News | Greetings from East LA: High School and University Students Team Up for A Lesson on the Power of Participatory Planning

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by Dan Lamere, USC, Masters of Urban Planning 2021

What tactics can planners use to better engage and build trust with the communities in which they serve? How can planners work to help people formulate solutions to challenges within their communities? How can young people become more civically engaged to have more of a say in how their communities are shaped?


From 2016 to 2020, USC Price student interns have had the opportunity to team up with Public Matters, a Los Angeles-based creative studio for civic engagement, on a project called Greetings from East LA, to begin to understand answers to these questions.


Greetings from East LA (GELA) is an art, design, urban planning and community journalism project with students at East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy (ELARA) at Esteban E. Torres High School, one of just three high schools in the entire United States that focuses on urban planning and design. The project was intended to encourage Renaissance students to learn about pertinent public policy topics in their community, to foster interactions between Renaissance students and professionals in the planning and policy fields, and to create a pathway program from ELARA to the USC Price School of Public Policy.


Over the years, Public Matters, USC Price interns, and Renaissance students have worked with the LA County Department of Regional Planning, the LA County Department of Public Works, the LA County Chief Sustainability Office, and the Office of Supervisor Hilda Solis, among other public agencies and officials. Project topics have ranged from multimodal and active transportation in East LA, to LA County’s focus on pedestrian safety through their Vision Zero Action Plan, to the US Census and its impacts in the project’s most recent and final term through the Spring 2020 semester.


Through final projects and presentations, Renaissance students have produced college-level work, and more importantly, have formulated their own solutions to public policy challenges. With a newly improved knowledge of planning concepts and systemic issues, Renaissance students emerge from the GELA project equipped with the skills and resources to put their ideas into action, and to help raise awareness and make change in their school and in the wider community.


Mike Blockstein, Principal of Public Matters, described the impact that he hopes the project has had on the Renaissance students: “It’s well known how youth and young people, particularly those from communities of color, are not just disenfranchised from the civic process, but have little faith in it. When nobody asks you what you think or why, it can lead one to think that nobody cares. So, the project is also an introduction to what we hope is lifelong civic participation. A key to all this is that everyone is working together and sharing. It’s not a one-way dialogue or even a situation of ‘here’s our class project, what do you think?’ Students, interns, professionals are working together.”


USC Price students have also benefited greatly from this program and have left with a better understanding of how important and powerful participatory planning can be. It is one thing to learn about planning theory and practice in the classroom, but the GELA program allows USC students to share and apply first-hand what they have learned at Price with the Renaissance high schoolers.


Students from East Los Angeles Renaissance Academy discuss important policy topics that impact their community


A crucial part of this learning process for the college interns is in discovering how to inspire the high schoolers how to take action, or maybe even convincing students why they ought to care about policy issues in their communities and how to create their own action plans. GELA is less about empowering the students, since they likely already care about their communities, and more so about helping them to realize that they do have their own voices and that their roles in their neighborhoods are incredibly important. This process of engaging students as stakeholders is a valuable learning experience for interns who are studying to become policymakers and planners since they will need to be able to communicate and work with community members to implement successful projects.


“Many [Renaissance students] identified problematic areas in their community where transportation infrastructure was unsafe or deteriorating, while others pointed out significant cultural places that might inform future improvement projects and bike share installations. This semester-long project sharpened my commitment to inclusive planning and community advocacy,” shared Lilly Nie, a USC Price Urban Planning student and a former GELA intern.


Other interns have an even more personal connection to the project: Christine Vazquez, a USC Price Urban Planning undergraduate student, is a graduate of ELARA herself. Christine reflected, “My favorite part about this project was working with my community that I was raised in. I have always wanted to improve my community and wanted more for it, and being part of this project has allowed me to see things from a different perspective. With this project, I have learned how to appreciate different aspects that make up East LA. I appreciate the culture, its history, and its sense of unity in my community. During my time with Public Matters, I have learned so much about my community’s history and how it helped shape East LA. I enjoyed learning and teaching these concepts to the high school students.”


The GELA project has fostered connections between USC Price and ELARA, allowing dozens of Renaissance students to learn more about the public institutions and processes that shape their communities, and to discover whether their passions lie within the realm of public policy. The project also allowed Price interns to play a role in civic engagement done right, by equipping the high school community members with the tools they needed to begin to drive change in their neighborhoods.  


This partnership between Public Matters, the USC Price School, and the East LA Renaissance Academy has proved to be an effective collaborative effort in developing creative, well-informed, community-based projects, and has almost certainly inspired Renaissance students to follow in Christine’s footsteps and pursue a career in public policy or urban planning.


Read more about the Greetings from East LA (GELA) project here.


About the Author:

Dan Lamere is a second-year Master of Urban Planning student at the USC Price School of Public Policy. He works as a staff writer and project coordinator for the METRANS student team.