The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house (Audre Lorde). So, with what practices, what education, what imagination, will we build a different city? Alicia Ajayi, Emma Osore, and Sophonie Milande Joseph are members of the BlackSpace Urbanist collective, a national group manifesting radical futures in the built environment and honoring Black presence in public space. As part of our New City Critics fellowship, they have come together as the in-between writing collab: a circle of Black urbanists curious about the world around them and passionate about articulating a more inspired future for Black people. Pointing towards that future, the collab began by looking back, finding inspiration in the histories of Black liberation in Haiti: the homeland of many friends and colleagues. But where urbanists commonly come bearing outside solutions to problems of urban development in Haiti, the collab sought to learn from those already working on the ground in the spaces of the Black diaspora. They listened closely to the experiences of five urbanists in New York City and Port-au-Prince who have been navigating the shifting terrain that the collab has come to call the in-between. Below, they reflect on those conversations, which may resonate with readers who find themselves inhabiting similar spaces — navigating multiple identities, homes, and professional cultures — and searching for authentic and creative practices bringing better futures by and for Black people.
“Should I be thinking about this through the lens of a Haitian-American urbanist thinking about Haitian urbanism, or is it about how I approach urbanism as a Haitian-American, or like the urbanism context in Haiti, or is it some sort of mixture of that?”
– Daphne Lundi
Daphne Lundi, an urban planner who works for the City of New York, was born and has lived for most of her life in Flatbush, Brooklyn, an ethnic enclave which has one of the oldest and largest concentrations of Haitians in the United States. She hails from the coastal city of Jérémie by way of her mother. Daphne is one of five women of Haitian descent we chatted with about their connection to their homelands, childhood, and creative practices, as well as their thoughts on the professional fields of urbanism, gaining a wide-ranging glimpse of their experiences as practitioners of the diaspora.
As both a Haitian and an American, Daphne navigates between multiple national identities, homes, and professional cultures. This constant shifting surfaced across all our conversations and struck a profound chord with each of us — three US-born Black women writers working in the arts, design, community planning, and architecture industries in New York City, only a generation removed from our familial homelands in Haiti, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Those of us who identify as Black and urbanist often look to our past to contextualize our present and imagine new futures. Inspired by the people of Haiti and their absolute “fuck you” spatial liberation tactics, fighting against transatlantic slavery and foreign occupation in the globe-changing rebellion of 1791, we explore the present-day efforts of five urbanists of Haitian descent to learn how they shape space and society. While our interviewees self-identified as Black and of Haitian descent, Blackness alone doesn’t fully capture multifaceted Haitian identities, nor does Haitian identity fully encompass the Black experience. However, recognizing important histories and lived experiences close to our own, their personal stories brought us insight into possible futures for Black-led approaches to urbanism.
Kindred kiki sessions quickly turned into deep reflections on the push and pull of existing in the in-between. This is what we have come to call the overarching feeling that many Black urbanists experience pivoting between and negotiating multiple demanding forces in their practice. W.E.B. Du Bois’ binary concept of “double consciousness” or “twoness” begins to put in words the conflict that Black Americans experience staying true to their cultural norms while also being asked to conform to a dominant White society. Building on the experience of twoness, the in-between acknowledges how Black urbanists straddle multiple countries of origin, fields of practice, real and imagined memories, family legacies, conflicting educational trainings, and professional experiences. All five urbanists we talked to have attended or worked in prestigious academic institutions, city governments, organizations, and private firms, and achieved incredible accolades. These badges constitute what we typically call “expertise,” but rarely capture what actually qualifies them to address the social and spatial needs of Black liberation, including the creative use of resources, trust-building, and joy.
“I don’t have clear memories of Haiti from my childhood, but I have these flashes. So, when I go back as an adult, I remember the church we used to go to, but I need someone else to tell me where the church is and how it was so and so’s wedding. So, they’re more like imaginary memories. But I still feel like it’s home for me. And I mean, I’ve made it home too. . .”
– Sophonie Milande Joseph
Sophonie Milande Joseph grew up in urban South Florida and suburban New Jersey. By the time she headed off to college at Rutgers University, she had lived in and visited Haiti many times with her family. The many homes she personally inhabited, as well as the real and imagined places of her family, shaped her view of the world. Defining “home” within and outside of Haiti, or in between reality and myth, became central to Sophonie’s construction of her identity and urbanist practice.
