Name: Justin Garrett Moore, AICP
Profession: Urban Designer / Urban Planner
One Word That Describes You: Tenacious
What does being one of the BEMM 100 Men of Distinction mean to you?
When I tell people that I am an urban designer they usually ask whether I design clothes or jewelry. They are shocked when I tell them I design neighborhoods, and that is a shame. The design, planning, and built environment fields have so few people of color—and especially black males. It means a lot to have the kind of work that I do be highlighted in the black community in the hope that it might inspire more people to be interested.
Whenever I read about black people succeeding, it is most often a narrative about someone in sports, arts and entertainment, business and entrepreneurship, or politics. It is much harder to find stories of success and inspiration of black architects, urbanists, developers, and builders. More people are acknowledging this with efforts around improving STEM (or STEAM) education and opportunities for black people, but even that is narrowly focused into high-paying tech jobs. People who look like me, come from communities like mine, and who share some of the same backgrounds and experiences as mine, likely don’t even know that someone like me exists or that the kind of work that I do is the kind of work that they could do, too. There need to be more of us black and brown people involved in determining changes and outcomes in our communities.
What are you doing as a BEMM to help support black male achievement now or in the future?
My primary work to support greater success for black males has been through mentorship and work in the nonprofit sector. I serve as a board member for Made in Brownsville, a community-focused organization that works with young people in Brownsville, Brooklyn to help provide activities, skills, exposure, and opportunities for young people in the community. I actively work to seek out and connect young black men who are interested in the design and urban development fields to help improve access to the careers and opportunities that can have a positive impact on our communities and cities.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
I am the product of an under-resourced and de facto segregated public school system in America. And this is the case for too many young people in just about every community in our nation. My high school, Indianapolis’ Arlington High School, was majority black and majority low income. There were somewhere around 700 of us freshman year and about only 175 in our graduating class. There were real challenges to attending the school, but it prepared me to be more resourceful, independent, and to create my own pathways. I learned at an early age and in that difficult context that things don’t have to be the way they are and that one can ‘win’ and create or find success.
To this day, people in or from Indianapolis give me a confused look when I tell them where I went to high school. Every time, it reminds me not of how far I’ve come, but how far society has to go. I went on to the University of Florida on full scholarship, and later on to graduate school at Columbia University, also on full scholarship, and on to a successful career. Arlington High School is equally formative to my success and career as my top public college and Ivy League university experiences.
And my unconventional career path a black man in design is also thanks to Arlington. When I was a freshman, the school was in the process of having a new gymnasium built. Never mind that we had old books, outdated science classrooms, underfunded arts and music programs, but a new gym was the choice. But there were some visionary people involved in the project. Jimmy Beard, a MWBE contractor on the project, created a student empowerment program that provided internships for students to work on the project. Jim Schellinger, the principal at the architecture firm designing the gym, CSO Architects, hired two of us to work in their office full-time for the summer. So, even though my inner-city public school had its issues, I was able to learn skills and character there and find opportunities that have lasted a lifetime.
What is your “Extraordinary Impact?”
What makes my work extraordinary is that I have multiple kinds of impact that together help create a larger effect. I do work in a balance of different approaches to urbanism that cross government, professional, and creative practice, teaching and research, grassroots efforts, the nonprofit sector, and social enterprise. For example, I have over the past few years developed a social enterprise in my home city, Indianapolis, called Urban Patch. It is an initiative to improve the long-disinvested but now-gentrifying inner-city neighborhood where I grew up. But we are doing it in a way that has a different approach than traditional neighborhood development or real estate models. It is a model for neighborhood self-determination through planning, designing, owning, and building. This impact is real; it has led to improved spaces in our neighborhood, but it has also led to greater ownership and building wealth while also securing affordable housing in our predominantly black and moderate-income community.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
The most important thing I find for having good relationships with people is empathy and commitment. It is honestly something I have had to work on. I was an almost comically misanthropic child and teenager. But as I got older and had more interactions with people from different background and personality types, I learned to be more understanding of people and where they are coming from.
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
At the NYC Public Design Commission, we are doing some work around improving the quality of affordable housing and mixed-use developments on city-owned land. The first of these initiatives, a former juvenile detention facility in the South Bronx, will now be an urban design that includes a bank, grocery, affordable housing, artists and performance space, and public open space. We want to demonstrate through these projects that many different kinds of communities deserve and need good design. The de Blasio administration also recently announced two exciting mixed-used developments that we will be working on as a part of the design review process. One will incorporate a memorial and public open space to commemorate a former African Burial Ground site in Harlem, and the other will include affordable housing, a waterfront park, and a new hip-hop museum in the South Bronx.
I have also recently worked with a group of (mostly millennial) urban planners, designers, policymakers, artists, and others to form an organization called BlackSpace. We are presenting at the 2017 Harvard University GSD Black in Design Conference, where we will be convening others in the various fields and from across the country to grow our network of people working to improve conditions in our communities. The group’s vision is to “demand a present and future where black people, black spaces, and black culture matter and thrive.”
I have also been named to the American Planning Association’s AICP Commission and will be working to advance initiatives to improve diversity in the urban planning, design, and policy fields, and providing technical assistance through the APA’s Community Planning Assistance Teams program that provides pro bono services for communities who need help planning and designing for their own future. I recently completed one of these planning studies working with Belize City, Belize, and I can say firsthand that having people of color bring their expertise and interest to communities of color is not only positive, but necessary.
What is the best advice you ever received?
My mom said don’t get into debt for college, make sure you have great credit, and to buy real estate as soon as I was able.
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
Make sure that you spend the time to invest in yourself first. As a designer, I very much operate in a mode of things being ‘projects’ that are developing and need work and time and commitment to see them through. But I, Justin Garrett Moore, am also a project, and I need time and energy and commitment to see that through, too. By making this effort and space, you are better equipped to do the work you want to do, to have the drive and foundation to do that work.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
First, I try not to have important things scheduled for before 11 am. I am not a morning person, and so that is asking for trouble. But the older I get and more of these things I do, I am not as nervous or stressed about high-stakes or high-profile events. Sometimes I do great, sometimes I bomb. But that’s life—I’ll live, and so will everyone else, if things aren’t perfect.
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation?
I love to travel, and I think I have visited somewhere around 30 countries on six of the seven continents. In the work that I do, having exposure to different places and ways of doing things is important, and so I enjoy very much visiting other cities and communities and contexts. It is too hard to pick a ‘best’ vacation, so I will instead highlight one of my recent favorites, which was a trip to Rwanda last June. It is just staggering to see and experience what this black nation has accomplished in just over 20 years since the genocide, and I honestly think every black person with the means to do so should go and visit to see it and support their truly black-owned and -controlled economy. It is an incredibly beautiful place with incredible people, despite some major challenges.
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