I sat down to write a short intro, and this came out…Courtney says hello!

Well, it looks like I dove in pretty deep for this introduction (I’m in the middle of thesis prep for my masters, so I think I might just be in expository mode!). If you can make it to the end, I hope this helps everyone who engages with the class and blog to get to know me a little better and to help us build a bit of a community here.

I suppose I could start by introducing myself professionally or academically, since this is a blog for a class, but I got the sense from our first meeting that this is the kind of course where we can bring our whole selves, rather than the MIT version of ourselves. So…originally, I’m from a small city in upstate NY. For all the urban planners reading this post, it’s what you might call a shrinking city. For all those non-planners, it was an old factory town that used to be booming, but has watched its population dwindle for the last thirty years. Our two maximum security prisons are our biggest employers. Most people are broke. The wealthy aren’t that wealthy and they send their kids to the same schools as the poor kids. No one’s all that far removed from anyone else’s experience and there’s a fair amount of co-mingling (in church, school, bars, recreation, etc). This creates an interesting dynamic that I’ve found unique and that I’ve come to appreciate since leaving town 12 years ago.

This experience informed the next phase of my life: college. I went to the University of Virginia and studied anthropology, with some studies in women and gender and critical theory thrown in there. To put myself through school, I got my CDL (commercial driver’s license) and drove for the university transit service. For the first time in my life I saw real wealth – my dorm mate attended a private boarding school and went fox hunting on her family’s estate on the weekends… At UVA, I felt the palpable disdain yet simultaneously complete obliviousness on the part of my wealthier classmates as I sat in the driver’s seat, wearing my blue collared uniform. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot at UVA, and much of it occurred outside of the classroom.

After graduation, I wanted the experience of living long-term in a culture different from my own, but couldn’t independently finance it, so I took a job as an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea.  I was able to learn some Korean, grow to LOVE Korean food, and navigate the ups and downs of living, working, and playing in a foreign culture. I was also able to travel through much of Southeast Asia. I witnessed and experienced things that I never would have been able to stateside, and I had the opportunity to learn with and from some incredible people throughout the region, from all kinds of backgrounds and with even more trajectories. Again, I did a lot of learning.

When I came back to the states nearly two years later, I decided to continue adventuring and moved out to Oakland, CA. I worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA for a network of community health clinics that serve un- and under-insured people in the East Bay. I lucked out in that my job was to help our clinics incorporate the voices of our patients into the planning, evaluation, and implementation of the care and services they received. What better experts on the needs of our clients than our clients themselves, right?  It was here that I began to see the power of collaboration, as well as the challenges it entails. I muddled through what I think you might term my first lessons in co-design, though I certainly didn’t know that’s what it was called. I was just trying to figure out how to get high-powered doctors to sit at the same table with folks who, by and large, have spent their lives dealing with a system and culture bent on marginalizing and exploiting them. There were all sorts of power dynamics and cultural issues that stood in our way, but slowly (and literally with much sweat and tears), patients, administrators, and clinic staff created what is today known as the Patient Voice Collaborative. Our mission is to evaluate our clinics’ services and make recommendations for improvements, while breaking down barriers created by hierarchy, holding each other accountable, and creating the kind of trust that’s necessary to collaborate authentically. The road we traveled to get here was messy and often uncomfortable, and the group is continuously navigating this tricky terrain today. But this experience showed me the transformative power of sharing our perspectives with the intention of learning from one another and working towards a common goal. Creating contexts in which people with disparate perspectives can share their stories and address hierarchical power dynamics fortifies my belief in collaborative planning and is one of the reasons I wanted to join this class.

While in the Bay, I was also blessed with the chance to become part of the First Voice Media Action Program at KPFA Free Speech Radio in Berkeley, CA. This is an apprenticeship program that brings women and people of color into media production so that we have the power to find our voices and tell our own stories. While we learn the technical skills needed to produce a weekly, hour-long radio show for the flagship station of the national Pacifica Network, we also cultivate our ability to build community amongst a diverse group of people. We are from all walks of life – transgendered Dominican immigrants, Brooklyn-ites turned Berkeley fellows, survivors of chronic homelessness and sexual violence. We are all different, yet through sharing our stories, we learned how to listen to one another, to simultaneously hold our humility and our strength, and to creatively tell the stories of our communities. The challenging conversations that were a necessary part of this process ultimately led to healing, mutual respect, and empowerment. The apprenticeship program was, and through the family it helped me create it continues to be, one of the most seminal experiences of my life. The healing power of storytelling, be it through radio or whatever media, is something that I want to translate into the work that I do here at MIT and beyond.

While in the apprenticeship program and after my AmeriCorps term ended, I became a community health worker with an innovative place-based project, Heart 2 Heart. This program aims to overcome health inequities experienced by residents of a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood of South Berkeley by addressing the social determinants of health. Recognizing that the process must be community-driven, the program staff provided opportunities for residents to connect with one another and talk about what a healthy community looks like from their perspectives. We conducted a neighborhood survey and a series of charrettes, and hosted events where residents and social service providers, such as police, politicians, churches, and schools, could collectively reflect on their efforts in the community.

However, it was during less formal social events like potlucks, walking groups, and cooking classes that residents and professionals shared intimate discussions about race, economic injustice, gentrification, betrayal, and a host of other issues that matter deeply to the Heart 2 Heart community. These stories made me wonder what could happen if we put money, training, and support directly in the hands of Heart 2 Heart residents so that they could lead health interventions in their own community. I developed a mini-grant program that, with only a few thousand dollars and a series of capacity-building workshops, grew into a Zen meditation group that meets weekly, a bike-powered smoothie cart that markets its wares outside of a local bike shop, a class of urban farmers who now tend a neighborhood garden, and a cadre of young African American mothers equipped with the information and organizing skills needed to shape local health policy – one of them now sits on the City of Berkeley’s Community Health Commission. All of this continues nearly ten months after the mini-grant money was spent.

The Heart 2 Heart program gave me a glimpse into what sustainable, community-driven development can look like. Residents were able to experience taking things into their own hands, connecting resources, and collaborating with different sectors working in community development. CBOs, government agencies, and business leaders were given the chance to connect with each other and work directly with residents. And while I see the increase in social capital as immensely valuable, the mini grant program made me wonder what residents could do if they had sustainable, community-generated financial resources that they could invest in other ideas. The folks I worked with in the Heart 2 Heart neighborhood are full of passion and ideas, but are struggling to get by on a day to day basis. I’m trying to use my time at MIT to explore the ways in which planners can help residents create social enterprises that translate the day to day struggle of making ends meet into a means of attaining equity and self-determination.

My experiences in community health and radio allowed me to stand in many worlds and to witness the power of bringing them together. They’re what prepared me for and brought me to MIT’s Department of Urban Studies Planning. I imagine my future career/life to be built around connecting these different worlds, building the capacity for collaboration across perspectives and disciplines, and helping communities develop and sustain their own visions of the future. I’m hoping that the Collaboration Design Studio will be a place where I can hone some of the skills that my past experiences have given me, as well as expose me to new ways of conceptualizing and doing collaboration and design. To be honest, I’m also just really excited to have the chance to work with folks outside of my department, outside of MIT, outside of academia – I miss my communities back in Oakland and to work and learn with people here in Boston will be good for my heart. I’m excited to get started!