[00:00:00] Wendell: Sometimes the best thing you do for somebody's to create a space where they can express themselves, where they feel comfortable and not be judged for that. Not be stereotype or, you know, characterized for the way they choose to express themselves.
Caesar: I'm Caesar McDowell.
Ayushi: I'm Ayushi Roy.
Caesar: And you're listening to -
Ayushi: The Move.
Public engagements just sound boring.
Caesar: Yeah, sounds that way and yet we know -
Ayushi: They're not.
Caesar: It's not. It's dynamic. It's full of drama. It has pain and emotion in it.
Ayushi: Oh boy.
Caesar: High stakes. And what happens particularly in planning processes how the public can get is engaged or included makes a big difference on the quality of what life is like for the public in the city.
And so today somebody who knows that [00:01:00] up close and personal -
Ayushi: Up close and personal.
Caesar: Is Wendell Joseph, who's our guest today. City planner here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And let me tell you, that could not be an easy job. There's a lot going on in the city with development. It is, you know, gentrification par excellance in the world. And uh, he's on the front lines of that. Having to deal with the tensions and the struggles that people have and also trying to make sure people stay engaged.
So here's Wendell.
Wendell: There's so much emotion in public meetings. People feel strongly about what cities do, right? Especially when they don't like what cities do, right. Which is fine, which is fair. I mean, people shouldn't agree with everything, right? But then whenever that process happens in that public engagement piece is underway people tend to bring all that stuff in with them from the last thing, the thing before that. And the thing we did 20 ago was like, oh, where are we on that? [00:02:00] You what I'm saying?
And it's like, oh you want to talk about something else? But we still have some things we need to say about the last thing. And it puts so much pressure and drama in these processes because of that fact. And I'd like to think that there's a way to work around that by having that ongoing relationship. By having a public engagement process - verb - that exists apart from processes, right? So that you have that ongoing dialogue, that back and forth, so that when you do have a project you've already have a relationship established. You've already hopefully built up a level of trust and transparency.
I think it kind of, like, takes back some of the the pressure. So - because it's not just on that particular process. So that's just one - one way I think about.
Caesar: It also kind of connects to one of the things we have been highlighting, both as part of this show and on our site, is this whole notion of having a need to really be intentional about designing for healing. [00:03:00] And you've -part of what you mentioned, people bring a lot when they come to the meetings: everything that's happened to them before and they need it to work out. They haven't had a space to work it out. And they're looking for some way of having that paid attention to. And this idea that we might need to actually create some spaces in these public processes to help people heal from those traumas.
Wendell: I think it's fundamental to just human existence just to be able to like vent sometimes, you know what I mean? It's like sometimes we just need to blow some steam and just get some off your chest. And that's okay.
I think people should be allowed to do that. I think - at least personally, for me if somebody feels in type of way about a project that a city does, or you know aparticular process. I mean you should be able to just say, "Listen. I don't like this at all. And here's why." And that's a good thing, I think.
Because then on the one hand, you want people to feel like their voice does matter. You want people to have faith in the processes. [00:04:00] You want people to buy in to what's happening. It doesn't, again, it doesn't mean people have to agree with everything that's going on. But I think people should at least know how you got from point A to point B.
Ayushi: I love that so much. I'm just I'm still like musing about what you said. Because it reminds me so much.
It's so tongue-in-cheek of - I speak for even my former self as a member of another city hall - to keep talking about relationships and relationship building, but never really to practice what we're preaching on the outside of City Hall. You know, inside we know that to be true.
But the very wording of public engagement implies that there is an engagement that needs to happen as opposed to a relationship that needs to just be nurtured. Right? And I really liked what you said about the process - engagement process - as opposed to the processes involved in the engagement. But I'm taking it even just [00:05:00] behind that and just lik,e let's just call it a public relationship. Or public partnership. Or public collaboration, co-creation as opposed to a public engagement.
And what that's really doing then is healing the wounds that I think inevitably any city might have with their constituents.
Wendell: Yeah, that's a good point. I think even just changing the name, I think, does convey a different type of of message. And you're right. I mean there - there are wounds that need to be healed on both sides, both in terms of like city with a Capital C and city with lowercase c.
