Through examining personal narratives, this series hopes to explore the diverse backgrounds and aspirations of our peers. We are inspired by the concept of making planning personal and the capacity of passion to motivate action and meaningful public policy. What drove you to become a planner? How have your personal experiences influenced your spatial and policy thinking? Feel free to share any personal experiences, family histories, and inspirational stories about cities where you lived or traveled. Send us your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Growing up in a low-income Latino community with limited opportunities to succeed, I became passionate about striving for social justice and health equity in our communities. I migrated to the United States at the age of eight with my family of nine members. We settled in Salinas, California, a city with a large population of Mexican immigrant farm workers. My upbringing in East Salinas was challenging due to the gang violence and high crime rates that have been happening for at least the past two decades. The lack of social services and rampant crime were daily reminders of the hidden structures of poverty and inequality.
My experience living in East Salinas is what I consider my main motivation for becoming a planner, although I did not know the profession back then. I knew that something did not feel right when I traveled from one side of the town to the other. I always wondered why is my community so unsafe and poor? And how can I make a different? I managed to stay away from trouble and the streets as much as possible by helping my parents in their business and involving myself in afterschool programs. However, I always felt scared walking in the streets and always worried about my sibling’s safety.
I learned about the planning profession as a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley; I quickly fell in love with the field. For the first time I felt a sense of hope for my community. As I began to understand the root causes of why our communities have health, economic, and social disparities, I became interested in equity and advocacy planning. I could not wait to graduate and return to my community to apply my knowledge. It was not as easy as I expected. I saw more problems, and more political barriers than I expected because these problems are institutionalized, they are systems that have been in place for years and they are not easy to change. However, I decided that even though the planning profession is not easy, it was the right profession for me.
I started working with Building Healthy Communities in East Salinas as a Community/Resident Organizer after graduating from college. Building Healthy Communities is a 10-year place-based initiative funded by The California Endowment which aims to improve the health of East Salinas residents through policy and systems change driven by intentional resident engagement and systems partnerships. The community organizing position allowed me to support resident leadership to advocate for community change and for a healthier and equitable community. From working with residents, I realized the value of community engagement for building thriving neighborhoods.
I decided to return to school to pursue a Master of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, to learn skills in policy making, find ways to help shape land use, and to learn how to design cities and spaces that promote healthy living that is economically and socially just for its residents. Most often, low-income communities of color do not have the place-based policies and zoning codes that support the health and wellbeing of the residents. As a future planner, my goal is to work collectively with the community to address these issues and implement policies that support the wellbeing of underrepresented communities of color.