Career and Business Notes

On The Black Urbanist’s 7th Anniversary — Declaring Worth And Being Honest With Myself and You

I think the best way to start my blog birthday/anniversary post for 2017 is to note that I’ve not been writing much over the past 12 months because I flat-out feel unworthy. However, I’m going to take the time to break out the struggle, talk about why this struggle matters and then talk about what I’m doing next.

A Summary of the Struggle

At first, I thought my struggle to write and feel worthy was because of all the bad things that have happened to me over the past few years. All the struggles and the pain and somehow still being in a challenging situation.

That somehow, people knew or learned I was struggling and don’t want to read, listen, hire or help me anymore. Likewise with the times I’ve been forthcoming on this blog and in the newsletter. That being so honest is why nobody with money or major influence wants to help or make sure I don’t fall behind again.

Then I realized something. Like much of the United States of America when it came to the presidential election, my thoughts on my career and my worth were determined by how things appeared on Facebook and Twitter.

If another news organization, policy organization or independent writer writes an op-ed or a reported feature first on something I’ve had in my head for years, then it’s not worth me writing it, because no one will read it.  In my mind this blog has weight, but it’s still just a blog, run solely by me and not a major news organization or a the very least a major news nonprofit or urbanist organization.

Especially since I don’t often believe the site is reaching enough people and sadly, I’ve seen people tweet out an idea only if it comes from a major source. Never mind there are other, smaller sources, that have the same and maybe even more of a commitment to telling the story of people and how they interact with their environment.

Yet, I would only know about this one triggering article if I saw it on Facebook or Twitter. Still, it would ruin my day and I would shut off my laptop or cross out the words in my written notebook and become sad that sharing my thoughts doesn’t seem to matter.

(A side note to the times when I’d pitch these publications or organizations or independent writers or developers, get a lukewarm or sometimes hostile response and hold back publishing it on my page because of the glimmer of receiving a better payoff on the work. Never thinking that I have the same sharing and distribution and possibly even back-end of some of these sites and I can still reach the same amount of people on social media).

Likewise with conferences, workshops, gatherings and the like that I can’t get to because I have to work, or it’s too expensive or far away, or that I didn’t get invited to present or engage in. I would see all the pictures and sometimes read conference symposia and wish I’d had an opportunity to be part of the official record of work. Or at least be in the room to network and meet people face-to-face and then sell them on me as a person.

Again, so many of these activities I wouldn’t know about were it not for being advertised or hyped on social media.

Then, there’s the venting that I see happening on both platforms. If one of my “friends”, especially someone who knows me in real life from urbanism, is venting about a policy or a trend, then I must not have reached them soon enough and my words must not have penetrated. How am I to be trusted as an expert or the very least a theorist, if I can’t get my friends and family to understand what’s going on? Why does it take someone who’s not known as an urban theorist or expert, or even more of an urban theorist or expert to finally get people to see the light?

Or even as I wrote this draft, I was pinged on Twitter by someone who thought something I re-tweeted was problematic. I often get tagged and asked questions that I can’t answer immediately, but I feel the obligation to answer immediately because of the speed of the platform. Sometimes, these discussions get resolved, but other times, I carry an intense measure of guilt, because despite me trying to do the right thing, I was still wrong and I still hurt someone. Yet, I’m going to work on engaging in these conversations in a way that I can have peace with. Even if I walk away still being wrong, if I have to apologize or if I have to follow up later offline, I want to not let reasonable discussion or being challenged take me away from sharing my ideals.

Finally, there’s the basic needs of paying bills, rent, eating and also how that happens. I’ve chosen in some seasons to write this blog and promote this platform with the very real fear that it would write me out of jobs. I chose to leave Kansas City so I could make this blog my primary career and also switch into being a consultant. That part worked. I have been a consultant for the past year and some change. However, I didn’t properly prepare myself for the financial changes that would bring, as well as fully comprehend what moving to D.C. in 2016 to start a business would be like. I also foot the bill for so many things, both expected and unexpected, that have bankrupted me. With me bankrupting myself, I felt like I’d missed something and that again, I was unworthy of being a theorist or expert, because I had no or little cash flow. That’s of course wrong, but I’ve struggled with that too.