Yeah, and for me I see there's enough benefits on both sides of the table for this to really be a thing that cities engage in. It works both ways. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Ayushi: Do you find yourself ever filling in the gaps of these public wounds through personal conversations that you might have. You know, you stay back after a meeting ends and you keep talkin to some of the folks that came through for this public meeting. Or, you mentioned the other division that has translators.
[00:06:00] Wendell: The department, yeah.
Ayushi: Right, the other department. Do you ever find yourself filling in the gaps beyond the meetings?
Wendell: That's a good question. I would say yes. I wouldn't say it's necessarily every meeting. But I mean, now that I think - you know, I've never really thought about it. Um, but yeah, I mean, I think there are opportunities to do that kind of work without even realizing it by just having that one-on-one connection with somebody and just talking as two people. And you just happen to be a city official or employee and they happened to be a citizen or a resident.
But when you do have those, one-on-one conversations either before or like, after a meeting. Yeah, it does I think create a opportunity for people just to come to terms, right?
Wendell: To to better understand each other.
Ayushi: To be able to vent even, maybe.
Wendell: To vent. Yeah. Yeah.
And I think - this is something that I try to do more just in my personal life, not just professional. But understanding that people like, as you mentioned earlier, [00:07:00] people need to vent.
And sometimes the best thing to do for somebody's to create a space where they can express themselves the way they feel comfortable and not be judged for that. Not be stereotyped or, you know, characterized for the way they choose to express themselves. And so I - I try to be mindful of that especially more recently.
It's like if I'm having one-on-one interaction with somebody, I try to encourage them to just be honest and just say what's on their mind. And not take it personally, right? Not internalize it but just understand that, you know, there's probably a lot that's behind that sentiment that has nothing to do with me. That I have no idea of and probably never will. And don't need to.
Wendell: What's important in that moment is for somebody just say what's on their chest - say with their chest, so to speak.
Caesar: That's great. One of the things I love about this is - as we started out this whole effort we're doing where we've been working off of this framework, right? It has all these different design challenges. You know, everything from design for the margins to designing for equity. [00:08:00] And designing for healing as you mentioned before.
But actually what you just said made me really rethink one of them. Like, we have this one about designing for multiple forms of expression, which we've always talked about in terms of language or people are more - µlike to express more through their body or they're more interactive. But you know, this idea that venting is a form of expression.
Caesar: And the notion of actually designing public spaces and opportunities that just support people to vent.
Caesar: Is a really powerful idea.
Caesar: You know?
Wendell: Right. Right.
Ayushi: And redefining what we see as like, productive conversation -
Ayushi: - with the public.
Ayushi: Because I think sometimes we see things like venting as not being productive.
Ayushi: You know, like, "oh, if we're not really collaborating on this different legislation, like that really can't" - but no, actually. I think kind of need the venting spaces. The space to be designed for venting or space to be designed for just listening and being a supportive listener.
Wendell: And I think that's why it's so important to think of alternative forms of public [00:09:00] engagement, just to keep that term going, outside of just the traditional public meeting, right? Because if you think about how public meetings typically go - forms of expression are very limited if not sanitized, right?
You have a certain period for public comments. And you get such and such minutes. You say this and you say - you say your name and your address and you say what's on your mind. Next. Same thing. Next. Right?
So it's a very constrained form of expression, right? Now that works for some people and it works fine. And that's great. That doesn't work for some people, right. Other people, rather.
And so, how do you tap into that?
First of all, you have to understand that there's still value in those alternative forms expression, right? And that's part of the problem. It's a form of privilege, really, to just say that these forms of expression have more value than those forms of expression.
And it inherently these values alternative forms of expression, right? Because they're either aren't forums for those forms of expression or when they are [00:10:00] expressing in those type of ways, they're just shut down. And it's like no, no, no, this time you do it right.
So yeah, thinking about just the spaces to have those alternative forms of expression. And then allowing people to do that without shutting it down, I think, is key. As you mentioned, like, some people are just super animated. Some - some people just, you know, they get hyped, you know.
