Originally published by the American Planning Association 11/14/2019
Certain concepts in the planning sphere can be hard to make tangible for residents, but property taxes is not one of them. Kelwin Harris knows this reality well. As the director of outreach and engagement for the Office of the Cook County Assessor — which is responsible for valuing 1.8 million properties for tax purposes in and around Chicago — he and his team have been eagerly getting out the word that the the office, with all its political baggage, is changing. It’s committed to transparency and efficiency, including seeking better, more accurate data through SB1379, or the Data Modernization Bill, which would eventually reduce the backlog of appeals currently burdening the system.
Before he went to work for the Office of the Assessor, Kelwin worked in various capacities at the city and regional levels and in grassroots neighborhood economic development. He is a former senior outreach planner for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and prior to CMAP, he worked on Chicago’s South Side in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood as director of social services with St. Sabina Church and Catholic Charities. He held numerous roles in this community, directing programs and interventions to improve job skills, address food insecurity, combat violence, expose youth to colleges, and provide financial assistance for thousands of residents. He even served the City of Chicago as assistant to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and acting chief of human infrastructure. Many lessons he learned in his previous roles and through his previous experiences make their way into his conversation with podcast host Courtney Kashima, AICP: how communities get the development they actually want, why the South Side of Chicago is far more multifaceted than its media portrayal, and how the Wu-Tang Clan helped a young Kelwin plug in to the world beyond his window.
Courtney Kashima: Welcome to the American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the people behind the plans, showcasing the work, life, and stories of planners from all across the profession. I’m your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal at Muse Community Design, a planning and public engagement studio in Chicago, Illinois. I’m also a longtime member of the American Planning Association. Our guest today is Kelwin Harris. Kelwin is the director of outreach and engagement for the Office of the Cook County Assessor. He has worked in Chicago in various capacities including at the city and regional level and neighborhood-level economic development. Kelwin, welcome to the podcast.
Kelwin Harris: Thanks, Courtney. I’m really happy to be here.
Courtney: So help me understand the role of a planner doing outreach/engagement about property taxes.
Kelwin: Sure, sure. Well, you know, as I traveled the region with my previous job, CMAP, which is the MPO for northeastern Illinois, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. In large part, we were preparing for this large regional plan called On to 2050. I spent a three-year process in public engagement talking to residents throughout the Chicago region, and not just our county but the collar counties as well, about seven counties, almost 300 municipalities. And one of the biggest issues that they had was property taxes. Of course, it was infrastructure, housing, and land use, but it always came back to taxes and our tax system. So I was asked by the new assessor, Fritz Kaegi, who was recently elected with a mandate essentially to transform that office, to make it more transparent, to give residents of Cook County more confidence that the office was working and serving them. You know, he always has this joke that in most places and probably many of your listeners have no idea who their assessor is. In Cook County, that’s been a lot different because it’s been mired in mismanagement, patronage, all the things that Illinois is notorious for as it relates to government and politics. But as you know, the skills of a planner — and we’ll get into this in our discussion — are in demand in a number of different areas. So being able to translate the work of planning, and a lot of my roles have been in not just planning directly, and so the technical aspects of planning, but being able to translate data and the technical side into things that people really care about, you know, around the kitchen table. So when you talk about climate change, for example, that’s a part of the CMAP regional plan. That’s really nebulous to people, like what is climate change, how do we even start to think about tackling that? But if you talk to people about, you know, “Hey, does your basement flood more often then normal?” You know, people are like, “Yeah, actually, it does, you know.” And they become engaged. The same thing is true for property taxes. Now, property taxes is not nebulous to people. I mean, they very much know what’s going on, and, you know, they’re — sometimes it’s either bills go up, go down. But they need to know what is it — what is the role of an assessor. And the assessor’s role does not by itself, singularly, determine that property tax bill. And so it’s complicated, has to do with the local taxing bodies, with how many units of government there are. Here in Illinois, which is the most of any place in the country —
Courtney: We’re number one.
Kelwin: We’re number one, we’re number one in that. And that’s a problem. So, you know, working with legislators, working with our partners in economic development to create some development in certain areas that need it, where you’re seeing residential property taxes go up because the tax base of that area is just so low and so depressed. So — and also, you know, just sort of using the data tools that a planner uses, like GIS, for example. One of the innovative things that the new assessor, Fritz Kaegi, has done in his reassessment of the northern part of the county is start to use floodplain data. And that’s one thing that has never been done by an assessor. So we’re using data that’s been unprecedented to inform our assessments, and we think we’re moving in the right direction.
Courtney: So is this a — I know it’s a new position for you, is it a new position?
Kelwin: No, it’s, it’s, there — I’m actually not sure under the previous assessor, like how that was actually structured. But the current role is director of outreach and engagement. And I did inherit a really phenomenal team, about four people that have been doing outreach for a number of years. And my goal is to really, you know, harvest their skills and their talents and to continue to, to broaden our reach throughout the county.
Courtney: So it sounds like an interesting and innovative approach to connecting with tax payers around how taxes are assessed and how they’re spent. How will you measure success and how long should it take?
