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:

About Kristen Jeffers

I'm Kristen. Almost five years ago, I got tired of not seeing black women as nerded out about trains, better streets, riding bikes, walking not just out of necessity, tall buildings, old buildings and honestly a lot of other things. I was in grad school for community and economic development (ok, it’s actually an MPA), and I wanted to make sure people knew I existed and that I could help them do this thing called placemaking better. Five years later, I’m still doing that, although not from my hometown of Greensboro, NC, but from Kansas City, MO. I spend most of my time in Kansas City promoting better biking and walking infrastructure metro-wide with BikeWalk KC and the Kansas City B-cycle. But I also wrote a book A Black Urbanist (you can grab that over on the right) and sometimes I give speeches and help other communities tell their stories at design charrettes and public meetings. I’ve also written or appeared in all of the major “urbanist” publications, either as a subject or as a writer, as well as most of my hometown papers as subject or writer as well.

  • Seth Zeren

    Thanks for writing this Kristen and sharing your difficulties. It’s definitely hard to find good ways to move the urban conversation forward. Reading your personal reflections helps me reflect on what I can do better to be… in some sense a traitor to my class. It’s also inspiring that you’re still at it. I’ve appreciated your work for a while now, we even briefly shared a stage at the Next Gen debates in Detroit a few years back. Keep at it. We need your voice!