With the move to Baltimore, I allowed myself leeway to not force things to happen. Now things are happening. I’m in rebuilding mode and I’m dealing with all those Maslow’s triangle needs head on. Things aren’t perfect, but they are a lot better eight weeks in than they were eight weeks into my DC move last year. Also, I’d never been to Baltimore before February of this year. I had no real concept of what’s going on here, what needs to go on here and why all is not lost here and all is not perfect in D.C.

Why This All Matters on the Eve of My Seventh Blog Birthday

Ultimately, all this matters, because I started this page because I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted the mostly male and white urbanist blogging world to realize that there was more to life than their perfect, paper, urbanist cities.

I wanted my own black community to understand that a lot of what we’ve been fed as good urban policy is bad. That our family and friends who haven’t had it as well may be doing all they can to get ahead, but we still live in a world where we don’t control the entirety of our destiny. That every major change can’t happen over night. And when we do make major overnight changes, we still have to examine our motives and ensure that we aren’t just falling back onto the same patterns, just with different rulers, who might look like us.

I wanted women’s voices to be amplified. I wanted to remind our male urbanist friends and antagonists that yes, planning for strollers is not horrible. That sometimes we buy cars just to keep assholes from harassing us at night. That our schools and playgrounds and areas we take our kids matter.

In all cases, I wanted to break stereotypes and create an environment where we challenge ourselves and challenge others to do better by our environment, whether it was a farm or a row house block or even a pier full of carnival rides and tourist stores. I wanted to go past the stereotypes I mentioned above and create a stronger environment that incorporates all the things a person might need to thrive and be a positive contribution to society.

However, I wanted to eat my cake too and do this from a city that I deemed perfect and in no need of major changes. I wanted to coast along and just bask in the glory of a perfect urbanist environment.

But one, urbanism is grey. When I first used that analogy seven years ago, it was more of a racial analogy. The racial lens is still very important. However, I also see the need to talk about specific behaviors and how we blame the average person for doing things that we give leadership a pass to do.  Two, I see myself needing to be more active in the stew of creating better environments,not just urban ones, and not just supporting them in the abstract.

I’ve been guilty of shaming people for how they choose to transport themselves, where they buy a home (which isn’t as much of a choice as we like to think),and  how they choose to spend their time. I feel like I’m equally critical of policy and systems that preclude equal access to jobs, homes and transportation options. Yet,  I’ve definitely not wanted to engage someone who wants me to believe that their McMansion is the only way to do life.

What I’ve forgotten and what some of us have forgotten is that in the last 20-30 years, that’s been the only housing option for which many people have been able to get loans. Residential redlining in pre-World War II urban neighborhoods still exists and in some cases those neighborhoods are being systematically hollowed out, until the right developer comes by and pays the right price to bring those homes back up to code. Or people are sitting on those homes waiting for the big payout. They may match the racial demographics of the community, but they are more motivated by profit and not community. Developers build these wackadoodle McMansion houses and then leave average people with the heating bills, the mortgages and sadly, the underwater values.

Likewise with transportation systems, education systems and regulation of industry and corporate entities. All of these need regulation. All of these need leaders that see everyone from an equitable, diverse and inclusionary lens, that is also willing to constantly improve what’s wrong and also keep doing what’s right, despite what balance sheets look like.

Blaming someone who’s driving a car because the bus keeps leaving them on the side of the road to get their kid to a school that’s not public, but doesn’t make them sick everyday and force them into the ever-increasing costs of the healthcare system, is not right.

