Equity and Urban Planning – Lead boldly, collaboratively, authentically

November 19, 2015 2 Comments

This is the fourth of a four part series, sharing some of the lessons IISC and Horsley Witten Group learned in our efforts to support RhodeMap RI in weaving social equity into its regional planning process, and particularly our facilitation of the project’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.

Lesson 4: Lead boldly, collaboratively, authentically

Finally, working in this kind of collaborative partnership is unfamiliar for many planners and also for many community residents. It requires everyone to do their best to embrace the discomfort and awkwardness that comes with learning and develop both attitudes and habits that support collaboration. IISC has found that several key values and attributes are important for collaborative change agents to be well-positioned to support this way of working. The attributes include demonstrating a collaborative mindset, strategic thinking and a receptive and flexible skillset for facilitating collaboration. Core values include mutuality and service, authenticity, and love – a deep regard for the well-being of others.

Planners can step in to lead these processes boldly and authentically. You may find yourself between the proverbial rock (of well earned skepticism from community members who are wary of government efforts to involve them) and a hard place (of colleagues and constituents who for whom prioritizing equity seems controversial at best). It’s important to keep coming back to the various tables, convinced of the value of ongoing dialogue, open about what you know and don’t know, clear about your own values, and firmly committed to the vision of a more equitable future. These quotes from a community member and a planner in the RhodeMap RI process sum up the leadership challenges this way:

“There were a lot of tough conversations. And it was not always easy for those of us on the government side to participate in those conversations. And we often got very frustrated. But you know what? At the end of every meeting we said goodbye to each other, we talked to each other, we came back the next time and even if there had been a hot moment or two we tried to find … things that we could agree on and move forward. So we sort of formed a family. Families have their ups and downs. We had our ups and downs. But … by sticking at it, I think they got a sense that we were sincere and that we cared and we got a sense that we have to work on being able to understand a language that’s very different than what we do on a day to day basis with people who work in state or local government. And so that would be my advice. You’re going to have fights, you’re going to have arguments, you’re going to think I can’t believe someone just said that. You’re going to feel insulted. I felt insulted more than once. You have to be bigger than that, you have to get over it.”

“For myself, I believe in the power of people. And when we got together collectively, as you see, there was an asset, there was a liability. But in the end the assets wound up winning because the people in our community wanted this thing to go. And I really appreciated being involved in the process. It was kind of deep. I’ve learnt different lingo. But for me I got to see people that I didn’t see before. I got to see people at a higher level that are working in city government, state government, and in private jobs, who finally had to listen to what the community people had to say. Now, was it all good? I won’t tell that lie, it was not. But it was very educational for myself and for the community. Because when the community came out and spoke, people listened. When we sit back on our fannies, nothing gets done. But when we fight as one, I’m talking as one, whites, blacks, Latinos, Indians together, never mind if we have different mindsets, but when we got one mindset we win.”

Achieving greater equity in our communities requires plans that are highly strategic and effective. Our plans – and critically, the capacity to implement them – will only be as good as the processes through which they are developed. Similarly, the processes will only be as good as our capacity to challenge conventional wisdom, learn, and engage diverse people, especially those who are affected by inequities. It’s a challenge that we find is well worth the effort. In fact, it’s essential for our communities and economy to thrive.

For more in this series of lessons learned, check out:

This series builds on a workshop designed by Nate Kelly of the Horsley Witten Group and Cynthia Silva Parker of IISC.


  • Aaron Stephens says:

    Cynthia, this is a really interesting article, because it illustrates how frustrating collaboration can be. It seems like its hard for people to see things from other perspectives. There are a lot of emotions tied up with urban planning, so it’s good to see that they had success. Thanks for sharing.

    • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

      Thanks Aaron,
      It took real willingness on everyone’s part to be honest and not take things personally. It also took time to build the minds of relationships and trust to be honest. And, it also took strong facilitation, guided by a string understanding of how issues of race and economic privilege play out, not only in the group’s interactions, but in the topics they were dealing with.

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