“Imagine what would be possible if more quality space was made available to Black folks.”
The twin 2020 crises of Covid-19 and George Floyd’s murder have brought into sharp relief the disparities that Black people face in this country. They have created a real sense of urgency about how we can create healthier Black spaces.
It’s the kind of challenge that requires both the creative imagination of an artist and the practical knowledge of a city planner. Nadia Owusu is both. The daughter of a UN diplomat, she is an award-winning writer whose first memoir, Aftershocks, is due out next January.
Owusu also has a graduate degree in urban planning and policy. She is the Associate Director for Learning and Equity at Living Cities, an organization she describes as a “think and do tank” that partners with city leaders, philanthropists, grassroots organizations, and private companies to address city challenges, particularly closing racial income and wealth gaps.
The following conversation, which took place in early July, explores the juxtapositions between both her literary projects and her policy and advocacy work. It has been edited for space and clarity.
I. RADICAL IMAGINATION
THE BELIEVER: Are you a planner who writes or are you a writer who does urban planning? Or do you not like to think about it in that overly-dichotomous way?
NADIA OWUSU: Yeah, probably not in an overly-dichotomous way. Since I can remember, writing has always been a part of who I am and I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s how I think and process and imagine. Growing up, my dad worked for the U.N., specifically in food aid, assisting places in the midst of disaster — drought, war, famine, and economic collapse. He was very much committed to making sure that I understood the ways in which the world is unjust.
In addition to writing, I feel like wrestling with questions of injustice has also been a big part of my life. My father was Ghanaian, and since African and Black history were not really covered much in my formal education at the international schools I went to (even when we were physically located in Africa), my dad made educating me his second shift. He taught me about freedom struggles across the Black diaspora and pan-Africanism and Black art and music and Black rebellion. Those issues have guided and inspired my life, and those stories very much shape how I think and understand the world. I’ve always wanted to contribute to moving the world towards justice, and so in college I studied political science and then went to graduate school for urban planning and policy.
Through my writing I am wrestling with questions like, How are people in relationship with each other and the spaces they live in? and What is a community? and What does it mean to belong? How are lives shaped by history and by systems and policies and other forces beyond our control? What happens when we interfere with those systems and policies, when we refuse to comply with them and accept their definitions and constraints? Since I was in my twenties, I’ve been really interested in decolonization. That comes up a lot in how I think about planning and policy in terms of what it takes to decolonize the self—the mind, the heart—and also what it looks like to decolonize places.
So in my writing practice I try to imagine new possibilities around those questions. I try to check my own biases and assumptions and sort of wrestle with my own understanding of history and events. And then I apply some of that thinking to the policy and planning work that I do. The work that I do in cities is also about imagining new possibilities and exploring new ways that people can live in community with each other, so my writing and planning inform each other. They’re enlisted toward the same goal.
BLVR: You’ve been a writer since you were a kid.
BLVR: A lot of writers often start at an early age, but I imagine that that might not be the case with urban planning; that’s something one comes to a little bit later down the line. Talk to me about that process.
NO: [laughs] Coming out of undergrad, in addition to making art and being a writer, I worked in a lot of nonprofits and much of my work was direct service work for very small, underfunded nonprofits. I did that for a while, and I started thinking about the ways in which many nonprofits are only able to put band-aids on problems. I started asking myself a lot of questions about the systems that restrict or provide access to different communities. I don’t think I knew about the profession of urban planning, or what went into policy-making, until I was in my mid-to-late twenties, but it became clear to me that I wanted to better understand policy and decision-making and the ways in which governments and other actors shape people’s lives and possibilities. As I was doing research into what that could look like and what discipline I might focus on if I went back to school, urban policy and planning made a lot of sense to me.
BLVR: Do you find that there’s two separate skill sets that you leverage when you write versus when you analyze policy or do urban planning? Or is it really the same set of skills that inform your work in both areas?