Calling out our elected and appointed leaders, as well as complaining to corporate entities or even withholding money from said entities is the right move. Not pooping on our friend who’s just trying to get ahead. In fact, maybe we can have said friend over, feed them and then blow up the party lines of the government together.

What’s Next for Me?

So the first thing I’m going to do is to again, stop silencing myself. I’m going to be doing more frequent and casual writing, tweeting, audio making and video making.

I help people make media plans sometimes. I tell them to do this and that and it’s usually planned. But planning for me makes me write, and over write and over think and never do. What I will start with is a constant examination of my heart and ensuring good intent. Of seeking a collaborative space, but also being ok with asserting the times that I clearly did something myself.

For understanding that the past year of my life was an experiment. The experiment didn’t work out as planned, but I also created some dope byproducts that are reaping benefits.

Also, I ask of you, besides continuing to listen to our podcast, reviewing our show on the podcast sites, sharing our show on social media, sharing these posts on social and contributing to my Patreon (even the smallest bit counts), that you’re patient with me and that every once in a while, you ping me privately or let me know in some other way that you see me, you care and that I don’t have to be stuck because of what I’ve written above.

For the folks who have been doing that, thank you. My next goal is to be an even better friend and continue to recognize your blessings on the world. Also, to the bigger organizations, publications, practitioners and bloggers that have supported me and us–Thank You!

I’m creating a comprehensive event calendar, as well as a intranet/database where we can share resources. I’m going to test drive some of those things on my Facebook page and group, as well as in the Patreon platform and here. Pay attention to my posts on social, the newsletter and here to make sure you don’t miss out on those changes.

I’m soliciting for volunteers of all ages. I haven’t really grown the page out to being the comprehensive source of information and such that I want it to be, because it’s just me and I can write these posts for free from my bed. Yet, I see a need to be more present and I need more help to do that. I’m also applying for funding so I can make these paid positions.

Also, I’m also creating an informal advisory board, with the eye of creating a more formal board and exploring fiscal sponsorship or a clearer revenue model soon.

Whatever I do, it will be in the interest of what I’ve spelled out above. It will be fair, equitable, diverse, inclusive and open. We will make what we need and we will share our wealth and excess with others.

For now though, let us eat cupcakes and blow out the candles on another year!

I’m Kristen. For seven years I’ve used this space and a few others to make sense of the world around me. Learn more about me and read more of my archives. Subscribe to my newsletter (which comes out mostly weekly) and stay up to date with me. Or, come be one of those Twitter folks who make me think a little harder about what I do. Or I can talk to you, with my co-host and friend and fellow urbanist Katrina, roughly every week as well about the next wave of urbanism.

Or, you can listen to me somewhat read this post below. I do read parts of this post, as well as annotate what I wrote:

The Continuous Quest to Mentaly Cope With Modern Civic Life as a Young Black Woman Professional

Kristen looking out the window of a different Metro Blue Line train, the one in Minneapolis.

You can do this thing called life and you can do it in whatever city you need to as a young black professional. Why and how? I am.

You may remember I asked this question of myself and of my home state back in 2014. What does one need to do to find belonging and a sense of place in America, especially the America we currently sit in? How does one cope with double consciousness? How does one deal with microaggressions? How do we fight back or resist? Do we get to survive fighting back and resisting?

I decided I wanted to dive deeper in the things that I do to help cope with being a person in a particular place, especially when you choose to engage with the civic life and the placemaking aspects of it. In my next post, I’ll talk about what governments and institutions can do to make things easier for people living in their jurisdiction, no matter the size or the amenities. But here, the things I’m doing in an individual level, for self-care and self-improvement as I live my city life.

Making peace with my alone time

Even though I’ve moved to bigger cities to find more activities and people, they don’t always happen every night, people get busy and in my case, I can’t afford to go out every night. Plus, I don’t live with roommates in the traditional sense. With that said, I’ve started to feel better about watching TV and spending time on productive internet sites and reading actual books! The time to myself helps me come up with better ideas for writing and new ideas to work on my existing projects.