Kelwin: That’s a really good question. By law, it takes three years to assess Cook County. The county is divided up into “triads,” they call them. And so a lot of the information and the new data from assessments is coming from the northern triad right now. So you’re hearing feedback about what’s going on in New Trier or Evanston, for example, with the county’s reassessments. That’s because, by law, we have to start there. Well, we don’t have to start there, but that’s where we are in the cycle, right. So right now, we’re in the northern part of the county. Soon, next year, 2020, we’ll be in the south, which includes the south suburbs, again, which has been suffering tremendously from what we call regressivity. People with low housing values having high taxes; in some cases, the taxes can be just as much as the mortgage. So they, they’re really in crisis in the south suburbs, so hopefully we can provide some relief there. And by providing relief [we’re] providing fairness and making sure that it’s fair and equitable and, you know, people that are sort of plugged in or have greater access to more influence, I should say, do not get preference. Because the way our tax system works, it starts with a levy. So the local taxing bodies basically establish how much money they need to raise. It kind of goes at it backwards. Then they say, OK. And we disproportionately fund city services in — and mostly schools and education through property taxes. So like 75 percent of property taxes go to school districts — school districts and other taxing bodies. So they already establish what they need to raise, and they go out and basically divide it up amongst real estate property owners. Right? Residential and commercial. And so if you misassess or if you just sort of blatantly — like, you know, the previous administration has been accused of giving preference to one area versus another, that’s going to come out on the other end. Right? And so property taxes are going to go up for those people who did not get that break. So the goal is to make it fair. But to answer your question, how long does it take? It takes about three years, and we won’t even get around to reassessing Chicago until 2021, and that will be seen in the following tax bill. Those — that reassessment. So it does take some time. What we’re seeing is one of the biggest things that we can do right now is push for a bill that we have right now in, in Springfield, in the state of Illinois. And that’s SB1379 — what we call the Data Modernization Bill. We believe that with better data we could more accurately assess property. Right now, we have to rely on third-party sources for commercial data, like CoStar and others, that sometimes is not very accurate. So we would — you know, our goal is to make commercial property owners of a certain scale, require them to give us income and expense data so that we can better assess properties. That comes out in appeals. So when they come to us and say, hey, we’ve gotten it wrong; they want to file an appeal. They do have to disclose that data anyway. We’re asking them to give it to us upfront so that we can reduce the backlog of appeals so that we can change the culture. The culture in Cook County has been that when you get your property tax bill, it’s like a knee-jerk reaction, you’re supposed to file an appeal. You know? If you know how to do it, you’re supposed to file an appeal. And of course, you know, attorneys have made an industry off that. And you actually don’t need an attorney, but they certainly have. So what we’re telling people is that, you know, if we can get better data, we can better assess it right upfront, and over time there will be less need for appeal, like, like other cities and other, other counties.
Courtney: And so how does your work and your team’s work fit in around outreach and engagement on this topic?
Kelwin: So, again, I have a team of four people, and they have been going out essentially responding to requests for people in large part who want to know how to file appeals. So they, you know, they come ready with their appeals information because they want their taxes reduced. But our goal is to really, you know — of course, help them do that, but shift the conversation as well to, you know, let them know that it’s a, it’s a new day in the Assessor’s Office and that we are pushing through, first of all, getting better data, being as transparent as possible, more transparent than any assessor’s office has been. All our data, all of our models as to how we come up with valuations are online; they can be downloaded. So we’re giving people access and ownership of the values of their properties so that they can have confidence that it’s fair and that it’s equitable. But also, you know, letting them know that there’s somebody accessible that they can reach out to. I think for a long time — and what we’re finding in just public engagement overall — is that people, they mistrust government. They see, you know, particularly county government as being this big behemoth that, you know, is hard to crack. So making sure that, you know, we’re out there. The assessor makes it a point to personally be out there. He tries to answer every single question when he’s in a room, which gives us some very long nights when we’re out. But, you know, getting people that one-on-one personalized service. And then one of my goals is to make sure that we’re in those harder-to-reach areas. Anytime you do engagement, oftentimes you find yourself kind of preaching to the choir. These are people that, you know, regularly use your services. They know that you’re there. They call you out to their meetings, whether it be elected officials, whether it be community organizers and groups of that nature. But we know that there’s a whole universe out there of people that don’t really know that they can have access to us, that don’t know that we exist. And so — I mean, they get their property tax bill but don’t know what to do about it and don’t know that we’re available to them. So [we’re] doing that hard work and that research of digging and finding those, those communities and those areas that have less access. And maybe their local representative is less proactive or has other priorities so that we can be more more out front and more engaged.
Courtney: I may be assuming incorrectly, but I have the impression that both Fritz Kaegi and CMAP, where you worked before, are trying to make strides in, also in government efficiency. Can you talk about what’s happening there, either within the office or things you’ve been involved with regionally?
