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Being Young, Black and Female: A Journey to Planning

By Sabelle Astrid Adjagboni


So, I have finally made it to a planning profession! For as long as I can remember working in the built environment has been my dream. However, as a young girl, this dream came with a lot of apprehension and concern from the adults around me. Phrases like “these are men's jobs” or “most women who try these jobs drop out” were often heard. The jobs they were referring to were professions such as architecture, engineering, and urban planning. Admittedly, all the external doubts I heard growing up had an impact as I started my study within the built environment, with the thought “can I really do this” engrained at the back of my mind. However, this was not a challenge I could back down from because whilst they were questioning whether I could do it, I was thinking if not that what else is there for me to do? Nothing else appealed to me other than doing something to influence the design and governance of cities. Therefore, despite the fear and against all odds, I started my studies in Architecture and Landscape at the University of Sheffield (a Russell group university might I add).


Undergraduate

To my pleasant surprise, the ratio of male to female was almost 50:50. However, my insecurity came from the lack of diversity in the course. I was one of four black students (all female) in the whole class which had over 100 students. They were some other BAME students, but overall, we were the minority.

My experience being part of an ethnic minority group during my studies was that even though it was not always blatant, we were treated differently. However, what that also led to was an unspoken sense of solidarity with us BAME students. I also noticed some of my white classmates recognise the discrimination and start to think about their positionality which was reflected in their projects and attempts to make them inclusive. However, not many of them (or in truth us, BAME) spoke out when we noticed someone being treated differently, maybe by fear. Some people did however later speak privately to the person who was treated unfairly to offer their support and comfort.


In terms of the dropout rate, although I don’t have a factual figure, I can say with certitude that I did not lose many classmates until I finished the course and by the end of it the number of women was still very high.


Figure 1: Section from a 3rd-year architecture and landscape project by a female student who was told she could not do it (me)


Postgraduate

Following my Architecture and Landscape degree, beyond designing buildings, the topic that interested me the most was Masterplanning and understanding the complexity in the coordination of various factors that contribute to the functioning of cities. Hence, I went on to study for a postgraduate degree in Urban Development Planning at the Development Planning Unit (DPU) of the University College of London (UCL). Now, to the opposite of my architecture and landscape degree, most of my course mates were BAME and non-British; and there were also a lot more women than men. The ethnic diversity seemed to be reflective of the whole DPU, although the male-to-female ratio was more balanced. This diversity might have been because most of the courses offered at the DPU have a lens on international planning with a focus on the global south. However, this raises a question about the interest or curiosity of white people for planning that has a focus on communities that are highly composed of BAME people.


There was an amazing synergy within the diverse group of people that made up my course that I had not experienced in my previous years of academia. There was this feeling of being on the same level playing field as everyone else that made me aware of what equality feels like. I never felt treated differently by tutors and it is not something I can say I witnessed for others either. I have inconclusively questioned why the experience was different when I was in a group with more white people. In my masters, we were all mostly from different parts of the world, yet there was no feeling of ‘cliques’ of similar nationalities or ethnicity sticking together and not socialising with the rest. We all blended and were excited to learn about each other’s experiences. This could have been down to the universal sense of unity that the Covid-19 pandemic created, the idea that we were all in this together. It could have also been because of the way the course was designed to encourage group work, but my architecture course had a lot of group projects too. Or, it could have been down to the size of the course which was probably less than a quarter of my architecture one. However, the DPU’s interdisciplinary approach meant that one was never confined to classes with people from their course alone and ended up working in much bigger groups, yet, that synergy remained.


In saying this, however, I am not trying to make it out like they were never any discords or discontentment amongst students at the DPU, or even between students and tutors but these were mostly down to individual personalities trying to work together and the challenges that the pandemic restrictions caused, over race or nationality. There was a real sense of unity where the idea that there is only one race, human, made of people with different personalities and backgrounds was prominent. If this was all due to the pandemic and having classes different to normal, then this notion should be the biggest takeaway.


First planning job

Applying for planning jobs during my master's was a daunting experience because I was all too aware of how doubly hindering my race and gender were. Most of the companies websites I was looking at had their people section dominated by white men, young and middle-aged. The few females were also white. So as much as I was thinking about the bias that these companies may have towards me, I must admit I was also thinking about how I would fit in if given the opportunity. I then became aware of my own bias fed by the desire to work in a diverse office. I guess, I just wanted a work environment where I could fit in and not worry so much in addition to my work about my appearance and mannerism. Working somewhere where my braids and frequently changing hairstyle will be acceptable, where my slightly odd accent will not be picked on, and where being a Christian and having different moral values and beliefs will not alienate me from my colleagues. I simply wanted an environment where my work and willingness to learn will matter the most. Of course, I am always happy to talk about my African roots and share my culture but only when it can feel celebrated and not discriminating. So even though I applied just about anywhere I could, I was more excited for places that were women-led or had diversity, or both, and funnily enough, these are the places I got interviews with.


Networking with people in the BAME Planners Network was pivotal in helping me find my first role in planning. As a student, I received some invaluable advice from Helen Fadipe and benefitted from mentoring sessions with Abraham Laker which really helped me feel more prepared and confident with what to expect and what might be expected of me starting in the industry. The network’s WhatsApp group was also a great tool as many resources and job listings are shared on a daily basis. Other members, like Nicole McShane, were also very helpful in providing feedback to improve my CV and giving me interview tips. Everyone in the network was very welcoming and encouraging when I first joined. It really takes a village sometimes.


Consequently, I found my first role in planning with the help of the network. It was for an Assistant Planner position at Resi, a female-led architecture, planning and tech company with a very young and diverse task force. This translated into the office culture which was very fun, fresh and dynamic. It meant that it was easy to relate with everyone as there were so many young people with different ethnicities and nationalities. This made working very enjoyable and easy.


Moving on

After a year in the private sector, I wanted to experience the other side of planning and started looking for roles within the public sector. Having built some confidence from my working experience, the idea of being in a minority group was less scary as I started to believe I could hold my own. This mental resilience was also reinforced by my interviews which were mostly done by white middle-aged men. This brought back home the reality of the gender and ethnic imbalance of the profession that I had almost forgotten at Resi, and the type of people who were in higher positions. Some councils had a woman present during the interviews even if it was led by men. When it came to Haringey, I must admit that as a young black woman, it was by far the scariest because here I was sitting across the screen from three white middle-aged men in suits! It was the interview I felt I needed to be the bravest and “rise” to the challenge. I thought “don’t let them see your age or gender, Sabelle, don’t be emotional, be positive and logical. Don’t let them see you sweat girl”. Yes, I had to give myself this quick pep talk when their serious faces came on my screen. It must have worked because I impressed them and got offered the position to be a Planning Officer. I accepted this offer above others because I thought Haringey would be a good place to work and I was feeling motivated and up to the challenge. Also, the three men who interviewed me were not so scary after all.


To my pleasant surprise, the council’s workforce has a lot of diversity. Yes, admittedly this seems to reduce the higher you go in the hierarchy but it is not non-existent. The workforce is definitely more mature than in my previous roles but there is a reasonable amount of young people. Since working, I have not felt hindered by my age and feel like I have been given enough projects and responsibilities, just like everyone else. What’s more, there are some female, and BAME planners in senior and managerial positions which I find inspiring because it means the road might be narrow, but at least it exists. It just needs more young BAME and female people to brave it and carve a wider path!


Credit: Photo by Ezekixl Akinnewu. Source: pexels.com

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