Whether they were born in Haiti, like Christine and Isabelle, or in the United States, everyone we spoke with unveiled a desire to “return home.” With her family, “visibly Black, rural farmers from Haiti’s northern region,” Sophonie experienced “what it’s like to be very poor, and for people to treat you badly.” When she returned to Haiti as a community planning researcher, Sophonie realized her identities as Haitian, American, and foreign national complicated her practice and limited her versions of “home.” She acknowledges with some trepidation that as an American of Haitian ancestry she could utilize her “education, American passport, and being trilingual, which gave me perceived power” in Haiti. “Even though I didn’t have the money or the last name, there are other ways that I had power, and it was about coming to an understanding of ‘how do I leverage that power strategically, like making connections between people.’” So, she founded a firm, SMJ, to practice planning in a way that was responsive to and reflective of the needs and interests of community members, whether they were foreign nationals or homeland Haitians.
Navigating the in-between, you may be labeled as an outsider from the very home to which you are trying to return. Isabelle Alice Jolicoeur and Christine Laraque are co-founders of the architecture firm Ateliers Co-Lab. Though they grew up in Haiti, since they returned to Port-au-Prince from studying in foreign universities, they are sometimes regarded as “returnee outsiders” by others in their own homeland. The duo suspect that this label might have to do with the history of “outside meddling” by international donors, clients, and even Haitian diaspora members in local community development.
Haitian governments, funding institutions, and NGOs often fail to leverage Haitian professionals’ and firms’ local knowledge and professional expertise. Funding often goes to foreign-led multinational firms and charitable organizations. Sophonie has witnessed this model of development perpetuate the status quo and lead to scandalous results, as when the Red Cross raised a half a billion dollars for post-earthquake redevelopment in 2011, and then built just six homes in five years.
Sophonie advocates for the distribution of development resources within the local economy. She now refuses invitations to projects happening in Haiti when she knows there are comparable and senior planning professionals based there who have local knowledge and can do the job better. She instead recommends Haiti-based firms like Christine and Isabelle’s for the job or encourages outsiders to partner with local colleagues. As opportunities arise because of her proximity to perceived power (like the option to write this article about Haiti) she chooses to make clear her position as a listener and not representative.
Christine and Isabelle reflect that their own foreign training and experiences were “tainted by savior syndrome.” As young professionals, they felt “we got to fix everything.” However, Christine and Isabelle acknowledge that there is a “difference in the motivated, sincere, knowledgeable Haitian diaspora that wants to impact Haiti — that does important work through associations and academia.” They eventually shifted their approach and now they plug into and support existing local organizations. Working alongside Haitians, they practice mutual technical skill-sharing instead of deferring to a traditional professional-to-client relationship. Their relationship to their homeland and practices is still evolving, and they continue to grapple with difficulties like identifying aid that helps and aid that hurts — contributing to the weight and complexity of the in-between, their new home.
Neither Tara Duvivier nor Daphne visited mainland Haiti until adulthood. They were both born and raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and grew up with deep connections to Haitian markets, politics, and stories. Tara is a planner at the Pratt Center for Community Development, focused on creating safeholds for immigrant communities in New York City. Growing up, she remembers informal daycare and hand-me-down housing systems organized by relatives for Haitian kids and newly arrived families in the neighborhood — with Haitian news radio as a constant backdrop.
Tara also builds upon imagined memories to stay connected: “There are a few Instagram accounts, particularly ones showing historical images of Haiti from times when my parents were alive, and I can see what Haiti looked like then.” Tara “returns” to mainland Haiti primarily through her parents’ stories of home. She grapples with how “the Haiti that they remember doesn’t exist anymore.” She desires to hold a connection to their memory of the physical place and to “have that understanding of what it was.” Tara’s “home” includes both the future and past.
“I started to open my eyes and see what was really happening around me: the challenges that I was experiencing as a young person trying to live this New York life . . . but also seeing and meeting people from different walks of life and trying to understand their journeys and challenges, and how incredibly unfair it is to live in a city where historically your people have built it but you get no benefit from it.”