Kelwin: Well, certainly. You know, right now I would say, you know, first of all, definitely pushing for the bill, SB1379, that I mentioned, to help us get more data. That’s going to make things tremendously more efficient. And also working with our partners. I mean, there are some really good legislators out there that have put forth some great legislation to consolidate school districts. Now, you know, that’s not, not sexy. That’s pretty radical. And they’ve got an uphill battle, but we think, you know, approaching this issue from the standpoint of the levy is an interesting approach, because at the Assessor’s Office, again as I said earlier on, it’s only one aspect of what makes up that tax bill. And really should be the simplest one, which is just dividing up the pie evenly. But if you look at efficiencies, that’s essentially at the level of the local taxing bodies. And how can we work to promote that, that they’re more efficient, whether it be from, you know, cutting school administrative cost. Certainly from the standpoint of working with partners like CMAP to increase the tax base in areas like the south suburbs. Just coming from CMAP, one of the last projects that was on my desk was a project in Robbins that we’re working on to essentially work with MWRD, which is our Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, to reduce flooding there. But with the reduction of flooding, [it] creates an opportunity for development. So how can we look at TOD in these areas? And again, Robbins is one of the most economically depressed areas in our region. But we believe that places like Robbins, other areas of the south suburbs that have been hit by a rapid and devastating loss of job and deindustrialization — we believe that they can turn around, and, you know, there are some great initiatives out there. One that I know Cook County is participating in is the South Suburban Economic Growth Initiative. That’s essentially looking at, you know, working with the land banks in the south suburbs to essentially form a new entity, a development authority, that can not just work for the interest of all these — what are relatively small municipalities in the south suburbs all kind of competing for growth at the same time, but can look regionally. And so that’s essentially the role of regional planning and how that can impact a reduction in taxes and provide some relief in that area.
Courtney: Yeah, that issue is near and dear to me. Commissioner [Josina] Morita was actually a previous guest. So we got to hear about the Robbins project from MWRD’s point of view. Near and dear to me, I’m originally from Galesburg, Illinois, which in 2004 lost 1600 jobs when Maytag moved to Mexico. So those were, you know, solid, good wages, union based, middle — basically decimated the middle class in a very small town. And you mentioned earlier connecting these issues to the conversations folks are having around the kitchen table. I know, for example, my mother’s home, the value is probably one-fifth of my house in Chicago. And she pays the same amount of taxes.
Courtney: And that’s where, right, the — that’s where things come together. If you’ve lost population, if you’ve lost jobs, the pie gets split among fewer people. And it’s sort of a cycle, as I’m sure you know. And I mention that because I think planners have a special ability to see the inter-relatedness of issues. What’s been your experience with that?
Kelwin: Well, you really touched on it. And, you know, if these communities can’t generate economic development, then everyday people like your mom, you know, are gonna foot the bill. You know, you’re going to feel that burden. So working closely in a myriad of areas. I think as you know and your listeners know, planners have a tremendously broad toolbox and range of expertise, from, you know, resilience to transportation to economic development. And I think it’s just going to take every tool in the bag, you know, for, for this one, to continue to look for ways to incentivize development smartly, you know. And it’s — nothing cookie-cutter. We know that in planning. But, you know, looking locally we know that retail is drying up in a number of areas. Industry is essentially what we’ve been pushing for in the south suburbs, looking at industrial development, because these are the things that create jobs. You know, advanced manufacturing, flex spaces where small manufacturers can, can go in on a temporary basis, working on, you know, specific projects. So even things like — we’re seeing successes — obviously you see in places like Pullman; Roseland, with sports facilities being draws for areas as well. That’s one of the things we were looking at in Robbins. Actually a very prominent recently retired NBA player, Dwyane Wade, came out of Robbins. So looking at — we had not had talked with Dwyane — but looking at ways to, you know, bridge or leverage, right, the history of places like Robbins, in the south suburbs, to create some growth. So we know it’s going to take a variety of tools and partners, and also it’s going to take some developers that are able to think out of the box. You know? Often these places are not the most natural places that developers would go from a market standpoint. So, you know, looking for those kind of developers that are not solely profit driven but looking to do some innovative work that can transform neighborhoods — and see the value in that as well.
Courtney: Yeah, I’m really interested in how decisions get made and obviously the impact on our communities. And [I’m] always trying to find an outlet to let people know how things actually get done, right? There’s brokers who represent certain tenants, so that’s who they’re going to bring, and then they’re probably going to stop there, for the most part. Or, like, how big a deal traffic counts can be. And “thinking outside the box,” of course, is a popular term, but it really can make the difference between development that a community wants or needs and what they actually get.
Kelwin: Right. No, absolutely. So when you mentioned traffic counts, it made me think about the census, right, and how important that is. I mean, of course we’re in that season where we’re making sure that people actually do make themselves counted. It does make a difference when it comes to, to investment. But then also looking at Chicago overall — the history of Chicago, particularly the South Side, has been one of, you know, of course tremendous challenges, but also you know one of almost like a phoenix rising from the ashes. I mean, Chicago is one of the most resilient places I can imagine. I mean, I think and I often talk to people about — when I talk about the South Side and talk about like Bronzeville and all the amazing people that have come from Chicago, I compare it to Harlem. So Harlem has always been like the most storied place of, you know, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.” But if you look at Chicago, you know, to me it’s always been Chicago. You know, it’s always been, it’s always been the South Side. If you look at, you know, so many successful people that have emerged from entrepreneurs like, you know, John Johnson at Ebony or politicians like Harold Washington or Carol Moseley Braun. You know, Chicago has always, always fostered that and almost been an incubator for that. Now, those great successes grew up in depressed conditions, right, and a climate that was opposed to them, did not welcome them, right? But they found a way through tremendous determination. And I think, you know, that same spirit is going to, and I think continues to, drive us today. When you think about this next generation of actors that are at work here in Chicago and on the south side, you know, I think about the work that Theaster Gates is doing. I think about my college buddy who just turned MacArthur Genius, Emmanuel Pratt, with the Sweet Water Foundation, and what he’s doing with urban agriculture. This isn’t profit-driven stuff, you know? But it’s genius work, and it’s work that’s inspiring people and making people better. Amanda Williams, with her art. The list goes on and on. But I give that historic context because what we’re starting to see here today in Chicago and on the South Side with all these brilliant creative people [is] that this is a continuation of a tradition that this city has fostered for years, and planners can help in that to continue to create that environment.
