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Episode 108 guest Anita Cozart

As someone who has found her home in public service, Anita Cozart of the District of Columbia’s Office of Planning recognizes that while there is power in one voice, true change requires collective action and a heaping dose of courage.

Jensen: L’erin Jensen

Cohen: Josh Cohen

Cozart: Anita Cozart

Jensen: Creating spaces that signal freedom is no easy feat, but multiple stints in the D.C. Office of Planning and Design has taught Anita Cozart that shared stewardship and governance with the communities we serve is a requirement of equitable planning, coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: Our guest today, Anita Cozart, is the Deputy Director of Community Planning and Design in the Office of Planning for the District of Columbia. I first heard Anita a few years ago when she was on a panel at the Shared-Use Mobility Summit, and I was so impressed I sent her some fan mail afterwards. And then we recently reconnected through a shared friend, Geraldine Gardner who is the executive director of the Centralina Regional Council in Charlotte. And, I guess, another nice thing is that Anita is also a listener of The Movement podcast. So, welcome to The Movement, Anita.

Jensen: Welcome.

Cozart: Thank you so much. Good to be here with you all.

Jensen: Anita, this is now your second time working in the D.C. Office of Planning. You previously served as planner and chief of staff. Can you share a little bit about your current role as deputy director of community planning and design and what you’re responsible for?

Cozart: Sure. So this is my second time with the Office of Planning. And in many ways, I think, what I found in my career is that public service and government service is something that just I enjoy a lot. I enjoy the interaction with the public; I enjoy the idea that as urban planners we’re shaping the communities that we live in, and we’re doing that in concert with our neighbors and others who care deeply about in this case the District of Columbia. And so when I first started at the Office of Planning I was early in my career. And that’s where I actually met Geraldine. And we’ve stayed friends and colleagues over the years, which is really a delightful thing.

And I got a chance to just kind of get acclimated and oriented to kind of urban planning and how it worked in the district. And it was interested, an interesting time in the early 2000s really thinking about how the district was kind of turning a corner from a lot of population decline and what that all meant. It’s interesting to fast-forward to today where it’s not really an issue about population decline, but really the kinds of things that we were starting to think about in the early 2000s around diversity, equity, and inclusion—and we may not have even used quite the word “equity” at the time; we definitely used “inclusion.” At this time and in this role it’s different because we’re fully kind of taking on and embracing and learning at the same time what it means to think about equity and in particular racial equity.

And as deputy director for community planning and design, that means thinking about cultural representation in our public spaces; who feels welcome based on who they are, who they identify as; what does our public realm signal about who is welcome and when they’re welcome and what are they welcome to do; how can we use the tools at our disposal in urban design to signal the values that we have around racial equity and inclusion of all people. And that’s just on the urban design side. On the community planning side, there’s a whole kind of set of tools and philosophy.

And folks that you’ve interviewed before, I think about Dr. Destiny Thomas who considers herself the queen of engagement, and I give her that crown for sure. The idea of equitable engagement is a key part of community planning and thinking about how we share stewardship and governance and what say community has over the future of what happens in the streets and the overall neighborhood and throughout the district. So those are the kinds of things that I get to work on. And it’s something I really enjoy day to day.

Cohen: Wow. There’s so much there. I was actually living in Gaithersburg, Maryland from 2002 to 2005.

Cozart: Hmm.

Cohen: And I remember, you know, my wife had a job out in Rockville. We were living out that way. And, you know, I didn’t come into the district. My job wasn’t in the district, so I only came in occasionally to, you know, whether it was for—I don’t know—we’d go out to dinner or something like that. But occasionally I would just come in and just kind of wander around.

Cozart: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: And just explore. Right? And I distinctly remember kind of starting to see some of the growth that is happening, you know, and has continued to happen just with all the construction, all the investment, so forth; and I gathered that it was kind of staring kind of right about that time—

Cozart: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: —and really has accelerated over the course of the last 15, 20 years. Is that—I mean, that’s factually true? Or, I mean, it’s certainly that’s my impression, but that’s kind of what you’re seeing as well?

Cozart: Yeah, that’s certainly what we’ve seen, a lot of growth and development, a lot of neighborhoods that had not seen kind of commercial development, strong and really vibrant since after the riots in the ’60s actually ended up—destruction on some of our major streets like 8th Street NE and U Street. And so for decades those areas did not have a lot of investment. Some of the main streets there, there were business that hung on really strong and fight like Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. But there’s also a lot of businesses that just struggled mightily during that time just trying to get the investment; trying to attract capital was a challenge. And for some business that still remains true.

