Hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan
Where did you go for undergrad and what did you major in?
Though I was born in St. Louis, I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I'm definitely a product of that environment. Ann Arbor is a pretty affluent community--most of the town's economy revolves around the University of Michigan--and I had tremendous advantages growing up in such a supportive and nurturing place. In particular, i felt like most of the people around me really cared about people and tried to understand differences, whether they were socio-economic, racial, ethnic, or gender- or sexuality-based. I attended some great schools, and, thankfully, I had fantastic teachers who emphasized alternative perspectives, empathy, and required readings like Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States in their classes.
With their influence and my own intellectual curiosity, I went to Knox College to study history, anthropology, sociology, and international relations, eventually receiving my BA in international relations in 2008. While at Knox, I pursued courses in comparative politics, race and ethnic relations, Latin American studies, African studies, and Middle Eastern studies, which was my primary focus. In 2007, I traveled to Sana'a, Yemen to study Arabic for five weeks.
Just prior to my study abroad, I took the opportunity to travel to New Orleans with my peers during winter break of 2006 to help recovery efforts after Hurrican Katrina. One project we worked on, to leech lead from school ground soil by planting sunflowers and mustard greens, left an indelible impression. When I returned to school, I registered for a social service internship course in which I shadowed professionals at the Knox County Housing Authority and worked with kids in the Section 8 and public housing after-school programs.
That's where my work with kids originated, and I began a career in youth development and education that led me to nonprofit work back in Ann Arbor as an Americorps VISTA and later to Washington, DC as the coordinator of several after-school programs. I implemented and taught civics and healthy eating/wellness curriculums to mostly low-income elementary and middle school students in the Southwest and Southeast. My wife and I lived in DC for the better part of four years, which included another yearlong internship with an NGO--the Telos Group-- that promoted a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine amongst American evangelical Christians, who play an influential role in that conflict.
Why did you choose to attend DURP at UIUC?
Now I'm living in Urbana studying for my Master's in Urban Planning. When I applied to graduate school, half of my choices were international development programs, half were urban planning and public policy. Urban planning's interdisciplinary nature drew me in: it's a field that combines all of my academic interests and professional passions.
At the University of Illinois, and in the Department of Urban Planning specifically, I've found a supportive home. All of my peers come from unique and diverse backgrounds, but together we create an incredibly collegial atmosphere. Though we strive for excellence, no one competes at the expense of colleagues and friends. Moreover, the Department made my graduate school decision easy: cost is a huge factor to consider when selecting a graduate school program, and the Department and University were more than generous in providing me needed funds for attendance.
What are your career ambitions?
One thing I learned from my years of direct service is that change happens slowly, if at all, and although my positive connections with the kids sustained me, I grew frustrated that so many were struggling with basic necessities like finding nourishment, coping with inadequate shelter, avoiding racism and violence, and generally lacking many of the privileges I had growing up. One of my most ardent hopes for my urban planning study is to find ways of engaging communities and power brokers to press for solutions to these kinds of challenges, outside the United States no less than within it. Perhaps planning, like social work or education, sometimes entails the application of Band-Aids, but I hope, eventually, I can collaborate with communities on a larger scale to implement lasting solutions to the pervasive problems connected to poverty. As such, I envision working within the nonprofit or public sector on housing affordability issues or workforce development and social integration together with immigrant communities and advocates.