The USC Price School of Public Policy hosted college students and recent graduates from underrepresented backgrounds for two diversity in planning workshops, kicking off a multiyear effort to diversify master of planning enrollments.
More than 60 students from 22 universities attended the daylong workshops to get an introduction to the field of urban planning and the different career paths available, hear from nationally recognized professionals in the field, meet current MPL students and alumni, and learn how to successfully apply to master’s programs in planning.
Marlon Boarnet, the director of graduate programs in urban planning at USC Price, explained the importance of urban planning, which he said “touches the lives of everybody, and transforms our cities and our communities.”
We simply are not turning out a workforce that looks like the aggregate of populations we need to serve, and this is a serious issue.
A year ago, Boarnet researched the racial and ethnic breakdown of master of planning degrees in the top 10 planning programs in the nation and found an alarming trend. At USC Price, the numbers were 7 percent African-American and 12-to-14 percent Hispanic, which were typical of other large programs in California.
“We simply are not turning out a workforce that looks like the aggregate of populations we need to serve, and this is a serious issue,” Boarnet said. “Planners go into communities and have to understand community issues, relate to the sensibilities, take those needs and voice them in the political process. You want people who have differing life experiences, and I think our programs are still coming up short.”
Jan Perry MPL ’80, a former Los Angeles City Councilwoman, relayed her experiences serving on the council from 2001 to 2013. Representing an area that included Skid Row, she made it a focus to extend the emergency shelter program and create a trust fund to establish affordable housing and permanent supportive housing.
Even when dealing with large economic development such as L.A. Live that created more than 90,000 jobs, she made sure to include a local-hire provision.
“As future planners with that focus on diversity, I think what I did would resonate with all of you,” Perry said. “My concern has always been that people benefit directly from the economic investment that we bring to our city. For me, it was never about big buildings with pretty lights but about what goes into them.”
Alumni in the field
USC Price’s Dowell Myers led a panel discussion on careers in planning featuring Cornelious Burke MPL ’10, who manages the Bay Area Council’s Sacramento office; S. Gail Goldberg, executive director of the Urban Land Institute–LA; Alejandro Sanchez-Lopez MPL ’14, who works as a data analyst at USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity/Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration; and Lynn Jochim, executive vice president of real estate development and management company Fivepoint Communities.
Sanchez-Lopez explained that planning is a great field because it can lead to a variety of job paths. He advised students to start their careers at a city or public planning agency, getting exposure to working with public officials and private investors.
“Planning allows you to do pretty much anything you want that fits your personality,” Sanchez-Lopez said. “You can be a data nerd like I am, but you can still go out and do community engagement, work on community plans, mobilize development, do public planning and just kind of see where your niche is. Because planning is so broad, there’s no real end to what you can do with it.”
Burke, who currently serves on the Sacramento planning commission, told the students they would be surprised by the impact they can make right out of college.
“Some of the small cities do give a lot of opportunities to jump into it,” he said.
The students got a taste of what it would be like to be professional planners by taking part in the workshop’s Jordan Downs community-based redevelopment exercise.
The students acted as consultants hired by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles to come up with a vision to transform a public housing development and its surrounding community in the Watts neighborhood of Southeast Los Angeles. They worked in groups to develop five-minute presentations, then heard from a dozen USC graduate students who analyzed this same project as part of their comprehensive exam last spring.
“The hands-on activity with how we could plan for Jordan Downs was awesome,” said Seika Sanada-Martin, a junior at USC Price. “This is ideally what I would like to do, transform a community from one thing to a vision that I have, but I hadn’t really done anything like it. That was an eye-opening experience for me.”
Following a presentation from Sarah Esquivel, assistant director of Price Recruitment and Admissions, on finding the right graduate school and the application process, USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott told the students that diversity is fundamental to the school’s mission.
“I wanted to attend this workshop to learn what I could expect from a career in planning,” said Braulio Hoyos, a sophomore at USC Price. “I think I got the motivation I needed to keep doing what I love to do because I know this is my field. A lot of things I heard really resonated with me.”