Black City Planning Students Host School-Level Dialogue

The four SCaRP students who initiated the dialogue with the School of City and Regional Planning.

July 8, 2020 | Atlanta, GA

By Zoe Kafkes

Black graduate students in the School of City and Regional Planning at Georgia Tech hosted a virtual meeting on June 10. For many, it was the first time that a meaningful conversation about race occurred outside the screen of social media.

The students—Olivia Chatman, Natasha Dowell, Candace Foster, and Michaela McKinney—invited current students, faculty, staff, alumni, and incoming students to start a dialogue about how the School is poised to create lasting change through the education of future city planners.

“We wanted to create a space to share our experience as Black students learning how to shape communities that have been hit hard by certain planning practices,” Dowell said.

“The event was an opportunity to engage in dialogue around how we can discuss racial injustice in planning school, especially in the midst of so much unrest,” she said.

Before jumping to brainstorming next steps, the students asked the 55 participants on the call to listen to their peers share their experiences.

Listen: Experiences of Black Students

Michaela McKinney, a rising second year in the Master of City and Regional Planning (MCRP) program, came to Georgia Tech after completing her undergraduate education at Spelman College. Early in the Spring ’20 semester, she actively pushed the School of City and Regional Planning to begin recruiting from Spelman.

“We’re told as Black people that we have to work twice as hard to get to where our other colleagues are at,” McKinney said.

“I’m proud of who I am as a Black person, but there are so many times when I feel like I have to bite my tongue, because I’m worried of becoming the angry black woman…it’s almost like I can’t have a bad day,” she said.

Elijah Wheeler, also a rising second year in the MCRP program talked about how he has always been “a glass half full kind of guy” looking to see the good and the best out of everyone in every situation. 

“What changed for me was actually watching the videos. I personally don’t care to see someone like Philando Castile gunned down in cold blood,” he said, “I personally didn’t want to see the eight minutes and 46 seconds of the officer with his knee over George Floyd’s neck while he’s calling for his mother.”

“I don’t want to see stuff like that, but for me, that’s what it took to get angry. I would describe it as a righteous kind of anger,” he said.

“I would encourage anyone, regardless of race, that still thinks there isn’t anything going on—listen to your friends, the news, your peers, and get an awareness of what is going on. I had to be traumatized to want to take action and it shouldn’t get that far,” he said.

Candace Foster, a rising second year MCRP student spoke about how she knew since kindergarten that she was different.

“I came to kindergarten knowing how to read and write. In my kindergarten class I sat on the rug and the assignment was to write your name and I said, ‘I got it. Here we go,’ and wrote my name,” Foster said.

“My grandma was the one who taught me how to read and write. She worked on a farm in Grenada before she immigrated here, and she had a fourth-grade education. For some reason she learned how to write in all capital letters. And so, I wrote my name in all capital letters.”

“I looked around me and saw all these kids—I was the only Black girl—with backward S’s and crooked M’s. When I showed my written name to the teacher she looked at me and said, ‘We use capital letters and lowercase letters here.’”

 “I was five,” she said, “and at that point, looking around me at all of my white peers getting praised for their backward S’s and J’s, I knew—I had to be perfect or nearly perfect to equate to my peers around me—and I was.”

Understand and Act

Other members of the School of City and Regional Planning community joined the dialogue, sharing their own experiences as Black faculty at Georgia Tech, as minorities of different races, and as white allies.

“It struck me really how restrained people have been for the last 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement,” Mike Dobbins, professor of practice for the School of City and Regional Planning, said.

Students and faculty discussed different ways that conversations about race can play a larger role in the academic life of the School of City and Regional Planning when students return to classes in the fall.

After the call, Natasha Dowell, a rising second year MCRP student, shared the list of resources that can be found below.

Since the event, the chair of the school, Subhro Guhathakurta, established a faculty task force, comprised of Nancey Green Leigh, Elora Lee Raymond, and Catherine Ross, to prepare a statement on SCaRP’s commitment to social and racial justice. The task force focused on specific actions that SCaRP will take to educate a new generation of planners who advance inclusive and anti-racist communities. 

“As planners, our work is deeply entwined with institutions that can either promote or dismantle racial inequality. We embrace the principles at the core of the planning discipline and will actualize them to enable just anti-racist societies,” the statement said.

“At SCaRP, our commitment to justice and inclusive communities is a critical part of our mission and values.”

The specific plans proposed by the School include course opportunities, community engagement, expanded access to an education at SCaRP, and diversified exposure to different viewpoints and professionals. 

The School will offer a one credit short course each year on Equity, Justice, and Place, beginning in Fall 2020. For expanded access, the School seeks to increase financial aid opportunities for Black students and students of color. 

To give back to Atlanta, the School seeks to design internship opportunities that allow students to work with underserved communities in the metro Atlanta region. This will include engaging the K-12 students in underserved communities and discussing the role of city planning in advancing equitable and just communities. 

The School will also re-establish the lapsed Diversity Committee. The committee, comprised of students, faculty and staff, to expand efforts to nurture an inclusive environment and bring more voices to planning. This committee will regularly advise the chair about status, opportunities, and bottlenecks in advancing diversity in SCaRP.

Faculty will reassess curriculum to make equity and justice a cross-cutting theme in almost all classes. Beginning next semester there will be a concentrated effort to invite Black and minority scholars and practitioners to campus to participate in lectures on social justice, equity, and planning.

“We are proud of our students who have taken the lead in sparking this new round of discussion and introspection among the SCaRP community,” the statement said.

As the School and the Student Planning Association announce events to combat racism in planning, please check the News & Events page for more details about how to join.


Resources Discussed in the Listening Session:

Planning and Race Academic Resources:


Media Inquiries

Ann Hoevel
Director of Communications
College of Design
E-mail Ann Hoevel
+1 404-385-0693