Courtney: And they should. So you’re South Side Chicago born and raised. Spent a large portion of your career working in Chicago. In the spirit of the things you were just sharing, what are you most excited about and then what issues are you surprised to find still unresolved?
Kelwin: So I’m a Pollyanna when it comes to Chicago. I mean, I’m extremely optimistic about what’s going on in the city. I have not always been that way. I went away to college on the East Coast by design. I wanted to get out of Chicago. I grew up on the South Side, experienced, you know, all those things that a black kid growing up in a black community saw: gangs, the drugs, and all that kind of stuff. I mean, that’s just the reality of the city. Was not very pleased with the leadership. Ended up later on working for the mayor that I was so opposed to, which is another story. But as it relates to, you know, looking for ways to work on the inside to be a part of the solution, it took me a long time to evolve and to get to that. You know, lived on the East Coast, lived in Los Angeles for a while. I just was not in a hurry to get back to the Chicago way that I saw not working and not benefiting people in real communities. Of course, you know, the critique is always it benefits the downtown, benefits Michigan Avenue, where we’re recording right now, on the North Side. But, you know, essentially for me and what led me into planning was, I lived on the South Side, grew up on the South Side. And, you know, doing everything in school to make my mom smile and to make her happy. I got good grades and stuff and got a scholarship to a private school on the North Side in Lincoln Park. And so I tell people it was that, that bus and that train ride every day back and forth to school that really opened my eyes to the built environment and to the spatial dynamics and to socioeconomic dynamics. And I wanted to be a part of the solution. It was that and it was hip-hop music that, that gave me that window into like other parts of the country and the world. Because if you can’t travel — you know, they used to call hip-hop the CNN of the black community. I mean, I could understand what was going on in Queensbridge, the Queensbridge housing projects, you know, if I listened to Nas. Everybody is into the Wu-Tang Clan; it’s this cult group right now. But essentially if you get beyond the, you know, karate clips, you know, and the profanity sometimes, what they were essentially explaining are housing conditions in Staten Island and the Park Hill Projects. This stuff reflected me and the things that I saw outside of that bus window and outside of my window. And then, by the time I got to Lincoln Park, of course, space was different. People are walking dogs, and there’s Starbucks, and there’s a different kind of quality of life. And that sticks with you, you know? And you feel a sense of hope and aspiration that, you know, your community can achieve that, but there’s also a sense of sense of dissatisfaction, too. So to answer your question, what is it that I like about Chicago, or what is it that I, that I see? Again, I see tremendous hope. I still think Chicago is a great place to invest. But yeah, I’m concerned, because, you know, we’re losing population. For the last several years, we’ve seen a population decline, particularly compared to our peers, Boston, Los Angeles, D.C. I’m concerned that our unemployment rate in certain communities is over 30 percent — that’s astronomical — places like North Lawndale. Raj Chetty from Harvard was recently here, talked to the Metropolitan Planning Council at their lunch. One of the things that he pointed out was that Chicago is a world-class city, growing leaps and bounds — in certain neighborhoods. For some. I mean, you literally have that clear distinction, that proverbial Tale of Two Cities here. And he pointed out that it’s even more dire for African American men. Personally, you know, that is extremely alarming to me, but it mirrors those things that I saw out of my window still. So it’s discouraging the fact that these things have not changed, but I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re having these discussions now. Like, it’s OK to say the word “segregation.” Back in the ’90s, like, it would be like, “OK, Kelwin, all right. We get it, man, you’re from the ‘hood. All right. You know, this is your vantage point. Like, you know, let’s have a latte and let’s get over that.” But now, we’re really getting into the, the weeds, and we’re seeing that it’s not just — even some of the work at CMAP, writing that, the regional plan. You know, we found that we needed to be persuasive and we needed to address inequality. And when you’re looking at a seven-county region, you know, you’ve got some blue census tracts and some red census tracks, and, you know, you’ve got to find a way to make the plan palatable for people that aren’t — are uncomfortable with these kinds of conversations. But one of the things that I pushed for was to make sure that we’re bold and that we’re courageous and that we’re telling the truth now. I think we’re in an environment now where that’s OK, because we’re seeing this kind of research, you know, coming out of Harvard. You know, we’re seeing this kind of research coming out of your major think tanks all over this country. And so it’s forcing the hand right now. And not just from a social standpoint, which you would like to think would be persuasive enough, the fact that just people are suffering, let’s do something about it. But that doesn’t work. But what does work is the economic argument and to say that we as a region will be more competitive for industry, for major companies, for foreign investment, if we don’t have these areas of hypersegregation that are decaying and that are suffering. So I’m happy that that now, like, equity work, inclusive-growth work, is now a regular part of the lexicon for planners — and not just in plans, but the plans are important because they frame the discussion. So people critique planning that it’s just, you know — we just write, they sit on the shelf. But it really does frame the discussion, and people are listening now more than ever. You know, you see our new mayor has a chief equity officer now, you know. Other cities, Baltimore, you know, are pushing in that regard too. Like it’s at the front of the conversation. So, you know, for me, change will never happen fast enough, but I’m, I’m happy to see that evolution.
