Identities are created, narrated, and understood through place. As we constantly experience, construct, and shape the places and spaces we inhabit, those places and spaces shape us. My research seeks to understand who has the power to shape space and construct place, how planning practices and processes— professionally and informally— produce place and space, and what reparative practices do we need to promote collective well-being. Influenced by my experiences as a student and urban planner, these questions traverse rural, urban, and institutional geographies.
As I seek to understand place-producing processes, three significant themes permeate my research:
- Interdisciplinary Research: synthesizes concepts and methods from varying fields to explore new approaches and solutions.
- Participatory Research: is co-inspired, co-designed, and co-produced with the communities most impacted by research outcomes.
- Justice-Oriented Research: exposes injustices in ways that lead to more just, equitable, and ethical futures.
Together, these themes fuel a research agenda that focuses on collective well-being through a reparative praxis framework. In collaboration with a community of scholars, we define reparative praxis as the practical application of theories that seek to redress past harms, attack inequitable power structures, and honor community voices. My vision is to contribute to a reparative praxis framework by producing community-based research that leads to innovative and liberating planning processes and practices. From my early research to my dissertation, this vision and its accompanying themes drive my work as I pursue innovative questions and methods to develop a reparative praxis.
My early experiences in research focus on integrating disciplines to develop new approaches for designing spaces. Inspired by a sociology course and calls to be a “designer for the people,” I initiated an independent study to investigate the intersections of sociology and design. In an independent study entitled “Social Consciousness: The Relationship between People, Culture, and Design,” I asked how can design practices be more responsive to people’s lived experiences? At the time, I found that very little design pedagogy involved understanding people-centered design, especially for populations historically disenfranchised. This line of inquiry galvanized my career in urban planning as I became more interested in the built environment rather than just buildings.
My undergraduate architectural thesis, “Experiencing Poetry: Translating Spoken Word Poetry into Space,” integrating design with performing arts to explore how combining these two disciplines could result in more human-centered spaces. Inspired by the communication of lived experiences through various rhythms of poetry through HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, I applied conceptual processes of spoken word poetry with spatial design to translate poetry to physical space. Drawing from concepts in the humanities, performing arts, sociology, and architecture disciplines, I analyzed “Knock Knock,” by Daniel Beatty, a poem that tells the story of a boy navigating the spaces and places of life with an incarcerated Father. Then, I examined how to translate this analysis into form to produce a human-centered, poetic spatial experience.
Inspired by my undergraduate research, I sought a career in community planning and enrolled in the Community planning program at Auburn University, where I received a research assistantship. This position afforded me two experiences significantly shaped my research journey. First, as a research assistant for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, I gathered data on the lived experiences of students of color who attend predominantly white institutions. This project examined recruitment and retention statistics and strategies, as well as the quality of life of minoritized students. This work laid the foundation for future work in student activism and belonging research.
Second, I participated in a historical preservation project for the Shiloh Rosenwald School located in Notasulga, Alabama. Using oral histories and ethnography, I studied how everyday people engaged in community development practices to achieve a collective end. This study inspired me to pursue a participatory approach to research. Motivated by the community organizing strategies identified in the Shiloh Project, I employed community participatory action research for my graduate thesis, “Re/Creating Tuskegee: Building Community with Recreation.” In this work, I explored community development through recreation facilities and programming by centering lived experiences and inviting community members to shape the research and planning processes. I worked with city staff and residents to co-develop a strategic plan that promotes community engagement, partnerships, and volunteerism to develop a holistic and community-responsive recreation plan.
After nearly five years of community-based research as a practicing planner, I enrolled at the University of Southern California to focus on justice-oriented research. My lived experience as a black student at a predominately white institution, coupled with my research experience in the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Auburn University, led me to investigate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practices in planning programs. To do so, I conducted on-campus focus groups, autoethnography from student activism work, and content analysis of strategic plans collected from PAB accredited planning schools. Findings suggest that not only are planning programs struggling to recruit and retain students of color, but many are not even including DEI efforts in their strategic plans. Consequently, students are not experiencing the diversity in planning education in ways that prepare them for practice. The lack of addressing equity and inclusion in planning education also impacts the ability of planners to achieve the American Planning Association’s equity and social justice aspirations in practice. As a result of this research, belonging emerges as a core concept for operationalizing institutional change towards diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The interest in participatory research led me to volunteer as an instructor for the Black Male Youth Academy, a course developed and managed by a local non-profit, Social Justice Learning Institute, that seeks to support the personal, academic, and sociopolitical development of youth by promoting academic success, critical consciousness, and increased well-being. As a volunteer instructor, I engaged in participant observation/ observant participation to analyzed how pedagogical approaches to social justice influences citizen participation in young people. Through this partnership, I aimed to understand knowledge co-creation processes between the academy, students, and a community-based organization. This study of knowledge and power, entitled “Place, Race, and Activism: A Case Study of the Black Male Youth Academy,” revealed the challenges and strategies for sharing knowledge and power in a participatory process.
Similarly, “The Justice Project” explores the intersection between the academy, community-based organizations, and pedagogy in ways that inform policy change. Through a partnership between Healing Dialogues and Action, Price School of Public Policy, and Annenberg’s Department of Dramatic Arts, we explore restorative justice policies, processes, and lived experiences to produce a research-based play using the theater of the oppressed methodologies. As a policy instructor and consultant, I analyzed restorative justice policies, strategies, and challenges to inform a forum theater play at the end of the semester. The goal is to present human-oriented work rooted in robust research that leads to policy change.
Working in primarily black communities, I noticed a pattern of visceral reactions to planning processes. This pattern exposed a psycho-socio-cultural phenomenon that aligned with the characteristics of trauma. As I began to discuss this experience with other planners and became involved in planning processes in Los Angeles, I realized that this phenomenon was not unique to MS but evident in planning processes across the nation and needed to be defined and understand to advance the practice of equity planning. This experience motivates my dissertation research as I identify, describe, and conceptualize this phenomenon as trauma imaginaries, the intersection of spatial imaginaries and communal trauma. In doing so, I develop a theory of communal trauma as an analytical planning concept that can help advance theories and practices of justice, equity, and ethics and achieve community well-being, especially for the historically oppressed.
While planning theory has long acknowledged the profession’s role in producing racialized spatial realities, few have explored how place-based trauma shapes places, spatial processes, and lived experiences. I fill this gap by engaging a three-part research approach. First, I employ my experience as a practicing planner working primarily in Black communities in Mississippi, where I observed a psycho-socio-cultural phenomenon happening in place. Through autoethnography methods, I analyze this phenomenon as trauma imaginaries. Then, based on these findings and informed by an interdisciplinary survey of the literature, I conceptualize a communal trauma theory. An article about this work entitled, “Theorizing communal trauma: Examining the relationship between race, spatial imaginaries, and planning in the US South,” was published in Planning Theory.
Second, I assess the validity of this theory by exploring these concepts in South Central Los Angeles (SCLA), a place radically different from Mississippi. In this phase, I cultivate placed biographies as a method, co-produced with participants, for exploring spatial consciousness and spatial imaginaries. In embarking on this transdisciplinary methodological approach, I gain a rich data set that reveals new insight into the relationship between place, race, and planning. Third, I cross-reference the place biographies with a discursive and content analysis of the spatial imaginaries present in SCLA’s literature and media outlets. This work seeks to advance community well-being by helping planners better understand how racialized communities hurt and equipping planners to address trauma. I argue that planners cannot achieve their goals of maximizing communities’ health, safety, and economic well-being without addressing communal trauma.