Advocacy and Equity Planning, Learning from Social Work
By Amanda Peña
Amanda Peña is first generation Chicana social worker, therapist, and educator from the Los Angeles region. She is currently working on her second master’s degree in City and Regional Planning in the Housing, Community, and Economic Development concentration. A staunch youth and mental health advocate, Amanda is passionate about
cultivating inclusivity and healing in the social and physical landscapes for children, teens, and families. Some non-academic and career interests include traveling, running, hiking, cooking, reading, and trying different coffee shops and breweries.
The field of city planning has made greater efforts to include marginalized populations at every phase of the community development process. However, the theory and praxis of contemporary advocacy and equity planning still falls short of being truly inclusive. To promote the inclusion of all people in a community, advocacy and equity planning requires planners to question their role in community development and abandon political neutrality. Stemming from the Civil Rights Era, advocacy and equity planners have sought to better integrate and emphasize multiculturalism, diversity, and sustainability in its solutions to modern sociopolitical challenges, environmental conflicts, and economic inequality. This level of “progressivism” in planning takes on a more participatory approach, or mediative position, between state, labor, residential, and capital stakeholders.  Yet, despite their good intentions, most leading advocacy and equity efforts tend to perpetuate inequitable structural power dynamics between gatekeepers and community residents. Because contemporary planners and many stakeholders are overwhelmingly white, formally educated, and male, these well-intentioned efforts too often come from places of white liberalism and guilt. By inviting community members to the table who code-switch to conform to the dominant group’s communication standards and preferences, planners’ attempts to increase representation in the planning and decision-making processes reflect their comfort thresholds and those of the stakeholders.
When it comes to community planning through an advocacy and equity framework, planners must examine the ways in which the historic legacy of systemic racism influences their expectations for collaboration with residents on development projects. However, planners’ efforts to work with community members often fall flat because of a communication breakdown created from the power imbalance between the dominant and dominated group. [2 ]The dominant group—planners, in this case—serve as an extension of, and provide access to, the political and financial resources the dominated group—residents—need for community development projects. The nature of this power dynamic influences what both the planners and community members understand to be the accepted conventions (script) and form (code) for their conversations, which can often be worlds apart. When planners and residents cannot speak the same language, a communication breakdown will occur (code confusion), and as De Souza Briggs describes, the planners’ failures to address that confusion further marginalizes community voices “despite the fact that organized efforts to involve residents were in place.”  Thus, if they seek to advance the agenda and goals of their communities, the residents are often forced to carry the responsibility of addressing the disconnect and decoding the scripts of planners. This responsibility primarily plays out through code-switching.
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“Yet, despite their good intentions, most leading advocacy and equity efforts tend to perpetuate inequitable structural power dynamics between gatekeepers and community residents.”
"Because they are expected to communicate in a language that the dominant group more easily understands, actors in the dominated group are pressured to perform within those social conventions to get their messages across.”
These dominant and dominated group dynamics have been an unavoidable part of my experience as a first generation, working class, Chicana. When navigating predominately White institutions, I have become acutely aware of the ways in which my ability to code-switch has afforded me greater academic and professional opportunities than my peers, or even family members. Code-switching refers to the ways in which a person adjusts their appearance, behaviors, speech, and manners of expression to make another person or group more comfortable for the hopeful exchange of some benefit. Whether a conscious strategy or an unconscious tendency, code-switching serves as both a survival tactic for, and access pass to, spaces of privilege for disenfranchised groups. Marginalized individuals who can appeal to those with greater power and privilege through code-switching are most often entrusted with greater leadership roles, incentivized to organize their community, and serve as bridges of communication between the dominant and dominated groups.