Courtney: Let’s talk about the importance of language, because it’s something I try to pay close attention to in my personal and professional life. You threw out the example of segregation. I think because planning happens in a political environment and we’re affecting people’s quality of life in the built environment, a lot of euphemisms pop up, a lot of vague terms. One of my favorites actually is on the fifth floor of City Hall, where I know you spent time, and there’s sort of your standard photos and historical information. And the way they describe the council wars that happened under Mayor Washington, it’s something to the effect of, “This was a period of time when reasonable people disagreed.” Which, as you know, is a gross understatement. And for me, seeing that as a, as a resident of Chicago and an amateur student of Chicago history, obviously that’s a problem, right? And so choices are made, certain people are in positions of power around the language we use …
Kelwin: No, I think that’s a really great point that you bring up, and, you know, I’ve heard that even some sociology — history books mention that, you know, in the ’30s it just sort of naturally occurred that black people conglomerated on the South Side and on the West Side. But as you said, these were intentional policies that were put in place. And that’s one things that I pushed for at CMAP, that we be just as clear about the history and the racist policies that were intentionally put in place. I mean, we know that redlining was blatantly racist. I mean, at its core, you know? And supported by the federal government. You know, these were policies that were put in place. So we need to be just as intentional about not just calling them out but also making solutions to dismantle them. Right? Because if you don’t name it — as they say, if you don’t name it, it’s not real. So anytime, you know, planners are put in that position to essentially speak truth to power and use our pulpit — and the, the beautiful thing about planners is that our pulpit is not just a four-year political cycle. But we have the opportunity to shape the discussion for generations to come. And if we don’t, the people who have their own self-interest in mind will. And we’ll keep reverting back. And so you mentioned, you know, I think off air, the word “equity” and how it’s, it’s concerning. It’s losing its meaning. I think it’s great because it does open the door to start all kinds of discussions. But, you know, it’s, it’s — I think the way leaders in cities originally defined it was around racial equity and was around, again, dismantling these racist systems that were put in place that created segregation. I think, you know — I think we have to be careful when we dilute it and when we take its potency out, because as I said, you know, this is an inflection point, it’s a critical time that we’re in. And I think, you know, as we’ve seen on the larger political scale, any success that you have or any traction that you can get around these topics, I mean, you have to strike while it’s hot. And if, if we don’t do it now and be bold about it now, it, it won’t happen, and it won’t be manifest. So that’s my concern.
Courtney: Can you share any specific things that planners can do to step into their power and embed equity into their work?
Kelwin: Well, first of all, I mean, I like the word “power,” because planners are powerful. And as we talked about earlier, I mean, planners have the ability to create the narrative for generations to come. I would say, be brave. You know, it takes, it takes courage to talk about uncomfortable issues. The good thing about planning is that there’s a large variety. So, I mean, you can focus on design. You can focus on parks. You can focus on bike lanes, you know. You don’t have to be the equity person, right, in the firm. But I believe that we all, at least the planners that I know, got into the work for the right reason, and that’s to increase quality of life, right? And so if we can work together and then bring in outside expertise. One of the things that was important to me at CMAP, particularly when you talk about dismantling systems and systems change, I mean, planners can’t do that on their own. So you need to bring in actual practitioners that are doing it and have a track record of doing it. So a really good friend became Jacky Grimshaw, for example, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, who worked for Harold Washington and was doing this work before it was called equity, right? I mean, these are people that just, you know, they’ve been on the battlefield because they just knew it was right, and probably at one point [it] was called justice, right. It was certainly called environmental justice, but it’s in the same wheelhouse. Another buddy of mine, Oboi Reed from Equiticity and formerly of Slow Roll Chicago, but, you know, he’s had a tremendous pulpit and voice around equity work as it relates to transportation. But the list, the list goes on. So as I mentioned, just making sure that we are plugged in, never writing plans in a silo or in isolation, but making sure that we’ve got the community involved and also the, the leadership in our communities and that kind of expertise at the table.
Courtney: In our work, equity is obviously paramount. It comes up a lot on this podcast. To me, some of this work is hard, but some of it’s actually quite easy, if someone decides to put their mind to it. And what I mean by that is, instead of sticking your head in the sand, throwing your hands up, and saying, “Well, you know, it’s too big of a problem,” or, “It’s not my problem,” I personally have tried to focus on on small ways to move the needle, and I’m trying to get others to do the same. So, for example, you might have an organization that is talking about equity, but then you look at their board of directors or the language people use to talk about difficult conversations in public documents. Who are people hiring as employees, as consultants? Who are you putting up on a panel? Which voices are you elevating? I imagine none of this is, you know, new to you. So that’s a recurring theme I try to share with planners that, yes, some of it’s hard, some of it’s not, like other big issues, climate change, whatever you, whatever analogy you want to use. Do you find the same to be true, and if so, are there other small moves you would encourage your colleagues to take?