You know, the issue related to the district being a majority black city for so long but not having—but the nature of kind of the systemic and institutional racism that existed infiltrating the banking industry, which, you know, has an affect on access to capital for small and people-of-color-owned businesses. And so those were some of the struggles that were happening even as there was a boom and a building boom for a number of businesses as well. And we saw, you know, a lot of real estate flourishing in lots of different neighborhoods, and some, you know, and many folks in D.C. have been able to, you know, see their homes appreciate, longtime homeowners. And the kind of rising costs over that time has also created some real challenges especially as it relates to affordable housing and, frankly, other services as well.

Cohen: I want to revisit maybe a topic. Thinking about the community planning and kind of making people feel welcome, you know, certainly I don’t know if this was in kind of your kind of area of kind of responsibility or if this was the kind of mayoral level, but certainly I think, D.C. was one of the first communities to use their streets to paint “Black Lives Matter” certainly on the street in a very kind of bold way. And certainly that kind of feels like that kind of speaks very centrally to what you were saying earlier about how we make the work we’re doing on the communities’ planning side, make people feel welcome. Maybe share a little bit about that or maybe your perspectives on that from that perspective. And, again, I recognize that may have been at the mayoral level, but it certainly seems like that is related to what you were talking about.

Cozart: Yeah, so certainly it was the mayor’s initiative there. And, I think, there’s a lot behind that the way I read it. There’s a lot to say around kind of the basics of affirming that Black lives do matter and how important that is as we think about kind of cultivating leadership. And it was truly very personal for her, and being in Washington and being amongst both, like, John Lewis who inspired her and has inspired her leadership as well among others. I think, for me personally it is very powerful. I’m a mom, and to be able to take my kids down to Black Lives Matter Plaza and for them to be able to see and experience it just steps away from the White House is very powerful.

I think even more powerful is how the space itself can signal and kind of all of our spaces can signal equity and freedom and liberation as it relates to kind of the policies that we move forward with and that it can be a place of learning for those who are not as—we’re still trying to kind of figure out where we are in terms of issues related to justice and racial equity, and so I see it as a place for convergence of some of the ideas that we have around bringing people together in urban spaces, how folks who are deeply embedded in art and creative industries can kind of help lead the conversation and that planners can join with the tools that we have at our disposal around public realm and development to kind of create the communities where folks feel fully included and fully represented and fully human.

Cohen: Prior to, you know, or, I guess, in between your two stints at the D.C. Office of Planning you spent nine years at PolicyLink, which is a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity. I’m curious what you learned from your time there or some of the experiences you had there that you’re bringing to your current role.

Cozart: That’s a great question. I have to say one of the reasons that I wanted to spend part of my career in non-profits is a kind of uniquely D.C. story. And it actually kind of gets back to the impetus, well, my understanding of some of the impetus behind Black Lives Matter Plaza, which is I recall distinctly one of my colleagues was—we have a function in the Office of Planning, a cartography function—right—which has evolved over the years. We don’t even use cartography as a term any more, now that I think about it. So, you know, creating maps.

And my colleague was creating a map that was about the distances that we could see between needle exchange sites and schools. And that map was not necessarily going to the D.C. Department of Health or the Department of Human Services; that map was being sent to—I don’t remember which committee on Congress, in the Congress, but it was being sent to a committee in the Congress. I asked my colleague, “What is this about?” and he shared with me where it was going. And they made this request, and they’re considering some, you know, the policies related to D.C. And I was not fully—it wasn’t until that moment that I was fully aware of how much oversight the U.S. Congress had and congressional committees had over the district’s budget, our operations, our policies.

And I just started—the more I learned about it, the more I said, “Okay. I have to understand this advocacy-industrial complex and what it means for D.C., how people get things done in Congress, how advocacy impacts what we do in the district.” And so that interest and curiosity intersected with an organization that I had long followed even while I was in grad school, PolicyLink. And they were opening a D.C. office, and I was fortunate enough to get that position. And it was exciting because it was an opportunity to focus on advocacy explicitly with a focus on race. And that was something I had also longed for in my career. And even as a child, like, growing up outside Cleveland, Ohio I really understand—like, I really observed the differences between haves and have-nots and as it related to race and geography. I observed that, but I did not have an understanding of the policy behind it, the history, the legacy, you know, policy change. I knew none of that growing up.

