by Lisa H. Schwartz
March 21, 2019

Danielle Rivera bridges the fields of architecture and urban planning and emphasizes unearthing alternative narratives in her community-engaged scholarship. To listen to and amplify community voices, she values the use of open-ended interviews and eschews what she refers to as the “tyranny of the structured interview.”

Rivera is an assistant professor of environmental design who joined CU Boulder in 2017, just a few weeks after completing her doctoral degree in urban planning from the University of Michigan. At CU Boulder she leads the research group “Comunidad” and continues her long-standing work with Latinx communities in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. Rivera has also begun a new project in Puerto Rico that examines how rural communities are managing after many local governments have collapsed post-hurricane Maria.

I first met Rivera when she moderated a panel I co-organized titled, “Space, Place and Diversity in the Arts”, that we will reprise on May 16 at the Colorado Creative Industries Annual Summit in Salida, Colorado. Rivera’s work in the panel and a subsequent article she was invited to write for the professional journal Shelterforce demonstrates her ability to speak to academic, professional and community audiences. In our discussion below, she explained that ensuring that research is mutually beneficial often means doing the work twice in order to report back to communities and share within academia.

This is part of the Office for Outreach and Engagement's Engaged Scholars Interview series, which is designed to bring the process of community-engaged scholarship to life through discussions with exemplary CU Boulder scholars.

Why do you do community-engaged work as part of your research, teaching or creative work?

Insurgent histories and alternative narratives that challenge dominant paradigms
My personal planning hero, Leonie Sandercock, describes in Making the Invisible Visible that there is a dominant narrative within theory that presents a kind of linear and unitary progression. But Sandercock argues that there are other narratives, specifically in marginalized communities. This idea that coming from my background as a Puerto Rican that we do not fit into a dominant narrative in the U.S. really resonated with me. I began to wonder if there were other Latinx communities having those same issues.

I learned that working with communities is how you unearth marginalized communities’ theories and histories. Insurgent histories—alternative histories that challenge the dominant paradigm of planning.

Reflect on your particular experience and journey as a scholar. How has your experience shaped your beliefs and practices?

Bridging a design and planning perspective through work on the border
When I first started my academic career, I obtained my master’s in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. I was a designer doing design-based research and I was an adjunct faculty member teaching an architecture studio within an interdisciplinary group at Penn State. I had worked in architecture and didn't like it and was trying to figure out what to do. I was invited to work on an National Institute of Health (NIH) research grant that was looking at migrant farmworkers. A set of communities in the U.S./Mexico border kept coming up in the research. I asked if I could take that piece of the research and build upon it, and that became my dissertation work at the University of Michigan.

When I was working at Penn State, there was very little social science in what i was doing. After obtaining a my PhD in urban planning, for a long time I felt like nothing in my prior career could impact my current career. Urban planning is much more allied with the social sciences than design. Historically there has been a divorce of planning from architecture, but it has shifted now and social scientists are studying designers. And now I realize that because of my background in design, I can think more fluidly about how urban planning can exist in the world. Designers are world makers who are able to see multiple possibilities. A design perspective offers ways of seeing the world, informs how we can make different worlds and helps us think about for whom are the worlds we are making.

Because of my background in architecture and planning I am very interested in working to engage architecture and urban design with the kinds of community engaged processes that planners do. Right now, an architecture practice might have some standard focus group methodologies but I would not call these community engaged. I see a way of supporting professionals in learning what the community is trying to say through collaborative processes.

How do you integrate your community work into your research, teaching and creative work?

The research follows the community’s understanding of the problem
Research in what I do always comes from engagement with the community. It is the issues that they see in the community that need to be resolved. Right now I am trying to understand the issue of flooding in the “colonias”, border communities that I work with near Brownsville and McAllen, Texas. Colonias are unincorporated communities that lack significant access to basic infrastructure, life garbage services or wastewater management. The focus on flooding has come out of community members and organizers. In the open-ended interviews that I do, we learned that many felt that researchers kept coming to study housing. But community members explained that the issue they are really concerned about isn’t housing, it’s flooding.They told us: what good does it do to have a new home if it’s constantly flooding and water destroys the home? In my work I am to follow the lead of the community. The work starts from something the community is concerned about and then we work with them to unpack the problem.

