Dare to Dream

Jan 23, 2009   //   by PlanSmart NJ   //   Speaks Out Blog  //  Comments Off on Dare to Dream

It was fitting that the first African-American President was sworn into office during the week in which we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Both men dared to dream of a better future, and worked hard to bring about the changes that would make that dream come true.

The Martin Luther King Day holiday, however, has lost Dr. King’s focus on change. Instead, people are encouraged to use it as a day of service, to help clean up an abandoned lot, for example, or serve in a soup kitchen. Important as these actions are to the individuals involved, it does nothing to help them “keep their eyes on the prize” of changing the structures that created these conditions in the first place.

PlanSmart NJ’s mission is structural change. Our work is focused on reforming New Jersey’s broken land use decision-making system: it is fragmented, costly and completely incapable of producing the future that we want and need.

We have our eye on the prize: Land Use Reform in New Jersey: Improving Conditions on the Ground describes new planning tools and strategies. If applied, these tools could integrate government actions across the boundaries of separate agencies and across the distance between regional goals and local actions. They bridge these distances with and unify public purpose with a set of planning metrics, with performance targets that makes every agency of government accountable to meet.

Dry as changing the land use decision-making system may sound, PlanSmart NJ sees it as a glittering prize indeed. Fixing this system, built up over the last hundred years, could mean transforming the future prospects for hundreds of communities.

For it is New Jersey’s broken land use system that has pushed jobs away from public transit; made housing unaffordable to most people. It has eroded our economic base and created rigid patterns of racial and economic segregation.

In New Jersey, if you are white and poor, you are likely to live in mixed-income communities, with access to good schools, safe neighborhoods and good jobs. If you are black and poor, on the other hand, you are likely to live entirely surrounded by poverty, in places where many schools are failing and jobs continue to be lost.

According to a study commissioned in 2003 by PlanSmart NJ and others in the New Jersey Regional Coalition, New Jersey is the 5th most segregated state in the country. Surely this does not measure up to Dr. King’s dream.

The changes necessary to see our dream fulfilled go far beyond changing a few policies. They will require a paradigm shift away from the thinking that created today’s conditions over the course of a century. For this reason, President Obama’s words this week resonate with us, “[Our challenges] will not be met easily or in a short span of time.”

For Martin Luther King Day, then, we challenge all to dare to dream, for it is the power of your dream that will fuel your commitment and sustain you over the long haul.

To meet our own challenge, PlanSmart NJ commits to educating people on the shocking disparities among communities across regions. We will strive to make visible the connections between us that are palpable, but invisible within our Home Rule structure. In addition, we commit to making the concept of regional equity a pillar of land use planning. Regional equity is the concept that a region can act together to reduce the disparities among its communities and improve everyone’s access to opportunities within it.

We will challenge anyone who wants to frame public issues as “us” versus “them.” And we will ignore anyone who dismisses our dreams with “that will never happen!” or that is “too difficult to do.”

We challenge all to question, think through, find out, plan actions, and celebrate success. And dare to dream, using Martin Luther King Day to remember it each year. As the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead is often quoted as saying:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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