The uncomfortable conversation planners must have

While Canada is increasingly diverse, including our workplaces, the leadership within the planning profession does not reflect its membership, which was one of the decisions for me to not renew.

A student planner asked me as someone of colour how do I navigate through the profession? This is where I begin.

I noticed a lack of racial diversity and topics reflecting social equity on panels of urban planners at the Canadian Institute of Planners Conference in Winnipeg. Same thing with the Ontario Professional Planners Symposium. I made reference to it over social media on several occasions. Something needed to change.

The previous and current Canadian Institute of Planners Board of Directors is all white. This isn’t surprising as many non-profit boards, including CIP, do not prioritize diversity. Sure there is diversity in that the Board’s makeup is predominantly female, but NO people of colour. The Ontario Professional Planners Institute Council has one person of colour. But could they fully understand diversity?

I addressed this to the President of CIP, who I knew from my time in Alberta. We spoke about having a working group but it required approval from the Board. This new Board did not approve the request for a diversity task force.

In the meantime, I did a little deep dive. I spoke with American Planning Association (APA) Past President Mitchell Silver and current New York City Commissioner of Parks about the lack of diversity in planning.

Mitchell and I March 2017 at Hot Docs Festival in Toronto

He directed me to a podcast from Giovania Tiarachristie where she discussed the challenges of bringing diversity to the planning profession. In 2016 the New York Chapter of the APA had a forum on diversity in planning schools, which was presented by Giovania. There were 5 major barriers to recruiting and retaining diversity in planning programs:

Source: https://www.nyplanning.org/groups/diversity/diversity-committee-releases-recommendations-diversifying-new-york-metro-area-urban-planning-graduate-programs

Overcoming barriers require:

  1. Removing financial barriers for underprivileged students.
  2. Implementing early recruitment and make the profession more visible.
  3. Promote cultural competency through the curriculum.
  4. Proactively recruit for faculty of colour and support for growth and visibility.

Mitchell then mentioned the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which he was a major player in reconstructing. Section 1 (f) states the following:

f) We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.

The CIP nor the Provincial planning divisions do not recognize social justice in their Code of Ethics.

During the two years of the planning school, I did not learn about social justice, equity or diversity. Many like Carlton Eley didn’t either.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMch9Fz0wGM]

As much as there are political divisions in the United States, there are professionals like Carlton and Jonathan Pacheco Bell, and Jay Pitter here in Toronto, who are carrying the social equity torch within planning circles.

After I gave my reasons for not renewing my membership, Ontario Professional Planners Insitute immediately removed me as a professional planner without a response to my rationale but rather as me “resigning in good standing”.

This was a blessing in disguise.

Nevertheless, I have a few suggestions.

  1. Survey the membership including employers to identify the racial and gender breakdown.
  2. Determine what the barriers of entry are to the profession and where are the leadership opportunities. Do inherent biases exist?
  3. Evaluate courses in Canadian universities to determine if social equity, diversity and inclusion are present. Are courses presented as electives or mandatory?
  4. Changing the CIP and Provincial Codes of Ethics to reflect social equity principles, similar to AICP.
  5. Identify the biases of the past in planning communities as a learning opportunity.

The first professional association I ever joined — the Institute of Public Administration of Canada — is hosted an event titled Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion. It makes me wonder how professional associations like OPPI, CIP and another all white board Council for Canadian Urbanism, are so colour blind and ignore these issues.

A whole profession cannot progress if everyone looks and acts like you. I am tired and have other political fights to claim victory on. I certainly hope the new generation of public and private sector planners and educators can carry the torch. It’s time to have the uncomfortable conversation. I just started it!

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