The act of hoping in the midst of moral distress is an act of resistance. As noted by Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities: “Resistance is first of all a matter of principle and a way to live, to make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit. You hope for results, but you don’t depend on them” (2016, p.12) Easier said than done, but necessary to work through uncertainty.

This month, I had the pleasure of meeting graduating students, completing their 2-year Master’s degree in planning and development from an Ontario university. They told me about their disillusionment regarding the future of Ontario’s Greenbelt – a feeling also shared by their peers – under a provincial government that has disregarded evidence-based policy, research, and policies and practices on public consultation and the Duty to Consult First Nations. They invited me to talk to their peers and an audience of invited guests to share my experiences and thoughts about equity, diversity, and inclusion in the planning profession, and also to respond to how the students were feeling.

“Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.” (Solnit, 2016, p.4)

Sometimes I am asked to give motivational talks, and not just to planning students and educators, but to practitioners, especially those in the public sector. In these talks, I try to make sure not to give false hope, and to ground what I say in reality while also offering aspirational statements to open the audience to possible, alternative futures. However, the planning environment is one ridden with conflict, especially right now in Ontario, and I see planners in both public and private sectors experiencing frustration, not just with the system, but with each other. There is finger pointing and blaming about so-called slow decision making and approval processes, and differences in vision and opinion. Everyone is under pressure. Perhaps, my time in academia meant that I was not fully aware about the experiences of planning practitioners, and so now that I am in the world of practice full-time, I am using all my senses to be aware of planners’ experiences. Granted, my sensibilities and efforts have long focused on struggling communities and organizations. However, the threat to Ontario’s Greenbelt has invited discussion, resistance, anger, and an increase in uncertainty, among planners, advocates, First Nations, and citizens. How to reduce harm, find alternative responses to dispute and conflict resolution, nurture restorative justice practices, rather than remaining steeped in conflict? What does it mean to focus on partnerships and relationship building rather than on the purely transactional aspects of planning practice, especially, considering what I learned about the planning students is their desire for a more equitable and sustainable future? And they want jobs that enable them to pursue this path.

“To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.” (Solnit, 2016, p.4)

I spoke to the planning students about the reality of the challenges to inclusivity they face inside the planning profession. The 2021 HRx and Canadian Institute of Planners’ Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Insight Survey revealed how 7% of planners from the Boomer cohort are people of colour compared to 40% among the Gen Z cohort of planners. And how more of the younger generation of planners who self-identify as coming from equity-deserving groups (i.e., racialized, persons with disabilities, and 2SLBTQIA+) do not feel included in the profession (based on the scale used in the survey). And how the representation of women in planning drops significantly at the executive level. I then opened up to how it’s difficult to challenge norms on your own; although many of us have done so, it comes with a cost, and tough decisions to make. Building allies and collaborations makes resistance more of a possibility and fosters solidarity, community, and belonging My intention was not to raise false hope, nor to feed disillusionment, but to lay out the challenges and then to suggest actions to contribute to as small as 1% change, because that might be all the bandwidth the students have right now. And because I had to say all this in 15 minutes, I also suggested a process – own, collaborate, and encourage — to begin their process of advocating for systems of change. I summarized my points:

• Own: what you don’t know; continue to self-educate; remain informed of all perspectives; don’t give in to the trend that disregards the value and importance of facts and lived experiences; and reflect on how your values align with your goals, and with your work environments.
• Collaborate: with peers to effect change you envision, to educate the public, and uphold professional ethics.
• Encourage: self reflection; offer mutual support; and elevate partners and allies who can take action, when you cannot. Assess your individual tolerance for risk and don’t judge those who cannot absorb or challenge the norm in the ways that you might be able to. We have to each manage our own risk tolerance and support and encourage each other so that our spirits are not dampened in the process.

It was hard to know how my words were received by an audience who was physically in the same place while I was the only one being streamed in via Zoom. So, I had to rely on my somatic knowledge and self-trust, to confirm that I had actually done what I had set out to do. Happily, a text from the student organizers chirped in later that afternoon, confirming that they and their peers had received my talk and they had lots to consider as food for thought, and were eager to act (and move to Kingston to work for me! I was sorry to disappoint that I am not hiring).

“Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (Solnit, 2016, p.7)

Cultivating hope for generations that follow can be hard when it is already difficult to cultivate it for ourselves, no matter the reason. Think about how you might cultivate hope for those up-and-comer planners or students graduating from any field and regardless of their age, given the realities of moral distress that permeate. Hope is a form of resisting despair and disillusionment, to design something better, to act on something credible, and to invite the possible.

Further Reading:

HRx and Canadian Institute of Planners. October 2021. Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Insight Survey. Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP). Note: Most of the statistics noted can be found in the Executive Summary of the report, pages 5-6.

Rebecca Solnit. 2016. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. 3rd Edition. Chicago: Haymarket.

Artwork by Leela Viswanathan