Our Fulcrum Fellows interview this week is with Allison Allbee. Allison is a Program Director at ChangeLab Solutions where she guides a team of public health analysts, planners, and lawyers focused on expanding access to safe, stable, affordable housing and healthy neighborhoods. In the interview, Allison describes how her childhood friends and neighbors sparked her interest in social justice and how working at a school led her to a career in urban planning.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at ChangeLab.
I worked in youth development and education for about 15 years, starting when I was a kid myself. I worked in juvenile halls, group homes, afterschool programs, and eventually ended up at an amazing public school in San Francisco. At the school, I ran several programs and witnessed teachers doing a heroic job of providing a solid social justice-oriented education to kids. It was really inspiring. Yet, the issues that were going on in San Francisco - staggering wealth inequity, policing strategies that targeted kids of color, an inadequate transportation system, insufficient support systems for families, limited economic mobility, a white-hot housing market, tireless evictions and displacement, and deportation of undocumented people - showed up every day in the classroom. This is how I became interested in mechanisms that support kids and families, so kids can go to school ready to learn. When I started looking at what some of those mechanisms might be, I realized I wanted to work on the way cities organize their resources and polices, so I went back to school and got a degree in city and regional planning. I chose to focus my work on housing and development policies, because it became clear that those policies have driven racial and economic inequity.
What first sparked your interest in social justice?
I grew up in the 80s in a highly integrated neighborhood in San Francisco. From an early age, I was surrounded by kids with different life experiences and histories from mine. The history and stories we were learning about in school were so different from the history and stories of the kids in my class or the world I was experiencing. We’d be learning about Paul Revere and the Red Coats, and I’d be going to my friend’s grandma’s house and they would speak to me in Cantonese, or I’d walk around the City and see the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence talking about the AIDS crisis. What I was learning in school wasn’t giving me the tools to understand what I was experiencing, and it felt very disjointed and confusing. Over time, mentors, my family, and my friends told me more about their experiences and taught me how to describe what I was seeing and feeling. They taught me concepts like racism, sexism, transphobia… They helped me understand how those concepts connected to systemic injustice and see how I benefited from those systems. My interest in social justice came from valuing the lives and stories of my friends and neighbors.
What challenge have you chosen to focus on in your Fulcrum Fellowship?
My organization partnered with PolicyLink’s Anti-Displacement Network to support cities to take concrete steps to prevent displacement of communities of color. We are developing a tool to assess success of each of their anti-displacement and equitable development strategies. We want to refine the tool after this pilot project so that cities can create stronger systems and policies to prevent displacement and promote equitable development.
What are you learning about what it’s going to take to move your challenge?
Displacement happens for a number of reasons, which means there are a lot of indicators to track. That information is usually unavailable, so it’s hard to know where the collateral pressure points are—that is, what is going to drive change. The big question for us is: how do you address displacement and promote equitable development at a meaningful scale?
Often in this work there are a lot of technical solutions, like “just adopt these 6 policies.” But displacement is an adaptive problem. The reasons that cities are segregated and displacement happens have common roots, but the “right” solutions depend on the market and community context. The Fellowship’s focus on adaptive challenges has been interesting and helpful in honing my thinking about how to equip cities with tools to confront adaptive challenge.
What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fulcrum Fellowship to you so far?
Having coaches and peers invested in my learning and growth has been the most valuable aspect. As I get older and rise in leadership, there are fewer opportunities for this and it’s absolutely necessary to prevent stagnation. I’m not going to go back to school, and the day to day grind in a nonprofit means I don’t have a peer network just focused on growth, learning, and creating deep, meaningful relationships. I’m going to walk away from the Fellowship with the kinds of relationships that will sustain me for a lifetime, and that’s a special opportunity.
What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
We are starting to pilot the assessment tool with different cities and gathering data that will give us a sense of how the project is thriving and the places where there is dead weight. I’m also curious and excited to see where the Fellows’ projects go. I’ve had the opportunity to work with several of them in my professional capacity, including Stephanie Smith.
What is your media diet? (One thing you read/listened to/watched recently, or what you do regularly)
I’m in a period where I’m reading and listening to a lot of news, particularly Up First by NPR and the New York Times. I watch Showtime’s The Circus and John Oliver. I like to read the analysis on Very Smart Brothas and The Root. Sometimes I read conservative media, like Breitbart or Fox News. I have very little exposure to conservative ideas where I live and, because I work nationally, these ideas drive local politics in the places I work.
This month, I’m reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. My favorite book recently was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I also like science fiction because it’s such a good way to think about alternative futures. The Three Body Problem was my favorite science-fiction summer reading.