NO: I think there are many things that connect them, like curiosity, and the sort of purpose-driven nature of what I’m trying to do in both fields. But then when I’m writing—in early drafts, at least—I try to turn off the analytic thinking that is very important in the policy work that I do. There are also ways that that side of me is helpful as I write; in the editing process, for example. Similarly, there’s a more intuitive part of myself that I try to tap into while writing that I’ve become increasingly convinced is so important for anyone who’s doing planning and policy work. A lot of our policy work really lacks imagination, and is very much deeply rooted in “what is.” And I think that’s part of the problem because “what is” has racism baked into it. It’s going to take a lot of radical imagination to undo those systems and structures. So, in some ways my practices fuel each other.
II. STRADDLING WORLDS
BLVR: Tell me a project Living Cities is working on—something cool.
NO: The project that I’m working on right now is called the Closing the Gaps network, and we’re in the early stages of launching it. Basically it’s going to be a partnership with a cohort of local governments around the country and cross-departmental teams within those governments specifically focused on undoing racism in their operations. We then look at how to change policies and practices in areas like economic development, housing, home ownership, and healthcare toward greater equity and inclusiveness. In these first months when we’re launching, most cities are very focused on Covid–19 response and also this movement for Black lives that has taken hold around the country, so we’re really concentrating on issues related to that response and centering Black communities in this conversation. I’m really excited about that project; it’s sort of building on other work that we’ve done to support folks within local governments who are organizing within the systems to make them less racist. We support those efforts through developing an analysis and a shared sense of history and then shifting policies, practices, public investment, and the way that governments partner with communities. Some of the issues that cities have taken on in the past are everything from 311 and how cities respond to communities of color to now really thinking about what we need to do in terms of rent and housing and ensuring that there isn’t mass displacement. I’m really excited about digging into that.
BLVR: Do you find that cities have a growing appetite to take these problems on? Do you still have recalcitrance from folks who don’t believe the problems exist or who have some bigotry or mindset that makes them resistant to what you are trying to do? Or are there people that want to make positive change, but the machineries of government policymaking and lawmaking are so byzantine that it can just be hard to move the ship? Or both?
NO: I think it’s a combination of the two. We will only work with cities that publicly commit to doing this work, and that doesn’t mean that those cities are doing any better than any other city on racial equity issues, but it does mean that at least there’s some will within the government to do work to dismantle racist systems and ideologies. But within that, as is true just generally in America, there is a way in which people are finding it very difficult to come to terms with history and with how advantage and disadvantage have been legislated. Particularly with folks in local government who see themselves largely as public servants, this new approach comes into conflict with who they believe themselves to be as people. And I think there are also folks within local government who see themselves as members of their community first and who maybe have been community organizers before going to work for the mayor’s equity office, for instance. In those cases, they really see themselves now as internal organizers that drive an agenda that is more accountable to their communities. Those are the folks that we tend to support, and I think our support as a national organization that has all of these big foundations behind us gives them some cover to push these institutions, or at least their departments, beyond where they would be otherwise. So yeah, I think it’s a mix.
BLVR: You have a very interesting story.
NO: When I was growing up, we moved to a different country every couple of years, because of my father’s job. So I lived in Italy and Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, England. I was always asking, Who am I in this place and in the world and where do I fit into the history of the places that I both belong to and don’t? I always had this feeling of straddling worlds. I grew up outside of my parents’ cultures—my father was Ghanaian and my mother was Armenian-American—and I hadn’t lived in the States until I was eighteen. I spent a lot of time in Ghana but never really lived there, and I don’t speak Twi. I also never spoke Armenian or Turkish, so there was a part of me that also longed for a deeper understanding of where my parents came from, too. I’ve always wrestled with this question of what home means; that question is very connected to the ones that I continue to wrestle with in my writing and also through the work that I do. Growing up the way that I did, I saw how much diversity there is in cities around the world; they’re so different in so many ways and yet everywhere you go there’s inequality, poverty, and injustice, and they take different forms and shapes. Understanding how oppressions are connected has also been a project that I’ve been really interested in.
BLVR: There’s that constant tension of being inside a culture or space, but also occasionally being outside of it, or somehow being in a middle space, right on the boundary of the two. I always have the feeling that that experience can be pretty powerful, because you feel capable of moving between lots of different places and among different kinds of people, but it can also be alienating. What’s been your experience of that?