Kelwin: Yeah, it’s, so — it’s difficult. So listen, we’re emerging in an era of equity, right, around the time that, I think, I naturally emerged into it. Because again, as I described sort of the arc of my life, like, these are issues that I’ve personally been grappling with and sort of looking outside of my world and seeing that reflection and wondering what can I do with it. So, you know, this happening through the course of architecture school, then planning school, and, you know, working on the South Side in community development, and working for, you know, Mayor Daley in public housing, and sort of seeing this throughout my life and not, not having — you mention the word “power” — the power to have a language for it or, you know, the ability to have a framework to have this, even have the discussion. I just knew it was this beast that I was fighting against. And so how do you fight against it? There are so many different areas and so where do you even start, you know? Is it, is it government, is it nonprofit, is it community development? Do you start your own company, like you? And a lot of times, I think, for me, the discussion around equity, inclusive growth, segregation, is not foreign, because I’ve lived it. And I live it. And I’ve seen it. It’s different if you’re not from a community where that’s been a challenge. And so that’s why I’m saying, like, the beautiful thing about planning is that it’s so broad. Like, that doesn’t necessarily have to be your thing. But if it, if it is your thing, and you do want to take it up, it does take a degree of courage, and you have to step out of your comfort zone. And it’s gonna — it’s gonna transform you. Because you’re now not just dealing with data, you know. You’re not, you’re now not just mapping or doing research, but you’re looking people in the face that may be homeless, or that may not smell so good, or their families are suffering, or they’re victims of domestic violence. When you really get into, OK, what are the plans that we’re creating? How do they really impact people on the ground? And if you really want to get at that like super-grassroots level. So I would encourage people to go in. And, you know, I always tell people — particularly like young planners that come to me — and, you know, they’re just curious about community development, you know, “I want to make an impact.” And I always just say volunteer, you know. Chicago is a very — it’s a Mayberry, right. It’s a very small town. It’s a very small town. And I think it’s unique, you know. People from like New York, for example, they come here and they’re shocked. Or I have friends, you know, they’re always asking me, like, you know, “Why do people ask you what high school you went to all the time?” Because that’s a Chicago question. It’s very parochial, it’s very, you know, neighborhood based, right? So get into one of those neighborhoods. Once you plug into one of them, you’ve plugged into this entire city because they’re all connected. They’re all interconnected. It’s this huge fabric called civic life, and, you know, once you dive in — and planners have so many skills, you know. I tell people, you know, you may not — and people often come to me, they’re like, “You know, I may not be from the certain race as that community. They’re going to feel like I’m the outsider just kind of coming in, I’m the expert with all these ideas.” I’m like, “Well, don’t go in like that,” [laughs] right? Just go in like someone who wants to help, you know? Don’t be that person at the table who’s dominating, but go in to listen and to learn and to, and to help. And I think players are often shocked by what they get what. And ultimately what you get — if he’s listening, I know he knows who he is, but had a similar experience recently in, in Robbins, which is like a 90 percent African American neighborhood. But a white planner, who’s actually a — he was a UIC student at the time. He’s, he’s now at the Metropolitan Planning Council — I’ll further I.D. him and that’s as far as I’ll go. He knows I love him. But I watched him, over the course of like an eight-month period, make that community absolutely fall in love with him. They loved him. And how did that happen? I mean, he was there for every meeting, you know. I mean, when there was eight inches of snow outside, and people in the community wouldn’t even show up. He’s there, and he lived way on the North Side somewhere. But [he was making sure that he was there all the time.] I’ve, I’ve seen that. I saw that again while I was at CMAP — a project manager in the North Lawndale project that recently won an APA Illinois award for outreach. Yeah. White planner, mostly black community. But he went in, said, “Hey, I’m all in.” I think you mentioned earlier, Courtney, just how planners are in it for the right reason, that they approach the problem with a sincere heart. And when people, when people see that, you know, it’s transformative. It goes beyond race. It goes beyond race. And it would be — the flipside is also true. Like, planners that are a cert— of a certain race also shouldn’t assume or take for granted, you know. Just because, you know, I’m black, now I’m going into Robbins, but I don’t go into it with the same amount of sincerity and passion as that white planner, they’re gonna see that too. They’re gonna see that too. And what you essentially are getting into is just the way we are formed as humans. Right? And what it boils down to is love. And I’ve heard Theaster Gates mention this. He says, you know, “Hey, I’m a real estate developer who’s led by love before profit.” And when people see that, they respond in kind. Because we’re human beings. It’s like when you touch a baby, you know. You go into a community, you’re touching something extremely valuable and precious. You’re going to get out of that what you pour into it. So these examples that I’m giving you are planners who, you know, infuse these communities with their own compassion and their own love. Right? And, you know, you’re going to respond to that and you’re gonna see — it’s a, you know, proverbial saying, but the power of one, you know? Planners, we have the ability to go into these communities. We have the license, the privilege —
Courtney: — the responsibility.
Kelwin: The responsibility, but, but, but someone has to grant that to you. So it does become a privilege. All of a sudden, you’re working on this project now. You know? You’ve gone to school, you’ve got the degrees, you put in the work, and now you’ve got the opportunity. Can we agree on “opportunity” as a word? “Opportunity.”
