How Jennifer Rangel sheds light on urban planning for underserved communities

Jennifer Rangel recently started a non-profit organization, RAYO Planning, with a mission to help neighbors advocate for their needs. Photograph by Kathy Tran.

Jennifer Rangel felt like an outsider grew up in Oak Cliff because his family had no car and their housing was often precarious.

She knows there are still kids in our neighborhood who feel like “a shadow” like she did, and that’s what motivates her to fight for inclusiveness in city planning. Rangel recently started a non-profit organization, RAYO planningwith partners Evelyn Mayo and Victoria Ferrell-Ortiz.

Their mission is to help communities understand planning concepts such as zoning and land use, and they aim to teach neighbors how to use their power against potentially harmful policies and advocate for their needs.

Rangel was the 2012 valedictorian of Molina High School because she treated her grades as a salary. She figured the higher her grades, the more money she could make in the future so her parents wouldn’t have to work.

She took the bus before dawn so she could use the internet at school to apply for grants and scholarships, and she stayed late to do her homework.

“I learned a lot and I observed a lot,” she says. “We would take the DART from Westmoreland station to Garland. I could see how different my neighborhood was from others, but I never questioned it because I didn’t understand that zoning and land use were in play.”

As a sophomore at Texas A&M University, one of Rangel’s professors said, “It sounds like you want to be an urban planner.”

She said, “What is a town planner?

“I realized that all these things that I had been noticing for years were part of this urban planning,” she says.

The profession requires a master’s degree, which Rangel earned from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018. His dissertation used Oak Cliff as a case study for a geographical examination of Latino urban planning.

She interviewed business owners and residents, and the thesis makes recommendations for engaging with Latin American communities.

Here are some highlights:

— Create documents in Spanish and English about the agency/service and their intentions. These outreach efforts should be seen as ongoing and can become a way for the community to express itself. Familiarity is the key to trust and authentic conversations.

— Develop community events to build bridges within and between the community. Grant community members the agency to participate in the creation of these events. These events should have a diverse audience.

— Surveys can be online, but in-person communication with business owners to let them know how important their opinion is can motivate them to participate.

— Online communication must be available in English and Spanish. Renders and photos should reflect the community.

Rangel says some of the recommendations she made in her 2018 thesis come into play with RAYO. For example, he says, “Teach others about urban planning and how it affects their neighborhood. Sometimes people don’t participate because they just don’t know how.

“Urban planning and zoning are very technical, but the essentials are not,” she says. “The bottom line is that it’s about people’s lives.”

Rangel is the Director of Planning and Community Outreach for the Inclusive Communities Project. She has a full-time job, but wanted to start RAYO now because of her plans to grow it into a national presence. They also want to educate city planners around the world on how to engage with Latinos, including the fact that “Latinos” represent an incredibly diverse population.

She bristles at the popular urban planning term “highest and best use” because “highest and best use for whom?” she says. “It decenters the essence of people. Why do we talk about “uses”, when really it should be for the people? »

Urban planning has been used in the past to create damage in communities. The most prominent example in Dallas is Shingle Mountain, the recently removed environmental hazard in a neighborhood where heavy industrial zoning is permitted next to residential neighborhoods. With RAYO, the goal is to use the same tools to right those wrongs.

Anyone can be an urban planner, she says. It’s just a matter of understanding the jargon and the process.

His master’s thesis mentions “ganas”, the Spanish word for perseverance. When she struggled growing up, her mom always told her to use her ganas, and that’s what Rangel wants for urban Latino communities like Oak Cliff.

She says city planning can have an emotional impact because she sees how people struggle and understands what it’s like.

“As long as I am on this planet, I will continue to fight the good fight,” she says. “I’m not the first, but I’ll take over and keep running this marathon.”

Rangel says she hated telling her mother, Maria, that she had to wait two more years after college for her master’s degree, but now Rangel is supporting her so she doesn’t have to work anymore.

Rangel’s father, Hector, died of COVID-19 in late 2020.

“My dad said to me, ‘This is your town. It belongs to you. Feel proud of that,” she says. “I want people to feel that too. That they really belong here and they’re not strangers and they don’t belong in the shadows.