URS Student Reaches for the Furthest Left Behind

Student seated at a table in a cafe

Hung Vo (B.S. URS '17) in the Green Dragon Cafe, Sibley Hall. William Staffeld / AAP

News
April 14, 2017

A Profile of Hung Vo (B.S. URS '17) from the Spring 2017 Issue of AAP News.

It is an understatement to say that Hung Vo's (B.S. URS '17) energy and wide-ranging interests are impressive for someone his age. "I get asked a lot about how I became an activist at such a young age," says Vo, who is the 2015–17 North America Representative on the U.N.-Habitat Youth Advisory Board. "If you show up and demonstrate that you are dependable, the opportunities multiply."

Vo is referring to the three nominations he recently received for a fellowship for Global Environment Outlook — a series of reports on the environment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), work he has undertaken in addition to his role in U.N.-Habitat.

The interest in this work stems from Vo's experience growing up in an immigrant family. When he was seven years old, Vo emigrated with his mother from Vietnam to Lincoln, Nebraska. They joined Vo's father, who had been forced to leave them behind when he emigrated to the U.S. just two weeks before Vo was born. Vo attended public schools in Lincoln, and, while still in high school, became interested in a career in public service and grassroots organizing.

It began with a chance meeting at a protest rally he attended at the Nebraska State Capitol. The rally opposed LB 48, the Illegal Immigration Enforcement Act — a proposed bill allowing police officers to solicit citizen documentation from traffic stops, effectively targeting persons of color first. At the rally, Vo was mistaken for a college student and offered an internship at Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law during the summer of 2011. During the internship, Vo worked on foster care, welfare reform, community organizing, and joined the Major Group for Children and Youth, one of nine Major Groups appointed by the U.N. Secretary General. His participation with Children and Youth was the start of a passion for youth development programs within the U.N.

Vo manages to fit in his U.N. work, as well as blogging about youth development for Huffington Post, with the requirements of CRP's honors program. "In my U.N. work I affiliate with the concept of reaching the furthest left behind, starting with them and seeing how urban planning can impact them," he says.

On the Youth Advisory Board, Vo helped with production of the U.N.-Habitat Global State of the Urban Youth Report for 2015–16. In his work for the Global Environment Outlook, Vo believes that he offers a unique take on planning language, which makes the report resonate for everyday readers. "It can't be for everyone if scientists write in a way that is understood only by other scientists," he says.

In October 2016, he attended the U.N. Habitat III Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, held in Quito, Ecuador. His extensive list of conference activities included moderating the launch of the State of the Urban Youth Summary Report at the conference, sitting on a roundtable held at the Canadian Embassy to promote youth development, speaking with the mayor of Berlin about hosting a conference there in 2017, and forming a team that aims to build a youth center in Istanbul for refugee-training skills.

But he was most excited about a "tactical urbanism" event at the conference — an impromptu meeting of Ecuadorian youth leaders and conference attendees that was not on the official agenda. As one of the unscheduled moderators, he helped give voice to the Latin American youth, who, he says, were there as observers but had no power, defined role, or position prior to the session.

Vo's work at the U.N. and his studies at Cornell are informed by his personal history and experiences growing up in an immigrant family. Recalling a time when his father was denied housing in Lincoln until a white friend intervened, Vo admits that "this kind of early experience framed my personal attitudes about life and the issues I am interested in, namely helping marginalized communities — whether they are identified by ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, or gender — within the urban space."

The passion for helping marginalized communities translated to a desire to pursue planning when Vo took his first college course in the subject. In the fall of 2013, he began undergraduate studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he majored in political science. His goal at the time was to run for state senate, but, he says, "I realized that planning was more grounded in my interest than politics and would give me more actionable and practical skills." Vo declared a minor in planning, but when two of his planning courses were canceled, he looked for an undergraduate program that he could transfer to. AAP's Department of City and Regional Planning was his first choice. He says, "Given its history of progressive and activist planning, I was very excited by what the CRP professors were doing at Cornell, especially professors Mildred Warner and John Forester. "Vo was one of three transfer students admitted for the fall of 2015.

CRP's classes and level of scholarship were immediately inspiring. Vo was drawn to Forester's emphasis on participatory planning in the areas of ethics and political deliberation, especially as Forester expressed it in an editorial written for Planning Theory & Practice. Forester's premise in the piece was that the context of a project becomes an imagined obstacle for many planners. For his thesis project, titled The Social Construction of Impossibility, Vo follows this premise through interviews with planning professionals who answer questions about how they overcome naysayers and their own attitudes about challenges in their work. It was a natural fit that Forester became Vo's thesis advisor.

"My goal is to have the thesis add to what Professor Forester understands about the politics of planning and to offer lessons to planners on being entrepreneurial with their opportunities," Vo explains. "I want to demonstrate real practice stories of people overcoming challenges, getting into details of their own social construction of what was possible with the context they had."

A semester in Rome gave him even more insights. Professor Emeritus Roger Trancik's Rome Workshop provided Vo with a theoretical foundation and a notion of how to make sense of the built environment, as he proposed interventions and experimented with design and traffic flow for his class project. Also inspiring was the seminar class Demographic Change and the Built Environment, taught by Assistant Professor Suzanne Lanyi Charles, which focused on discussions of policy and design proposals to adapt to immigration/migration and residential mobility — topics of great interest to Vo.

Vo credits his Cornell studies for his effectiveness in the U.N. work, and attributes his advancement and involvement within the organization to the U.N.'s commitment to promoting youth involvement. "The training at Cornell has given me a habit of critical thinking — to analyze situations, be confident in my beliefs, and take these skills to engage in the U.N. work. I've become a better writer, and the focus of Professor Forester's class, Planning History and Practice, on deliberative pragmatism and negotiation informs my work in youth-led development where you are lobbying for complex relations."

"My B.S. URS degree offers a trifecta," Vo adds. "Policy study from Professor Charles, a strong theoretical background with Professor Forester, and the design component from the Rome program. I think these are the three core elements of what it takes to become a good planner."

In addition to his studies this spring, Vo traveled to Berlin in February, where he met with the city's mayor to follow up on planning a Youth Development conference, followed by a trip to Rome for an author's meeting for UNEP Global Environment Outlook. Focused on the future, as much as on his busy present, Vo hopes to obtain his master's degree in planning from Cornell and afterward enter public service. He is contemplating the Presidential Management Fellows program administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is considered a pathway to senior policy advisor positions in government agencies. He is interested in working at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, because of its public housing programs and its precise approach to urban development.

"My dream is that I could become an instrumental advisor for the U.N.'s next set of goals 20 years from now at Habitat IV," says Vo. "I want to continue my research, because planning professionals have tremendous impact on the U.N. system."

"But another year will give me some time because I'm already so busy," he says, speculating that the new Secretary General, António Guterres, may illuminate fresh opportunities.

"My problem is that I have so many interests and I want to do everything."

By Patti Witten