Kelwin: OK. All right. They have the opportunity to go into these communities and transform them. Now, you may come with, again, that bag of tools that you got. You know, I got some, I’ve got some GIS, I’ve got some, some design skills, I’ve got some outreach skills. All these skills — the skills are one thing. But ultimately you do this stuff long enough, you know, you volunteer — CMAP had a program where they had started to — I love it — embed planners into communities. I mean, sometimes what planning agencies can deploy are the planners themselves. Like, sometimes that’s just the biggest thing that you can do for a community. Give them a planner, give them a person. But you’re essentially going to find the human aspect, is what I’m getting at. And that is — it’s, it’s, it’s difficult to teach because it boils down to just, you know, some of those things that our moms taught us when we were kids. You know, just to, to be good to each other, to be real with each other, and all those golden rules. And you’re going to see you’re transforming communities and those communities are transforming you. Now, you know, back to the boards and the panels. Yeah, I get it, you know. Some of those boards have to be whiter for fundraising purposes, and I understand that, you know, because sometimes they’re just, you know, trying to keep the doors open. And I’ve been there. But certainly, I mean, that’s an area that needs to diversify. I think we need to do that all across the board. And I just think planning has gone under the radar because sometimes planning goes under the radar. But where I work now, like in Cook County, like yeah, that — we’re under hyper-scrutiny. So, you know, diversity isn’t as much an issue as it may be on some, some planning boards. And then hiring as well. You know, I’ve always had many conversations about hiring, and, you know, HR would always tell me, or leadership would tell me that we just have trouble finding, you know, planners of color.
Kelwin: Amen, amen. So, you know, I — I think we have to work on many fronts and just be intentional about it. You know? I was at a conference not long ago, and one of the speakers was saying that if you’re in a position of power, you should be intentionally making the room, making your team, you know, look the way you want it to look. And if you’re serving people in communities, particularly communities that are hard to reach and underserved — back to your word, “responsibility,” we do have a responsibility definitely to do that on the hiring end.
Courtney: Yeah, I think if there’s one takeaway from our conversation today, it’s the reminder that we’re affecting people’s lives, whether you’re, if you’re any kind of decision maker. For example, I’m curious, how long was your commute from the South Side to Lincoln Park every day to go to school?
Kelwin: [Laughs] OK. I started out like, because I was a kid, like 13. I wasn’t doing the train yet, so it was like just bus. I didn’t get around to the train until like my junior year. But so those just bus days? Yeah, it was the 44 Racine bus that I picked up on — was that 79th and Racine? — to Printer’s Row, where I transferred to the 22 Clark over to 36 Broadway, and that whole process was an hour and a half. That was an hour and a half. And I started taking the train, I took the Red Line downtown, and then cut about 30 minutes off, so it was about an hour, hour 10 minutes.
Courtney: To go to school?
Kelwin: Yep. Back and forth to school. So about like — I got a lot of homework done. Seriously [laughs], seriously. That’s what I did. And listened to the Wu-Tang Clan in my headphones.
Courtney: Well, I bring it up because it is a way to personalize the work we do. I’ve been thinking a lot recently how school quality is a transportation issue. And Kate Lowe, a professor at UIC who I respect, is on a mission to convince young planners that if they’re interested in community development, they should study transportation. So again, it sort of reinforces this inter-relatedness and sort of lifting our heads up and thinking about things a little differently.
Kelwin: It’s also a power dynamic too, right. I mean, I have to go to your community, so now that’s a social aspect too. Right. So now my friends are now in Lincoln Park, and so for like social activities, weekends, I need to make my way up there, find my way to getting back home. Because one of the things they’re not doing and their parents are not allowing them to do is come to my neighborhood. And, matter of fact, at that time, it was explicit, and particularly one friend of mine, his dad would not let him go south of the Sears Tower. This was the ’90s. Maybe he’d give him Roosevelt now, you know, since the South Loop is more, more built up.
Courtney: So for perspective, Jackson is 300 South —
Kelwin: Something like that.
Courtney: And if you were at 79th …
Kelwin: Right, right, right.
Courtney: We’re gonna do some math on the fly, but that’s cutting off —
Kelwin: Yeah, however many miles that is.
Courtney: — almost half of the city.
Kelwin: Oh, yeah. But, I mean, so that’s just, like, you know, blatant disrespect, white superiority even, privilege. You know? All that’s packed into there. But yeah, no, certainly — it was cool. I mean, look, you know, we were kids, and yeah, genuine friends. But when it came down to space and location, you know, yeah, if we’re gonna hang out, you know, it’s just implied, yeah, you know, “You’re coming up to Lakeshore Drive, right?”
Courtney: So if someone has never been to the South Side of Chicago, what do you want them to know?
