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Volunteer Profile: Samantha Petty

Samantha Petty is a long- time Collaborative volunteer. She is a vivaciously smart woman with an inquisitive passion for how a space reflects the values of its community.  And, how a community's design can be a change agent for good.
Volunteer Profile: Samantha Petty

1. How did you become a Collaborative Volunteer? 
I came to the Collaborative having worked as a city planner for the state of Oregon. I was doing a lot of community engagement around housing and homelessness, as I’d come to planning after many years of being a housing and homelessness representative. I moved to Philly and was looking for a way to get involved in the planning and community engagement world. The Collaborative seemed like such a nice first step to meet people in the field, to learn the city, and feel like I could authentically talk about Philadelphia.

It was such a great experience, I never left. I felt I’ll just keep doing this, no matter whatever else I’m doing, cause I really enjoyed the process. I kept coming back and getting involved with projects.  

2. Why is design an important part of revitalizing communities? 
I don’t have a ton of formal education in design. From my perspective, I’m always interested in what the design of places tells us about what we value and our relationship with nature, who we think is welcome, and what activities we think are unwelcome. I find it a really interesting space for communities to have a conversation about what they want, and what is desirable, and how they can create spaces that support that. A lot of times, my conversations with communities are about the limits of design. Design is not going to revitalize communities without dramatic changes in how we fund communities and value communities, but that, at the very least, allows for a conversation for people to create their own story about what they want in their places and communities. I also appreciate being around the designers at the Collaborative who know how to talk about design in more formal ways, ‘what is the history of this kind of architecture and why do people find that desirable…’ or ‘what does the history [of the site/area/community] tell us about Philadelphia?’. 

What has been most surprising, rewarding, or fun about your Collaborative volunteer experience? 
Every time I do a Collaborative project, I meet community leaders, often women, mostly Black women, I would never have the excuse to sit down and talk with otherwise. The first project I did [with the Collaborative], the lead client representative was woman who had recently left her career with Cirque de Solei to return to her neighborhood of Camden to create an arts program. Another project I did, the woman who runs Sunday Love was a big player in the process, and it was really cool to work with her. And in one particularly power packed project, I met Paulette Rhone, who was the head of Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery organization, which is generally a green space advocate… I’ve met Tracey Gordon, now Register of Wills, and Ragina Yong- now a PA State Representative.

I think the connecting thread is that, if you know about and bother to apply for a Collaborative grant, chances are you’re a big mover and shaker anyways. Even if your funding doesn’t materialize for what we may have designed, your passions and ideas are probably going to shape Philly either way. And I get to meet all these people, and see what they’re about, and that’s taught me more about Philly than anything else, and it’s been really fun. 

What do you love most about Philadelphia? 
I moved here from Oregon, but I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. I think what I missed most about my home community in Minnesota was a culture of hyper local community; like block parties, neighborhood music nights, or neighborhood friends who grew up riding their bikes and watching sports games together…that’s so a part of Philly culture. It’s been really fun to have my kid grow up with that because, I remember glorious childhood nights, running wild with neighborhood friends under what felt like very little adult supervision, and just feeling like any adult on the block would take care of us. I love that my kid gets that here. Everyone knows her and looks out for her. 

One place that is unique to Philly…my kid uses a wheelchair and has a lot of medical needs, and Philly has a rec center, The Carousel House, that’s entirely designed for people with disabilities. It has all these unique features: a special basketball court for people with wheelchairs, and a swimming pool where the ground raises and lowers and is warmer than a normal swimming pool… it becomes this amazingly disability rights acceptance happy space where people of all ages and different neighborhoods come together. It’s really unique to Philly, I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else, yet.  

What advice, if any, would you offer to women-identified persons considering a career in in the design/AEC industry?  
Because they have traditionally been considered male careers, such as science, philosophy, engineering, in predominately White spaces, women might not consider these careers; especially if you’re working in a different field.  

While working in rapid rehousing, it didn’t matter how well funded my emergency housing dollars were, if there was no housing to put people in that was any good or in an area of opportunity. I felt like I was taking people out of homelessness and putting people in situations where they were bound to fail….far out places, in violent neighborhoods with under-funded schools. I think a lot of people, similarly, are working in fields where they see a structural problem undergirding their field. I think it’s fairly powerful to switch into a planning/design/architecture space to try to address some of those structural problems and bring your knowledge to the table that you’ve had in other spaces. 

When I started planning school, there were no classes on housing. While food and transportation were being considered, I self-created a curriculum, whereas now everyone is talking about housing. I think it’s ok to go into a career and not seeing your interest reflected in the courses and make your own education path, utilizing all that you learn a long the way.  

When I did take planning theory, I was fascinated by the lumping and splitting that happened when planning was developed into a field. When determining what was ‘in’ and what was ‘out’, there were all these successful women housing activists, who were changing US housing policy, creating the settlement house movement and working with immigration; they decided all those things were ‘out’. That was considered women’s work, that it was probably not ‘city beautiful’, the grand ideas that were had. They split that all off from planning, and I think we’re paying the price for that now and playing catch up, because we lost all that knowledge when we defined it out of the field. There are a lot of aspects that are planning that have been not defined as planning or design, just because of sexism, racism, and other issues that we’ve decided are a part of our profession that are slowly integrating their way back in.  

I think that’s a fun part of the history of women in planning, if you think ‘it’s a male dominated field’, but then you think ‘no, there’s always been tons of women planners’, they just weren’t called planners. Even when they were doing explicitly planning things like ‘how big is housing to be safe and what does it need?’, while we now consider that planning, it was simply considered for the needs of the women and children occupants. There’s a fun history there to be reclaimed. 

What impact do you feel women have had on the design/aec industry and what gap is still to be filled? Do you think they’ve had an overall impact that can be measured currently, or is that impact to be seen? 
I think we’re starting to see the urgency of addressing the issues planning and design haven’t taken seriously. A lot of the expertise on these issues tend to come from women and women dominated fields. We’re beginning to see shifts in representation and leadership to quickly catch up. 




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