Laying the Groundwork of Equality: Prioritizing Community in City Planning with Jasmine Williams

Clare Sausen May 21, 2021

VOICES & PERSPECTIVES:  In November, we began releasing stories from unsung voices around the firm centering on the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ Pride movements as our first installment of the Voices & Perspectives series. Lucy Baraquio shared how it feels to be the only queer, woman of color in the room; Porsche Ellison emphasized the importance of connection; James Lai taught us to foster inclusivity; and Anna Leach discussed the importance of continued action.

For the second call, we sought perspectives on both Migration Patterns and life as an Emerging Professional. Today, we sat down with Jasmine Williams to discuss displacement and the community’s role in city planning. Stay tuned for more stories to come.

Jasmine Williams, LEED Green Associate 

A talented urban designer and planner, Jasmine Williams has represented CTRKL working with multiple municipalities and government entities– both domestically and internationally. Her work is rooted in her identity as a Black and Mexican queer woman, with a drive to advocate for minority groups and create vibrant, equitable, diverse, and sustainable places for all to enjoy. Her fluency in Spanish allows her to effectively translate and more deeply connect to the communities she works with. Because of her multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary experience with a variety of client types, she has developed a unique understanding of urban environments and the ability to express ideas across different fields coherently and effectively.

In your Phoenix Land Reuse Strategy, you mention local neighborhoods that have been decimated due to a long and complicated history of government distrust, neglect and disenfranchisement. What is your relationship to these neighborhoods? Whose voices are being silenced?

Essentially, the Phoenix airport established a voluntary buy-out program to help mitigate environmental concerns in the adjacent neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were home to various minority groups, which over the course of the buy-out program started to become erased and lost. The airport took priority, disinvestment and neglect crept in, and they became less of a residential neighborhood and, instead, more of a blighted and forgotten place. What was there was stripped away and these diverse neighborhoods became a vacant, gravel-filled land. The neighborhoods are comprised mostly of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian people– whose marginalization by the government is historical and systemic.

Historically, the voices from seven different neighborhoods have gone unheard which is unfortunate because there’s already pressure for racial minorities in Arizona to assimilate and lose their identity and cultural narrative because of overt issues like racial profiling policies, but also interpersonal bias and societal expectations. These communities are being decimated because no one is advocating on their behalf– and sometimes they’ve been afraid to advocate for themselves. There are so many unsung stories from this area– the first African American congressman Calvin Good, a Cesar Chavez hunger strike, a priest named Father Albert Braun who the community still advocates for — there are so many resilient leaders in this area that have deeply influenced Arizona in policy and advocacy, but are rarely acknowledged.

Our plan was to turn this decimated area into a culturally and economically vital place that supports residents, workers and visitors alike. Its proximity to the airport is a benefit—we draw local talent to establish a workforce, global industries to bring in jobs, and worldwide travelers on a layover who want to kill a few hours learning about the local area and what was once there.

Historically, this small pocket of Phoenix may have been seen as a planner’s utopia—or maybe this planner specifically [laughs]. The city lost this gem of a mixture of races, a diversity of languages, unique local business, cultural event spaces– it’s mostly gone now. The city, now, has the opportunity to right those wrongs and educate natives and visitors alike about the history of this area and Phoenix as a whole.

As it relates to my relationship with the area, the neighborhoods speak to my heritage. I’m African American and Mexican– multilingual and Spanish-speaking. I think these areas resemble a lot of neighborhoods in my hometown of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a total melting pot of cultures and identities, but I wouldn’t have expected to see this same pocket of diversity in Phoenix.

I actually used to live in Arizona, and I had no idea these neighborhoods were there. When I studied architecture at Arizona State in Tempe, I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of diversity or people who look like me. I transitioned there from having attended culturally diverse public schools in LA and growing up in West Hollywood, which isn’t very racially diverse, in itself, but it is very queer, accepting, and progressive.

Entering a conservative and more homogenous space like Arizona felt like a huge culture shock. There, I didn’t really tap into my racial identity, and instead leaned on my queerness to form community. I joined a queer sorority, I helped to organize LGBTQ+ pride—I felt the need to compartmentalize myself and choose just one identity to fit in.

I wish I had known these neighborhoods had existed when I was living there. I rode the Light Rail through them for 5 years. It wasn’t until I got onto this project that I was like— “there’s so much here!” I think I would’ve felt more of a cultural connection there if I had and felt safer celebrating my racial identity.

How did you use your position to elevate the insights of those affected?

I think that the planning profession, in general, needs to see ourselves as community conveners and translators. We’re experts on solutions, but we can’t be experts of every community—only the people who live there can be an expert of it. Our primary responsibilities here are to convene, collaborate, and translate the desires of the residents to our team and our clients.