My current research with the colonias looks at the history of organizing for public utilities and services and how people are interacting with the physical space of their communities. Then we move into how we can design and plan for these services. Studying flooding goes into this model.

I have also been working with CU Boulder’s Community Engagement Design and Research Center(CEDaR) on some projects in Westwood that we will start up next week on issues of gentrification and fear of displacement in Westwood. I am hoping this will inform a design-based studio course. Also, next fall I will teach an elective seminar course on housing community and justice.

What are some strategies you use, what have you learned about balancing the demands of community work and academia?

Doing the work twice to share with the community and university
I’m still working through that. Right now I am trying to understand how to report back from some of my earlier research. It is really important to report back, but that sort of sharing with a lay audience is very different from academic production. Some of the colonia residents have talked to me about researchers coming to do research and they never find out the results. Trying to balance those concerns sometimes feels like I have to do the work twice, to share with the academic community and the local community.

Unearthing and amplifying the histories of the community
It is critically important to share the marginalized perspective and let people in the local community know about the amazing stories that together we have been unearthing. We learned about people who had worked with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and they are still right there in the colonias continuing to organize. And we found that many young people were not learning their own histories.

It’s also very important to share the work out to the academic community.

What is your experience with / thoughts on / plan for tenure?

Right now I have the two major projects, with the colonias along the Rio Grande in Texas and with communities in Puerto Rico. I will continue to develop these two projects over the next five or so years and publish this work in high-impact journals. There is big report on the colonias research that the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy will publish in September.

In the field of community development, doing research where you are engaging with the community is both expected and rewarded. I even know of other people who do this kind of work and are asked to integrate that work into city planning projects and that work actually counts towards tenure.

Regarding this work (engaged scholarship), what kind of mentorship have you received and how do you mentor others?

Strong mentorship and graduate program attuned towards community-engaged research
At the University of Michigan there are a lot of strong scholars in planning who are doing community-engaged work. The whole program was very sensitive to issues involved in community work. A very well known scholar, June Manning Thomas, was a mentor to me and taught me about how to sit and listen to communities. She is amazing and continues to mentor me to this day.

Letting the community drive the conversation with open-ended interviews
Rather than using semistructured interviews, June Manning Thomas taught me about how fully open-ended interviews allow the interviewee to drive the conversation. To do these open-ended interviews, I learned that you have to be really good at picking out the threads of the conversation that can be taken deeper. I still get kind of queasy before I conduct interviews in this way. An example of how I do this in my current work is that I will ask a colonia resident a few questions such as: what is the biggest issue you face? and, what is one thing you wish you could fix? I let their answers be the impetus for the conversation.

Thomas’ and others orientation at the University of Michigan, toward and sensitivity to communities was really influential, and I didn’t realize until later I was getting such a special message from that mentorship. Now I think about how to guide my honor students in doing their research. I realize how different it is from a lot of community development research out there. Sometimes the tyranny of the semistructured interview for doing community development work prevails.  

Any advice for others who are interested in this work?

Interviews are not something you can just “tack on” to a research project
The most important thing is learning how to listen very carefully. A lot of people see interviews and research as something you can just sort of tack on to any research project, but interviewing truly is an acquired skill. You really need to practice how to follow threads and hidden lines of ideas when people are speaking. If people are interested in this kind of research they really need to practice this aspect of interviewing and it’s good to have a strong mentor to help you through the learning process.

Get out of the “theory loop”!
I advise graduate students to get out of the “theory loop” which can be common after students are reading a lot of theory and talking with communities. I often have to really stop them and say no, “how does this really impact the community and how should we be planning differently, or thinking about planning differently in order to accomodate what you are seeing?” This is key and one of the reasons why I love working in urban planning— you can’t just have the academic and theoretical conclusion, you also need to understand how this will impact the world in a serious way.

Importantly, you don’t want to take so much of the community's time hearing their stories, doing hours of open-ended interviews and focus groups without letting the community know how the work influences them. This feedback loop allows us to work with the community on an engaged planning process.

Final piece of advice on publishing
For tenure it is important that I publish in high-impact research journals, but there are also more practice-focused journals geared toward professional planners that can be advantageous to publish in to get your work and your name out there while you are in school.