– Tara Duvivier
Tara’s “real” education didn’t happen until after she completed her studies in engineering and planning, trying to make it as an adult in New York City. Many Black people trained in built environment professions feel like their education lacked relevance. Looking back at her graduate studies in urban planning, Daphne notes how the curriculum focused on “pathologizing Blackness in cities.” “It feels like you can go through a whole school curriculum and not really have the opportunity to think about ways that urban planning can be embodied or experienced.” In high school, Daphne read W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler, writers who conjured stories “where Black people were literally centering ourselves and our narratives in cities.” Fiction and sociology “most shaped my understanding of cities or how I thought about cities.” These voices are often taught in English class at predominantly Black schools, but they’re overwhelmingly left out of urbanist canons. In planning school, “it’s oftentimes people coming from a suburban context, that might be the first time that they’re grappling with these big city questions.” Daphne recalls: “It felt like there were few places that privileged or acknowledged the expertise I already had, being somebody that grew up in a city.”
Professional training systems often exclude considerations of identity, like Blackness, in order to establish and promote an ostensibly objective “truth.” Some Black practitioners circumvent the “truth” that is upheld by universities and licensure boards through extracurricular research. They find and rely on their own “truth,” collected through their lived experience.
Learning how to build trust in communities you may or may not be a part of is a hidden but critical competency for any community development processes. When Sophonie worked at a planning and development firm in Haiti founded by a Haitian woman, she learned the power of a more humanistic approach than that espoused by her formal education in the US. The firm’s principal would take on the time-consuming task of writing thank you notes to her professional colleagues and clients every year. In her childhood, Sophonie also witnessed the ladies in her Haitian church writing thank you notes. She now writes personalized notes herself when interacting with local partners, deepening customs she admires from Black spaces and also leveraging an effective method of community building.
“I use more things my mom or the Black church taught me about how to interact with community members than I do what I learned in class and some of that pisses me off. Why did I go to school for so long? We have our own Black ways of interacting with each other, but it’s trained out of us, or it’s not valued for us to know and practice. Now as an adult, I see the value of the Black church as an institution . . . they’re already doing community planning. They’re just calling it something else or not calling it that at all.”
– Sophonie Milande Joseph
The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) license doesn’t require competence in Black and marginalized peoples’ planning history. Acknowledging the work of “aunties” or elders heralded in our communities for their place-based transformation efforts is a great place to substantively bring Black urbanist history into whitewashed Western curriculums. Haitian-American Mother Lange, who founded schools in Baltimore before there was free public education for Black children, may provide lessons in faith-based community development. The story of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, known as the “founder of Chicago,” might expand or complicate our understanding of American “settler” urbanism, given his position as Black, immigrant, and “settler” on indigenous lands. Or consider Jean Michel Basquiat: understanding his visual art as a commentary on the suppression of public life in 1970s and ’80s New York City might suggest approaches to critique cities beyond the written word.
When urbanists ignore or bury these practices and practitioners, or seek to improve communities without knowing their histories, we continue the active harm of our professions. Access to AICP credentials, jobs, authority, and opportunities for more significant impact comes at a high price: Black practitioners might participate in methods proven to inflict violence on our communities. The limited knowledge of Black community development methods in urbanist education can perpetuate practices used against us: redlining, urban renewal, or exclusionary “creative class” development policies that exist to target Black communities. The formal education for Black urbanists still seems to be, rather unproductively, how to operate the very machines used against our people. So, to create a path to an authentic practice of community development, many Black urbanists seek out multiple knowledge sets.
“We are free by natural right. It could only be kings . . . who dare claim the right to reduce into servitude men made like them and whom nature has made free.”
– Toussaint Louverture
Community development is a communal and futurist practice; a world-building practice. For Black urbanists, this aligns with the practices of many effective Black-led systems towards land sovereignty and freedom. Black urbanists have always addressed Black and marginalized communities’ needs and desires. We’ve not waited for urbanism to change to resist the stifling effects of our fields. Urbanists of Haitian descent — with a sense of home, what they know to be true, and expansive imaginations — have made their own practices within the in-between. This resistance is not only for survival, but for collective and self-actualization. The feedback loop between urbanist innovations, the Black experience, and built environment influence is a powerful force that Black urbanists can tap into to create better futures by and for Black people.
Daphne’s creative sewing practice is integral to her navigating the in-between. Sewing deeply informs her worldview, and urbanism informs her sewing. She says, “When I’m not working in my primary job function, I stitch together different parts of myself — literally and figuratively — with flavors of my urbanism training.” She takes inspiration, for example, from following her mother around the old Flatbush Caton Market in the 90s. She created a mixed media exhibition examining the economic and cultural values of 99 cent stores to New Yorkers. Daphne set it in a stylized replica of a 99 cent store utilizing custom fashion pieces, collages, risograph prints, and GIS mapping, and “pieced” together a three-dimensional heat map of layered cut out shapes to represent the geographic spread of dollar stores in the city using unconventional “fabric” from dollar store placemats.