NO: I think that that is sort of at the root of Aftershocks, the memoir I have coming out. Writing it was really a way for me to come to terms with some of those questions and to understand the ways that both of those experiences are true: the experience of being of a place and not of a place, the experience of being connected and also distant. Writing the memoir was also a way for me to learn in an intentional way about the places I lived and belonged to for a short time, and also a way for me to write myself into the stories of my family that I was always sort of distant from in many ways, whether linguistically or geographically or culturally. I’ve done a lot of reckoning with the question you asked and I don’t think I’ll ever have a clear answer. But I think that there’s a lot of beauty on the borders of things, so I try to spend a lot of time reflecting on that and also just very plainly experiencing gratitude for having been welcomed into so many communities. I know that other stories of immigration have been much more complicated and not facilitated by U.N. passports, for example.
When we were living in Ethiopia it was because there was a civil war going on, and there was famine. What responsibilities did we have as diplomats who were living in a community that was physically walled off from the rest of the country? I have always reflected on those kinds of questions, and even more intentionally through the writing of this book. In terms of my own families, on my mother’s side my family are descendants of the Armenian genocide, which was also a history that I didn’t know very much about, and my great-grandparents came to America as refugees from Turkey (or the Ottoman Empire, as it was known at the time). My mother left when I was two and I was raised primarily by my father, and because I was not raised among my mother’s family, that was a history that I really wanted to write into and understand. My father was a member of the Ashanti tribe, so I did a lot of research to understand the customs and to see how they have shaped my life in ways that I wasn’t aware of. Those are all things that I’m sure I will continue writing about and exploring for my whole life.
BLVR: When did you come to New York City? And what’s your experience in New York been like?
NO: I moved to New York when I was eighteen, for college. I moved here from Uganda, where I went to high school. And I’ve only lived in New York in the U.S., so I’ve been here my entire adult life, mostly in Brooklyn. I lived for five years in Chinatown and then a couple of years in the Financial District because of school. But yeah, I think the same questions that we’re talking about are true for me in terms of my Americanness. I have a U.S. passport because of my mother, but I didn’t spend any real time in the U.S. except for a few summers as a kid. There was a lot that I had to learn about this new place I was living in, including what it meant to be Black in America. I’ve been Black my whole life, but I think being Black in America is a very different thing. I had lived in Europe, so anti-Black racism was not new to me, but the way that it is built into everything here was very different for me. Many African immigrants experience that to some extent, but I think because I present as so American, the assumption was that I had always grown up here, and so I had this sort of inside view into what it is to be a Black American, in many ways. That was also an education, and also drove some of the work that I do now, like wanting to understand what that history was in a deeper way than what they teach you in the one semester in high school about Martin Luther King.
BLVR: What was that adjustment like? I think Black folks in the United States tend to, as Americans do generally, center our own experiences as the alpha and omega of the thing. What were those key revelations you had about what it means to be Black here versus being Black somewhere else?
NO: Just the way that race and racism shape everything in American life. The way that all of our systems, whether that’s where people get to live or where people get to go to school, are shaped by racist thinking, and that even when we got rid of those laws on the books that that thinking has continued to be very central to the American experience and the Black American experience. I don’t think that I understood that fully. The story that I understood was that there was the Civil Rights Movement and, you know, there’s still racism but a huge amount of progress has been made, and actually, as a Black person, you’re better off in America than you are in Africa, for example. (That’s true and not true for many reasons, because colonialism and anti-Blackness are global phenomenons.) I don’t think that I expected that I would be able to just see that disparity just in walking around. Also the way that some white people reacted to me was very different, as were their expectations of me. Professors acting surprised or extravagantly enthusiastic when I did well in class, for example. When my younger brother moved here it became even more jarring, because for me, as a Black woman who’s small, I don’t think that white people find me particularly threatening in the same way that they did my brother. It was an even more challenging experience for him to come here and find himself during the height of stop-and-frisk in New York—constantly harassed by the police and having some violent encounters. The way the world saw him was so different than the way that he understood himself and that brought it into even sharper focus for me.