Kelwin: First of all, that’s a tragedy, if someone has not been to the South Side or is not familiar with it or has been consuming or digesting a lot of the rhetoric that you hear about the South Side. You know? The South Side obviously is a euphemism for the inner city, which is obviously a euphemism for black people and brown people. You know, we know this current president has made a career off of demonizing cities with high populations of people of color. And he’s been consistently using Chicago as his pinata to beat up on. I think that, you know, our leadership here has done a good job of combating that. But it’s like anything else. I mean, if you don’t — if you just listen to the rhetoric, just listen to the lies, and don’t scratch the surface, you know, you’re going to miss a lot. And when you sort of omit the South Side, you’re omitting a huge tapestry of, you know, variety, and not just variety but also excellence. I mentioned earlier, you know, we talk a lot about Harlem, but of course Chicago, or the South Side, was essentially where, when you look at white flight here in Chicago, the South and the West Side were, you know, areas that white families jettisoned when black families were moving in from the South. You know, we call it the Great Migration. And we talk about population loss today; many are calling it almost a reverse migration, that black people are now leaving the city for — returning back to the South or returning to other parts, because of a low quality of life here. But I think when you talk about any community, particularly something as large that the South Side — I mean, many cities could fit on the South Side. You have to talk about preserving the character of it, you know, and preserving the qualities of it. We talk a lot about gentrification in planning, but making sure that as we, as it grows — and it is growing. You look at areas like Bronzeville, and Bronzeville is a community where African Americans were essentially limited to, you know, by redlining and by restrictive covenants that ultimately evolved into what became Chicago’s notorious public housing high-rises that were built in that area essentially, like, you know, east of, of the Dan Ryan. So you’ve had this high concentration of black people. But I talked to you about the culture that was created out of that, right. I mean, we had this huge development and traditions of writers, you know? Richard Wright, you know, Lorraine Hansberry came out of the South Side. Tim Black, who’s, who’s still with us, who’s an oral historian, recently wrote a book called Sacred Ground, which talks about that. And he’s giving firsthand experience of how he went to school with Nat King Cole and, you know, didn’t know he could sing. You know, he’s just like a classmate. I mean, it’s this tremendous rich heritage that continues to today. And, you know, I mentioned earlier some of the artists that are still at work, but I look at communities like Englewood, for example. Asiaha Butler, who’s down there with an organization called RAGE, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood — she’s been recognized by David Brooks of The New York Times and the Aspen Institute of, you know, just doing tremendous community organizing in an area of extreme, in many cases, poverty. Let’s talk about the first black president, you know, who spent some time working on the South Side. The South Side is a crucible for people who want to make a difference and want to be challenged, are not OK with the status quo, are OK going through struggle to get reward. And I think, you know, that’s how I look at the South Side right now. I mean, it’s gone through tremendous struggle, but I think, you know, it’s, it’s time has come. But I, I do know that the people that are there, that have invested in it for generations — and for me, it’s personal. I mean, this is, you know, these aren’t people; I’m looking at my, my grandmother who lived across the street. I grew up on a block where, you want to talk about blockbusting and white flight. I mean, my family essentially took over the whole block [laughs], because now you’ve got property. So it’s like, “OK, well, you know, Grandmother can live across the street.” Had an aunt living next to her. So I tell people, like, after school was like a family reunion every day, you know? I mean, I played with my cousins because we were all on the block. But you talked earlier about how this was by design, you know? This is not — was not by choice. It turned out to be something that was fruitful, right, and good for us. But what would it, what could it have been if we had had the same resources, opportunities, schools that were up there in Lincoln Park, you know, in my backyard. And I have my friends coming to me [laughs].
Courtney: Speaking of the rich heritage of the South Side, have you checked out Lee Bey’s new book?
Kelwin: I have not officially, and I know Lee’s listening. But I will be getting my signed copy from you eventually, buddy. Lee and I worked together in Mayor Daley’s office. So I have tremendous respect for Lee and the work that he’s doing. I follow him so closely on social media I feel like I’ve probably seen every picture in it by now. But I will be getting my copy.
Courtney: For those that don’t know, it’s a gorgeous photo documentation of the architectural gems of the South Side.
Kelwin: That’s right. But exactly. I mean, you know, just so — at so many different levels. Right? I mean, who thinks about architecture when they think about the South Side? Food, art, culture, you know? So many art galleries are popping up on the South Side. You know, it’s, it’s tremendous, but the point that I always make is that this is not new. Now we’re calling it “creatives,” and they are creative, but we’ve always had creatives. We’ve always had creatives on the South Side. And leaders in government and politics, you know, in art, in community organizing. And again, like I said, there’s no coincidence that our first, our first black president was an organizer on the South Side. That alone, just the kind of people, that kind of heritage — just the battles of the struggles, what it, what it, you know, what it produces. We call ourselves the City of Big Shoulders, you know. The shoulders didn’t just emerge big, right? I mean, they, you know, shoulders get big by lifting heavy weight. And, you know, the South Side is, is a heavy place, but also a beautiful place. And it makes it a beautiful struggle. And, you know, you come out stronger on the other end because of it. So I’m thankful, I’m grateful, for the South Side.
Courtney: I really appreciate your candor, your willingness to go from the professional to the personal, sharing your stories with us. If folks want to learn more, where would you point them?
Kelwin: Yeah, so my professional life with the Cook County Assessor — we are redesigning our website. That’s cookcountyassessor.com. My twitter handle is @kelwinsbigideas. And then I do have a blog that I update every now and then at kelwinharris.com.
Courtney: Kelwin, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Kelwin: Thank you. This was fun.
Courtney: Thanks for tuning into another episode of the American Planning Association podcast. For more information and to hear past episodes, visit planning.org/podcast. You can also subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Have an idea for a podcast? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.