I received a compelling e-mail from a very good friend recently asking me what I thought about the impacts of identity based planning.

I am currently, as many of you know, working with a team of students on a community economic development project targeted to benefit the Latino community in Portland, Oregon.  We are working for a grassroots community based organization that provides services primarily to the Latino community.

I was piqued by the question, especially as I had considered it earlier.

I fumbled initially through a few blunt bullet points in my head:

  • Our group was contracted by a third sector (i.e. non-profit) community development corporation that focuses it’s service provision primarily on affordable housing and education services for the Latino community in Portland, OR  — however, this organization is not restrictive, there are other immigrant groups provided for by this organization, nonetheless, they are primarily focused on providing services for Spanish-speaking people
  • Latino’s in Portland make significantly less money than non-Latinos
  • 26% of Latino families in Portland live below the poverty line
  • As evidenced by the 2010 Census, Latino’s have increased by 65% Portland since 2000.  Yet this group is significantly underrepresented and under-benefitted in city projects and economic development initiatives.

But this doesn’t really speak to the legitimacy or moral grounds of selective identity based planning.  Can it be damaging?  Is it necessary?  Are there other approaches?

So I took the opportunity to bring up the point in class.

A discussion on this point ensued briefly with quick conclusion identifying that the proverbial scales are tipped so unevenly into the hands of the have’s and out of the hands of the have not’s that identity based planning (in addition to third sector development to fill in the gaps left by traditional economic development) is an absolute necessity in order to restore some semblance of a balance.

This argument however does not speak to the legitimacy of the tool of identity based planning or its impacts.  It mixes identity planning (in this case, defined by the heritage, race, or ethnicity of a particular group) with the broader concept of planning for have’s and have not’s that attempts to equally distribute benefits across a community — something more accurately called equity planning.

So, why should Latino’s get the attention in this and other low-income groups be left out?  Is this equitable?

I tried the question out once more in an informal discussion with another professor – and the answer here was quick and dirty:

“Planning has always been identity-based, it’s just that no one labels it when it’s white and middle class.”  Read – planning has not been historically equitable.

Ah ha, now we’re getting somewhere.

Let’s take a moment and consider that equity planning, not identity planning, is necessary beyond the grassroots level (where advocacy and identity planning have a place).  At higher levels of government advocacy and identity planning are precarious.  It creates policies that are exclusionary, whether they are known and understood or not.  A city planner should not orient around identity based planning, but should push forward a philosophical shift and focus on tangible equitable values as an emphasis.  Planning at the city level should not be for “middle-income whites” or anyone else specifically for that matter; but should emphasize an ethical and moral ground to serve and to plan with the least-well-off in mind so that benefits are distributed equally throughout a municipality or region.  For any fellow students that are reading this – yes – this is straight from our ethics class, and it’s worth remembering while we’re now working on our projects or in our professional positions.

As for my current role, our team has been contracted by a non-profit that works directly with the Latino community – a non-profit formed around an identity base to provide culturally appropriate counseling and services (in this case in home ownership and education) and has done so in a viable and proven way. Is it ethical that we work with this grassroots group?  Well, to start yes.  We are not working for the city in this capacity, but for a grassroots organization, that orients and builds its members around an identity, and there is no one group that can work effectively at the grassroots level with all communities of people (but if you find one, please let me know about it).  People organize at a grassroots level around identity because it makes sense.  It is an effective and efficient way to reach a specific goal as a group.  This is advocacy and the non-profit that we are consulting for is an advocacy organization for the Latino community that also helps other groups of people as it can.  Not to mention that this organization would not need to exist if all things were truly equitable, planning and beyond.

So yes, we are working for a grassroots organization that is mobilizing to empower their community.  I am working for a grassroots organization that is advocating for economic development initiatives that will benefit their immediate community and not push their community members out when the opportunities arrive.  I am not working as an identity planner, I’m working as an advocacy planner for an identity based grassroots organization, and I think that’s a-ok.

If and when I work at the city level as a planner, the focus must be in equity and equal access to information.  My recommendations for city level focus and change are currently being ruminated and cultivated in another paper that I’ll possibly post tidbits of later on.  Key focuses there start in a shift of nomenclature for groups and a true consideration of what identity is, and how the city can move past certain types of loaded terms (“minorities”, “disengaged”, “disempowered”) and begin to work with the fundamental needs and realities (they may be very engaged and empowered and a majority within their own communities).  It’s a big shoe to fill, but I want city level government to reconsider what they mean when they speak of identity.  It will take some huge corrections, this work is like trying to use a paddle to steer a tanker ship – but if enough people get paddles and enough people that are re-thinking what true engagement is, it creates a two-way street and not just a passive open-door policy.  Then we’ll get some movement forward into true equity planning – which is the type of work I believe policy makers should be doing, whoever they are, and wherever they are.

— Ellen