“You know what’s the [expletive] up part? Spending your whole life building a business just so some idiot can take it away. Or that you can create a legacy for your family…only to discover it’s not enough to save them. Not enough to give them a secure future. Not even enough to help them get ahead so they can pursue big dreams we could never have imagined for ourselves. Instead, it can all get bulldozed. As if we don’t exist…I’m in my hood, and I’ll stay here until I die.” (Casimiro, Gentefied, Episode 1).

As sirens sound behind him, Casimiro, the patriarch of the Morales family, stumbles out of the bar, throws a bottle at a new development, and delivers this monologue at the end of “Gentefied” episode one. In the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, and economic recession, Casimiro’s words reflect the reality of the struggles many at-risk and minority communities face on a daily basis. Reflecting upon the times, the San Diego Chapter of the Young Planners Group hosted an open discussion for these current issues, framed by the stories told in a Netflix show. Like a book club, but on Netflix, participants were encouraged to “binge” the Netflix series “Gentefied” ahead of the group discussion with two experts in the planning and public outreach fields. The discussion was meant to provide planners with public engagement tips from the perspective of the arts and local nonprofits, bolstered by case studies to drive home successful engagement methods. The discussion also explained the intent of the community coined term “Gentefication” and how planners could support Latinx residents in developing their communities in a way that upholds their needs, values, and culture.

Our first speaker was Nadia Nuñez, Community Manager of A Reason to Survive (ARTS), a National City-based nonprofit. Nadia regularly hosts engagement projects with the youth of National City in an effort to engage youth with the beautification of their city through arts-based community projects, such as murals. Nadia has a strong belief that youth and adults are more likely to stay engaged with their city when they are allowed to play a hands-on role in the development of the community.

Our second speaker was James Rojas, the founder of nonprofit Place It!. James was born and raised in Boyle Heights (the neighborhood in which “Gentefied” takes place), and has experience engaging Latino communities through hands-on, object-based demonstrations of city planning. James believes that establishing organic community relationships and soliciting the community for their perspective, both achieved through activities in which the community can best showcase their concerns, is an effective and engaging approach to planning.

For our discussion, both speakers chose to touch on the scene where Ana Morales, the artist of the family, is commissioned to paint a mural on the side of a mini-market owned by the swanky new gallery owner next door. An elderly, long time manager of the store, Ofelia, quickly finds her business being impacted as her regular customers rage against what Ana has chosen to paint: a mural of two men locked in a passionate kiss, masked as luchadors. Throughout the scene, the audience experiences the discomfort of the community, manifested through angry mini-mart customers and two “cholos” (tough, Latino men of a subculture of LA) who sit across the street from the mural and keep a watchful eye as Ana works. The most nuanced discomfort comes from Ana herself, who grapples with the joy of her first paid commission and the conflict of her role in gentrifying her own community, at the whims of an outsider with the intent on attracting business.

James emphasized how this scene shows the importance of public and private space in a community, and how land use regulations could conflict with these needs and the reflection of their identities. He noted that in his experience, finding creative ways to create a space for residents to open up and voice their needs and preferred uses of space is the first step in guiding the planning process in a way that would honor the needs of the residents. His advice for methods to engage the community includes: meeting people where they are; hosting walking tours in the community; educating the youth on the built environment and how they can articulate their own needs into the planning process; and allowing residents to use art as a tool to provide their voices and stories for inclusion in transportation plans, housing plans, etc. in a way that reflects their needs.

Nadia acknowledged the mistakes Ana and the gallery owner took in the approach to greenlighting this mural and contrasted this to back her work in National City transforming the community through youth-led murals and art-based community projects. She detailed the process by which ARTS operates, which includes partnering with local businesses and organizations to first identify the needs of the community, and then placing professionals in the role as a facilitator while the community and youth lead the planning, design, and installation of the piece. She notes the value this process has brought to the community, who find pride in their community spaces when they are involved in the process by which these spaces are built.

Finally, Nadia and James each described other impactful scenes from the show, and spoke to other methods planners can use to create more relatable and empathetic engagement in the communities in which they work. To hear more on these scenes and to hear the interactive discussion, please visit this link, to watch the recording.

We hope this event introduced a new perspective on creative ways planners can engage community members in investing in their own communities. Special thanks to our speakers, Nadia Nuñez and James Rojas, for volunteering their time and expertise to help YPG develop events that aspire to improve how planners engage and think about the communities in which we work.

This event was brought to you by San Diego YPG committee members, Julia Kuhlman, Annie Lee, Kelsey Hawkins, and Jana Schwartz.