III. BLACK SPACES
BLVR: So let’s talk about this idea of “Black spaces.” We think of Black people as being shaped, generally negatively, by space—redlining, urban renewal, over-policing, how school districts get funded. First, how do we define Black spaces? And two, what connection do you see between the George Floyd protests and the challenges of making better spaces for Black people?
NO: I think cities themselves are shared spaces, in many ways. We choose to live in close proximity and share resources and we build the housing and infrastructure that we need to live the lives that we want. But as we’ve talked about, in America, the allocation of shared resources has never been equitable or just and the lives decision-makers have prioritized have never been Black lives. Plans, policies, and whole systems were created to ensure the racist order and to ensure that white people have extreme, privileged access to the best housing stock, to designed transit systems, to green systems, healthcare, fresh food, clean water, and air. When I think about redlining, for example, that was a policy that was implemented in the 1930s in reaction to a shortage of housing across the country for all races. The government decided that they would create more housing but that race would determine what kind of housing you could access and what kind of space you could occupy. They were going to massively subsidize developers to mass-produce new communities largely for white people, with the explicit requirement that none of those homes were available to be sold to Black people. And again, as a planner, this is the part of the history that is hard for people in the profession to come to terms with. Local, state, and federal governments created this system. Intentionally. The housing policies created and reinforced segregation. And then banks came in and used federal government-created maps marked with red lines around neighborhoods where Black people lived to decide who could get mortgages and where, and Black neighborhoods were largely deemed uninsurable.
That’s how Black people got forced into poorly-maintained housing projects and spaces and restricted in terms of movement. Then you had the Federal Housing Administration, in its underwriting manual, for example, recommending that highways be built between Black and white neighborhoods, and then because our neighborhoods and communities are funded by taxes, white communities were able to ensure even more advantages for themselves. The wealth that they built through their homes subsidized by government programs meant that they paid property taxes that went to creating good schools, parks, safe roads, and basically ensuring that they could claim the spaces that they wanted, use them as they wanted. Urban renewal in the ’40s and ’50s then displaced communities of color even further, under the guise of supporting cities and addressing urban decay and the plan was that they were going to revitalize those spaces. So cities got federal funding to basically raze entire neighborhoods and destroy Black and Brown communities that were then rebuilt based on white desires and what the white people who then wanted to move into those communities wanted in those communities.
Thinking about cities as shared spaces and acknowledging that Black people have always been legislated unwelcome and uncared for by the governments that are supposed to serve them, it’s very interesting to think about, then, what a Black space would look like in that context. The notion of radical imagination and not just accepting what we’ve been given or even building upon what we’ve been given, necessarily, but dismantling it and starting from scratch, becomes really important. We’re continuing to see the effects of those policies. With Covid–19 for example, we’re seeing that Black people are dying at far higher rates than white people, and we know that it’s largely because of generations of forced segregation and neighborhoods with dirty air, food deserts, moldy buildings. We know that the disinvestment did not end when redlining became illegal. In thinking about the other force that’s happening right now with the movement for Black lives, I think we also know that the police in American cities have been used to keep Black people out of spaces that white people want for themselves. So it’s no surprise, during this time of increased anxiety, that we’re seeing even more police violence, or, at least, not a diminishment of police violence against Black people and enforcement. With all of that, in terms of imagining what could be, I’ve been thinking a lot about this movement, what we’re seeing right now, in the context of the history of Black people in America and Black people claiming space and claiming freedom and demanding justice. I’ve been watching the videos of Occupy City Hall, in New York, and thinking about how that’s connected to what I have seen Black places centering, which is this idea of communion and art and radical joy and ingenuity; being given so little but making the most out of the small allocation of space you’ve been given while still advocating and demanding more. I think of Black churches, for example, as part of that history. I also think of jazz musicians playing on street corners in New Orleans, or the ball culture that Black and Brown queer and trans people created that sustained the community through the AIDS epidemic. I consider big protest movements, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery; they were about taking space, taking up space, and not moving from that space. Or even the elder Black men in my community in Brooklyn who gather to play cards together outside the bodega at this, like, little table that they’ve set up, you know? They’re claiming that space and making it joyful. Imagine what would be possible if more quality space was made available to Black folks. I actually think it would have a really beautiful impact, not just on the lives of Black people, but on the lives of everyone, because of the beauty and culture and joy that is brought into Black spaces all the time. That’s what I hope that we can create.
