Earlier this year, I applied for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. The fellowship encourages “applications from a wide range of practitioners whose work focuses on improving the built and natural environment… people of exceptional skill who design, plan, preserve, and critique the places where we live, work, and play”.
According to the Loeb Fellowship website:
“The program is for people in mid-career, with a minimum of 5-10 years of experience in the field. We seek professionals who have leadership ability and who show the potential to take their capacities to higher levels. The opportunities presented by the Fellowship work best for those experienced enough to ask the hard questions, but with plenty of time left to make an impact.”
If that doesn’t describe me, I don’t know what does.
I learned about the fellowship opportunity from Joe Minicozzi, a former city planner turned consultant who specializes in “Data-Driven Storytelling” through his firm, Urban3. I met Mr. Minicozzi in 2016 at the National Alliance of Preservation Commissions conference in Mobile, Alabama. He was the conference’s keynote speaker and had the audience riveted by his explanation of just how flawed local tax systems are. He showed us how often, local tax policies promote the wasteful consumption of land for things such as big-box stores while giving little consideration to the huge economic benefits of recycling downtown buildings and creating pedestrian-friendly communities. To this day, I still can’t believe that I sat through a one-hour lecture on local tax assessments and not only ‘got it’, but wasn’t bored to tears. I waited in line for quite some time with all the other conference groupies to meet him. I tried to say something brilliant in the 15 seconds I had before the line moved along. What I intended as brilliance came out as almost a plea for him to speak to the community where I worked as a city planner at the time.
That evening, as I headed to join my colleagues at a restaurant, I was plotting the dazzling email I would send to Mr. Minicozzi and was having visions of him speaking on stage in my town. How the citizens would love to hear his message, I thought! The active and engaged citizens of my town were never shy to challenge our elected officials, which often made my job a lot easier. Having their support was critical to accomplishing so many objectives. I knew if they had this information, they would be better informed and would demand excellence in decisions related to new projects.
As luck and serendipity would have it, I walked by the restaurant’s bar and saw Mr. Minicozzi sitting there having dinner with his friend. I immediately charged over and thanked him once again for his talk and invited him to spend time with the “Florida Delegate” when he was done with dinner. I pointed over to my group of approximately 15, having a great old time in our corner of the restaurant. To my surprise, about half an hour later, he and his friend joined our group and some of the most interesting conversations ensued. We all talked about the different communities we were fighting for and strategies for bringing positive change to the places we loved so much. By the time he said goodnight to our group, I knew I had made a new friend.
Several months after meeting Joe, I accomplished my goal of having him speak in my town. As I hoped, some of the most active citizens attended the lecture. These were the people I adored – the ones who were never afraid to challenge the direction and decisions of our local government if they felt things were going off-track. I could tell by the questions posed during Q&A how excited and pumped these citizens were to learn this information.
As our friendship developed, Joe spoke with me about the Loeb Fellowship and he wholeheartedly encouraged me to apply. He had been a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and therefore had a lot of interaction with the Loeb Fellows that were there at that time. I immediately set about researching past and present fellows and learned that a former colleague of mine, Ian Lockwood, had been a fellow in the program (2011-2012). He and I had worked at the same urban planning firm almost 15 years before, but I was in an entry-level position and was pretty certain he would not remember me. Still, I reached out, and before long we forged a wonderful friendship as well. Ian is someone I deeply respect for his pioneering work in transportation planning. You have to love someone who has the vision to be actively involved in highway removal when the usual consensus is to build more lanes in response to traffic congestion (see the photos below for one of the projects he has been involved in). After several one-on-one meetings and extensive tours through my town, Ian also wholeheartedly encouraged me to apply for the fellowship when I felt ready.
In 2017, I had the exciting opportunity to participate in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Leadership Training (PLT) program, held that year at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. For a week, I worked with other historic preservation practitioners, stakeholders, and citizens to envision the future of the recently created Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Being passionate about the protection and promotion of minority resources, it was a wonderful experience for me. Our Capstone project facilitator was Brent Leggs, a Loeb Fellow (2010-2011). He helped guide our group through the training and I quickly developed a respect for his work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Later that year, I was not surprised to hear the announcement at the Trust’s annual conference that Brent had been chosen to lead the newly created African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. When I was at PLT, Brent had asked what my future goals were. I told him of my interest in pursuing the fellowship one day and the biggest smile spread across his face. He told me what an amazing experience it had been for him, and wished me the best of luck.