Wendell: Some people use profanity. Some people use language that's not typically okay in a public setting. And I mean, so long as you're not disrespecting somebody or dehumanizing somebody using, you know, inappropriate language - whether it's a slur or you know - I think there is some value in realizing that how people choose to express themselves should not take away from what they have to say.
If everybody has value, then anybody's voices value. And that should not be constrained to just one or two ways of expressing that.
Ayushi: Love that.
Caesar: One of the issues I think we have, too, in this society is that people like you, you know, it's before in these positions and city governments or nonprofit [00:11:00] organizations who are usually the front lines of this, themselves haven't had much opportunity -
Caesar: - to express themselves in all the ways they have and -
Caesar: You know, your own training and your own preparation basically narrows the field of what's appropriate for expression. So, art of what I hear you're saying that there's kind of like a whole lot of individual and internal work we have to do to both allow ourselves to know that it's okay.
Wendell: Yeah. Yeah. And it doesn't necessarily have to be some sort of a training, per se. Because I think people understand this on an individual level. I think it's just taking those principles and just extending it to the public forum.
Caesar: But it's scary, isn't it?
Wendell: Oh, absolutely. (crosstalk)
Caesar: I mean, it's like - okay, Wendell: you stand up and shout. Ayushi stands up and shouts.
Okay? Those are two different messages.
Ayushi: Very different messages.
Caesar: Those are very different messages!
(crosstalk and laughter)
Caesar: You know, one of them's going to be like, "Oh, okay." And the other one'll be like, "Oh, no."
Wendell: Exactly. [00:12:00] That's - that's why -
Wendell: That's why it starts before you even get that far. That's why it starts with understanding that people have value. And their voices have value.
Wendell: Equal value. And unless you start there, then you're still gonna run into problems, right?
Because I'm still gonna come across as the angry black man. Right? And then automatically what I have to say doesn't matter. Or it matters less, right? But then if you understand that as a black man, I do have value and my voice has value. Then however way I choose to express it should not matter as much, right?
Wendell: So yeah, I absolutely agree.
Yeah. (group laughter)
Caesar: It's a tough one.
Wendell: It is.
Caesar: It's a very tough one.
Wendell: It is, because it forces people to step outside of their comfort zones. It forces you to see somebody as an equal, which as a society we just cannot seem to do. Certain voices fundamentally have more weight and more importance than others. So we have this culture of stratifying voices.
And [00:13:00] so, doing that forces you - forces you to - it levels the playing field which for some people is extremely uncomfortable.
Caesar: So I teach in the Department of Research and Planning. Do you think I should actually start doing, like, exercises in my classes that give people opportunities to just like - say like, okay you express that one way. Let me have you do it another way.
Wendell: You could. You could give exercises. Or you can just walk into class one day and just bug out for no reason to see how your - see how your students respond.
Caesar: Okay, I'll do that. (group laughter)
Wendell: Walk in, just - just - wild out. Just wild out for like a good 30 minutes straight and just see what happens.
Caesar: Okay. (droup laughter) You want to be my guest lecturer?
Ayushi: That's really ...
Caesar: Wild out for us. That would be interesting.
Caesar: But we don't have - as you're saying, we don't have the experience.
Caesar: The opportunities to kind of sit with that and be okay with it and know that it's not going to kill us.
Caesar: That it's gonna be okay.
Wendell: It's gonna be okay.
Caesar: We're gonna be fine.
Caesar: And so therefore [00:14:00] we would be - if we knew that, we would create more spaces amd opportunity for that.
Wendell: Yes, I think so. I think so.
Ayushi: For people that may not know how to create that space and that opportunity, what's something that you feel like you might be able to share with them?
Because I'm just thinking, right, like thinking out loud. what you said about you sitting up and shouting and me standing up and shouting is so different. And for everyone in this room, I think that's pretty obvious and pretty apparent. But that may not be for a lot of people and a lot of other rooms. And so what's something that we could do to help those other rooms?
I'm totally putting you on the spot.
Caesar: You can say, like, "That's a really good question. And we should have an answer to it after the -" (group laughter and crosstalk) that's okay.