IV. “I THINK THAT GENTRIFICATION AND TRUE INTEGRATION ARE, IN MY MIND, VERY DIFFERENT THINGS.”
BLVR: You live in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn?
NO: I do.
BLVR: That neighborhood is one of the most stalwart symbols of gentrification. What’s been your experience of that phenomenon and what is the best solution to bring folks together, people who have been there, people of color, people who were born in or have been in that neighborhood or any neighborhood for a long time? How do you ensure that they A) literally physically don’t get moved, and B) that they culturally, psychologically, still feel, as the neighborhood changes, that it’s still theirs, that they still have some ownership and investment in it? When people feel divested from their communities, they end up feeling dislocated, not only from their communities, but from themselves.
NO: I definitely think about that on a daily basis living in Bed-Stuy. I acknowledge some of the ways that I am an invisible gentrifier, invisible in that I am Black. But certainly this is a community that has a really rich and long history and I am a newcomer and I’m always thinking about the ways that I can be a good and better neighbor. I think that gentrification and true integration are, in my mind, very different things. So, right or wrong, when I consider gentrification, I think about mostly white and/or wealthier people moving into Black or Brown or less wealthy communities and remaking those communities to better suit their needs, reshaping power dynamics and colonizing spaces. And the needs, as you said, of the communities who were here before, be damned. Nobody is going to respect that culture or pay attention to it. And one of the ways that that shows up is that gentrifiers will call the cops if people are playing their music too loud, or otherwise making them uncomfortable.
But I don’t think integration has to mean gentrification. Redlining did not accidentally have racist outcomes; racism was built into the policy and then a lot of imagination and vision went into legislating segregation and ensuring white wealth and privilege. And so the question now is how to undo that, and to ensure equitable access to quality housing and services. Gentrification is driven by both markets and policy; banks speculate and invest in property aiming to make as much money as possible and don’t care about who gets displaced. Developers then rebrand the community and convince wealthier people to move into a so-called up-and-coming neighborhood and therefore basically secure future development work and future profits for themselves because more housing will be needed, better infrastructure and restaurants that cater to the new arrivals will have to be built, and so then the developers lobby the state to subsidize their work. And they often win. States and localities call those subsidies “economic development.” Governments then encourage gentrification by prioritizing property ownership over renter’s rights, which is a big issue now, during Covid–19, and doing things like investing in public transit that they know are going to increase home values but doing nothing to ensure that the communities who live there now will benefit either from that investment or from the equity that can be built through home ownership. When governments take those kinds of actions, whether it’s intentionally racist, it’s certainly in the same category as some of the ways in which segregation was created through redlining, in that they’re not intentionally keeping communities of color’s interests in mind and they don’t really do a lot to counteract the effects and the risks to communities of color.
So I think what it comes down to is like, what are the values and goals being built into the policies? Gentrification is not solely a matter of individual people’s interests in where they decide to live; all of those choices are driven by bigger forces. If governments really want to address gentrification and the displacement of communities while also creating more integration and more mixed-race and mixed-income communities, we could certainly design towards that. We could have large-scale programs that, for example, create new rent control laws and strengthen existing ones. We could decommodify land and make it impossible for banks to speculate in real estate, through community land trusts, for example. We could create different kinds of public and affordable housing, you know, publicly-seated or limited-equity co-ops where communities can buy shares in permanently affordable housing with income caps in communities where they already live. We could change zoning laws that ban, for example, multi-family homes in some wealthier communities, which keeps people of color out.
