October 25, 2023

Designed With Care: Improving Community Well-Being Through Planning

Community engagement is an essential piece of many planning projects, but discussions around change are often emotionally charged and challenged by competing power dynamics. How should planners navigate that space? It's a question CRP's Jocelyn Poe has dedicated her research and teaching to.

Jocelyn Poe in conversation with Molly Sheridan


Jocelyn Poe, a Provost New Faculty Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning, is an educator passionate about employing planning strategies that care for communities. Inspired by her own experiences as a practicing planner, her research and teaching now focus on fostering communal agency during times of change and making sure students are prepared to navigate complex real-world situations. This work was recognized with support from Cornell’s Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, which named her a Faculty Fellow in Engaged Learning in 2022–23.

Jocelyn, you've mentioned working with communities in planning situations early in your career and the impact of the trauma you observed. Could you share a bit about those experiences and how they've shaped your work?

I was a practicing planner for Duvall Decker Architects, and right out of graduate school I started working on this master plan for West Jackson, Mississippi. We would have public meetings, and I noticed that people would have these visceral reactions to planning, to placemaking, and to talking about West Jackson. And when I say visceral reactions, I mean they were comparing planning processes to violent crimes. I realized that there was something going on that I just wasn't equipped to handle coming out of a planning program where we didn't talk about trauma, we didn't talk about psychology, we didn't talk about sociology, we didn't think about those things. 

After that project when I started working at other places in Mississippi, the same thing would come up — these kinds of visceral reactions. I really wanted to make sense of them in ways that I couldn't do in practice because then you're on a timetable and a budget. So I decided to take a step back from practice and get my Ph.D. to study this trauma. My work really is building this theory around communal trauma and how places have hurt and how they express that hurt. It's not just one person experiencing trauma but it's community-wide trauma that's really rooted in a very specific place. This work requires building reparative praxis. If we acknowledge that trauma exists, how can we repair it? My work centers on this question.

What impact do these considerations have on how spaces are planned and built?

Planning with a reparative praxis encourages this type of communal agency in which people have more power over what happens in a place, so they feel safer. That's what reparative care does. It also addresses past trauma, so they are able to heal from what's happened in the past, to move forward, and distinguish between healthy growth and threat.

One example is gentrification. When people see development going on, the automatic response is, "They're trying to push us out!" And so when you bring in reparative care to any development processes, then people can see how they're being taken care of, how past harms are being addressed, and how they have a voice and power in the development process itself. They're less threatened and less fearful of gentrification when they are involved in that way, while ensuring their community gets the care it needs to be healthy. 

Are there any specific examples that come to mind to illustrate the impact of reparative care?

A part of my dissertation work was in South Central L.A. with the Crenshaw Line. Crenshaw is this Black business corridor famous for Black culture, and Metro wanted to build a rapid rail line at grade down Crenshaw and omitted a stop at Leimert Park, the Black arts district in L.A. These actions were seen as a threat to the community.  It threatened how people were using the street, crossing back and forth, but also studies had shown that when a rail line comes, there's significant displacement because property value goes up. People want to live around a rail stop. What the community did was rally behind getting a stop at Leimert Park and getting a section of the rail line underground to make sure that part of Crenshaw's history wasn't forgotten. They also really wanted a place for Black American culture, so they invested in Destination Crenshaw, an art and placemaking project that celebrates Black culture. This project was built through the power of the community as well as their agency in terms of determining the design, getting the funding to build it, and really having a place that reflected them. To me, that is a way to think about reparative planning, where it was these community conversations that addressed the past, but they also inserted themselves into this Metro planning project in order to be seen and to be heard and to be taken care of. 

I'm curious how these real-world, on-the-ground experiences have impacted your pedagogy and the discussions you bring into the classroom.

I got a good planning education, but when you're talking about theory and there's no place to ground it, it's really hard to apply when you become a practicing planner. It's very easy to say, "Oh, yay, social justice, yay, we should be repairing," but it never looks like the high-level vision of solidarity and care and beauty. It's very messy. There's conflict. There's discomfort. And you don't get that experience unless you have some real-world context and involvement. I really like to have that experience in the classroom so students can be better equipped when they go into their professions.

group of people gathered around a table for a meeting with bright flowers at the center

Emile Bensedrine (B.S. URS '23) leads MS Food Justice Collaborative partners in reparative community engagement activities. Anson Wigner / AAP

To take off on that point, can you speak a bit about the work your students did with the Center for MS Food Systems and the takeaways from that experience?

I was tasked with teaching reparative methodologies, which is how we build a method around repair when it comes to community engagement, and so I said, well, I can't do this unless we can actually do it, right? The students need the practice of doing it. I asked Noel Didla, co-steward of the Center for MS Food Systems, and one of my past clients and friends back in Mississippi, if she would be interested in partnering with me. She allowed us to ground our work of reparative community engagement in one of the center's programs, the Mississippi Food Systems Fellowship.