Finding my own personal hobbies and entertainment

Goes with the first step. But this deals with what I do outwardly. I’ve started to search Meetups. Through that meetup I found a really cool screenwriting club. I’m hoping to use Meetup it to  bring me back to performing music. And to sort of re-launch Plan to Speak, my public speaking and presentation design course platform. I’ve started to meet people out of my normal circles and I’m starting to get way more positive energy, which helps me chase away the down moments.

Shifting productively from being the only one in a room, to one of many, back to being the only one again especially when it comes to race, class, gender and orientation

I’m used to having to do things and look around and watch my back. I still have to, but I also have started to notice that I’m not the only in the room. That’s giving me room to be more of myself in situations where I’m not being depended on to be the token or the “definitive black voice”. I will say, if you’re in a situation where you’re still the only, you still have no obligation to be this voice. It’s even more vital to find people, even if they are online and you have to Skype them to see them, who allow and encourage you to be 100% yourself. I have those kinds of people here in the flesh and it’s a great help when I begin to deal with the next bullet.

Recognizing and responding to insecurity, both in myself  and in others.

I’ve had to realize that especially in the smaller places I’ve lived, that there’s often an unspoken competition between people in the same industry or of the same gender or racial identity or even just between where I think I should be versus where I actually am. The difference in where I am now is not that this spirit of competition has gone away, but that I’ve recognized it as simply machinations of insecurity. Insecurity isn’t just jealousy and envy, but sometimes it’s a more physical manifestation of lack of money or opportunity, i.e., the company that just doesn’t have a position open that fits your skills, just because you like them. They might be grant funded. Or in the case of the federal government at this writing, frozen from hiring. Really hitting the bullseye on this issue has helped me greatly in being able to understand what’s really going on in my career and in social interactions and helped me continue to find new places to thrive.

Being courageous and willing to try new things, as well as make moves.

The move I made almost six months ago was one of courage. So was the one I made in June of 2015. Many of us know the Nina Simone quote about walking away from the table when it’s not serving you. It’s vital to think about that quote when you make moves to find the things that do service you. I’ve been guilty of being on way too many civic boards and neglecting those personal entertainment activities. It took courage to stand up and say I need something different. But even if your city depends on you, you have to know when to say no (more on that in another bullet). You definitely need courage if you have to create the community to help yourself thrive. And patience. And the willingness to be one’s best advocate. Some of us who dwell in an introverted state or have been silenced may have to nudge this skill. However, in the bigger cities, you really have to fight for your right to party ;).

Being realistic about finances, along with being more resourceful

Cost of living is real. I wish I’d let myself really absorb that before I made this move and made some other moves that will take time and lots of creativity to repair. However, I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, the price you pay to live in the place you want to live, whether that be a big city, a smaller town, a farm or even an island in the sea can only be determined by you. While I’d make some decisions differently, I have learned that surviving in a bigger city is not something I can’t do, even with money being tight. The key is that I’ve been pushing myself to leverage resources both on and offline in my current city. And if you choose to go somewhere because it’s cheaper on the surface, keep in mind the pull of spending more money on things and trips and how that can be just as ruinous on your finances. Find ways to quickly center your finances in a budget and don’t let emotion or fear rule the show here.

Loving myself and setting the right kinds of boundaries.

I still can’t be everywhere for everyone. I’m letting go of the guilt of leaving two very vibrant, but just not right for me communities behind. And with so many opportunities in my new city, it’s sometimes hard to say no, in the spirit of being more courageous as I mentioned above. But at the end of the day, no matter how busy my city is, I need my cocoon and I will cherish it.

Just like I mentioned in my post-election post, self-care is vital. However, we can engage in whatever city we are in for positive good and still be productive, giving citizens. Now, I will say if your safety is repeatedly challenged or you are in direct danger, run. You don’t have to put up with blatant abuse for the sake of being in a certain place or leading a particular community. You will thank yourself.