We could stop prioritizing the demands of developers over those of existing residents, and I’m sure there are many more radical ways that we could think about integration that isn’t about displacement. Where is the imagination and the will to do that? To undo the history of segregation? That is what we should all be working towards as planners. I think also, by the way, connecting it back to what we were talking about before around the movement that is taking shape right now in defense of Black lives, we would have a lot more money to invest in housing and services if we defunded the police; in many U.S. cities, one out of every ten dollars of local government spending goes to the police. Imagine if we were investing in creating more quality housing, keeping people in their housing, and supporting more vital and inclusive communities instead of spending all of this money on policing and keeping people out of places.
V. THINKING OF A MASTER PLAN(NER)
BLVR: You’re sort of speaking to the next question I was going to ask you: There aren’t that many Black planners in the U.S. There is certainly just a literal handful who are running planning departments or very high up.
NO: Nope. [laughs]
BLVR: And many of the ills that we’ve been talking about can be laid at the feet of planners as a profession, among other institutions. How is this generation of Black planners approaching the work differently than an older generation of both white and Black planners? As a journalist, I’ve sat in on enough meetings of planners presenting a strategy for redevelopment — the master plan — to some marginalized community, and there’s always a sense of disillusion and skepticism and distrust from the community. For one, what they’re proposing is just another plan, people who look just like you came here a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago and we went through the same song and dance and here we are again. What role can planners play now?
NO: You know, it has not changed. Urban planning is very white. This was true when I was in graduate school, and it’s true in planning departments in cities, as you’ve said. It’s also true in other planning and policy spaces, from financial institutions that invest in community and economic development, to think tanks and foundations, like the kind of space that I work in, for example. And we know that explicit racism gets baked into plans and policies, as does implicit bias and willful ignorance, and so certainly we do need more diverse planners and policymakers. We also need planners and policymakers, in my opinion, to be anti-racist, meaning that they are driven by values of inclusiveness, community leadership, and justice. We need planners and policymakers who understand the history that you’re talking about and specifically the role of our professions in creating and perpetuating racist systems, and we need planners and policymakers who want to repair those harms and are going to be courageous and imaginative in doing so.
I often hear, in meetings, planners and policymakers saying things like “We need to lift up poor people of color,” or “We need to empower poor people of color.” Or you know, so many efforts, even the well-intentioned ones that are not aimed at making money for developers and banks, are aimed at telling communities of color what they need and want. We consult and engage community, but why are we not led by community vision? All of this important conversation that we’re having now about rent and city budgeting, that’s all driven by organizers and grassroots groups. So why are we not more accountable to those groups and to residents in the places we say our work will benefit? I think accountability means creating processes and systems that keep us in check and in deep relationship with communities, so that we’re not showing up with a “master plan” that we then want their input on. We have to ask ourselves, How are we defining the problem and the solutions? and Who is defining the problem and the solutions? and Who will benefit from our work or from this plan and who won’t? and Who’s going to be displaced? and Have we worked to address our own ignorance and bias and the way that shows up in the work that we’re doing? I think some of my colleagues in the planning and policy world are really trying to approach their work in this way, and are really centering anti-racist principles. Most of them are people of color and Black planners and policymakers in particular, but, again, there’s a problem in that they’re often not in leadership positions. I myself have been in a position where I’ve felt like I had to take on my institution in order to live my values, and that’s a huge burden. People burn out and it’s exhausting and so many of us feel that all the time. That is a huge issue in the field.
BLVR: What are the best examples of Black people being authors of their own authentic and healthy spaces? What does that look like, and how do we scale it up?
NO: I think that addressing those questions has always been central to the work of so many Black writers. In the case of people like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, revealing America to itself has always been part of their work. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the role of the Black imagination, and the possibilities inherent in Afro-futurism and Black science fiction. There’s a lot of space, too, for Black people writing joyful stories. Those stories inform how we would create a different kind of America. The role of the Black artist has always been engaged with both the critique and the imagining of what’s possible. I think that’s true of Black writing and Black music in many ways. There are a lot of Black writers working in that tradition, towards both acknowledging and really clearly seeing what is and then imagining what could be.