In essence, the hard work of understanding a community’s issues, and reckoning with the trauma and pain they stem from, falls on the shoulders of the community members. Because they are expected to communicate in a language that the dominant group more easily understands, actors in the dominated group are pressured to perform within those social conventions to get their messages across. What angers me most about this experience is that the dominant group is not, and will never be, required to learn the dominated group’s language, mannerisms, or communication styles. Instead, the dominant group gets the recognition for “working with the community” when they are only really working with those members who meet them within their comfort zone. Meanwhile, the community members existing outside of those criteria, namely—Whiteness and formal education—must rely on the translation power of community organizers to have their voices heard by people in positions of power.
I first felt this frustration on a walking tour in my Introduction to Housing, Community, and Economic Development course led by a commercial corridor manager from a Philadelphia Community Development Corporation (CDC). At the end of the tour, our guide shared that he does not disclose his incarceration history, personal connection to the community’s issues, or even show his tattoos to people representing the dominant group until much further in the professional relationship. This, he said, was an effort to prevent “the people with the money, power, and education” from discounting his wisdom, expertise, and skills and to keep the bridge between them and his community open and strong. Even though he mentioned he is still himself around these professionals, I could not help but notice how he also code-switched to appeal to us, Penn students, to—as he put it—”tap into [our] educational networks, access, and privilege” for their commercial corridor development plans.  To my point, even though we were meeting with a community member, who is on-the-ground in his community, there was no expectation or requirement for us, the observers, to change our script or social performance. Furthermore, I found myself bothered by my classmates who used complicated language that the commercial corridor manager, at various points, admitted that he did not fully comprehend. I even felt embarrassed when he jokingly stated that he would have to explain to the community’s “Mayor,” a highly respected elder and leader in the community, who we were because he saw him staring at our tour group multiple times. Because I am used to code-switching, even when I am part of a dominant group, I seriously struggled with this dynamic because it signals how race and educational privilege continue to infect even the ways we practice advocacy and equity planning.
Without the language, power, or resources to influence the formal development of their own communities, residents are forced to drive crime out, clean up the streets, and create beauty in their neighborhoods themselves. During another class walking tour to Villa Colobó, a community member recounted how she and other residents needed the fearless leadership of another female church leader to plead to local authorities for greater infrastructural support. After their petitions continued to be ignored, they set about revitalizing their own community through the creation of community garden spaces. Eventually, their community’s improvement put them on the radar of developers looking to invest further in the neighborhood—a dynamic that was echoed when a representative from Mt. Vernon CDC spoke to our class about changes in his own community of Mantua.
 McCluney, C., Robotham, K., Lee, S., Smith, R., & Durkee, M. (2019). The Costs of Code Switching. Harvard Business Review.
 De Souza Briggs, 1998
“Meanwhile, the community members existing outside of those criteria, namely—Whiteness and formal education—must rely on the translation power of community organizers to have their voices heard by people in positions of power.”
 CPLN520: Introduction to Housing, Community, and Economic Development (2021). Conversation and Walking Tour Along Lancaster Avenue.
 CPLN520: Introduction to Housing, Community, and Economic Development (2021). Conversation and Walking tour of Colobó,/Norris Square Gardens.
Image: A mural of Dr. Herman Wrice, a Mantua resident and anti-drug activist, who led a 15-year campaignto drive narcotics out of the local community.
Source: Alan Turkus
“Many charities and foundations prioritize paternal metrics and profits over the true needs and hopes of the people they serve, which often further perpetuate racial and class inequities.”
The Mantua resident and CDC representative described at length the need for educating the local community on 1) the scripts and codes used by planners and power brokers and 2) how to best advocate for the kinds of investments and developments the community members are looking to see in their neighborhood.  He emphasized how successful community planning projects, like the Mt. Vernon Manor Apartments, require not only the grassroots leaders to learn how to navigate the legal and technical jargon of the planning world, but the resident members too. Community Land Trusts (CLTs), he argued, were one such method for ensuring all community voices—not just the community liaisons and planners—have decision-making power and agency, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods like Mantua, because the community owns and controls the land on which a project is being proposed.