The community members and the students engaged in mutual learning as they tackled three sets of problems during our in-class workshops. That was difficult for some of the students, one, because it was a workshop that they had never experienced before, and two, the power dynamic was different. When students do a workshop, they generally come in as the expert offering a solution and this experience really challenged that. The interaction was valuable, and at the end of the semester, the students actually carried out a community engagement process where they did everything — they did the logistics, they set up the room, they planned everything, and eight community members from Jackson, Mississippi, came up to be a part of that. The students engaged in a reparative way, reflective of what the community members wanted and ensuring they were being heard. They were able to get information that was pertinent to food policy around healthy foods in schools, which is what they wanted to study, and then they were able to think about the ways in which certain populations have been historically neglected in Mississippi. It was a really rich experience, so much so that two students from Cornell were invited to come to Mississippi and do an engagement project with the broader community, about 75 fellows, at a food justice gathering there.

You mentioned power dynamics and students struggling to navigate these relationships. How do you help them prepare to work collaboratively with communities that may be very different from those they have been part of before?

I think that was a part of the tension of the class. The first week we talked about positioning yourself and learning how to listen. But again, if it's detached from the experience, those are just words. They really struggled — and struggled in a good way. You could see light bulbs going off and students realizing that this is what this actually looks like in practice versus reading about it. Over the summer, when we did the presentation at the gathering, I spoke about how I was thrown in the deep end because it was my first class here teaching at Cornell, and my community partners and the students were thrown in the deep end, so we were all swimming and surviving together. It turned out to be a really beautiful experience because we all learned so much. The students are now more prepared, which is how it should be, but there was a lot of discomfort, which is a part of learning. There was a lot of fear around doing it right and realizing, "Oh, there's this disconnect between how I think I'll present and how I actually present," and we got to work through all of that. I don't want to say it was fun, but it was really rewarding to be able to work through it with them and with the partners in the safety of the classroom.


"These community meetings are often emotionally charged, so how do you teach the planner to navigate that space, to handle those emotions and steward them well? Because they do have to care for the community in that way."

group of people gathered around a table for a meeting


"These community meetings are often emotionally charged, so how do you teach the planner to navigate that space, to handle those emotions and steward them well? Because they do have to care for the community in that way."

Because so much of this work is personal — it's person to person, it's communities, it's peoples' fears and assumptions — it can involve so much emotion. This work is not just an academic pursuit. So this kind of training seems like such an essential part of the learning that you would need to be successful.

Absolutely, but it's so disconnected from how we've traditionally thought about planning. When I was in school, we were taught to be objective. You're a planner, not a person. That line isn't actually there in real life. If you're sitting in a community meeting and somebody is yelling at you, you're going to take that personally. These community meetings are often emotionally charged, so how do you teach the planner to navigate that space, to handle those emotions and steward them well? Because they do have to care for the community in that way.

So much of this surrounds moments of change, and that makes people anxious, whether it's a small thing or a big thing. There have been some major shifts in how planning and communities are interacting, however. What has been the most surprising change for you since you entered the field?

When I was in grad school, it was very focused on land use, the community plan, etc., and now you see planning inserting itself into education, water crisis, and other things that would traditionally be seen as sociology. I'm really excited about how planning is moving toward that and embracing that intersectionality. There are still a lot of gatekeepers who want to keep it a specific thing, but in practice, when you are planning in a community or engaging with a community, it impacts people on a personal level, at the household level, at the neighborhood level, at the community level. You really can't afford to think about planning as just one thing. The field itself sits at the intersections of life. If we could really lean into that and into just futures, that would be a really exciting future for planning.

With planning, as with other disciplines, it's important to stay relevant and you can only really do that when you experience these tectonic shifts along with the culture. So in 2020, we had this big cultural shift, not just with the pandemic, but also with George Floyd. Twenty years ago, somebody getting shot or killed on the street might have had nothing to do with planning. But today, it very much has a lot to do with planning. The pandemic, that's public health, but it is also a planning. Embracing interdisciplinary approaches to planning is really exciting to me.

I was curious if there is a book or an anecdote that you find yourself frequently sharing with planners, whether that's colleagues or students. Something you pass on to them, or a little bit of advice or an experience that really had an impact on you. I'm sure there are many humorous stories from those community meetings!

My go-to phrase is, "It's not that serious." When I was in practice, I would stand in front of these people yelling at me, and then afterward, they would come up to me and say, "We're so happy to have you here. It's so good to see a young black woman doing these things." So I knew it wasn't personal, but I knew what I represented. So I like to take everything in stride and just acknowledge that this happens; this community is struggling through some difficult things. But I can think through, okay, in the grand scheme of things, it's not that serious. Sometimes you just have to detach for a moment and have a little party in your mind or in your heart, and then get back in there.

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