natural disasters and post-conflict situations. These are powerful examples that start with the immediate and basic needs of people and move to their “strategic” needs—as opposed to outside experts’ recommendations—and lead to a transformation in people’s roles, whether in disaster-stricken areas of India and Turkey or conflict areas in Bosnia, or with regard to the spread of AIDS across national borders in Africa. Peterson suggested that Planners Network provided such a framework and could become a training ground for the next generation of activist planners.

For additional information on each of these projects, see:

UCLA Community Scholars:
The Huairou Commission:

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