Bridgette Wallace, MPP ’11, is a public health worker – turned urban planner – turned social entrepreneur. Like a genre-defying musical act, her work crosses borders and breaks boundaries throughout Boston and the Commonwealth. Her most recent project, G | Code House, has been featured in Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and national news media. Read on for a Q&A:
You’re working at the intersection of so many fields: affordable housing and anti-displacement, racial and economic justice, women’s empowerment, workforce development, and technology. We’re taught over and over in planning school how everything is interrelated, but how do you keep it all straight?
You can’t separate them all, given the fact that women’s empowerment affects economic justice and housing, mobility and inclusion in all sectors. Starting with one solution can help solve the next issue when they have intersecting points, but if that intersection is ignored, real progress can be minimized or stalled. As an urban planner, it’s all about defining your reach – where you want your focus to begin and end. And for me it was all of the above. It was important for me to start with issues that affected and impacted me and those around me, such as racial disparity, economic mobility, inclusion and affordable housing. It’s challenging to prioritize them all, but I started with the core issues that were defined by how close I was to the problem and as a result it was incumbent on me to seek solutions. It’s advantageous to think, act, design, plan and execute with intersectionality playing a major role.
How and why did you transition out of working for government agencies like Boston Public Health Commission and MA Department of Housing and Community Development to being an entrepreneur in the social innovation space?
When I informed my family and friends that I was leaving my public-sector job again in 2016, they were confused and critical. The majority of my professional life has been spent in the public or nonprofit sector. It is widely known that securing a job in public sector is like receiving a golden ticket as it offers a pathway to a career, job security and great benefits. Although the work was rewarding, as the impact of policies and programs on families and communities can be immediate, it can be frustrating as thinking or making suggestions outside of what is considered to be policy norm is often frowned upon.
The public sector enjoys the safe role as partner, as opposed to innovator, and the scrutiny that accompanies that primary position. Yes, the jobs were rewarding however, they were also limiting, thus I decided to move away from the public sector given how long it takes to get anything done where it can be scaled and replicated. It has been widely stated and personally proven based on my experience that the public sector does not drive innovation or even encourage it. I have always had entrepreneurial aspirations that stem from people I’m inspired by such as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who states that “the people closest to the problem should be closest to the power.” In my case, that meant leaving the security of my reliable state job in order to pursue my passion. One of my greatest thrills as it relates to being a social entrepreneur is looking for creative solutions to persistent problems. In the public sector, it is certainly a lot harder to pivot or find alternative ways of addressing the social detriments that we have become accustomed to triaging instead of solving. Working for the government is akin to trying to change the course of a very large ship: it can be done but it may take great effort and time. If I was going to expend that much energy then I would rather invest in becoming a changemaker.
How did your experience at Tufts prepare you for this work? Anything you got out of UEP that has helped with the G |Code House, SkyLab, and T-MOC projects?
As I built my professional career by working in public and non-profit sector, I gradually developed an intimate understanding of the social issues in Boston. I talked to colleagues experiencing burn-out, small business owners forced to close due to commercial gentrification, poor families unable to access healthy food, affordable housing, and health disparities. Their stories confirmed the structural inequalities that prevented many of them from discovering their potential and achieving decent livelihoods. Additionally, their struggles highlighted how development and growth sometimes relegated those already marginalized to the extreme fringes thus creating inequitable communities that often times abuts communities of vast wealth.
Engaging with the inequalities in the city changed my view on how I wanted to contribute to addressing these pervasive and persistent issues. Creating social change through enrolling in UEP became the prerequisite for any future path that I wanted to take. The complexity of the issue required a deeper examination of how cities, neighborhoods and communities are planned and correcting the fault lines in those plans that perpetuated and sustain the growing inequities. UEP is unique in that it provides you various vehicles to best impact society whether it be in non-profit work, social entrepreneurship, activism, or corporate social responsibility.
In addition to building a valuable network, an urban and environmental planning degree gave me the credibility I needed to advance my social ventures (SkyLab & G|Code). For example, when I go and pitch or give presentations to funders on the project for money, and partnerships, I am taken more seriously based on my degree and my knowledge of the structural issues that have come to define marginalized communities. UEP focuses on human centered planning to address some of the country’s most pressing urban issues. Project teams are also a major part of curriculum of UEP to get students comfortable with working in groups to draft policy or design projects that address complexities within issues like homelessness, gentrification, lack of civic engagement or transportation. During my time at UEP, I learned about how urban issues related to each other and how to plan and design with the community needs at the center. I was given the opportunity to think creatively about social issues and using a planner’s mindset to ensure that marginalized and discounted voices are included in the planning process.
G | Code House is such a great example of development without displacement. You asked in Boston magazine, “Can people in their community look at their properties as not just cash cows but something that can be useful and resourceful?” What kinds of policies or practices do you think prevents people from seeing their properties this way?
Hefty restrictions often accompany change of use and development in residential neighborhoods and make this step cost prohibitive and time consuming for a new homeowner. Properties would need to be rehabbed and made sustainable in order to accommodate co-living. If private home owners accept public funding, a deed restriction can be placed on property from 15 up to 99 years. Home owners want to retain ownership of their properties particularly older residents as it is often an appreciating asset that provides them some security and wealth generation. To counter some of these barriers to entry for socially conscious homeowners, it would be beneficial if there was a pot of public funding that could be created to allow homeowners to turn their properties into co-living programs that aid economic development, workforce training, provide housing and stabilize neighborhoods through retention of young people of color.
And/or what kinds of incentives do you think local governments could be offering?
Incentives could come in the form of rehab support, tax breaks, zoning assistance, and less restrictive funding for providing affordable housing. Specifically for elderly home owners, they could be offered priority in senior housing for the adaptive reuse of their property.