Transformative Love & Conditions of the Concrete: A Reflection on the Martin/Zimmerman Verdict

From the violence experienced by youth, to the imbedded racial discrimination experienced by people of color in the trial court system, to the obsession of the construction of whiteness around Zimmerman who in the end killed a young innocent man—there are so many powers at play in this case, and so many things to say. But I want to focus on what themes have been springing out from the dreadful case that are connecting to the work I seek to do with my own experience as a planner in training, but also as a woman of color deeply involved and in youth organizing, environmental and restorative justice, and community. The Missing Link of Transformative Love

Some of the people that I look to when working as a planner and as a community member are my sisters and guides whose wisdom I access through books: the radical feminists of color, in particular Professor of English and activist bell hooks who posted a response. In her acclaimed book, All About Love, hooks writes:

“The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety… The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.

White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor…. This is what the worship of death looks like.”

This excerpt alone could have been a response to the Trayvon Martin case outcome where hooks describes how youth, particularly young men of color, are seen as a threat. Unlawful and devoid of humanity through their criminalization, young men of color are then subject to the racialized systemic violence and discrimination due to deeply ingrained societal racism. She also links the environment in which we live, the social and concrete ecosystem of place and space that make up the violence and the social understanding of what it means to be black and dangerous.

Her response to this phenomenon is that of transformative love, how the power of love can transform communities, socially and physically. Some people look at the matter of love as something of a subjective nature, something that is not objective. Similarly, some might underestimate this blog piece and deem it as a mere social science theory. But as a planner, I have to look at its application in the real world. Transformative love to me is not as theoretical as it seems; in fact, it can only be reached through simple and practical applications such as engaging in real conversations with each other.

The reason Trayvon Martin died is because we, as a society, do not communicate. We need to invest in one another. One group’s equality must be invested in another group in order for us to move forward to better cities, better schools and a better environment. I believe our society can no longer afford to leave some groups struggling, while others enjoy economic, social and physical protection. As hooks explains in her last sentences, justice itself is wrapped up in the love of human dignity. I think this is something that we have lost as the Trayvon Martin Case/Zimmerman acquittal becomes more and debated and sensationalized.

Trayvon’s life may have been like any other urban kid’s experience. Surrounded by poverty and stricken by lack of opportunity, young people like Trayvon Martin are harassed and need to defend themselves. These conditions often result in the murder of such young men. Trayvon Martin’s murder is the loss of a life, but it is also the loss of an opportunity for the entire world to see what young people like Trayvon can offer. What worldly perspectives, what deep insight on poverty, resilience, love, dedication, problem-solving and ingenuity can the strong and creative minds of our youth offer? And, most importantly, at what rate and at what cost are we losing them, especially our youth of color?

Roses from Concrete: What Makes Up the Concrete

Another idea that has been circulating the blogosphere and social media outlets has been that of Brooklyn-based black feminist scholar and activist Syreeta McFadden: “Only in America can a young black boy have to go to trial for his own death.” Not only can a black boy go to trial after his death, but it is only after he dies that his life is recognized as a life—or that his life can make it to the big screen. From Rodney King to Oscar Grant—America is familiar to stories like these. However, what about other deaths in our neighborhoods, the deaths of the urban poor?

I ask these questions because it is clear that black and brown bodies are not only unsafe in white spaces, but that the very spaces where poor people of color have grown up and that they have sustained are terrorized with hyper police-reinforcement, low health outcomes, and very little opportunity for educational success. These questions are part of the death sentence killing youth of color and they are also part of the work that comes with the privilege to plan cities. However, these are also the questions that have very little room in planning classrooms or in commission meetings.

Lastly, let us not mistake the murder of Trayvon Martin as an act of an individual; rather it was an entire system that killed Trayvon. As many of us mourn this loss, I think of the families of fallen heroes, of these roses from concrete. However, this cannot paralyze us. Let us honor the lives of these young people by actively creating avenues for transformational love that can change the way cities function and the way historically marginalized people live. Let us create new planning approaches, so that their environments and life outcomes can match the dignity of their lives.

