Breaking the Code
by Emily Gallagher
May 23, 2018 | 1350 views | 0 0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When I went to my first North Brooklyn neighborhood meeting in 2006, I remember sitting there in deep embarrassment, wondering if I belonged there.

I thought momentarily about leaving, but I didn't know how to do so gracefully. I had come alone, and I had just established myself at a table with eight other people.

We were clustered into small groups, meant to be talking about what we wanted to see in our neighborhood. Words were thrown around like ULURP (pronounced “you-lerp,” which meant absolutely nothing to me), zoning, R-6, IBZ, exclusionary, density, air rights trade.

I had no idea what anyone was talking about.

Because we were in a small group and I was seated with a very friendly woman with long blonde hair (someone who is now a close friend in Jane Pool), I finally cleared my throat and spoke up.

"Excuse me," I said, "I don't know what any of you are talking about. I don't know what Bushwick Inlet is and I don't know any of these terms."

Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and I felt my face flush. I had come from the art world. I was not a city planner and I had no political experience. I just knew that I cared about where I lived and that, everyone was telling me, a major change had come for our neighborhood and people were concerned.

I went to the meeting to learn, but felt completely overwhelmed by all I didn't know. Jane smiled at me and grabbed my arm. "No problem honey, let me explain it to you," she said.

I was lucky to be taken in by folks like Jane Pool, Peter Gillespie, Ryan Kuonen and, especially, Ward Dennis, who took special time to educate me on all that I didn't understand and answered my questions with patience, kindness, and good examples.

They understood that the language of city planners was an exclusionary one, one that often left out activists and concerned citizens who hadn't yet learned it.

As I began to learn more and more about what these terms meant and how they were bandied about in community meetings, I started to understand something even wider. That city planning as a field, with it's own language and style, meant that it became something for those who were specially educated.

There was a baseline knowledge that you had to seek out, and if you didn't have a kind neighbor who understood it to teach it to you, it was very difficult to understand.

If you looked on a city website, for example, you were likely to find a block of text that not only did not explain concepts in plain language, but also introduced more terms or abbreviations that you didn't understand.

It was an ever-deepening chasm of misunderstanding.

If I hadn't been so young and at the beginning of my life here, I may not have taken the pains to seek out this information. Searching for information to understand a hidden system if I had had a family or a demanding job at that time would have turned me off.

Also, it's worth noting that I've had the privilege of higher education, so I was already equipped with some information that not everyone is exposed to. If I had any time or attention constraints preventing me from researching and learning, I probably would have given up.

This is a fundamental problem with our system. I would call it a flaw, but sometimes I have to wonder if it was intentionally created.

By using coded language and gated information that is not easily available, those who make decisions about our city are shrinking the pool of those that can participate in the discussion.

This problem is exacerbated by the lack of political and civic education in school. Most people don't have time to learn these languages or the motivation to do the digging.

Most people become frustrated and decide to "leave it up to the experts." Or they misunderstand a fundamental component of a planning system because no one bothered to mention or explain it, and they misunderstand the entire process and fight against what is actually in their best interest.

How dangerous this is!

I am always so impressed by those who show up and participate in civic meetings. You are on the right track and our community depends on you. But the reality is that sometimes fundamental explanation and clarification is missing, and you shouldn't be afraid to ask for it.

Unfortunately, often our emotions become so super-charged when we are discussing the future of our home, that we don't ask clarifying questions before we form an opinion.

I believe that we need many more clarifying questions embedded in all of our civic opportunities. I believe this information needs to be made more widely available and in plain language.

Jargon may make conversations easier for those in the know, but it creates sets of insiders and outsiders, which is not healthy for an active participatory government.

Currently, there are many neighborhood organizations interested in empowering and teaching residents what these terms mean, but it can be difficult to find accessible and easy information.

A quick Youtube search on ULURP gave me a bunch of land use hearings, not really a quick video of what it actually means.

Currently, I would say the only organization doing a consistent job of explaining city processes to the people is the Center for Urban Pedagogy, or CUP, which works primarily with teenagers on civic planning and creates toolkits for non-profits to use during education.

Even so, one has to seek these things out. Ideally, the background information would be made easily available. Ideally, people would take the initiative to learn it and then take advantage of the information they were given.

I am hoping to fill some of the hole of civic mis-education here in this column, since I have experience as a teacher as well as a community activist.

If there are any terms, systems or situations that you would like explained, please do let me know.

In the meantime, don't be afraid to show up and ask questions, or to ask how things work in the status quo if a change is proposed. It's not your fault that the system was created to be exclusionary.

If we don't ask for clarifications, we will never have true participation. Our neighborhood decisions shouldn't be left solely in the hands of people who speak in code.

The code should be readily broken and the information ought to be accessible to all.

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