In a conversation with a policy professional and board member for the Bread and Roses Community Fund, they further illustrated this problem in the advocacy and equity framework of community planning. They shared that the only point of entry to the purse is through assimilation and code-switching. When marginalized populations are expected to perform and reap specific outcomes on their projects, they are disempowered and pressured to manipulate their goals in ways that better suit the investor than their own community. Bread and Roses strives to counter this barrier by financially supporting the “scrappy, homegrown-kind-of-organizations” through its base of small donors. By removing the expectation for a return-on-investment or outcomes from the groups, the Bread and Roses Fund takes on a very anti-capitalistic form. This is critical because capitalism creates socioeconomic hierarchies in charities themselves. Many charities and foundations prioritize paternal metrics and profits over the true needs and hopes of the people they serve, which often further perpetuate racial and class inequities. The Bread and Roses Fund also emphasizes the importance of data for storytelling, using multiple regressions to tell stories that support community organizers and their initiatives because this data-language is one that dominant groups respond best to.  Thus, learning how to work within the system remains a critical skillset for grassroots organizers and community members seeking social change and justice. 
 CPLN 520: Introduction to Housing, Community, and Economic Development (2021). Conversation about Mt. Vernon CDC and CLT.
 Hawkins-Simons, D., & Axel-Lute, M. (2015). Organizing and the Community Land Trust Model. Shelterforce.
 CPLN 520: Introduction to Housing, Community, and Economic Development (2021). Conversation About Bread and Roses Community Fund.
 Alinsky, S. (1989). Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. In Random House, Inc. Sen, A. (1990). Development as Capability Expansion. Human Development and the International Development Strategy for the 1990s, 987, 41–58
Above: Inside the storytelling room at Villa Colobó, a Norris Square Neighborhood Project community garden in Philadelphia.
Source: Amanda Peña, 2021
Ultimately, advocacy and equity planning cannot truly exist in theory or practice without the dismantling of the dominant-dominated group power dynamic. Even though many of our readings and conversations with guest speakers attempt to promote greater inclusion and diversity of thought in the field of housing, community, and economic develality of the power dynamic consistently imposes a barrier that only dominated groups are expected to overcome. Amartya Sen argued that education is required for the “informed and intelligent evaluation of both the lives we are forced to lead and of the lives we would be able to choose to lead,” whether that is to leverage organizational capacity or federal resources for developmental freedom.  My argument, however, pushes this concept back onto the dominant group instead. Community planning through an equity framework must require a posture of humility on the part of the group with greater power and privilege because disenfranchised groups are set up for failure through expectations that they overcome language, financial, organizational, and sociocultural barriers just to have a seat at the table.
At what point will dominant groups be required to decode the nuances and structures of the dominated groups’ scripts? Whose comforts in these conversations matter more? If we are, as future planners and developers, committed to true advocacy and equity planning, then we must sit with these questions and understand how our internal discomfort with community members’ social performance and manners of expression perpetuate systemic racism and power imbalances.
One of the most important ways planners can do this is through the development of critical listening and communication skills often associated with the field of social work—active listening, cultural competency, and repeating information back for clarification and understanding. When planners practice active listening, they can engage all their senses to not only hear what clients and residents are saying, but also notice the nonverbal and physical messages being communicated. This requires greater cultural education and awareness of how differing communities interact with each other, as well as the ways they feel respected, included, and seen. It also means planners must practice sitting with their feelings of discomfort and actively question their own defensive responses as circumstances of prejudice or true safety concerns. Lastly, before leaving any interaction or encounter with community members, planners should summarize the points that were made and feelings that were raised. This empowers the community to clarify and redress any breakdowns in communication. Although these kinds of communication skills are not explicitly taught to planners and developers, failure to practice and master these skills will keep us ignorant of the real barriers communities face, and silo us away from the on-the-ground work where grassroots leaders and residents are getting beaten and bloodied fighting for justice, equity, and inclusion.