From September 2017 to June 2018, five Master of City Planning candidates at MIT organized to develop a Personal Theory of Practice (PTOP) under the guidance of CoLab’s Lawrence Barriner II. These PTOPs are statements, loosely defined, that integrate (a) personal values that guide their work, (b) reflections on their professional experiences, and (c) ongoing insights on the field of urban planning, all to guide future professional and life practice. The essay below is part of a series of reflections on the process of developing these theories of practice. Check out the full series and toolkit developed by the group to guide others in the development of PTOPs here.
What are the core beliefs and values that inform my professional practice as an urban planner? This central question motivated a year-long process where I developed a personal theory of practice in a group with four other urban planning students.
I found creating a personal theory of practice – my own unique map to guide my professional practice – an especially important exercise as a student of color. Generalizing a bit, it’s been my experience that for people of color, our professional work in urban planning is often deeply personal to the point where it’s hard to draw lines that separate the personal from the professional. Handled intentionally, the result can be an immensely meaningful professional practice that engages our own personal growth. But the intertwining of personal and professional can also leave us deeply conflicted as we confront powerful and sometimes conflicting currents: commitments to family and community, ambitions around career growth, deep concerns with justice and equity. The confluence places career decision-making at a complicated nexus of factors; for us, it’s not just a simple process of deciding what is best ourselves as individuals.
Developing my theory of practice helped me begin to wade through the complexity of my values, commitments, aspirations, and my visions for a just city. This is an ongoing and iterative process that I’m excited to come back to in the future, but here’s a little about my process to date.
My first draft was simply a list of bullet points about the key experiences that have shaped me. Writing down these critical moments was the first step to reflecting on and providing deeper insight into how my experiences and values have guided my actions and desires as a planner.
One of the first bullets I wrote was that I “grew-up identifying as mixed-race and gradually shifting to only identifying as black” as I’ve gotten older and developed a more nuanced conscious around racism and white supremacy. Applied to my professional life, this realization of my ongoing process of identity development has helped me understand why I feel so compelled to live in black and brown neighborhoods as I make policy that will affect these neighborhoods.
Another bullet was a reflection on why I believe in the power of local policymaking and local practice. I wrote that local work has the potential “for truly understanding the experiences and lives of people affected by policy, and to have genuine relationships between the practitioner and the community.” It was this belief that led me to leave national-level public policy making two years ago and pursue training in city planning. Putting this reflection down on paper reminded me of why I shifted my practice to local housing policy; I wanted to be deeply rooted in and working directly for cities.
In a later, more sophisticated iteration of my personal theory of practice, I came to understand that I wanted to more fully articulate what my core values – love, growth, justice, mindfulness, character – mean to me. I love science fiction and so I also decided to write my more polished personal theory of practice as a letter written to my future self, five or ten years from now. I needed to tell my future self about the complexity of decisions I was facing – where to live and what jobs would satisfy and balance my values, ambitions, and desire for connectedness with community and family.
Below are two excerpts from the current that iteration of my theory of practice; the first is from the introduction, structured as a letter to my future self, and the second is from a section where I reflect on what growth means to me:
“Dear Future Reed, it’s you, from the present, 2018, right before we graduate from MIT. Do you remember this moment? This deep feeling of uncertainty when imaging multiple futures simultaneously emerging, converging, opening and closing? Feeling like you all you want is to keep growing in the multitude of directions you started over the past two years – in learning how to love in personal relationships, in my identity development, in my politics and comprehension of what change looks like – but also feeling like some of those directions might be at odds with others”.
“I will never limit and curtail who I am, confine myself to one identity, one path-dependent trajectory where the past always determines the future. I am complex, with multitudes, contradictions, and tensions. I will see how world also is not linear, path-dependent, and its chaos and unpredictability can be harnessed and enjoyed. I know when I am growing when I reflect on the previous year and say to myself ‘I am not the person who I was a year ago, or I am still the same person I was a year ago because I chose to continue to be that person’”.
I’ve committed to myself to come back to this iteration of my personal theory of practice in six months and I have no idea what that moment will bring. What I can say right now is that I know this has been an important and helpful process for me as I step into my first job after graduate school. I hope other urban planners of color will see that creating a personal theory of practice is an opportunity to deeply reflect on the many forces, tensions, and overlapping personal and professional identities we negotiate when engaging in a profession that, by its nature, demands constant interrogation of ourselves.
Reed Jordan is a 2018 Master in City Planning graduate. Prior to MIT he conducted policy analysis and program evaluations as a housing and community development researcher at the Urban Institute. At MIT he focused on affordable housing policy and finance, economic development, and the spatial elements of inequality.