Ayushi: (sings Jeopardy theme music)
Wendell: I mean, that is a question. I think it very much starts with an internal conversation, a personal conversation that recognizes that people have a voice. And that people have a value. And that they need to be allowed to express that, because [00:15:00] it's fundamental to their humanity.
So before we talk about the space to do that, the ways in which we do that I think it really starts on an individual level. And it's: okay, what am I gonna do to acknowledge the humanity of every single person that I come in contact with?
And then, if everybody can at least start to have that conversation - you don't need to come to an answer, but if you can at least start to have that conversation. if you can at least open up your heart and your mind to that concept, I think that already puts us in a much better place than we arelright now.
Wendell: Because there are 20 people who are not having that conversation.
We're not even open to the concept of recognizing everyone's humanity.
Wendell: That's how I'd answer that question.
Caesar: What's really centering about this conversation - because we've been talking a lot, you know with you, with other guests, on our site and TheMove about these kinds of types of conversations you should be having and how to design for those.
But part of what you're raising is: actually, there's a prior piece. And the propr piece [00:16:00] is: really, are you coming from a set of values -
Caesar: That actually allow you to see people as having value.
Wendell: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Caesar: And if you haven't gotten that, then all these design things aren't going to help very much. Because, I guess, in some sense you'll sabotage then. Because you actually don't believe in the value of everyone.
Wendell: And something that I've recently thought about, or at least a way to describe this kind of stuff, is to think of it as establishing a sort of baseline.
And so when you have a baseline, that's like the norm, right? That's the point of reference. That's the starting point. It's 0. And whatever design case or design scenario that you can come up with is always going to be compared to that baseline, right?
So regardless of how great a design you have, regardless of how great an idea can come up with so long as the baseline remains what it is, you're always gonna have a problem with the design. And so I think that's where we find ourselves now. People are trying to come up with all these creative and great ways of having public [00:17:00] engagement and public input. And in a vacuum, these are fantastic ideas.
However, the baseline has remained the same. And the baseline is one that's a mired in racism and classism and, you know, economic terrorism, if you will. In gender biases and, you know, diminishing voices of immigrants, of refugees, of LBGTQ - you know, I mean like, this - the baseline is not what it ought to be. And so until you shift the baseline to something that is closer to what it ought to be, if not the actual thing, then every design case you come up with is still going to have the same issue.
So, yeah. So you come at it from a set of values and the values are that, you know, recognizing everyone's. Period. That should be the baseline. And then whatever design case you have will be compared to that baseline sof equal humanity. And that fundamentally changes the game.
Caesar: I think part of how we tried to get at that, though we didn't have necessarily a values question in there, is this whole - what we say is our [00:18:00] fundamental principle: is that you have to design with and for people at the margins. Because if you do that, folks at the margins will hold their own value.
Caesar: And if you engage with them first as a way of kind of designing something, that's one way there to help people get there. But I think this idea of really saying, but folks have to do that other piece, too, is really absolutely important.
Wendell: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Ayushi: It's interesting to think about the amount of prior work that goes into, then, the workplace work being wquitable or for the margins, etc.
And I'm thinking about the constant sort of day-to-say opposition that I imagine you might have to - or other folks - City Hall I know I had to go through when doing my work for city hall. Because sometimes I found that the structures within which I was required to work were not amenable to that personal baseline course.
Wendell: Of course.
Ayushi: Right? Because they're built upon [00:19:00] this different kind of baseline.
Ayushi: With a different kind of value.
Ayushi: And I'm just wondering, what are some of the sort of maybe stickiest, trickiest things that you've seen? I mean, one thing that I mentioned - or that I heard you say - was the way in which public commentary is structured by time.
Wendell: Time and place.
Ayushi: Time and place. Place is a big one, right. Time and place and thinking about where those places are. What the building even looks like.
Wendell: Ah. Yeah, that's a good one.
Ayushi: You know?
Wendell: That's a good one, that's a good one.
Ayushi: Like, I'm coming from California where I haven't seen as much brick before. I haven't seen as many, like, columns before, frankly. And walking into a building that sometimes looks a little neo-colonial makes me feel a certain kind of way.
Wendell: Yeah, they're intimidating.