Mar Vélez is a master’s student in both the Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. She is currently interning with the Pacific Institute and working along side Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) in Oakland on issues of health, gentrification, gang injunctions and popular education methods for participatory planning strategies for sustainable communities. Yes, all these things are related. She can explain how if you reach her at

Planning for Equity and Racial Tolerance: Reflections from a White Planner on the Zimmerman Verdict

Last week, six jurors acquitted George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, in the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. This sad moment in our nation’s history reveals how racial biases and fears map onto our communities and built environment, a lesson every planner ought to consider. This verdict challenges all of us to ask what biases and privileges do we carry in the work that we do. How do the ways in which we plan our communities either enforce or challenge assumptions of who belongs and who does not?

It seems clear that what can be called casual racism had a significant role in this case. What made Zimmerman think Martin (and the several other African American men he reported to the police) didn’t belong? What assumptions made at least one juror think these suspicions were justified? Why would the police at the scene test the dead black teenager for drugs, but not his killer? Would each of these people have responded differently if Martin had been white? I can’t help but think that the answer is at least “probably” if not “yes.”

These questions have also made me consider how racial bias and white privilege has played out in my own life, and in the work that I do as a planner. I grew up in a mostly white, upper-middle class suburb in California, partly in a townhouse development that looked not too different from Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Martin was staying and where he was killed. While overt racism was not tolerated, subtle biases were rampant. The town rejected new public transit investments and tore down one of the few affordable housing options (a trailer park) to replace it with condos in order to keep low-income people out. I remember being told as a kid that I had to do better in school, or else we would move to East Oakland. At a young age, I learned that white people and white places were at the top of a certain hierarchy, and that others did not belong. I imagine Zimmerman was acting based on similar assumptions.

The research on implicit bias has shown that nearly all of us carry racial assumptions, oftentimes at a subconscious level that we don’t realize or want to admit to. But the consequences of these biases are real and can be deadly, particularly against black men and boys like Martin who are stereotyped in our society as dangerous.

Planning tools are not neutral – they interact with these implicit biases and racial stereotypes, more often than not to keep low-income, African American, and other communities of color separate and unequal from white communities. Single-use zoning and efforts to stop affordable housing developments have been used to keep low-income families (and oftentimes people of color) out of neighborhoods. Non-white renters and home buyers still face well-documented discrimination by both real estate agents and lenders when looking for a home. People of color are shown less home options, and poorer quality options, than their white counterparts. And they are much more likely to end up with a subprime loan, even when they qualified for better terms.

The discrimination may no longer be codified in deeds, but the impacts are clearly visible. Schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago, with African American and Latino students overwhelmingly attending low-performing schools in high poverty neighborhoods. But the way I learned this as a kid was that bad students (of color) from East Oakland went to bad schools, as if somehow the students themselves were to blame.

As planners – and especially white planners from the ‘burbs like me – we need to recognize our own implicit biases and think critically about how these assumptions may play out in our work. We need to speak up on issues of equity and inclusion in our cities and towns. We need to recognize when coded racial language is being used (like claims that affordable housing will increase crime rates, or calls for more local control) and engage city staff, electeds, and residents in constructive conversations about race, privilege, and community planning. We need to conduct equity analyses of city plans and policies to identify any negative impacts on low-income communities and communities of color, and ensure these impacts are addressed proactively.

We also need to address these issues at the structural level, creating policies that support inclusion and racial equity. Recent initiatives to promote regional planning, like Sustainable Communities, can help create more integrated and diverse communities that begin to unravel the stereotypes and create better opportunities. We need to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and provide education and workforce training tied to career opportunities so that all residents can succeed, regardless of where they live. And we need to recognize that demographics in this nation are shifting rapidly, with people of color already the majority in many states and regions. Our suburbs in particular are becoming more diverse, and we need to put strong community development infrastructure in place to support them.

We owe it to Trayvon Martin and countless others to create more equitable communities that promote racial tolerance, not feed into racial fears. For many of us, that work has to begin with an honest look inward at our own biases and assumptions.

Chris Schildt, MCP ’12, is a program associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity, based in Oakland. She conducts research on equitable economic growth strategies, including best practices for advancing equity in job creation, entrepreneurship, and workforce development. She can be reached at