Just Sustainability

Joining the Team: A Community-Centered Vision for Urban Planning

After nearly a decade of political organizing across the nation and Massachusetts, I left the campaign world in 2016 to attain my Masters in Public Policy from Northeastern University. I swore I was done with electoral politics. Yet on the evening of September 4th, 2018 as I waited for our volunteers to report election night results across the 7th Congressional District, I was moments away from being part of the team that would elect Ayanna Pressley as the first woman of color to the Massachusetts Congressional delegation. And while I wasn’t sure what would come next, I knew I wanted to continue to work with Wilnelia Rivera, the strategist and movement leader behind that historic campaign. Luckily, now I get to do so.

My name is Jon Hillman, and I’m extremely fortunate to join the Rivera Consulting Inc. team as a Senior Associate Consultant focused on urban planning and social science research projects that help advance the firm’s mission to boldly and fiercely reimagine the American social contract.  In my time working with Wilnelia on the Ayanna Pressley campaign, I knew I had found someone who shared my passion for never blindly accepting the status quo. As we discussed my possible role with the firm, we quickly aligned in applying this ethos to all matters of democracy, social science and urban and community planning. Like Wilnelia, I came to this research after years of progressive organizing. And we both see the necessity to instill values of just sustainability, inclusivity, and equity at a time when there is an economic, democratic, and environmental urgency for movement professionals that understand and know how to navigate the intersection of people, planning, and politics

Though only a few weeks into the job, we have hit the ground running as we begin our collaborative client engagement with the Urban Land Institute of Boston/New England (ULI). For more than 15 years, ULI Boston has been partnering with communities to advise on strategies and best practices for land use and economic development. We will be assessing ULI Boston’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP), a long-running endeavor that organizes urban design professionals who volunteer their time to partner with communities to address specific questions of community land use and urban planning. With over 40 TAPs in the last twenty years, our goal is to measure the impact of these engagements or whether intended outcomes were achieved. By employing a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to explain success, we will by necessity have to define what impact means. And in keeping with the TAP ethos and our firm’s approach, a collaborative effort is needed to design and implement an assessment tool and research overall.

We have begun a deep dive into understanding the TAP policy toolkit, and look forward to engaging with their municipal partners over the coming months. As part of the discovery phase, we recently attended a TAP in action, as volunteers studied the assets and opportunities for the Centre St. corridor in the Boston neighborhood of West Roxbury. Needless to say, I am thrilled to be a part of this team and to implement and explore data driven solutions centered on community, trust building, and improving cross sector collaboration. Stay tuned for key updates from us about our work with ULI, their stakeholders, including real estate and planning professionals, in addition to various municipalities across Massachusetts.

What Does it Mean to be a Movement Building Professional?

Tufts University, UEP commencement Keynote Speech, Founder of Rivera Consulting Inc., UEP Class of 2014 , Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Tufts University, UEP commencement Keynote Speech, Founder of Rivera Consulting Inc., UEP Class of 2014 , Sunday, May 19th, 2019

Good Afternoon, Graduates, Loved Ones, and members of the Tufts Community: Today is a day of celebration.  Today is a day of reflection.

It a celebration of your commencement and I invite you to be part of my reflection about what it means to be practical visionary and change agent. I consider myself to be on the transition team; those of us that understand that we are simultaneously living in today’s world as we know it and the one that is emerging. We also believe that this transition is one that should be just and sustainable.

Not one that wraps itself in nostalgia of yesteryear. For those of you unfamiliar, a practical visionary, are urban planners and civic leaders, who are motivated to solve complex social problems in aspirations and tactical ways. Change agents, on the other hand, are individuals who are capable of turning strategy into reality. Let's be honest, urban planners and civic leaders are mostly practical visionaries.

Yet the world as we know it and the one that is emerging has created a new legitimacy for the change agent role.In today’s world and the one emerging, the ability to combine both is the difference between business as usual and rewriting the rules that will allow social justice and sustainability to become central pillars for how we manage the public commons - whether that’s at home or abroad.

In the emerging world, impact must be measurable, cross-discipline, and cross-sector.

If it's to be just…

It must be centered on those whose labor - paid and unpaid - fueled the economic engine that created the world as we know it. It is their neighborhoods, their livelihoods, and their identities that are 1 to 2 degrees away from no longer existing. I say their but these neighborhoods are the very places that saw my parents fall in and out of love, where my wife and her family fled the remnants of a bloody Civil War, the forgotten pockets of America that raised us both, and where our families live today. These truth shape me. And your truths should shape you.

That is why instead of choosing one lane or one career, I defied all my mentors, peers, and even my own village. Today I encourage you to follow suit. You see, I made choices seen by some as risky, but in the end were critical because it defied the very expectations that too often leave us with results that nobody wants.

Instead of joining the executive director shuffle that afflicts the non-profit sector, I joined state government. Instead of making it a lifetime pathway, I became an urban planner, hiding in the comfort of my specialty knowledge and my political pragmatism. I was comfortable. Then Election Day, Tuesday, November 8th, 2016 took place. I could not sit on the sidelines. I decided then that I would finally embrace becoming a practical visionary and change agent -  what I like to call a movement building professional.

Then two years later on  Election Day, Tuesday, September 4th, 2018, a diverse coalition of voters defied conventional logic and elected the first Black woman to the US Congress in the history of our state.  

We showed that the impossible can be possible and that this only happens at the intersection of people/ planning/ and politics. We showed that when we lead with love / and the full diversity of who we are as a country and in this case the Greater Boston community, that we can reimagine the politics of what's possible.  And most important make it a reality!

This for me is the hallmark of being a movement professional is the commitment to build leaders, movements, and organizations that execute the work every day. That’s what guides me every day.  As you embark on your professional and personal journeys, I want to share with you a set of lessons that can help you navigate today’s world and the one that’s emerging.

Whether it's the criminal justice reform, transportation, education equity, or climate preparedness - the sustainability of the public commons is about the art of political decision making.

To ignore this, is the difference between success and failure. Do embrace that failure is an option and the only way you learn how to flip the playbook. Whether its a boss, a friend, or a mentor, do not do what others expect of you. Do exactly what your mind-heart-spirit whispers to you when no else is watching or listening. Do the work that does not make the headlines: be relational, be detailed oriented, and inspire those around you too dig deeper.  All of us carry our hopes and fears with us everyday. Yet we ignore how they become barriers and biases that get in the way of our work. Do the work that it takes to build trust, be vulnerable, and have courage. Without these three, the change you seek is not attainable. We get to make a living from making social change, but we also get to go home at the end of the day.  Do invest in the capacity for others to lead and for them to sustain the work themselves.

The biggest lesson of all. People and Politics set the rules of engagement for us in the world of planning. And these rules are being rewritten as I speak.  A reality that you must navigate to move your work, and most importantly, solutions forward. Our mission as movement professionals, is the rugged pursuit of shared common good; therefore the challenge from me, to all of you is the following:

As a hearty New Englander bear with me on this one. Lighthouses in many ways are a relic of our past. But in today’s world and the one emerging, I need all of you to become the lighthouse, a beacon of light that never fades on our shores. Not in the dark days that history is casting upon us today or in the distant light of tomorrow’s emerging world. My hope for all graduates today is that you dedicate yourselves to making the Commonwealth, America, and the world, a place where have a stake in doing good for each other.

Join me in making the commitment to be part of this transition team with me.

PS. For updates from our team at Rivera Consulting, Inc. and our clients please visit our in The News Page and our Deep Democracy page.