Mehri “Mehrsa” Mohebbi is a senior urban planner at Planning Communities and a PhD Candidate at University of Cincinnati. She currently serves on the American Planning Association Social Equity Task Force.
“I was born and raised here; this is America; nothing separates us. Just the fact that [a hijab] is on my head is not a big deal.”
“Because you see what’s in the news and people who are not educated about Islam or hijab, they look at you as an oppressed one or a terrorist.”
“You know, my area is predominantly white, and a lot of my neighbors are not Muslims. Although they are friendly, I do notice that the way they look at me when I am walking in the neighborhood isn’t too friendly. And unfortunately, I have experienced discrimination in the area where somebody said that “Go back to your country!” Just those [kind of] statements make me feel unwelcome.”
These are observations by a few young Muslim women from Dearborn, Michigan, on how judgmental views of Muslims in America affect their level of social comfort on a daily basis as they walk in their urban neighborhoods.
They were participants in a five-year study on Muslim women’s walking behavior in the Detroit Metro area that I conducted with Annulla Linders and Carla Chifos. These Michigander Muslim women said that their decreased sense of safety adversely affected basic daily experiences, including walking in their neighborhoods. Walking is only one instance of the social rights that every member of urban society deserves to enjoy, yet these negative perceptions and experiences discouraged the women from walking even in urban neighborhoods that were defined as walkable areas (based on design criteria, such as street connectivity and availability of walking infrastructure).
Those social experiences present only a handful of different types of discriminatory behaviors that members of minority groups encounter in urban America. To counter the negative impact of these experiences, it’s imperative that urban planners and city officials develop innovative ways to reach these marginalized groups, even as it may mean readjusting traditional ideas about methodology and length of the process.
It is well known that the history of urbanization in the United States is also the history of discrimination against minority groups. The Muslim community has encountered serious difficulties ever since the tragedy of 9/11. Levels of prejudice and intolerance against this group have increased during the last few years, even as history proves that an Islamophobic environment is not a new phenomenon for American cities.
During the case study of southeast Michigan, Muslim women reported different types of negative experiences (being assumed to be alien in their own land, being thought illiterate and unprofessional on the basis of their hijab, the pathologizing of their cultural values and assumption of their connection with Islamic extremists). These experiences distorted their image of the society, resulted in voluntary social isolation, and decreased their level of access to social opportunities and urban services.
The phenomenon of alienation hinders the ability of an individual to express themselves as a social being and enjoy the benefits urban society has to offer to its constituents. In the last two decades, the dedication of urban planners to inclusive community engagement has gradually created a foundation of numerous nationwide initiatives and movements to reach alienated groups, but outdated community outreach methods continue to act as barriers. It is essential, particularly for public sector and governmental decision-makers, to take a critical look at these methods.
Ill-convinced approaches to amplifying stakeholders’ voices have resulted in the lack of sufficient budget and time to design and implement community engagement. Employing innovative outreach methods to communicate with affected populations should be prioritized, especially when working with minority groups, whose cultural values and public image often limit their access to urban amenities and involvement in public decision-making.
There are numerous success stories highlighting the successful civic and social engagement of minorities across the country. For example, a local health initiative in southeast Michigan proved that partnerships between government sectors and grassroots organizations can create a welcoming environment for all stakeholders to partake in policymaking related to public health. The Healthy Dearborn Initiative used an inclusive community engagement process to work towards enhancing health in every aspect of urban life for Dearborn residents. One of the key components of this initiative was interacting with people and observing their daily lives in places where they live, work, and play and identifying trusted gatekeepers to fully communicate with members of minority groups.
The initiative was successful in motivating a diverse group of the underrepresented population, specifically Muslim women, to actively participate in policymaking meetings and workshops. Such an example can also be accordingly modified and effectively replicated in other social settings with a high concentration of minority groups.
Not all methods and techniques work for all minority groups: In instances like our case study of the Detroit Metro Area, a new approach, community immersion, was initiated, tested, and used. In the study, the evolving strategy was based on using community immersion to accelerate the process of trust-building to secure interview data. Community immersion is not usually considered as a phase of interview studies, however, for this study community immersion was an effective means to identify gatekeepers and ease communication with religious minority groups.
Since governmental entities initiate and lead the majority of urban interventions, minority community engagement becomes even more integral to democracy. To better understand underrepresented population’s needs and concerns, a variety of methods and techniques should be used, from in-person small-group stakeholder meetings to innovative online participation techniques.
Using each technique and tool requires a certain level of knowledge about each method, in addition to a deep understanding of each stakeholder group. Innovative engagement methods, which may not have been tested before, are considered time-consuming and expensive, however, reviewing contemporary success stories provides governmental sectors with insightful perspectives to modify engagement methods to suit different groups of the affected urban population.
As urban planners and policymakers, we need to encourage a robust social infrastructure in American cities and avoid creating built environments where minority groups feel obliged to live an isolated life. Improved techniques, such as active social media interventions and collaborations with grassroots organizations to include the voices of minority groups, are essential to this mission. As long as there are individuals who are forced to feel “othered,” our society remains an ambiguous combination of contradicting values and dysfunctional interactions.
The way people and their relations with each other and their social surroundings are facilitated and defined, form the future of urbanized areas. The work of bringing in overlooked minorities is essential. Cities should be places that celebrate diversity and that invest in an enriched future rooted in the perspectives of all of their invaluable local assets—residents.