An Introduction: Heading West Guest Blog by Madelaine Britt

For just a minute, you might think you are standing on the shores of Lake Ontario. I’m shifting through the burnt-colored wild grasses of the Lake Michigan shoreline, the water folding and rising on the edge of Chicago. It looks familiar – like those hot days I would burn my feet running after my cousin on Charlotte Beach. Changing out of our wet suits in the same bathhouse my mother cleaned 45 years ago as a scrawny teenager living off of Dewey and Lexington Avenue.

I write this from Chicago, my first month of an 11-month journey as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow. The fellowship, through the Congressional Hunger Center, is a training and development program that supports individuals committed to growing as social justice leaders from diverse communities across the country. The first five months, fellows are placed at non-profit and community based organizations working on addressing hunger at the local level. The final six is spent in Washington D.C. learning how to advocate for policy-level changes to address the systemic causes of hunger and poverty.

My mom grew up in a single mother household, moving throughout the city in apartments, splitting time across the Lyell-Otis, Edgerton neighborhoods as well as across the river in the Clinton/Avenue D community. Much of my growing up was informed by her experience living in a food-insecure residence, as a recipient of public benefit programs and at the hands of absentee-landlords. It was her experience that first exposed me to urban planning, but it was fully defined for me as a student at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. Sitting on the steps of the house where she came of age, and where my grandmother still lives, systems of power began to become more palpable for me. In the bus routes that took her often times an hour to get to Wegmans. And in, over time, learning how her white skin created opportunities for her in employment, SUNY scholarships and eventually homeownership with my dad. Opportunities countless other families still wait for and that some will never see.

Writing from my air mattress, I wonder what cost I am to my new neighborhood: a transient resident whose credit score and cosigner were favorable to the landlord. A credit score built from multi-generational home-ownership uniquely afforded to people who look like me. My father’s family was welcomed as white homeowners in West Irondequoit. That first loan, signed by my grandfather, built wealth across two generations. It supported my father in a well-funded, primarily white suburban school district. Over 50 years after his signature, and five years after his death, my grandfather’s loan benefits me today.  I question what my role is, if any, within advocacy when I live in a legacy of poverty but have not experienced it first hand.

As a young white person who is trained in urban planning, I am in the beginning stages of a long learning journey to better understand the role community design plays in addressing systemic racism, classism and ableism. Planning is rooted in white supremacy and exploitative land use practice and continues to be used as an oppressive tool. On this blog I hope to share what I learn throughout the tenure of my fellowship, in my time living in Chicago and DC – both cities whose racist planning practices are lived out today. I also hope to share what I come across that might help answer some of my questions – how do we build equitable, inclusive cities – and who is the “we” in that sentence? Who decides what makes a community “thrive?” Who is defining “affordable?” And in a city where 50 percent of children, disproportionately from communities of color, are below the poverty level, how many more times must Rochester community groups organize for inclusionary housing policies?

A zoning code – a simple color, a number –  actively perpetuates racial and economic exclusion within Rochester and across the country. In my fellowship, I’m eager to learn from community-based leaders, technicians, educators and organizers who are working towards recreating planning to be a social good. I look forward to sharing my experience in partnership with 540WMain, Inc. 

About Madelaine Britt 

Madelaine Britt is a city planner passionate about community-lead design and planning practice in the Rust Belt. Having grown up in Rochester, Syracuse and studied at the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, she is interested in learning more about planning strategies that center equity, deep affordability and the “right to stay” in rapidly gentrifying urban centers. She is currently an Emerson National Hunger Fellow placed in Chicago working on food security issues. Before the fellowship, she worked as a Manhattan borough planner for the City of New York, primarily focused on anti-displacement efforts for small businesses in East Harlem and Washington Heights. 

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