Deborah McKoy operates on the principle that children are our future — and our present.
And the UC Berkeley educator believes she can help nurture both.
McKoy, executive director and founder of the UC Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools, has spent most of the last two decades turning her Berkeley doctoral thesis into a game plan for youth, impacting their schools and their hometowns across the globe. Along the way, she spent eight years reaching out from Wurster Hall to advise the Obama administration. And the reach of the programs she’s started have encompassed Japan, China and sub-Saharan Africa.
Her group is known as Y-PLAN — Youth-Plan Learn Act Now. Her coursework at Berkeley in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the Graduate School of Education, meshes educational reform, urban and metropolitan planning, community development and public policy.
It’s been a study in tackling both small and large issues, including working on improving bus stop Wi-Fi and healthy food access in Richmond, tackling affordable housing in East Palo Alto, creating a college-going culture in the Oakland communities of McClymonds, Castlemont and Skyline and a sea-level rise awareness campaign in the Bay Area.
Of course, Y-PLAN is something of a pun, too. Why plan? McKoy hopes that by inviting young people to ask why, they will be able to get to some basic truths and make their cities and towns better for all.
On Feb. 1, Y-PLAN was behind the CC+S Symposium: The Power of Civic Learning for Resilient Cities. The campus event attracted Bay Area civic and educational leaders, and it was a sellout. The Berkeley Way West building was, as they say, packed.
“It was amazing,” McKoy says. “It was a bit of a problem, because we didn’t do as much engagement as you would like for an engagement event. It demonstrated the interest on the part of civic leaders and community leaders and district partners really wanting to learn how to do this work about engaging young people.
“What we try to do is create environments at the center where school district leaders and civic community partners come together to really learn from each other, then go on to construct policy and practices to meet the needs of young people and cities more broadly.”
This time around it was the adults flocking to Berkeley. Speakers included the city of Richmond’s planning director, Lina Velasco; senior planner Dave Vautin from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission; city of San Francisco senior planner Sue Exline; Pepe Gonzalez, principal of San Rafael’s Laurel Dell Elementary School; Oakland Unified School District’s education director, Young Whan Choi; and Boston-based national transportation policy expert Beverly Scott.
“Deb is very passionate about this, and she sees the importance of youth in planning efforts,” Velasco says. “And that importance isn’t always easily seen. It’s about getting the youth voice and perspective integrated into the planning efforts at various levels of governments, for us as a city, but also regionally and in school districts.”
Come April 25, high school and college students will be taking a share of center stage. Billed as a young person’s policy summit, it’s currently scheduled for Alumni House, but expectations for attendance are in excess of 250 students and adults, and plans are in the works for a possible move to a larger venue at International House.
“We’re going to be hearing from representatives of schools who are doing Y-PLAN right now,” McKoy says. “And that will inform the work we will be doing this year and beyond.”
It was 19 years ago that McKoy’s Y-PLAN initiative took root in Berkeley, starting with a single class that she devised from her thesis. Since then, the class alone has won a half dozen chancellors awards over the years, and Y-PLAN has involved more that 13,000 participants.
Over those two decades, both the course and the underlying plan have had to evolve.
“What we’ve learned, just from the last year, is that we needed to change our work to look at a more regional level of inclusivity,” McKoy says. “In our research, we’ve come to realize the importance of not just inclusivity, but of resiliency. Resiliency is a very provocative term, and it’s not always understood the same way by everybody.
“In public health and in education departments, they focus on social and individual resilience. In urban planning, however, it’s all about climate change and physical impacts. What we are doing now is bringing together the physical and social understanding of the resilient city. And that necessitates us looking at how inclusive a city is.”
McKoy says the driving message of the Feb. 1 symposium was that “we’re trying to plan for the future, but not at the cost of planning for today. We learned about young people’s definitions of what we need to do, and it’s a city that is both inclusive and resilient.”
Velasco says Y-PLAN has been a source for “giving kids a chance to experience things outside a classroom experience.” And that can only help the community.
“They learn to work together in a learning experience and discover civic involvement,” Velasco says. “One thing that we sometimes do is create plans that just sit on the shelf. Getting the youth involved helps get these plans implemented. We’ve found that youth involvement gives you long-term follow-up that results in change.”
Because McKoy spent eight years as an adviser on public housing initiatives during the Obama administration, she says she sometimes feels as if the work she and her group are doing is better known in Washington, D.C. than in Berkeley.
That may be about to change.
“This started as one class at Berkeley, and next year it will be 20 years of growing, doing research and partnerships,” McKoy says of Y-PLAN. “This is such an exciting Berkeley initiative. It supports the values of the public university. It’s created partnerships around the globe, but particularly here in the Bay Area.”
It’s a way McKoy and her allies can push back at the Trump administration, which she says has severely eroded the work that was done on public housing during the Obama administration.
“We were helping to bridge cities and schools at the federal level,” she says. “What they have been doing since has inspired me more than ever to look local. We’ve always been based in Berkeley, and now it’s our opportunity to really build back that regional impact.”
McKoy says her view is that the current administration is taking the country back into a state of isolationism and segregated communities.
“All the safeguards to create an inclusive community are being deregulated. No one is talking about that,” she says. “So, if we don’t take a regional approach to insisting on policies and practices that foster equitable and healthy cities, inclusive cities, then we don’t have a shot at challenging what’s happening.”