MA degree candidate in Urban Planning, University of Michigan
I come to planning policy from a background of non-profit work and community organization. This background shapes my intellectual and professional values. I hold in high regard approaches to partnership that value pragmatic, practical solutions and incorporate diverse and engaged stake holders. I value projects which recognize that economic prosperity and neighborhood vitality are threads of the same cloth. I believe that money is as only important as the results it funds and the consistency on which it can be depended to be available. Plans are only as helpful as the actions that will fulfill them and innovation is only as useful as the ability for it to be correctly implemented. Regional and/or urban planning cannot be implemented from a top down approach but rather must be executed in an organic, community consultative approach that incorporates both the needs and assets of the local community.
My career goal is to work with developers that specialize in economic revitalization and affordable housing projects in decaying urban and first-ring suburban areas. Immediately after graduation, I hope to use my education to gain a position as an consultant or analyst (governmental or private) working on large scale economic redevelopment programs that have received substantial government (federal and/or state and local) funding. My particular area of interest lies in private/public partnerships for economic revitalization. I hope to study projects that work to involve not only for-profit developers and government entities but alsoare cognizant of the grassroots community. Whether they be small non-profits, churches or advisory neighborhood commission, I feel they must always been engaged in the process. Through research, I hope to be able identify those conditions and best practices (economic, design, and political) that help foster successful partnerships between these three groups. Ultimately, I would like to both advocate for these conditions and best practices to policy makers and help to implement them in my own work.
My commitment to developing strong livable communities stems from my educational background. My undergraduate degree in Law and Social thought has given me the tools to think critically about political positions and community. It allowed me to study the political and theoretical frameworks that inform how we view community and how, as political and social beings, we create it. This education, coupled with my own volunteering experience led me to pursue community engagement post-graduation. I chose to enlist in a program devoted to community organization and development - AmeriCorps VISTA.
The Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA program places recent graduates in higher education administrative positions to be agents of change for their community. In my two VISTA years, I learned four important lessons of community development and engagement: (1) the importance of assessment and evaluation, (2) the delicate process of working with a variety of stakeholders, (3) the absolute necessity of providing a clear long term vision, and (4) the importance of a leader to inspire other to act. At the University of Toledo I lead a year long process of university wide assessment and the creation of a five year strategic plan by a committee that I headed. I learned to work with many stake holders in by partnering with faculty, the mayor’s office and student leaders to create a series of week long service events. The potential for future growth lead to the creation of a service council of twelve strategic community and nonprofit leaders. In my year with the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I acted less as an administrator and more as a consultant. I presented on service learning to professors, wrote a department manual on community engagement pedagogy, and helped to initiate a service learning scholars program that provides semester long instruction on service learning pedagogy to faculty and staff. In Wilmington, I was also able to focus leadership development. I worked daily with a core group of 10 students who each were assigned community non-profits to partner with. These students were responsible for assessing the needs of a non-profit in cooperation with that organization’s leaders, drafting a plan to address these needs and then creating a volunteer program where students could assist in addressing this need. The program stressed collaborative approaches to community education and problem solving.
Working at DC Habitat, I quickly learned what it means to be a staff member in a small non-profit. As the Volunteer Services Manager, I oversee all volunteer efforts of our organization along with our AmeriCorps program. My area of responsibility includes supervising a staff of 11 AmeriCorps members, 5 volunteer committees with over 300 members and over 5,000 volunteers who assist with our home construction every year. Yet, with a professional staff that has ranged from only 9 to 11 employees serving over 120 families and thousands of volunteers, I am expected to work on projects outside of my assigned role. I have led a development program generating over $300k in revenue and have written numerous grant applications. On numerous stories, the media point of contact for various local and national news and have been asked to speak on Habitat's behalf at numerous meetings, worship services and conventions. I have organized a Martin Luther King Jr Day event that was visited by the Vice President gaining our affiliate national attention. I have had to honor of speaking with First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama about the importance of volunteerism and the AmeriCorps program to Habitat affiliates nationwide, again garnering national attention to our cause. We are mission driven but results oriented organization and because of this I have had to challenge myself in many areas. I have been not only been given an opportunity to discover my strengths (organization, communication and management of large groups of people) but also my weaknesses. I know that I need further education in real estate finance, local and regional economic analysis, and neighborhood and site planning among other items. Graduate degree specializing planning and policy will address these deficiencies.
Yet more than anything, DC Habitat showed to me the promise and problems posed by community development work. I am glad to report, promise of success outweighs the burden of our problems. I have stood on the foundation of a home with 50 volunteers, knowing that at the end of the day we will have raised four walls. By the end of the week we will had built the shell of the home. Working the with the future homeowners, I hung drywall and put up siding. Later, the mother would squeeze my hand as she cut the ribbon off her new front door. The father would hold back tears as he told the story of moving his family of 6 from Ethiopia, to a small one bedroom apartment in DC, and finally five years later to their new Habitat home. I have been witness to a development that turned an abandoned public housing complex into a 53 safe, affordable homes housing well over 250. Inside the walls of each of these homes are stories of success and determination to keep that success growing. Because of success and the attention the project has given my affiliate, we will continue to grow and expand in DC helping more families and communities.
I also have been witness to the problems of urban development. I have stood in angry public meetings where residents have felt contempt and confusion at a developer who hoped to help this community but was completely unsure how to engage them. Days have gone by where I had to send volunteer home due a lacks of funds to purchase materials or because local government held up the permitting process. Theft reports detailing items stolen from volunteers, staff and construction site bear my name. Police have pulled heroin from the public housing complex literally across the street our project and have spoken to me with jaded hearts, "There are no innocent people there." I have heard shots fired midday from that same complex and known that young people were again dead. I have seen triumph and tragedy in the same neighborhood and been lucky enough to work for an organization that is determined to ensure that triumph trumps tragedy. The work of DC Habitat for Humanity, while inspirational and essential to the success of the Deanwood Neighborhood, is certainly not exceptional or uncommon. All over our county there are developers, non-profits and community members determined to make the same impact where they live. These organizations need skilled, educated leaders. I hope to become one.