And so to be able to work in an organization where I could explicitly, like, work on advocacy and policy analysis with a racial-equity lens just gave me many more skills. And I was able to do it in a way that inspired me and really helped me answer some questions that I had developed as a child, I had developed early in my career. And it really gave me a chance to understand the power of one’s voice in the policy-change process and the ways that you can cultivate relationships with others and that, you know, kind of the collective action and collective power model was something that I really got to learn about in my time at PolicyLink.

And I bring it to my work at D.C. planning as well. And I really think that kind of that collective action approach, the idea that community is going to help steward some of the plans that we put together and should help steward some of the plans we put together in addition to what government would do to really invest in revitalization, that it does need to be collective action.

Jensen: You know, something you said just kind of resonated with me about observing the differences between the haves and the have-nots but not understanding how those differences are created.

Cozart: Mm-hmm.

Jensen: It’s just such an important—that’s why community engagement is so important. Right?

Cozart: Right.

Jensen: Because we see all of these things, but people don’t know how basic decisions are made in their communities. Like, why do some streets have potholes and others don’t? And it just speaks to the importance of educating people but also getting people involved, speaking to people so that they can understand the process and they can make decisions in their own neighborhoods and improve their quality of life in the process.

Cozart: That’s right.

Jensen: So I’m going to pivot a little bit. I just want to get your opinion. What are some of the things still missing to create this equitable, accessible, and verdant future that we all want? And how do we get there?

Cozart: That’s a great question. So I think we’ve made a lot of progress as it relates to engagement and how we engage. I think we’re asking ourselves questions, especially—when I say ourselves, I’ll speak with my planning hat on. I think that we’re asking better questions about who’s engaged and why, and who’s not engaged and why, and how that can contribute to outcomes in the process and also in the policymaking that are not optimal—right—that actually can kind of perpetuate the existing systemic racism that we see and experience. So on the engagement front I think we’re making some strides.

I think, on the equitable outcomes I think we are starting to actually measure and look at data and disaggregate data by race in a way that helps us understand who is being harmed by some of the policies that we have and to what level folks are being harmed. And in many ways that data is what needs to motivate our move towards outcomes and measuring our outcomes and really defining success around what is the benefit that will accrue to those who have, you know, been burdened the most—right—whether you talk about environmental justice issues, an environmental burden; whether you talk about in a mobility space, who is cost-burdened and time-burdened as it relates to transportation.

And there’s a lot of academic institutions are doing a great job of, you know, having kind of connectivity indexes and mobility indexes. And to the extent that they disaggregated by race, we see that it is typically Black folks who are the ones who are time-burdened and cost-burdened when it comes to transportation. Some of that has a housing connection because of whether it’s housing discrimination or lack of affordable housing close to where jobs are. So I think that when we think about where we need to go, we need to be kind of defining success based on whether or not, for example, the Black mother who is trying to make sure to get to school or get their kids to school, get themselves to work and be able to care for their household is able to do that and whether her costs and her time are able to be reduced by some of the policies and investments that we have.

And there’s lots of ways to kind of think about this, but one of the ways that a mentor of mine, a founder in residence at PolicyLink, Angela Blackwell, has talked about it is this idea of the curb-cut effect, the idea that if you solve our challenges for folks who are most burdened by whatever systems that we have, then you solve the challenge for everyone. Right? And so that, I think, is the policymaking philosophy and the success measurement philosophy that we need to embed. And we haven’t quite gotten there yet. I think, in the mobility space, I, you know, just gave a couple of examples. I think we need to kind of parse those out a little bit more and add some more measures and get more comfortable with integrating the people, the impact on people as we measure the success of our mobility investments. I think, that’s going to help a lot.

In the planning space, I think, we, you know, it’s one of those things where we really need to start investigating this a lot more because it is a challenge, and building that in can be challenging. And, I think, one of the things that’s really important—and this gets back to engagement—is the folks who are closest and feeling the burdens the most, that are closest to the challenges, they’re also closest to the solutions. So we just need to be creating space to hear about those solutions, to make the connections, to do the work of making the connections between those solution ideas and the present moment.

Where sometimes we feel like there’s a gap, maybe it’s a gap of political will; maybe it’s a gap of perceptions around do we have the budget to do it; maybe it’s a gap around, frankly, I’m not sure, you know, the will to take on racial equity. Those are some gaps that we need to overcome. And so, I think, doing that, using data, thinking about success measures, and putting people at the center, I think that’s how we kind of have to overcome those challenges. And we also need a really big helping of courage too.

Jensen: You know, I’m typically—I think, as I get older I become a bit more cynical, but these conversations that we’re having every week are making me a little bit more optimistic about where we’re going in the future, because week after week we get people saying the same things—and that’s not a bad thing; that’s a good thing—just in terms of what the problems are and how do we overcome these things. So that means that people are on the same page. It’s just maybe the biggest problem is all the red tape.

