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Humans of the U: C. Aujean Lee

“City and Metropolitan Planning (CMP) was looking for somebody who does research related to diverse populations and community engagement. That is a key part of my research and teaching and is why I am in higher education to begin with.

I was drawn to the City and Metropolitan Planning department because of their classes. Planning programs have studios where students do hands-on semester-long projects. I have experience linking students with nonprofits. So when I saw that the CMP department was working with University Neighborhood Partners and that there was a consistent class on the Westside, I was excited. It’s so important to me that this kind of class is being offered every year because when you do community engagement work, it can’t just be dropping in and leaving. Those types of projects are worse because they can lead to broken promises. Seeing this long-term commitment to the Westside neighborhood communicated to me that the U’s CMP department was different from other programs I’ve seen.

I research what produces and what happens because of racialized spaces. I don’t just focus on racial segregation, which historically may have been places where people were forced to live in restricted areas. Racialized spaces can also be places that people choose to live that have the amenities or ethnic-specific restaurants or services that people want. And I specifically look at what the effects are on housing and community development. Community development could be a lot of things. For example, I look at how community organizations in these neighborhoods help people do what they want like getting new streetlights or creating a park—any type of self-determination and self-advocacy.

Before academia, I worked for different immigrant nonprofits in Los Angeles. That is where I became interested in how these types of organizations can be ways for people to push for what they need. At the time, it was during the Great Recession housing crisis and people did not understand what was causing foreclosures. I realized research and academia could be one way to understand the root causes of why these things happen. So that was my foray into this area of research.

I get excited to apply my research. For example, I recently met with the International Rescue Committee, which is a nonprofit that does resettlement work with people who have just arrived in the U.S. They’re interested in a project that I am just finishing up on housing in small- and mid-sized cities. When you are a faculty member and you work on a research project, it could be five years before your article comes out. Being able to apply your work to real-world situations and talk to people who are interested in what you’re doing—that is really exciting. I hope that my research can have a real impact on groups that are marginalized or vulnerable.”

— C. Aujean Lee, a new faculty member in City and Metropolitan Planning