Beauty, Justice and Voice: an interview with Alexie Torres-Fleming

Beauty, Justice and Voice: an interview with Alexie Torres-Fleming

Alexie Torres-Fleming (LF ’14) looked back on her year as a Loeb Fellow–and what she plans to bring to her future work–in a recent conversation with LOEBlogger Kate Anderson. Torres-Fleming has spent the majority of her career as a community activist in the South Bronx, where she co-founded the Bronx River Alliance and other organizations to restore the Bronx River. She also founded Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and believes in the power of youth and community to promote social justice and healthy communities.

KA: How would you describe your community work before coming to the GSD? How did it inspire you to become a Loeb Fellow?
ATF: “Engaging in planning processes for the community” is how I would describe it now that I’ve been at Harvard. That’s what it was: community residents coming together to determine the conditions of their own lives–to say what they wanted, to create their own table for their communities, and to create power for themselves.

I think that’s an important lens as a planner. But it’s also important for me to honor that I didn’t come into it thinking about community planning or development in an academic way. I came into it thinking, “How do you create a community where everybody feels fully alive and human and capable in their power?” For me, it was the presence of beauty, justice, and voice. It was about creating a place where we could do that ourselves, and not have somebody do that for us. That remains, post-GSD, the essence of what I believe in. For me, all of this community planning that we study, all the systems and language, are ultimately about these questions. How do people live out their lives and connect to others in a place, physically and otherwise? How do you facilitate?

I applied for the Loeb Fellowship because this work is exhausting at a grassroots level, and I felt I needed to rest and heal, but also to mine and dig deep into what actually happened over the last 20 years of my life. And to find how that could be shared in a way that would impact more than just the community that I come from. Because I recognize since being here the real importance of that narrative, and how it does not exist very strongly within the GSD on a practical level.

KA: What has been a typical day for you during the Loeb Fellowship?
ATF: It’s really been a sabbatical-like, contemplative, healing year for me. But there’s no sabbatical from motherhood. For a lot of us Loebs, the year has involved navigating the responsibilities of our children and families in a new place.

I’ve spent a lot of time reading simple things like Jane Jacobs or Robert Caro (The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Power Broker). Really just trying to immerse myself in some of the language and theory. I’ve done a lot of writing, including trying to start a website and blogging, and thinking about the best ways to share this work. There’s an expansiveness that happens in your brain when you don’t have to produce. It’s given me space to reflect on my place in this field and this work. I’ve spent many Wednesdays at the monastery at St. John’s. I find it more inspiring as a writing space than the library.

I’ve been trying to get to know Boston- what does the social justice fabric look like here, what does community planning look like here. I’ve really been enjoying weekly seminars and dinners.

KA: Are there any figures at the GSD that you were particularly excited to work with?
ATF: I’ve met with a lot of students, particularly students of color here. It’s been really wonderful for me. I’ve been most intrigued by the leadership of Tessa Kaneene (MUP ‘14) and Hector Tarrido-Picart (MAUD, MLA ‘15), who are leading the work of the students of color at the GSD. On top of the burden of all the other work, they see it as a responsibility to open the doors for other students of color coming in, and I feel that’s just extraordinary. They offer a generosity of spirit on top of being brilliant and inspiring.

KA: Are there any topics you discovered this past year that became unexpectedly fascinating to you?
ATF: I would say the India Pierce Lee (LF ‘10) lecture and also meeting Marshall Ganz, I think because both provide a way to look at community planning more broadly. Marshall Ganz weaves storytelling into his work with community organizing and activism, and that engages the heart. With India Lee, you see planning’s intersection with philanthropy and how you can be strategic about tackling a real space. I love the balance of engaging the intellect and strategy with this very human element that can sometimes be missing in the academy. Their humanity struck me, and their ability to keep that present, real and authentic amid the pressure to be a great intellectual.

KA: You’ve said in the past that you wish to discover a soul in planning and a soul at Harvard. What have you discovered this year?
ATF: I knew coming in that there is a soul to planning, because by its very nature, it is a process about the conditions in which people build community, live, breathe, go to school. How could that not be soulful?

I think that there are unique people that see that and come to it on all different levels. It’s the type of work that draws people that want to help others, to help build things and contribute to the world. The question is more: is Harvard a place that nurtures that understanding?

It’s really important to have practitioners interacting with students all the time before they get out there. I think part of how you nurture the soul of planning is you nurture the soul of community and build up its capacity to be strong and express its voice to planners, to create a space to work together. The soul of planning is not in the planner. It’s in the place, it’s in the people and the community.

That is part of what I’m thinking about in terms of this next move in work. I may not be impacting the planners but I’m helping build the capacity within the community.

KA: What is next for you?
ATF: I’d like to both share the lessons I’ve learned more broadly in my writing and speaking, and support the practice by building out best practices. I can do that possibly in a nonprofit or academic setting, or through philanthropy. What’s next is to get the message and practice out there, using the vehicles that become available to me. I’m looking to stay in the Cambridge and Boston area.

KA: Based on your past community work and your experiences at Harvard, what piece of advice would you most like to communicate to current students of planning and design?
ATF: I would say to have the courage to dig beyond their intellect. This field of work is so intricately connected with the human processes of where you go to school, to work, how you get there, and so on. These processes can’t always be taken apart or navigated intellectually. I would say to dig to the heart level of why this is important, and find inspiration in the work so that it doesn’t become dry exercises. To connect with the people with whom and for whom they will be doing planning. To get close to the taste, the face, the feeling, and the heart of the matter.

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