Cohen: Yeah, I want to build on that a little bit. Because what that calls to mind actually is the conversation we had with Dr. Destiny Thomas and Tamika Butler and Sahra Sulaiman. One of the questions I asked Dr. Thomas was around planning and whether we could reconfigure or if we needed to tear it all down. Right?

Cozart: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And where I was thinking was I was thinking of that conversation as you’re sharing what you just said. Because what I was thinking about is, like, almost the way that we’re governing—right—the way our government is set up almost needs to be fundamentally rethought. And, I think, you kind of talked about that a little bit as far as, you know, the people that are facing the challenges are closer to the solutions, the community engagement is kind of where—it’s almost like some of the things that we have set in our government are fundamentally outdated and need to be shifted.

Cozart: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so they were talking from the perspective not as an insider. I mean, you are actually in the government now. Right?

Cozart: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And so it almost feels like we need almost, like, a new model for how we govern to really get to where we need to go.

Cozart: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I’m just connecting the dots there on kind of what I heard you say and what I heard Dr. Thomas say a couple months ago.

Cozart: I mean, that resonates with me. It does. And I’ll say, for me, I hold a couple things together. And I’ve shared this. I’ve shared this with Tamika; I’ve shared this with Dr. Thomas as well and others, that I kind of find my home in public service. And so ideas like the fact that the district is going to join some other cities in having a chief equity officer this years and, you know, opportunities to think about performance indicators that focus on equity, building equitable development plans, all of those things are kind of reforms from inside of government. Right?

And I am—I feel like there is a role for that, and I feel like I can be authentic in that role. And I understand that that’s not a role that everyone feels that they can be authentic in and feel at their best. Right? And I see my role as kind of moving that process forward even while I have treasured colleagues and friends who are trying to reform and studying and promoting what is the best way to think about fundamental reform as it relates to government. And I welcome that; I’m excited by that. I find—you know, if you talk about where I want to be a student, I want to be a student of how to look at some of the things that they’re talking about and translate them into reforms that I can even start now. It’s, like, this idea of priming the pump, and I see kind of my authentic role being in that space.

Cohen: You mentioned Angela Blackwell. You know, maybe wrap up with some of the leaders that have influenced you in your work.

Cozart: Yeah, we mentioned Angela; we mentioned Tamika; we mentioned Destiny. I would say—and when I think about others that I’ve been deeply inspired by as well, you know, I think about folks who give leadership to some of the work that happens on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the focus on youth and the focus on environmental justice, environmental stewardship, and that kind of thing. I think, all of the threads there are that the commitment to justice. It’s like the putting your whole self into a commitment to justice, putting your creativity, your skill, and also it’s just an invitation that these leaders and friends issue to join.

And it’s an urgent invitation that centers Blackness; it centers the indigenous experience; and it’s the way that they share their stories and how their stories are part of the story of the U.S. with all its flaws and all its beauty marks, is one that just leaves me inspired, and they leave me with a righteous indignation. They confirm my righteous indignation, and they kind of, like, open the doors to, like, “Okay. Here is where we can go. Here’s the future that we can go to. Anita, you and your family and your friends and all of us are in that future. It’s going to take work to get there, and I’m with you doing that work.” And, yeah. So I think that’s what I take away from those leaders.

And there’s so many. You know, we mentioned some names, and so it’s always—you’re always going to—there’s always many more names to mention and many more—many men but also a lot of women who have really inspired me in the mobility space in particular. And so that’s something I appreciate as well.

Cohen: L’erin, I could see why you get optimistic every week. And I do too, but I liked the way you framed it just—and I like the way you framed it, Anita, as far as this urgent invitation to join this commitment to justice, I think, is a beautiful way to put it.

Jensen: Yeah. And, Anita, you’ve had a lot of really good zingers in there. I don’t know if zingers is the right thing, but every time something you say really sticks out to me, when Josh speaks then he repeats that same thing, so you’re onto something good there. It’s a commitment to justice.

Cohen: I love that. Anita, thank you so much for joining us. This has really been a treat for us to get to go on a little journey through your experience both at PolicyLink and at the D.C. Office of Planning and how you’ve integrated those experiences together to help serve the people. And, I think, that’s also been a theme that has resonated throughout your career. So thank you so much for joining us and sharing your voice with us and our audience, and keep up the great work.

Cozart: Thank you, Josh. Thank you, L’erin. It’s been a pleasure.
Jensen: Thanks, Anita.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.