I got to speak Spanish on this project, and I don’t get that opportunity often. My ability to do that was a huge advantage here, as I was able to communicate complex planning ideas to the community in a way they can understand. It’s vital to include the community from the beginning, rather than when they’ve already been planned. We’re listening actively, and it’s absolutely critical for us to be understanding of the communities we work with. People need to know they’re being heard, and if they have a suggestion or broach an issue that doesn’t necessarily apply to the project, you can still listen and use your connections to help them resolve it. That’s what a holistic level of care for the community looks like.

I have to use a dual-lens— of course, I’m looking at it as a planner, but I also see myself as a community advocate. I try to picture myself living there and prioritize the perspective of the locals.

The biggest part of my job and position is to understand and highlight community engagement. Sometimes, there can be a lot of barriers to entry for the community—there’s physically getting to a meeting or having the technology to meet online—so it’s important that we meet them where they’re at. Otherwise, their perspective we so desperately need won’t be heard. The communities we worked for on this project are working class—that includes single parents, people who work off-peak hours, and plenty of other people whose first priority isn’t attending a community workshop. So maybe we offer them surveys to do on their own free time, or go to their house, offer virtual meetings, or conduct an interview over the phone.

There’s also the trust element—they need to believe in us; our methods, our professional insights and our deep desire to partner with the community during the planning process. Identifying community partnerships, like the trusted local nonprofit partners we established on this project (Phoenix Revitalization Corp & Chicanos Por La Causa), is imperative to building that trust and ensure we’re doing our due diligence.

How do you emphasize the importance of historical land conservation to profit-driven entities like developers?

I think the only way to prove its importance is just to keep doing it. Obviously, profit is always going to be THE major consideration for many different entities in A.E.C. (the architecture, construction, and engineering industry). But we’ve seen what happens when you chase profit alone and don’t take care of the community—that’s where we get exploitation and gentrification.

Thankfully, we’re in an age of a public opinion shift towards equity in cities– and other planners and community advocates are ready to challenge developers when they don’t include community benefits. These look different wherever you go, but can include anything from affordable housing to open spaces to gather and play.

But explaining the importance of cultural preservation is challenging, regardless. You can advocate for it all you want, but sometimes when push comes to shove you just need to do it yourself. In this project, for example, I knew it was important to the community that we preserve the historical names of their neighborhoods, so we did—even if some visitors or developers may not understand their meaning or importance.

Why is cultural literacy in our industry so important on both the macro and micro level? (both in terms of architecture/designing as a whole and on a personal level)

I think it’s absolutely crucial we all have some sort of cultural literacy. Even despite being a “diverse” or intersectionally identifying person myself, I always want to keep learning and recognize my ignorance. It’s important to have the historical context and see how we, as planners, designers, and architects, were traditionally trained in a way that really missed the mark on designing for communities of color. Without intentionally designing for diversity, you’re inherently being exclusive of certain groups. Is a building or space truly successful if you’re only making one group of people feel happy, safe, and welcome? Not to me. To me, a successful space is one that welcomes and sees everyone.

It’s also important to break down these systemic barriers still so present in our industry. This means encouraging a more diverse group of people into the profession and equitably training and supporting them through their careers. We need their respective lenses – the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Take me, for example. I’m by no means a diversity expert, but I’m often one that gets asked to address these topics. That’s just because I’m one of the few people in the room—and often, the only one– who can represent these perspectives.  For a true sense of collaboration, you need a mix of diverse minds for innovative solutions.

On a more micro level, I think that has to stem from a personal level of commitment to make people feel welcome, and not be offensive or divisive. It’s about having empathy for the community and taking it as personally as you would your own.

People need to come to the table with a desire to understand and to check their privilege. I’m hopeful people will do the work, but there’s a lot to be done. I’m happy to be in planning to engage with all of these fields and make a positive difference in the world, but there’s, historically, a lot to contest within our industry—there have been some very oppressing and exclusionary policies that our industry is responsible for implementing.

Professionalism void of humanity won’t work to build a better world. You need to share and learn from people you work with and share space with. That requires vulnerability, and vulnerability is difficult to foster. There needs to be a safe space for people to share and be wrong, while also supporting the work needed to correct these wrongs. No one can be perfect but a willingness to learn and grow, is what’s key. It needs to be an environment where it’s okay to say something that’s not perfectly politically correct the first time, but I’ll challenge you on it and that’s okay too.

This kind of project doesn’t come around very often, and I really love being able to engage with these complex challenges and the community on such a personal level. This is what we do: we work to build a better world, and it is rare and brilliant to be able to see the change so directly.






Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.