We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development

Last week a colleague of mine publicly took a popular professional publication to task for not having any women (and few non-white males) among their regular contributors. As the editor pointed out, they do have several who have contributed in the past, but they’ve gone quiet. Probably too busy.This morning, then, I run across an essay from one of my favorite writers, Richard Longstreth of the Midwesterner, who introduced me to insurance agent, essayist and former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Nebraska. Haunting and beautiful Midwestern -based stories, powerful in their simile and metaphor. What I am always looking for in a writer who deals in the character of a place and its people.

Except for one thing.

He’s a guy.

They’re all guys.

Let me run down the list of some of the current writers/bloggers i follow whose professional interests intersect with mine. I guess you’d call these kind of folks “thought leaders.” I’m not sure what exactly that term means–when someone calls me by that term, I’m never sure how to react. But here’s my go-to list:

Aaron Renn
Richard Longstreth
Chuck Marohn
Otis White
Richard Florida
Nicholas Talib
Philip Auerswald
Umair Hacque.

Note the first names (and for those who are unfamiliar with it, “Umair” is a common male first name in the Urdu language).

Jane Jacobs.  From Wikipedia
Jane Jacobs. From Wikipedia

We hold up Jane Jacobs as this patron saint of urbanism, as this person who re-defined what makes a place work, what makes a place matter, what makes a place worth caring about. But the reason why she did that, why she had the ability to do that, is because she came to the question of what makes a community work from a profoundly different perspective than her male contemporaries.

And a big piece of that difference, although certainly not all, was her gender. She saw, she understood, the community around her in a different and illuminating way, not just because she wasn’t trained as a planner, but-

Because she was a woman.

Claiming that the genetic fact of being female gives you some kind of inherently valuable perspective is admittedly thin ice for skating. On the one hand we assert our intrinsic equality, and on the other hand we end up claiming that we’re different. Even my two sons, raised with a mom who is about as similar to June Cleaver as a Martian, challenge me on that. But they understand, they perceived early on, that something is definitely different over on this side of the chromosome divide.

What part of that difference is genetic? Cultural? Psychological? I sure don’t know. But look at the studies of gender differences in leadership styles, communication methods, collaboration patterns, urban bicycling, perceptions of how safe an urban space is. Mentally chart the divides.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t care what the reason is or why women and other non-white male voices aren’t showing up in planning and economic development and urban thought leadership. I’m not looking for some kind of forced equity for the sake of equity.

What worries me is this: we have to figure out how to make communities work better in this generation. We have to figure out how to untangle this welter of wicked problems that we have inherited, that are robbing the communities that we care about is their life and vitality and resilience and health.

If we only have one set of voices, we’re only going to find one set of solutions. And those could turn out to be just as wrong as the urban renewal damage that Jacobs fought against.

So where are today’s Jane Jacobs’s? Who is going to join the thought leader brigade and give us more perspectives, more information, more ideas on how to make this all work?

Where are they? Are they too busy, too overwhelmed with making a living, too overextended?

Too frightened?
Too intimidated?
Too unconvinced of the value of their own voice?

I don’t know. But I know we need them. Lots more of them.

And frankly, it’s getting lonely out here.

I don’t like to complain, and I generally suck at playing the victim. So I want to ask you for two pieces of help:

1. If you know of any women or non-white males who are writing thoughtfully and insightfully about any of the issues involved with helping communities do better, please leave names, links etc in the comment box below. As much as I love all of the guys I named in that list, I think I need some new reading material.

2. I’d be very interested in your thoughts about what we can do to bring more voice into the community building discussion. You can leave them below or email to me directly, whichever your prefer.

Thank you!

4 thoughts on “We’re not all white males: we need more voices in planning and economic development”

  1. Della, you’re not skating on thin ice. Rather, you’ve hit the nail on the head! Women and Men are equal in dignity and equal in value, but they are different in their very nature, their genetic makeup. That means each gender has a unique perspective and a unique contribution to make, and those voices deserve to be heard. I think where we get in to trouble is if we make the assumption that different somehow equals inferior, which is not logical. I think we need to get comfortable with the idea that “different” and “equal” are not incompatible.

  2. Anatalio Ubalde, CEO of GIS Planning and Lyneir Richardson, CEO of Brick City Development Corporation should definitely both be on your list if minority economic developer thought-leaders. Both are thinking thoughtfully and innovatively about economic development. Another smart voice to listen to is Rod Miller, CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance.

    For women, you should add Ioanna Morfessis, PhD, HLM, President of IO.INC, Alissa Sklar, Director at GIS Planning, and Danielle Casey, Director of the City of Scottsdale. Danielle isn’t writing as much as she’s doing innovative stuff available online. Another new voice in economic development worth listening to is Katie McConnell, Analyst at Loudoun County and former economic development go-to person at the National League of Cities.

  3. http://www.sdinet.org/

    federations of slum/shack dwellers/homeless people where most leaders are women. all federations build on foundation of savings groups mostly managed by women and with most members women. a large part of my work is documenting and recording what they do. most of the most insightful comments from these (often illiterate) women leaders. Can send lots of examples.

  4. Della, great post! Really enjoyed this, and think you are right on the money! Would love to be a part of any group willing to play a role in shifting the tide — and one place to start is having smart, relevant, and on target posts like this one. Good job not being “too frightened, too intimidated, or unconvinced of the value of your own voice.” Nicely done, and let’s keep the conversation going!

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