So much of my experience [at UB] was hands-on, it was built in working with community groups, in working outside of the classroom. That was really because I had good mentors, those mentors did that for us in the classroom but they really pushed us. UB really helped facilitate those relationships. If you took advantage of it, you really could learn what the planning field was like on the ground. You use the City of Buffalo as the foundation of your education.
I recently got hired by the Department of Small Business Services for the City of New York. I’m working as the Manhattan Borough planner for the Neighborhood Development Division on the Neighborhood Planning Team. In this role I oversee the implementation of the Neighborhood 360 grant in both Inwood and East Harlem, as well as portions of the South Bronx. Neighborhood 360 grants support projects that strengthen and revitalize the streets, small businesses and community-based organizations that anchor New York City neighborhoods. Specifically, looking through the lens of small business and supporting long-time community merchants, I've been able to apply my grassroots experience to city government and oversee programmatic efforts to organize merchants, provide educational opportunities to small business owners and support placemaking initiatives within my commercial districts. I started in November and it’s been a fantastic learning experience.
What’s really exciting is that, in the three years we are overseeing the implementation of the grant, the community organizations themselves are driving the programming and the initiatives behind that funding. It’s not based around the idea that me, a person who is not from East Harlem, is telling them how to spend their money. It’s about providing the resources necessary to do this work to organizations that are deeply rooted in the community and know their own needs. Also, for the city to help build the capacity of those groups by providing resources and tools that a community group might not otherwise have. From establishing district marketing campaigns to forming merchant associations, the program reaches the neighborhoods we work with in a wide variety of ways and I've loved being a part of it.
Buffalo and Rochester, even though they are much smaller than New York City, there’s a lot of similarities in what communities [in both places] are facing. Specifically, large amounts of inequality when it comes to housing justice or when it comes to being able to afford a commercial space. That’s something that I relate strongly to, based on my own history in Rochester. I was able to have the privilege to learn a lot in Buffalo, working closely with neighborhood organizations that were really putting the power to their neighbors. People like the leaders of Tool Library and researchers like Samina Raja. The city itself is based heavily on urban planning and policies that are very outdated, policies that are deeply rooted in racial and socioeconomic injustices. Knowing that about the cities that I’m from, I wanted to come to New York and see it on a larger scale, specifically, how policies can address these issues. After having the time and experience working with community groups in New York, [I want to see] if something works in East Harlem, maybe a similar policy or program could be applied in a place like Rochester or Buffalo. My ultimate goal is to come back to Rochester in the coming years and really bring this work back home, it’s a matter of when I do that, not if.
The cool thing about the Truman is that they’re very understanding about your personal goals when it comes to graduate school. So, within the first four years of winning the scholarship, [the recipient] sends yearly reports to share what we’ve been up to and if there are any updates. The first four years, you do not need to give any plan as to what you’re doing about graduate school, so you could really work for four years without having to go to grad school. After those four years, as long as you’re able to explain to them, “Well, you know, I ran for office” or “I got promoted” or something like that, you can continue to work in your field without going to grad school. I think my goal is to work for the foreseeable future but I’m still looking at additional scholarship opportunities as well as what my next step would be for graduate school. Once you’ve identified that, you can reach back out to the Truman Scholarship program and they assist you in facilitating that. The beauty of it is that it’s a really flexible program and there’s a lot of really supportive people that I’ve been able to work with that are Truman alumni, which has been great.
That’s a hard question and I don’t mean that in a false modesty-sense. There are so many different elements that go into [applying]. I know that a part of getting this was [due to] the privileges I’ve experienced in life. The privileges of being able to have unpaid internships for four years in college and then applying for a scholarship where it’s all built on community engagement experience, which is oftentimes unpaid. I think that’s important to think about. I was able to do all of those years of public engagement experience because I had the financial ability to do so, which is not accessible to all [applicants].
I think outside of that, one thing I would say that so much of college is about getting outside of the classroom and being engaged with the community, taking the time to listen and learn. Recognize when you have more learning to do and recognize your gaps in knowledge. I would say that in general, not just when you’re going after a scholarship. When you have the opportunity to go to a university, specifically one within a vibrant, urban environment like Buffalo, being engaged with … whatever draws you in and promoting it among your friends and colleagues is really important. Then in the future, when you go after these scholarships, you will have learned how to be a good neighbor. You might not always know the answer but you can make that an opportunity to grow.
I would say again that so much of my experience was hands-on, it was built in working with community groups, in working outside of the classroom. That was really because I had good mentors, those mentors did that for us in the classroom but they really pushed us.
In general, UB really helped facilitate those relationships. If you took advantage of it, you really could learn what the planning field was like on the ground. You use the City of Buffalo as the foundation of your education.
Samina Raja was a huge mentor of mine. Elizabeth Walsh really took me under her wing. She runs the Champions for Change program, which taught me a lot about capacity building and supporting a community. Both Dr. Walsh and Dr. Raja just exhibit an incredible amount of strength and intelligence. As a female planner, they gave me a lot of power trying to navigate a male-dominated field. They just have the perfect level of humility and share the importance of being a good listener when you’re an urban planner.
I was involved in the University Heights Tool Library, specifically in my sophomore and junior year. In addition to that, I was involved in the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities lab. That’s a research lab focused on advancing food equity in the School of Architecture and Planning. Those were my two main focuses at UB.
There’s a lot of really important advocacy work happening in Rochester right now. Even in my small time away from it, I’ve missed that. I’ve missed being involved in the politics there. Specifically when it comes to community-owned green space or thinking about who really is a community planner.
I think it could go two ways. I think in the next two years I would hope to go to graduate school and become a proud Master in Urban Planning. But I also see myself going home and getting involved locally. Ideally, in the next five to 10 years, running for office in Rochester. I’ve been looking at city council, I think that would be a really awesome way to stay with my urban planning roots and get involved locally. Even just getting started with the planning boards, it’s important to have planners on the planning board. I think that would be an amazing opportunity as well.