|From left to right: William Thomas, III, Allen Woods and Derrick Braziel, founding partners of the business-incubator-with-a-twist MORTAR in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Source: wearemortar.com|
Links in the series:
Today I’m moving on to the next group of black urbanists nominated in my series, community activists.
This is certainly one area where mainstream urbanism differs from the persons nominated for black urbanist recognition. Mainstream urbanism tends to celebrate designers, architects, theorists, transportation specialists, and some policymakers. Activists in the list you’ll see below are typically considered civil rights or social justice activists by mainstream urbanists. But civil rights and social justice work whose aim is to create more equitable, sustainable, and safer cities — in essence, better cities — is urbanism in its own right. Here, you’ll see several individuals who challenged the status quo at hyper-local levels, and pursued change that took them to the leadership of local (or even national) movements, or elected office.
Here are the black urbanists nominated for their work in the area of community activism.
Christopher Alston (1913-1995). A dyed-in-the-wool Communist and labor organizer who joined the UAW in Detroit in the 1930s, Alston left for the South in 1936 to successfully organize black tobacco workers in Virginia. He returned to Detroit and the UAW after World War II and continued pushing for labor reforms up until his retirement in the 1960s. Alston was instrumental in the development of the Forest Park District Citizen’s Council in Detroit’s Lower East Side, which later became the Forest Park Development Corporation, and played a significant role in the construction of low-income and senior citizen developments through the 1980s.
Erma Henderson (1917-2009). Henderson’s activism began as a campaign manager for city councilman campaigns in Detroit in the 1940s and 50s. She became active in the Civil Rights Movement in Detroit, advocating for equitable treatment in the workplace and the criminal justice system. She became the first black woman elected to the Detroit City Council in 1972, serving as Council President from 1977-89. Henderson organized the Michigan Statewide Coalition Against Redlining in 1975, leading to a state law against discriminatory lending and insurance practices.
Mel King. A politician, writer, community organizer and past adjunct professor at MIT, King has had a wonderfully diverse career guided by his activism. He began his work with settlement houses in Boston’s South End in the 1950s. He organized a protest of the Boston Redevelopment Authority in 1968, after plans for a new parking garage were announced, replacing dozens of demolished homes. King served as a state representative from 1973-82, and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Boston in 1983. He served as an adjunct professor of urban studies and planning at MIT for 25 years through 1996, and opened the Mel King Institute for Community Building to serve as a clearinghouse for Boston-based community development organizations and support affordable housing and community development activities.
Teka Lark Lo. Originally from Los Angeles but now in the New York area, Lo is a poet, journalist, essayist, publisher, feminist and biking activist who advocates for greater equity in urban planning. She recently published the Queen of Inglewood, a collection of poems about life and people in LA. She is a founder of VELO Bloomfield, an organization committed to equitable transportation access and the implementation of a Complete Streets policy in Essex County, NJ.
Fannie Lewis (1926-2008). Born and raised in Memphis, Lewis moved to Cleveland in 1951 at the age of 25. She maintained a quiet life working at a dry cleaners until the Hough riots in Cleveland in 1966, which spurred her activism. She became involved in Cleveland’s Neighborhood Youth Corps and was eventually named citizen’s component director of Cleveland’s Model Cities Program by 1972. She was elected to Cleveland’s City Council in 1979. Lewis was a passionate supporter of equitable contracting, forcing the city to adopt the “Fannie Lewis Law” — a requirement that city residents would comprise at least 20 percent of the workforce on any city construction contract totalling more than $100,000. But Lewis was best known in Cleveland for her devotion to her beloved Hough neighborhood.
Ayesha McGowan. McGowan turned an interest in biking into a pursuit to become the first African American female professional cyclist. Through her website, A Quick Brown Fox, she documents her progress on the racing circuit while advocating for transportation equity and access. She’s used the biking platform to garner public appearances and outreach opportunities around the world.
Deray Mckesson. Known for his ubiquitous blue vest, Mckesson is a civil rights activist linked to the Black Lives Matter movement. His career started in education, working for Teach for America, the Baltimore Public Schools and the Minneapolis Public Schools. However, his activism has taken him to wherever gross injustice has spiked. He’s been featured prominently in protests in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, and Charleston, SC in the aftermath of tragic events.
Liz Ogbu. A self-described designer, urbanist, and social innovator, Ogbu believes in the ability of design and spatial innovation to transformed challenged communities. Ogbu maintains her own multidisciplinary design and consulting firm, Studio O, and serves as a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design and Stanford University’s d.school. Ogbu is a frequent lecturer on design’s environmental and social impact, and has been featured in a TED Talk on that topic and on her own work.
Olatunji Oboi Reed. Reed’s turn to biking for his own health improvement led to biking activism. Reed found biking to be an effective physical and mental release to a stressful corporate job, but found biking to be a dangerous activity in his South Side neighborhood. That led him to becoming a co-founder of Slow Roll Chicago in 2014, whose mission is to advocate for safe biking infrastructure throughout Chicago, and to utilize biking as an activity that bridges social, economic and racial divides in an otherwise segregated city. Reed is taking the lead in changing perceptions of biking in the black community.
Najari Smith. Smith took a similar path to biking advocacy as Reed. The Brooklyn native moved to Richmond, CA in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2010 and became the founder and executive director of Rich City Rides, which has the clear mission to “1) create opportunities for the most vulnerable members of society by using cycling to improve health, economic stability, and individual and collective capacity; 2) increase cycling among all community members; and 3) promote cycling as a social, sustainable, and green mode of transportation.” Smith’s advocacy has led to his participation on the Richmond Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee and to efforts to improve biking infrastructure throughout the Bay Area.
Derrick Braziel, William Thomas, III, and Allen Woods. Braziel, Thomas and Woods developed an activist model resting on two foundational points: 1) people of color in struggling inner city communities have excellent entrepreneurial ideas but little access to the intellectual and financial resources to implement them, and 2) the best way to avoid displacement concerns related to gentrification is to improve the financial capacity of a community’s existing residents. As a result, the three created a business incubator with a twist. They established MORTAR in Cincinnati in 2014, an organization that guides people through extensive entrepreneurship training and offers business support upon completion. The list of MORTAR alumni is impressive, but just as impressive is MORTAR’s efforts to concentrate their activity in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, an area of expanding gentrification in recent years. The program is allowing people to stay and prosper in a changing neighborhood.
Next up: local government leaders.