PKG Social Impact Internships: Alena Culbertson (’22)

My name is Alena Culbertson, and I’m a rising senior from Normal, Illinois. I’m majoring in urban planning with a minor in mathematics, and I’m involved with the Shakespeare Ensemble and the Centrifugues at MIT. I was excited to get the chance to put my urban planning skills to work this summer as the Participatory Planning for Economic Democracy Intern at the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative (BCDI).  

When I shared the title of my internship with friends and family this summer, the most common response was “That’s great! But what does that…mean?” Participatory planning and economic democracy are phrases that most people don’t hear very often, and unfortunately, they’re also ideas that most people don’t get a chance to experience. During my internship this summer, I’ve been able to learn a lot about these concepts, and what I’ve learned has given me hope for the future of urban planning.

Participatory planning is an approach to urban planning (making decisions about land use and infrastructure for cities, towns, and regions) where residents of a community have a say in decisions about their community. If you’re an MIT student, you might have been involved in the city of Cambridge’s participatory budgeting process, where a portion of the city’s budget is distributed through residents nominating things to do with that money and later voting on which of these suggestions receive funding. At BCDI, we’re thinking about participatory planning on a bigger scale, asking Bronx residents what they want their borough to be like and how they want to get there. Our final product will be a Bronx-wide Plan with policies for transforming the borough. Unfortunately, our organization doesn’t have power or funds like the City of Cambridge does to carry out a participatory plan. However, once the plan has been created, BCDI and the other organizations in our coalition will urge city officials to carry out its policies. These organizations are also already thinking about elements of the Bronx-wide Plan that they can make happen themselves, whether or not the city is involved. 

Economic democracy is another term that requires some explaining. BCDI defines economic democracy as “a system where people share ownership over the resources in their communities and participate equally in deciding how they are used.” In the People’s Assemblies I took notes at this summer, BCDI phrased this more concisely: “What if we owned it?” This vision for shared community ownership of resources is significant for a majority-Black and Latino borough whose residents’ wellbeing has continually been disregarded by those in power. The Bronxites I talked to were excited about the idea of expanding shared ownership of their borough’s land, businesses, and other resources in order to use those resources to better help their communities thrive.

While I’ve had a lot of great experiences in my time studying urban planning, I’ve also found that the dominant approach to economic development prioritizes benefits for those who already have more money and power, or at best focuses on surface-level reforms, like creating more minimum wage jobs, that don’t actually reduce today’s massive wealth disparities that disproportionately affect people of color. It’s been frustrating to see that the conditions that inspired me to enter the field of planning, like urban systems that exacerbate inequality, are rarely being significantly addressed.

After spending time reflecting on this frustration as a planning student, it was incredible to get the chance to work with an organization that is deeply concerned with achieving systemic change. BCDI’s vision of economic democracy guided by participatory planning processes offers a goal and a theory of change for transforming the Bronx into a borough whose residents are building wealth and determining their communities’ futures together. I often get bogged down in thinking about all the things that are wrong with our current systems, and my work on the Bronx-wide Plan offered a helpful antidote. In community brainstorming sessions, residents were encouraged to adopt an asset-focused mindset instead of concentrating on deficits, an approach that I want to remember to use going forward. Hearing the joy and Bronx pride of participants in the People’s Assemblies I attended, along with the beautiful visions residents and organizers shared for a thriving Bronx, was inspiring as I did research work to support those visions. The hope that this has given me has gone beyond my work for BCDI by showing me that there are people and organizations out there that are bringing a transformative approach to the field of urban planning.

My time with BCDI has also reminded me that achieving significant change is really hard, and there’s a long road ahead for bringing about economic democracy in the Bronx. But the biggest thing I want to remember from this internship is not the difficulty of this work but the power, joy, and necessity of dreaming of huge transformation and taking steps to get there.

Interested in a Social Impact Internship? Click here to learn more about how you can apply for one this IAP!

Tags: Civic Engagement, Social Impact Internships, Social Impact Internships Summer 2021, Urban & Rural Planning

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