I met a woman at the City Council hearing about safety for people who bike yesterday that told me she went to a meeting of urbanists once and didn’t get a word in edgewise in a room full of men.

I heard from a man the other night that said he didn’t feel comfortable posting in the main online forum that exists in Seattle because he felt that if he veered at all off the main message that he might get called racist for being a single-family homeowner that doesn’t want complete un-zoning of his community and he didn’t want people who are his coworkers “to see him being called racist publicly online”.

I heard last week from a successful woman who feels tokenized in photographs when she is with other urbanists. “See, we have a person of color at this event!” she heard someone say.

And on Twitter, I recently spoke to a stranger for a while who lives in Seattle who is a well known writer, and she told me I need to write about the experiences of women feeling unwelcome in pro-density spaces…that it is a very real thing and it is hurting policy that will move us toward becoming a more welcoming city.

And the main thing I have felt is that any anger people feel about climate change or housing injustice gets directed inward at anyone who might see things a little differently.

There are folks who don’t think there’s time to stop to find out why a person thinks a little differently or make space for different narratives or the role someone’s current job might impact their ability to speak out about a certain topic. (I’m guilty of that last one.)

I was told yesterday I needed to do more to encourage women to speak out on in an online forum dominated by housing policy wonkery and to bring different people to the table to discuss urbanism—as someone that is a woman and was born in Colombia, I have the ability to bring people to the table. Why do I want to bring people to the table and (metaphorically) serve them bad food and have them feel like they are invisible in the room?

I have asked most of the women I’ve met in the last few months to share their thoughts in public forums. Most, if they are familiar with these spaces, have said politely “no, thanks. I don’t have time to be ‘mansplained’ to all day.”

And the folks who are women of color I’ve spoken to have basically said that urbanism is so white as a movement they don’t see their narratives reflected in the discussions happening not an understanding that different communities experience power structures in different ways. Displacement looks different to different people. “Housing” and “affordable housing” mean different things to different people.

The lack of room for nuance and for a variety of flavors of urbanism is excluding people from the conversation.

It isn’t just about a space that feels safe for people, a space for them to not be attacked but a space that allows people to speak without everyone trying to get the last word.

I want pro-density, forward-thinking spaces that accommodate people’s feelings and emotions to be respected. Some people think that those online spaces are less authentic and call it “tone policing”.

We want people to get involved on- and off-line and ask ourselves: Why aren’t there more women here at this event? Why are there rarely people from communities of color? And then when I’ve tried to explain why I’m told—well, we aren’t going to make everyone happy with our message—without any sense that this is the attitude that makes people feel unwelcome.

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Laura Loe (Bernstein) is an educator, musician, and gardener from Colombia/NY/LA/Chicago who has lived in Seattle since 2009. Her writing has appeared in The Urbanist, The Seattle Globalist, South Seattle Emerald, and International Examiner. She was elected to the Sierra Club's Seattle Group in 2016 and chairs their housing work group. She is passionate about womxn urbanist voices, climate justice, community ownership, equitable community development and renters' rights. Laura organizes independently to form ad-hoc collaborations with like-minded folks and performs civic matchmaking that leads to unlikely allyships. Yes in Our Backyards #YIOBY // Tweets as @yimbysea. She was recently referred to by a neighborhood activist as Seattle's "Worst Urbanist Propagandist".

10 COMMENTS

  1. If getting more people becomes more important than the message or mission, you run the risk of the organization becoming meaningless, which is what has happened with my own locality’s urbanist group (AURA). Devolving too far into social justice and inclusion has led to a message so watered down that I don’t think the group is worth supporting anymore.

    • Yeah but at the same time you can’t be 95% Young White Dudes and expect the message to be heard and received well. It’s not going to spread the message IMO and people are going to discount what that group says or find the message more frustrating then it needs to be.

      A message needs supporters or else what do you have?

      • Sure. Be welcoming. Try to find ways that the message can be attractive to more demographics. But expanding for the sake of expansion is stupid; you forget what it was you originally intended to accomplish.

        • Isn’t the message stronger if it’s been vetted by a more diverse group, regardless of whether it’s changed from its original formulation? Shouldn’t the mere idea of inclusivity be part of urbanism?

          • Sometimes yes, sometimes no. You can compromise a message into meaninglessness by trying to appeal to too broad a coalition.

            Urbanism by its very nature is inclusive (providing more opportunities for people to live and work). It does not mean it has to be inclusive of every political theory, though. That’s where this inevitably falls down as people try to compromise rent control with increased supply, etc.

          • Was the article talking about political theory, though, or simply about women or minorities who feel left out of the urbanism movement? Urbanism will fail if only white guys are espousing its advantages.

          • I haven’t seen a particular problem with outreach to women yet, but some of our local self-appointed minority leaders pursue their own agendae under the guise of ‘helping urbanists relate’ to the communities they supposedly represent, and these efforts are a disaster to the actual ends of urbanism.

  2. What’s frustrating to this white male: At least if you assume the currently typical social arrangements, urbanism has more to offer to people other than white males. Women still, on the whole, have busier daily schedules and more responsibility for children and household work. Women would benefit from cities where more stores and services are closer to homes, requiring less driving/travel time. On the whole, people of color have lower car ownership rates than whites, better transit would benefit them.
    Perhaps at least part of the problem is the contemporary American model of urbanism, one that is almost purely market driven. It might be a caricature to say that it’s shiny, high rent/price new apartment buildings with young people (disproportionately male) on bicyclists zipping between them, but I think that’s a lot of what people see. If there was a model of urbanism with housing that’s affordable to all income levels, with quality transit (not just bike lanes) with good schools and parks, a model that acknowledged the needs of people over 30 (as well as people under 30) that might be more appealing to a wider range of people. A tall order to be sure.

      • No, it’s just imprecise writing, as I realized afterward. I’ve edited it a bit in an effort to preclude the impression that I’m speaking Truth from on high.

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