Ayushi: They're Intimidating. And I'm like, well, this place isn't meant for me and my commentary. In fact, this place makes me feel perhaps a little unsafe. Perhaps a little unwanted. And the intimidation factor might change the way that I comment. The time factor which I'm [00:20:00] required to comment might change that. Who's listening, the makeup of the room racially or demographically otherwise. You know, and I'm just thinking like what are some of the stickiest baselines that you found in your work that have forced you to work around what you value.
Wendell: I guess for me, I'd say that when people do not recognize the baseline for what it is. Or don't acknowledge it. Or just try to like, you know, downplay it or - not fully appreciating and acknowledging the baseline for what it is creates tricky situations. Because it doesn't put you in a position then the question the process.
And so you just do what's been done before because it's worked, quote unquote. But you don't really stop to ask questions. And I am speaking generally, not necessarily in terms of specific thing that I do. But just generally speaking I think something that I see everywhere. Anywhere, really.
I think one thing that we are good at [00:21:00] doing and you know beings is creating systems that can basically run themselves, right? Um, the people change, time changes, but you can count on this one thing doing what it's done for like, 100 years.
Caesar: Over and over and over again.
Wendell: Yeah. We're very, very, very good at that. And it's crazy because like every social movement In the history of mankind has always been about that baseline. You know, whether it's the you know, women's suffrage movement of the early 1900's. Or, you know, the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. Or LGBTQ. Or most recently #MeToo. Or even March for our Lives, right? It's always about questioning that baseline and pushing back.
That's what it's always been about. And the sticky situations you'll always find no matter where you work, no matter where you live, no matter where you do whatever you do: is people not acknowledging the baseline that is fundamentally problematic and inhumane. That's where it starts.
Caesar: That is the work. That is the work.
Wendell: That is the work.
Caesar: Yeah. And I really [00:22:00] appreciate that. You know, we come in here to The Move which we've always talked about, you know, all the different moves we have to do within the context of really building democracy. And really creating opportunities to use your voice. And this notion that one of the moves we all learn is the workaround. The workaround is a move.
Caesar: We learn it and we have to figure out our different ways of doing it. And one of the things I've known in my own life that's made that possible and helped me - and it's curious because you know, we're of different generations. We work in different spaces. What's the network like? Do you guys have a network that actually supports you and strengthens you through this work?
Are you kind of like, mostly, "Hey, there's just the two or three of us trying to tread water here."
Wendell: The pieces, the individual parts of the network out there, very much so. It's bringing that thing together to actually create the network that is challenging and takes time. I've met like-minded individuals who are trying to think of creative ways to work in the system, with the system, around the system, [00:23:00] apart from the system, that always try to keep questioning - or at least call to the table the baseline.
I've met individuals who are like-minded in that regard. I've had conversations with them, one-on-one conversations, right. And it's been great. And sometimes it is enough to know that you're not the only one.
Caesar: Even if you're not in a relationship.
Caesar: Just like, knowing (crosstalk) that they're out there.
Wendell: Even if it's just that one conversation and for whatever reason you never see that person again, just knowing that you're not alone, I think, very much helps and it keeps you going for at least like another week or a month until the next conversation happens.
Wendell: So we need two networks. We need people coming together and really Hashem these things out, bouncing ideas off each other. But you know those lifelines I think are also absolutely critical. I've been fortunate enough to have those lifelines. And you know, hopefully a network can come together that I'm apart of which actually can get some things done.
Caesar: So as we come to close, this is actually one thing we kind of like [00:24:00] always ask our guests is - they're really two parts of the question. But I want to answer the first part for you.
Caesar: - give you a little bit of break. But one of the parts to ask you, you know, we always like to say - and actually can edit me back - is: we talk about these notions about like we said, the moves. And what are the moves that people are doing really that are improving democracy, really doing this work. And we always this course I will what's the movie feel you've mastered?
And as I listen to you, like, you've really mastered this one of really staying clear on the primary issue. Right? The primary issue is - is really around this form of expression. That people have to be free to express themselves away they can. And we have to design for that. If we do that, we're on the right track. It seems like something you've really kind of mastered.
Wendell: My edit would be that I've not mastered it. (group laughter) I've not mastered it!