By day, Tara’s community-based planning work has included non-profit affordable housing creation, land use analysis, and community engagement. She monitors the effects of development and displacement patterns on nightlife and culture, especially for those who “basically made New York what it is.” For Tara, it’s people of color and immigrant groups who “were here when no one else was, they were investing themselves in this city when no one else was.”
By night, DJ Tara collaborates with local groups to host parties in order to raise money to center community and culture. She works to build communities, replicating the collective economic practices she saw from her earliest days in Little Haiti. Like her relatives who provided newly arrived family members with a place to stay while they established themselves, Tara sustains Black and immigrant spaces like the annual Makossa Cookout in Brooklyn. Tara DJs for events that typically raise funds to keep events like this going, helping to secure important cultural spaces, even if only for a night. “I amplify other people’s events that are in that spirit of supporting people of color creatives in New York City . . . I like them to feel like house parties, to feel like family events.”
Tara’s clarion call is one urbanists should heed, as the significant loss of Black and Brown cultural contributions could cost New York not only its place as a global cultural epicenter, but also the individual cultural contributions of New Yorkers of Haitian descent, like Leyla McCalla, Wyclef Jean, and Daphne. So, Tara has also been identifying and cultivating a community of DJs, producers, media makers, and other creatives who are circling around the same themes of displacement and lack of resources to create networks of community events.
These endeavors are joyful, generative, and effectively challenge urbanist worldviews, but this creative community development is a practice of substantial labor, performed in addition to toggling multiple homes, languages, institutions, urbanist jobs, and community service roles. These Black urbanists’ outputs are expressions of desire: their vision made plain through an original artistic work to be shared with others. However, the urbanists we spoke with make the necessary and relevant community development work of the profession, outside of their paid urbanism roles, at night, on the weekends, and in the in-between.
“To the halfies, hyphens, and in-betweeners, searching their past for answers and finding only a mirror.”
– Dr. Mitsy Anne Chanel-Blot
The in-between emphasizes the “and” experience shared by Black urbanists: the feeling of practicing urbanism as a trained colonizer and also a community healer, or upholding rigid state regulations and developing a freedom practice, or obtaining highly credentialed degrees and leveraging the wisdom of community members like teachers, the kids on the stoop, librarians, or small business owners.
The in-between is never quite natural but is constantly negotiated in a society that denies full acceptance of Black practitioners. Having given a name to this practice, what comes next? By acknowledging the existence of the in-between, might we seek to expand its definition and impact for our peers and communities? Or, by naming it, are we deepening our complicity in a system that forces us to work in this liminal space? Is a more liberated future for Black people even possible when navigating the in-between seems like a necessary act of reclamation just to survive? Or maybe it is an emergent space that offers inspiration for a more liberated urbanism field. While our experiences and education encourage new creative practices, the desire to be Black and an urbanist can feel at odds, becoming the subtext of our everyday work by necessity and not necessarily by desire.
Daphne Lundi is not only a technically-trained urban planner, but also a researcher, educator, visual artist, and sewer, a practice passed down from her mother. She has worked in climate policy, like advocating for more trees to counter the heat island effect in Black and socio-economically marginalized communities. She is also the co-founder of Laudi CoLab, an interdisciplinary joyful liberatory practice, highlighting undervalued community resources by mixing data analysis into soulful exhibitions that include storytelling and multimedia art.
Sophonie Milande Joseph is a member of the in-between writing collab, and works with NYC public housing residents to advocate for better conditions in their buildings as well as designing Black homeownership initiatives at TakeRoot Justice. She explores Black life primarily through photography and long walks in her Harlem neighborhood while teaching community planning methods within the Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment at Pratt Institute.
Isabelle Alice Jolicoeur and Christine Laraque are Port-au-Prince-based architects and designers and are active members of “SinceEve,” a Caribbean women’s collective focused on digital art practice. They are co-founders of Ateliers Co-Lab. Focusing on process rather than style, their firm bridges practice, teaching, and writing.
Tara Duvivier facilitates community-based planning initiatives at the Pratt Center for Community Development while moonlighting as DJ Tara. Inspired by a long history of Black women participating in hip-hop spaces to foster community, she continues the tradition of contributing to NYC nightlife, one of New York’s major commodities, while bringing attention to the investment and divestment in the same POC communities that help build NYC.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.