Lewis: Include Underrepresented Voices in Planning Process from the Beginning

Juanita Lewis is the Hudson Valley organizing director at Community Voices Heard (CVH) and a community partner collaborating with RPA on our fourth regional plan for the New York metropolitan region. I interviewed Juanita about her work on the fourth plan and in the Hudson Valley.

VB: Racial and economic justice have been central to this partnership, and fighting for racial and economic justice presents different challenges in different settings, can you talk about strategies you use to promote racial and economic justice in the Westchester/Hudson Valley region?

JL: With CVH, it is important to have members reflect the communities that we are organizing in. CVH has a large base of African Americans and  Latino members in Westchester and Dutchess Counties. When there are meetings at city hall or  strategy sessions, our members are leading  and present for that process. That is important because so often, these meetings consist of mostly white people and white men in particular. So to have a strong group of leaders of color saying what different policies mean to our communities is powerful. And we don’t shy away from saying that these decisions are going to impact my community. Often times there is silence in response but that’s real. Folks of color make up a lot of the Hudson Valley region and they’re a part of the conversation.

VB: How has your organization changed as a result of partnering on the fourth regional plan? How are the challenges in the Hudson Valley similar and different to other partners in different parts of the region?

JL: We think about planning in a much more deliberate way. I am learning more about transportation than I thought I would. And the same thing with zoning. So many times, CVH is on the defensive end of planning processes and new developments because often times they don’t talk to us before projects start and we just have to take it. We had not been part of the process. But now when they’re talking about planning issues in the pre-development process like how many parking spaces a new development needs for the exchange of units, we have more information when we go to those meetings than what we had in the past. We now have the ability to actually ask RPA for information and resources to help develop CVH members.

I think we do share challenges of other community partners but they’ve been doing their work longer in the region. A lot of MRNY and NYCC’s work has been rooted in house discrimination, fighting for inclusionary zoning whereas CVH’s work is primarily our community participation in the planning process or choice neighborhoods.

VB: Given your participation in the Fourth Regional Plan on issues of housing, community & economic development, energy & environment and transportation, what do you see as the most important needs for the communities you serve? What is your biggest priority for RPA to consider including in the plan?

JL: The recommendations that explicitly talk about the need for rent stabilization and rent control, for inclusionary zoning, and to address policies that created segregated areas. We know that segregation would not have happened if people of color were part of the conversation. CVH and other community partners have pushed RPA to include these issues. RPA including this in the plan empowers us at the local level.  Having data and information that is backing up what we have been saying has been a powerful tool in our work

VB: What is your advice to urban planners trying to incorporate underrepresented voices?

JL: Be very intentional with who you put in the space and make sure they have real community connections because they are doing the actual work on the ground and have the relationships and insight needed for planning. They must be part of the process from the beginning.


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