As always, all of this is a work in progress. I’m learning not to beat myself for having to go backwards sometimes. However, I wanted to share this, because I think we call all learn from the process. Also, review my last post if you need to do an even deeper career related dive.

I’m Kristen. I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, Get job listings, interesting articles, links to future posts and more from me via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.

Questions to Ask (and Traps to Avoid) When Considering a Career in Placemaking

Kristen Jeffers writing at Union Station in Kansas City, MO, Spring 2016

Have you ever wondered how a person becomes involved in the world of placemaking and development as a career?

Is it just people buying up properties to manage and flip? Is it just people being city planners, working in their city’s zoning or long-range planning department? Could I be part of the industry as a writer, like you? Or, do real estate agents or tradespeople count? Could I just open a coffee shop in a neighborhood that needs one and open up my doors on a regular basis to community folks?

Also, what kind of schooling or training do I need to have? What’s right for me? There seem to be lots of choices and no one unique path for some of those choices. How do I make this work for me?

I’m going to assume in this conversation that you’re a person between the ages of 16-40, and you live in the United States or Canada and you haven’t made any money in the sector at all. Although some of these personal development exercises could be translated and applied to people in other countries or at different ages or even volunteer roles that have similar rules and roles around property development and management.

To get into the meat of the process there are nine questions to ask yourself, four traps to avoid and a handful of things to do next.These are all things I’ve thought through and learned as I build my business, all while considering new courses, contracts and bridge jobs to take to sustain myself.

Let’s start with the questions and my explanations of the smaller questions they generate:

What type of work do I want to do?
Do you want to build or refurbish homes by hand or as a trade contractor? Commercial spaces? Do you want to sell real estate? Do you want to be more like me and be a writer and theorist? Do you want to facilitate community meetings? Do you want to be a local government manager/planner/etc? Do you want to be an engineer or architect?

What specific skills do I want?
Do you want to draw? Write? Build? Make deals? Develop research or policy? If you choose the path of engineering or architecture, both inside and outside, there are things that you need to be aware of and certifications you absolutely have to have in order to be able to do work in your sector of the field. Also, if you are selling real estate, installing anything, planning anything or even working in an office or a university, you could do some of these things by yourself, without licensure, but licensure and continuing education credits make you look sharper and may help you make more money over time. Or even get you the job in the first place, in a complicated market.

What kind of debt am I willing to live with?
This isn’t just student debt. This is business debt. I’m currently starting a payback plan of debts I incurred when I decided to add being a public engagement specialist to my business. Also, while in the States, you can write things off, you often have to pay taxes on your business, especially if that’s all your doing and you don’t have an employer to absorb that. Some firms pay great, some don’t. Some sectors of our business allow you to make cash as fast as you can hang a light fixture. Others require you to intern at several places and create your own pathway, which may take years and lots of money. Don’t be like me and let the debt scare you or overtake you. Also, don’t let the idea of having to raise money or be in debt temporarily keep you away from the field, especially if it’s your ultimate purpose. More on that later. Lastly, do your best to avoid debt, by considering a graduated plan into the field or financial help.

Where do I want to do this work?
Selling houses in Florida is very different than selling houses in California. Same with building, designing and even how you promote homes and plan neighborhoods. Different cities have very different cultures around how work is done. Same with design firms. Also, you need to be moderately comfortable and able to find a social network, separate from the industry, wherever you are. You also need to be somewhere that you can be alone at, as often some of the best-paid local government jobs are in towns and cities you’ve possibly never heard of and may not have anyone who looks or thinks like you there.

How do I want to work?
Do you want to be on your computer in a cube or open office? Do you want to be in a closed-door office? Do you want to get dirty in the field? Do you want to talk to people? Do you want someone else to talk about your projects for you? The process and the procedure of how you do the work are not always what they look like on paper.

