President’s Message – GPA’s Courageous Conversation

We had a great day in Atlanta at the Spring Conference. Thank you, attendees and volunteers. We tried something new at lunch, an Equitable Dinners program. We’ve heard from some people that were uncomfortable or emotional during the program. And it raised questions for many. 

At APA, we’ve been talking a lot about DEI. We’ve passed policies. We’ve had training and workshops. Very much a planner’s response to the issue. But we’ve also had conflict about it. Perhaps because of the overwhelming support for DEI, I don’t think we’ve made space for a dialogue with the opposing – or questioning – voices. And I think that’s missing the point of DEI. Because getting to equity – achieving inclusion – will take very intentional change, driven by often unheard and underserved voices in our work.

This is change that we should support but that we cannot necessarily drive from the top. Because if our traditional power structure is at the forefront, we’re missing a key aspect of the DEI goals we’re espousing. And that’s a Hard Thing to sort out. It’s a Hard Thing to talk about. And it can be uncomfortable.

I want to make clear that GPA hopes to create a safe space for courageous conversation. For stories. For questions. For self-reflection. And ultimately for broadening our understanding of the impact that our processes, policies, and plans have. We are not in the blame game.

Many years ago I was working on a corridor study. I was excited to promote complete streets solutions on a road close to my own house. A major east-west route serving freight as well as students, commuters, and tourists.

Here’s what happened: we did a good job meeting our scope. We created beautiful renderings of a road with bike lanes and sidewalks and blooming crepe myrtles. (Crepe myrtles are a BIG thing in Savannah.) But the corridor stakeholders, who I will characterize as matriarchs, were not a fan of our work. Because to them bike lanes mean more wealthy college kids moving in. And, by the way, their grandkids aren’t going to walk to school anyway because the lanes (what some of you call alleys) aren’t safe and there are dogs running around. And there is some genuinely earned mistrust in that neighborhood.

Our stakeholders have seen neighbors get evicted from a flood zone, and their homes torn down. They’ve seen increasing numbers or heavy trucks within a few feet of their homes. They’ve seen flooding so severe that they were cut off from much of the city at times. And they’ve seen plans to widen the main road accessing their neighborhood and are pretty sure that will mean even more trucks and increased flooding. 

I came to understand that while we were meeting our own project’s scope, we were not meeting the community’s needs. Our solutions are not solutions for them. And it is clear that not only are our systems not solving the stormwater, animal control, crime, or freight traffic issues, but that we were very limited in what we could do to lift the community’s voices. Of course, there is environmental justice baked into our process, but I felt that we were failing those families – that likely moved into the neighborhood because redlining made it one of the few areas where banks would give a black family a home loan. For decades, their voices have not been included in plans for their neighborhood.

I don’t have the answer.

But I believe that making space for Hard Things in our processes, policies, and plans means connecting low income, elderly, BIPOC, underserved and unheard voices to the decisions that impact their lives. Ask them first. And listen. And slowly that might open the systems we work in every day to be inclusive. And inclusion promotes equity as we move Forward Together.

The GPA Board exists to serve our members. We welcome your engagement and partnership in this work.

In Service,

Whitney Shephard, PE