In late 2018, I felt the time was right to apply for the fellowship. I was being encouraged by the most amazing people, all who had firsthand experience with the program. I approached friend and town planner Victor Dover and asked if he would submit a letter of support. He, too, thought I would be perfect for the fellowship and wrote a glowing letter of recommendation on my behalf. By this point, I felt deep in my core that I was destined to get into the program. I threw all of my emotion, thoughts, and hopes into the fellowship application and felt AMAZING when I sent it off. I was already strategizing how I would deal with the New England winter and envisioning weekend visits with my little sister, who lives only 20 minutes away from Cambridge.
So….how devastated do you think I was when I wasn’t chosen for the fellowship?
Strangely, not as disappointed as you would think. Sure, there was the initial disappointment, which hit me pretty hard for a day or two. I’m a very analytical and inwardly reflective person, so I had to consider that disappointment. I realized that it all boiled down to a feeling of being rejected, which no one finds pleasant or enjoyable. Once I got past that, I reflected on the experience further and realized that I took away from it EXACTLY what the fellowship program is about – and I didn’t have to leave my home, my dog, or my love for a 9-month immersion at Harvard to figure it out.
As I mentioned earlier, the program is for people in mid-career, who have leadership ability and who show the potential to take their capacities to higher levels. The fellowship supports those selected to figure out the next steps of their career, so they could make a greater impact on the world. The application asks simple questions but requires them to be answered within 200-400 words. Have you ever tried to do something like that? Sum up your 20-year career in 200-400 words? It’s very difficult and makes you think deeply and consider each word you choose.
My favorite application question: “What are the issues in your field that most concern you and that intersect with your work?”
This question for me was so easy to answer. I couldn’t stop typing and spent hours revising my answer to get it down to the 200-400 word requirement when my initial answer was at least 4,000 words!
You see, for years I have been frustrated that practitioners in my field are not getting their message out on a national scale. Most of what we do as planners, preservationists, educators, etc. is done for the benefit of those who are already interested. For this reason, we spend so much time communicating amongst ourselves that we are missing the most important thing, right in front of us – our citizens who are not yet engaged. Imagine if every single citizen knew their voice mattered and knew how to get involved to demand excellence – imagine what our society would look like. Imagine if those sitting an hour or more to and from work in traffic understood the planning decisions that actually led to that traffic? Imagine if the terrified pedestrian walking along a tiny sidewalk next to a major roadway knew the experience of safer design? Imagine if kids knew the joy of a small taste of freedom walking a few blocks to and from school. What would that experience make in the development of their individual identity, rather than getting on a school bus, bleary-eyed and tired, having to endure stop after mindless stop before making it to their destination? My list of “imagines” is endless. How is it that the homebuilding industry, worth billions of dollars, has mastered the ability to spread their message through HGTV and social media while we haven’t even created a hint of a presence on those platforms? They have created generations of weekend warriors, flippers, and investors, while we are still sitting here trying to make progress doing the same things we did 20, 30, and 40 years ago.
I have been so frustrated that people who are passionate about the built and natural environment have not figured out a way to get “the masses” on their side. The fellowship application made me even more aware of how much this issue is a major rub for me. Anyone – and I don’t care who you are, but anyone – can make their voice heard and demand excellence. Once enough of our voices join each other, it will drown out the awful mindset that we have been conditioned by. Those collective voices demanding excellence will silence the sentiment of “leadership” that “It’s the way we do it, and it’s the way we have always done it”, “Stay in your own lane”, “Leave it to the professionals”, and all the other “expert” feedback I have heard over the years. Our citizens are the ones who are most impacted daily by poor planning or lack of planning. If they are the people most impacted, shouldn’t they have the loudest voices? Why don’t they? Because they don’t know the first thing about how to make an impact when it comes to these massive, overwhelming, societal issues. And why don’t they know the first thing about how to make a difference? Because we haven’t done a good job of educating them, and that’s OUR fault.
So shame on me for being frustrated at my profession. That’s why I’m not disappointed that I didn’t get accepted for the Harvard Loeb Fellowship. The exercise was to take stock of where I have been as a professional and where I want to go. The answer is now clear. I want to devote this next phase of my career to helping people outside of my profession understand how they can change the world in which they live. I want to empower citizens to demand excellence from the leadership in their communities. I want taxpayers to enjoy the benefits of their labor and to experience a higher quality of life, more joy, and more peace. I want them to be engaged and excited, not bored and intimidated by getting involved.
Thank you, Harvard. My future is clear.
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