How will I cope with external setbacks?
This is a business where you will learn quickly that everyone is not your friend. Also, funding for design projects can change at the tip of a hat, especially if the money is coming from a government source. Plus, if you’re involved in active home building, supplies may not come on time. If you’re studying an urban phenomenon, you may find that your hypothesis is dead wrong and you may not be the expert in what you thought. You could be well loved in the field one day and hated the next. Which gets me to my next question.

How will I cope with swings in my mental health?
Having a therapist or at least a support group is critical. Even if it starts out as online, self-paid care and forums and you only do it once a month.  I would not still be here today were it not for professionals trained to talk me through some of the mental blocks and changes that I’m going through right now. Also, I’ll add that you want other business coaching or mentoring, but often, these folks will not be your therapist. Also, family and friends can be great too, but often, they may not understand exactly the rigors of your profession and they may discourage you without meaning to because they operate under a slightly different set of workplace rules.

What alternatives am I willing to consider?
If being a licensed practitioner doesn’t work out, could you be happy joining the blogosphere? How about getting appointed to the zoning board? Or planning a block party or farmers market or concert or some sort of community event every month, that builds a community behind it? Placemaking and community building is not just the licensed and regulated trades.

What is my ultimate purpose?
This is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. This is what you’ll look back over your life and be happy you did. This is what you hope your involvement in the sector will do both to you and the community you’re working with.

With that said, let’s address a few traps to avoid:

  1. Narrow ideas of your goalgets back to the alternatives question. You should have a Plan B or C (maybe D, E and F).
  2. Defining yourself strictly — some may mock you for having different talents or even wanting to have just one particular talent. Silence them by doing what you do well and being flexible and a lifelong learner.
  3. Not defining yourself at all— You do want to have some idea of what you do, even if that idea is being a person known as a multi-passionate. This video and blog post is a great nudge to people like us who have many ideas.  This person also bootstrapped their business by working in a completely different field. Oh and the field they’re in now is something that only a handful of people do well and understand. Sounds familiar…?
  4. Depending on external validation (both to lift you up or to help you make the right decision in the moment) — This does not excuse you from making sure the measurements on the structure you’re building stand up. If you choose to go into architecture or engineering, your buildings do have to stand up. Even with decorating, designing and planning, you need a clear vision if the goal is to convince a neighborhood or developer to build or allow you to build. However, sometimes, you do know what’s best, especially if your measurement tool is actually a yardstick and not a subjective idea. And sometimes, you may be a junior planner on a project that going to ruin a neighborhood, but as a junior planner, there’s only so much you can say and you may not get all the validation you need. However, use this as a lesson to learn what you really want to do and know that you don’t have to just be a junior planner to have a role in creating and maintaining the world around you.

Ok. You’ve asked yourself the questions and you’ve made note of the traps. What’s next?

  • Create a list of schools, funding sources, and jobs you want to go after. Get to know what these opportunities require and create a plan to go after them.
  • Start talking to any and everyone in the business to get to know them. The journalist/activist in me would often go into these meetings with a heavy dose of skepticism, automatically assuming I knew what people would say or what they were about. However, as a student or at least student-minded, go into these meetings, listen and make notes of things you want to remember. Don’t be like me and learn this the hard way.
  • Make note also of HOW people conduct business, arrange their offices and even things such as grooming and body language.
  • Finally, recognize that even if you never nail a nail, or draft a plan, if you have any idea how you want your community to run or even a policy idea worth testing, you have a role in this space. Once upon a time, homes were built by gathering together all the able-bodied adults to create the raw materials and then put the frames up. Regulations and licenses aid in making sure that process can be done over and over, but every discipline started as someone’s idea in a sketchbook and got professionalized over time.

Good luck in your search! Feel free to reach out to me for more insight and support!

I’m Kristen. I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, Get job listings, interesting articles, links to future posts and more from me via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.