Perspectives: The Co-City Capstone Team

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In September 2019 the Marron Institute partnered with the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service to work with a group of Capstone students on the Co-City Baton Rouge project. The team is charged with conducting a global environmental scan on the institutions, governance, and innovative financing mechanisms for the proposed Community Land Bank, a hybrid of community land trust and land bank models, and Neighborhood Improvement Districts in the project area. The Co-City project is planning to adapt these institutional frameworks to local circumstances. The goal is to create institutions that enable community members and other stakeholders to be long-term stewards of the development and regeneration of the Plank Road Corridor. To do that will require accounting for the socioeconomic profile in this neighborhood, existing social capital and other internal community resources.  Based on their findings, the team will recommend innovative financing mechanisms as well as institutional and governance structures for these institutions in Plank Road and other similar areas.

The Capstone team includes Faizah Barlas, Naquita Goldston, and Maya Portillo.

Faizah Barlas is a current Master of Public Administration (MPA) student at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service specializing in public policy analysis and management. She has worked as a civil rights community organizer, a housing rights advocate for disabled tenants, and a court advocate for youth and adults involved in the judicial process. Faizah is passionate about environmental and criminal justice, and learning about how to mindfully incorporate principles of equity within her community and the institutions she is a part of. 

Naquita Goldston is a native of Brooklyn, NY, but has been fortunate to live and work in other places throughout the years.  After earning her Bachelor of Science in Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management from The Pennsylvania State University, Naquita worked in hotel management at a downtown New Orleans hotel.  It was during her time there that she witnessed the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina, which are still being felt nearly fifteen years after the storm hit. This inspired her to pursue a career in local government.  Naquita then returned home to complete a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA. After VISTA, she began her career with the City of New York, where she has worked on a portfolio of projects to address income inequality and support low-income New Yorkers.  Naquita will earn her Master of Public Administration from New York University in 2020, and will continue her career in municipal government serving the most vulnerable in her community.

Maya Portillo is currently pursuing her Masters in Public and Non-Profit Management with a specialization in Public Policy Analysis at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Maya currently works as a research analyst at an early childhood education lab within NYU Steinhardt working on projects pertaining to community literacy interventions for young children in everyday spaces within marginalized communities. Previously, Maya worked with Upward Bound and currently is a volunteer for iMentor and SEO Scholars. Maya is from Northwest Indiana and graduated from Cornell University with a B.S. in Industrial Labor Relations and minors in Education and Inequality Studies.

Maya and Faizah weeding a vacant lot during MLK Fest in Baton Rouge

The team was able to join me during my last trip to Baton Rouge in January 2020 and had the opportunity to meet with the community whom their work will impact. They had the opportunity to reflect on their experience and share their thoughts with us..

On one of the first days that we were in Baton Rouge, two members of our team had the opportunity to volunteer with members of the Walls Project cleaning up a vacant neighborhood lot off Plank Road on Chippewa Street. We spent the day getting to know members of the community while picking up trash and clearing branches. While working, we had the opportunity to talk with other volunteers. We met a young 13-year old named Jonathan. He spoke about his dreams for after highschool, telling us about his goal of entering the Naval Academy. We also spoke with a friendly woman who lived a few blocks from where we were stationed. She told us what it was like to have grown up in the neighborhood in comparison to what it is like now. What seemed to be the common connection among these individuals was their unwavering commitment to this community and to Plank Road. When the lot was nearly cleared, we all gathered to reflect. We spoke with Casey Philips and Helena Williams from the Walls Project and had the opportunity to ask them about the work they were doing in the community to better inform our work. Needless to say, the day was filled with beauty in big and small ways and our team was thankful to be there. 

Faizah(c) Professor Nick Serrano (r, LSU CSS) and residents mark landmarks on Plank Road Map during MLK Fest Block Party

The following day, we had the opportunity to attend the annual MLK Fest organized by the Walls Project. This festival brought together different community organizations, religious groups, and food vendors for the community in Plank Road. Community members checked out the different stalls, listened and danced to music, and participated in performances. LSU Professors Tori Birch and Kim Mosby, and Co-City Fellow Manny Patole, had two different tasks for us and other LSU students who were volunteering. One group of students set up a station with a map of the Plank Road Corridor to ask community members what parts of the neighborhood would flood when it rained. It was an initiative to obtain on the ground information of areas that needed flood protection and development. Our team was tasked with engaging in conversations with community members around what their neighborhood is called, what they love about their neighborhood, and what changes they would like to see. Both activities were highly impactful in grounding the research our team has been doing for Marron and BBR. It was a very tangible example of the power of involving the local community and investing time in genuinely understanding their needs and desires prior to starting a development project.  

Manny (L) and Geno (R) with Maya, Faizah, and Naquita (C)

On our last day in Baton Rouge we were granted the opportunity to meet with staff from Build Baton Rouge. We are grateful that President and CEO Christopher Tyson, Community Engagement Specialist Geno McLaughlin, and Staff Attorney Matthew Johnson made time to speak with us and answer our questions. We gained new perspectives and insights by hearing from those in charge of executing much of the work we’re researching. We now have a better understanding of what is happening on the ground in Baton Rouge and what Build Baton Rouge would like to implement in the near future. These conversations contextualized our research and will help us better tailor our recommendations. 

Overall, our trip was an immersive and well-rounded experience that gave us both a birds-eye and worms-eye view of Plank Road. We are thankful to NYU Marron Institute, Build Baton Rouge, the Plank Road community, and greater Baton Rouge for welcoming and teaching us so much.

The visit was a success and provided valuable content and context for the team’s research. I thank Faizah, Naquita and Maya for making the time to visit in January and we look forward to their results in June 2019.

NEXT: Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. in Baton Rouge