The Power of Empowerment: Mentoring the Next Generation of Urban Planners

Samina Raja with the Food Lab.

By JESSICA SCATES

Published March 26, 2019

“I liked to build and break things as a child” Dr. Samina Raja lightheartedly responded when I asked what led her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Engineering. 

You don’t have to go far to understand the impact Dr. Raja has on the lives of her colleagues and students. Although she speaks with generosity about her mentors and friends, she has paid forward the gift of her mentorship. Her family of mentees now promote food and health equity across the globe.

Although Dr. Raja’s interest in building and breaking began with the material – machines, roads, buildings, and bridges – the majority of her career has focused on the building and breaking of analyses and theories. Her motivation? To support systemic change that improves health and wellbeing for whole communities.

Trained as a civil engineer and planner, Dr. Samina Raja is professor of urban and regional planning and associate dean of research and inclusion in the School of Architecture and Planning. She is a giant in the field of food systems planning. In fact, the term did not exist until she began her Ph.D. studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She credits her advisors, Professor Jerome Kaufman, a famed planning ethicist who devoted his career to issues generally viewed at the fringes of planning, and Jack Huddleston, an economist, for the development of a field she now leads. Professor Kaufman believed the lack of food systems work was a huge oversight in the planning profession. He and Dr. Huddleston helped Raja to see the gaps as well as strategies on how to close them. Raja had the good fortune of working on The Madison Food System Project, one of the country’s first efforts where a planning department actively engaged in food systems research. With Kaufman’s guidance, Dr. Raja wrote the first U.S. city plan to create, protect, and sustain Madison’s community gardens.

Dr. Raja reflects upon her advisors with great respect and gratitude. She credits her Ph.D. as the most transformational experience of her life. Her advisors shepherded her through, giving her the skills she uses to this day. Professor Kaufman, the man who authored the earliest codes of ethics for all planners in the U.S., taught her how to ask bigger picture questions while Dr. Huddleston gave her the tools to answer them.

It is her multi-disciplinary training in engineering and planning (with an emphasis on public finance), as well as her upbringing that make Dr. Raja think about food research very differently than many other researchers in the field. In addition to arguing for food equity from a normative stance – “it’s the right thing to do” – she uses economic analyses (the tool many developers use) to argue for food system transformation. Dr. Raja’s dissertation investigated the methodological rigor of fiscal impact analysis (FIA), a tool planners use to gauge the future economic value of land use development. 

Although Dr. Raja is quick to credit her colleagues and mentors with much of her success, it is clear that her experiences and character – her courage, resourcefulness, tenacity, and perseverance – are equally as important.

Dr. Raja grew up in Jammu and Kashmir, India, a territory between India and Pakistan that has experienced decades of conflict and war. From the mountains of Kashmir, she moved to New Delhi, one of the largest cities in the world, to complete her secondary and undergraduate education. There, as the only woman in her undergraduate civil engineering cohort and with roots in a conflict zone, Dr. Raja weathered stifling and exclusionary practices.

Yet, she persevered. She wanted to create system wide change that would someday benefit the people of Kashmir. To this end, she earned her Master’s in Planning with a specialization in housing, and returned to Kashmir to practice. In Kashmir, she consulted as a civil engineer and taught at a local polytechnique institute. She also tried to launch a non-for-profit for women, and was largely unsuccessful. Reflecting on this difficult time, she admits that she lacked the tools and strategies to create lasting, meaningful change in her community.

In the mid-nineties, while traveling through the U.S., she toured the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture and met her to-be mentors Professors Huddleston, Kaufman and Pothukuchi. Stimulating, inspiring, and encouraging conversations with them led her to pursue a doctorate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She credits extraordinary support from the faculty at UW-Madison as essential to her success, especially because at the time she was also a single parent of a toddler. 

At the University at Buffalo, Dr. Raja is principal investigator of the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab, where her research, teaching, and civic engagement focuses on the role of community-led government planning and policy in building equitable sustainable and healthy communities. By using the food system as a lever and space to promote food and health equity, Dr. Raja’s community-led research has received national awards and led to the development of local government structures and food systems policies. One neighborhood food systems plan she and her students developed for Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP) helped to crystalize and clarify their work for a 10-20 block area on Buffalo’s West Side. She and MAP have continued to work together for more than 12 years in partnership to transform the city’s food system.

Although her work at the University at Buffalo has been rooted in Buffalo, Dr. Raja took advantage of many opportunities to connect planning and public health at national and international levels. She has offered guidance on the National Academies Health Impact Assessment – bringing together fiscal and health impact analyses, supported the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Centre for Health and Housing, and led a food systems planning training at Habitat III, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development that is held every 20 years.

Yet, Dr. Raja credits the Community for Global Health Equity (CGHE) for the expansion of her food systems work to communities in India, Ghana, and Jamaica. There, Dr. Raja’s team has collaborated with international agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to understand and mitigate food inequities experienced by small-holder farmers in the Global South.  

You don’t have to go far to understand the impact Dr. Raja has on the lives of her colleagues and students. Although she speaks with generosity about her mentors and friends, she has paid forward the gift of her mentorship. Her family of mentees now promote food and health equity across the globe.

In March 2019, Dr. Raja will join Dr. Kasia Kordas as Co-Director for the Community of Excellence in Global Health Equity. As Co-Director, Dr. Raja aims to increase faculty research and contribute to strategic planning for CGHE’s continued growth. We look forward to the many opportunities to learn from her and with her.