Caesar: Because that was gonna be the second question, like: where is the space? Where is the move that you feel like, I need to -I need to work on that one.
Wendell: Yeah, I've far from mastered it. because I think it's something that you just have to continuously [00:25:00] chase, only to never have caught it. I think that's a good place to be. Because times change, contexts shift and so allow yourself to be flexible.
Change is the only constant. You have to put yourself in a position to constantly be open to change. So I wouldn't - yeah, I definitely wouldn't say that I've mastered that. But I try to just be very, very, very, very mindful of it.
That's kind of how I check myself. Again, valuing that person valuing what they have to say. Even if it comes across a little. Ooh, right? Even if I feel some type of way, it's understanding that if again, it may not be personal it's not necessarily directed at me. There's so much behind that.
So yeah, I just try to keep that in the forefront of my thinking.
Caesar: That's great. Wendell, I really want to thank you for jumping in here and being with us.
Ayushi: Thank you so much.
Caesar: It's so good to know that we have someone like you out there on the front lines of democracy.
Wendell: We out here! We out here.
Caesar: Yeah, I know. It's great. It's absolutely great.
Wendell: Yeah [00:26:00] no, it's been - it's been a pleasure to be in talk to you guys. I appreciate the opportunity to do that. Thank you very much.
Ayushi: You're doing incredible work.
Wendell: Oh wow, thank you so much.
Ayushi: Keep on keeping on.
Caesar: Keep on keeping on.
Wendell: Keep fighting the good fight, right?
Caesar: You're good for another week now.
Wendell: Yeah, this is my lifeline. This is my lifeline.
Ayushi: Thank you, Wendell.
Wendell: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Caesar: Talking with Wendell was really a great way to get a solid, practice-based understanding of what design for healing is about.
You know, this is one of our core principles. And we - one of the things we know is true is that almost all of us are traumatized some point in time, by the way we've had to engage with the public at some point in time, right. And you go to these kind of public meetings and people show up in all kinds of different ways, right? And they're not working for the people who are in city governments. They are not working for the public. There's a lot of distrust and fear. And all that creates, you know, real conditions for trauma.
And the whole [00:27:00] idea of designing for healing is to really think about the fact that you may have to create the opportunities in the spaces for people to actually heal as part of their engagement in the public.
That doesn't mean that you know, every public session has to turn into a therapy session.
Caesar: Doesn't mean that. But it means that it has to recognize, right, that the public is in lots of different places and holding lots of different kinds of trauma of how they relate to each other. And if they don't have some opportunity to show up the way they are and then be guided through and supported through healomng over that kind of trauma, things will never get better.
Ayushi: The problem, I think, with the word healing is that it implies some degree of me needing healing. It implies some degree of me not already being enough or whole just as I am right now. And I think [00:28:00] that we already carry so much of our own weight, so much of our own experiences in the way that we know to be whole.
It would be so beautiful to design for just the way that we are, as opposed to implying some need of some - yeah, some need of something new. Some need of healing.
Caesar: I actually love that and I think when we talk about this notion of designing for healing, certainly don't want to communicate, you know, we don't want to communicate this idea that somehow we need other people to make us whole.
Caesar: We walk in the door whole.
Caesar: Maybe what needs to be healed is our ability to see each other, right?
Ayushi: Ooh. Yes. Yes.
Caesar: That's what - that's what the healing 9saround. That's what that space is for.
But you're really writing saying, you know, the caution is: don't think of people as coming in broken.
Caesar: Think oh them as whole the way they are as they come in. You know, that really connects a lot with what you know Wendell even said at the very beginning of the show.
About sometimes you just gotta let people be who they are.
Ayushi: Exactly. And I like that it's kind of just being able to see the other person [00:29:00] for the entirety of themselves instead of just the portion that is amenable to the work that day.
Caesar: I agree. So you got a design for healing, but in order to do that, you got to recognize the wholeness of everyone.
Ayushi: Mhmm. I love that.
Well, that's all we have for today. Thank you all so much for listening. Catch us again next week. And in the meantime, you can find us online on Facebook, Twitter and at our website. All of them are @TheMoveMIT.