March / April 2007
William M. Harris, Sr. is Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is former professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Jackson State University. A graduate of Howard University (Bachelor of Science in physics) and the University of Washington (Master’s and Doctorate in urban planning), Professor Harris teaches classes in planning theory and professional ethics. His research interests focus upon the areas of inner city African American economic development and citizen empowerment. He has taught at the University of Washington, Portland State University, the University of Virginia, Virginia State University, Cornell University, and Jackson State University. He is author of four books and numerous scholarly articles. The first African American elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners, Professor Harris is a past member of the AICP Ethics Committee, the ACSP Membership Committee, and an advocate for the rights and opportunities of African Americans. He has traveled and lectured throughout the world. His hobbies are gardening and spectator-basketball/football.
During a recent luncheon meeting with a distinguished faculty colleague (everybody in this environment claims such classification), I was asked what were the motivations for my research at MIT. Three factors serve to stimulate and guide my work. As an academic and professional planner, I am committed during my lifetime to participating in the primary (first order of magnitude) challenge to this nation in the twenty-first century…rebuilding our urban core cities. Another factor is a dedication to giving attention and effort to those most needing and deserving competent intervention in our socioeconomic system…oppressed African Americans who live in the inner cities and rural areas of the nation. Lastly, I am driven to take the courage to confront the barriers and behaviors that limit the full development of people who lack the human and tactical resources to compete favorably in a complex, often hostile environment – the only reliable measure of success gauged by the witness of those most negatively affected.
There are two immediate avenues available that lend themselves to scholars involved in problem solving that is designed to improve the quality of life for people and the ecological environment. The high-risk road that is less traveled, one of the options, is to exercise direct involvement in change movements as an advocate for social and economic justice. This street-fighting approach is often too intense, dangerous, and non-tenure producing for most scholars. The other option is to teach, persuade, and influence the development of policies, devices, and individual and group behaviors to bring about purposeful change. Throughout my career, I have engaged both with varying degrees of success.
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Coming to MIT is a welcomed opportunity. The Department of Urban Studies and Planning is the nation’s highest ranked and possesses much of the profession’s academic leadership. My twin brother [Wesley L. Harris, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics] is a senior faculty member of the Institute and we share much appreciated time in reflection and catching up. Interacting with students in Simmons Hall, graduate planning students in class and research discussions, and extending involvement to other area universities are most productive. Equally, having the occasion to both observe and participate in decisions and activities driven by race and fairness challenges has been instructive. All these forces are useful in my research.
As an MLK Visiting Professor, I am convinced that participation in the MIT community is an obligation.
That participatory effort may be characterized in three paramount contexts. The most critical context is that of researcher-teacher. The MLK scholar must be aggressive in discovery efforts that result in value-added answers to questions of nature. Wherever possible, these investigative efforts should involve students who will expand their knowledge base and learn to work with people who are frequently different in color, culture, and commitment than themselves. Lastly, the research and teaching enterprises must be measurable. Some form of publication, peer-level recognition or student assessment is required.
A second context is articulating the Martin Luther King, Jr. principles of advocacy for social justice. In a less than perfect world, less than an ideal institutional setting, and less than fully individual ethical behaviors, the MLK visitor must give voice and action to observed wrongs. To engage scholarship under the banner of Martin Luther King, Jr. without intervention to correct injustice is to be a pimp unworthy of presence among intelligent, caring people. Speaking the truth to the often uncomfortable, indecisive leadership is the best of Martin’s Dream. To challenge the status quo and demand fairness as a practice beyond statements of principles is the duty of every Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting Professor. If I were to fail to be a drum major in making at least an effort to bring about purposeful change in the application of fairness principles at MIT, Martin would hold me in low esteem.
Of course, the third context is the individual work upon which so much of the selection process for MLK visitors is determinant. A simply wonderful part of my effort is currently co-teaching a graduate course related to brownfield revitalization. Working with a seasoned colleague and interacting with eager to engage students is highly productive and satisfying. In addition, the findings of the class may actually make a positive difference in the human and ecological environments. Already it is clear to me that teaching at MIT is an excellent way to learn.
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The best scholar is an observer who is thorough and intense. The thoroughness is measured as a function of comprehensive factors that may be shown to have relationships. The intensity is a measure of the motivation, sustained effort, and stubbornness to achieve a goal. Wishing to write about an important issue, daring to go beyond current limits set by publishers and misleading scholars and constructing something of value to those most oppressed in society, I am writing a provocative book dedicated to African American community development. The important issue is racism, not race. White scholars rarely even mention racism in scholarly literature these days (The words white racism have been used less than a dozen times in the past 20 years in the Journal of the American Planning Association.); these scholars do, however, on occasion, speak of race as a concern for matters related to public policy or private action. In this same vane, I insist that my work has utility for those outside the academy as well as within. For those who take the courage and expend the effort to challenge wrongs toward making our environment more just, my book is designed for their use.
Now, the book. The presentation is an historical overview, case analysis, and prescription for African American self-induced and sustained efforts to improve their quality of life. The approach is outside the proposals of the past four decades that offer black social, economic, and political advancement only through the intense involvement of white America. First such an approach is not historically accurate for African Americans. During periods of post slavery until post World War II, blacks were primarily self-reliant for environmental advancement. With the coming of desegregation, the “Jackie Robinson effect” took place in the black community.
Whites realized that an effective means of limiting competition and expanding their market from and among blacks, programs of selective inclusion were necessary. Thus African Americans were permitted to participate in businesses at the lowest levels, attend previously segregated schools (all levels) in very small numbers, and engage in policy making at trivial levels to satisfy an appetite for fairness.
The resultant effort was the death of black-owned businesses (the former Negro Baseball Leagues), within-school segregation (destruction of Community Control Movements), and gerrymandered electoral politics.
It is this set of conditions that motivate my writing. My findings levy the responsibility for our race enhancement to us. I prescribe that it is solely the members of the black community who must set the goals for future community action. Similarly, once directions are agreed upon and set, outsiders must be employed to work under the direction of the community members. This criterion is necessary to maximize community control of the improvement processes and increase efficiency of operations consistent with community stated goals. Volunteers will not be permitted. Volunteers are too often fickle; they are self-directed and participate only at their pleasure and leisure. Technical assistance will be defined, monitored, and revised by the community. The community having set the goals for community development, it must be the community that evaluates and modifies the outcomes resulting from efforts to improve the quality of life in the area.
Many will find the book dangerous and unwanted. White liberals will defend their traditional involvement as necessary, even though the results have been mostly ineffective. White conservatives will welcome the prescription as a justification to wipe their hands clean of the mess, as though they would have made a positive contribution. Black conservatives will be at a loss financially because whites would no longer pay handsomely for a story no longer valid. Many African Americans will be afraid to cut the strings that bind them to dependence for a price. I am convinced, however, that the poor, the oppressed, and neglected will recognize and support the book as a formula worth investment. Besides, in the seventh grade, I had the best teacher this nation could offer. Her wisdom was that a scholar must always teach and tell the truth. She smiles upon my effort from her status as an angel.
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