Meet the new folks at Smart Growth America

We’ve had more than a few people join the Smart Growth America team in 2021. Read on to hear their backgrounds, why they think a smart growth approach matters, and maybe even pick up a book or podcast recommendation.

Katharine Burgess (she/her/hers) — Vice President, Land Use and Development

I’ve followed SGA for many years, and admired the organization’s work advancing sustainable, equitable development and land use strategies. I’m thrilled to join and build from the great work of the land use and development team, and harness the diverse expertise and technical knowledge within the LOCUS coalition, Form Based Codes Institute and National Brownfields Coalition. I’m eager to think about how all of these land use topics fit together and how we can take the work to the next level. I also am looking forward to working with the full SGA team to consider how we can embed work on climate adaptation and resilience alongside SGA’s outstanding work related to climate mitigation.

Hear more from Katharine in this Q & A we did with her recently.

Benito Pérez (he/him/his) — Policy Director, Transportation for America

The ultimate point of transportation policy is to manage our transportation system and orient it toward specific outcomes and goals. Similarly to how T4America’s third principle proposes measuring “access to jobs and services” as a core way to measure whether or not the system is working. That kind of focus is what I’m eager to bring to these debates on Capitol Hill.

Hear more from Benito in this Q & A we did with him back in June.

Jill Jones Borak (she/her/hers) — Deputy Director, LOCUS

Throughout the interview process, SGA team members talked about their commitment to equity, which as a lifelong social justice advocate, really resonated with me. I was excited to work at an organization that prioritized equity in their work, not just talking the talk, but walking the walk as well. I was fortunate to start at SGA in time for its Equity Summit in January. If you haven’t checked it out yet, it’s a must!

I’m currently trying to educate myself on the situation in Afghanistan, and reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim Barker, a foreign correspondent who reported from there in the early 2000s.

Helen Hope (she/her/hers) — Communications Associate

Where you live can determine your life outcomes—so why wouldn’t we prioritize making beautiful, accessible, sustainable, and affordable spaces? I came to Smart Growth America to write, learn, and tackle issues related to livability. Growing up, I would hop in the car and ride 5 minutes (or less) to my elementary school in Arkansas. I remember being angry that my parents wouldn’t let me walk to school, but given that there were no sidewalks, a large stroad to cross, and that I was so small that most of the cars on the road couldn’t see me, it’s understandable why my parents wouldn’t want to take the risk. I still wondered why my neighborhood was built to be inaccessible to any form of transportation outside of a car—and how that affected folks that might have to take the risk. Smart Growth America tackles these issues on a national level and with local communities across the country. I wanted to contribute to that work.

Having worked in urban forest and being a self-proclaimed tree hugger, this interactive article from New York Times on tree equity has been rambling around my brain the past few weeks. 

Anushka Thakkar (she/her/hers) — Program Associate, Thriving Communities

The interdisciplinary focus on landuse, transportation, public health and economic development often gets lost between academia and practice. Dedicated to bridging this gap as an MPH student, I decided to join SGA because of how blurry these professional world silos were within the organization and the normalcy that was portrayed for the same in their work to build healthy, happy and thriving communities.

I was 18 years old when my parents put their foot down on letting me commute on my bike – the same parents who bought my first bike, and pushed me to bike to get to places in my neighborhood as an 8 year old. Funny right? “The streets aren’t safe anymore, take the car”, they said, and although unfortunate it was true. The heart of the 8 year old in me ached at the thought of children these days not having the freedom on the streets anymore that I cherished in my childhood. And ever since, I have been motivated to work towards bringing the same freedom back for 8, 18 and 80 year olds and I found my clan at SGA. 

I am currently reading, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez which illustrates the gender blindness in data across industries that shapes the world with what the author calls a “one-size-fits-men” approach. If you’ve ever asked for proof of gender bias in our world, this is it. 

Jamie Zouras (she/her/hers) — Program Manager, Form Based Codes Institute

After studying Sustainable Urban Planning & Design, I wanted to work for an organization that integrated my passions in climate change adaptation, equitable community development, and creating vibrant and safer places. I had followed Smart Growth America’s work for years prior to joining the team, and I had always been inspired by the leadership and forward-thinking nature that the organization brings to the field of urban planning. I especially admire SGA’s approach to building local partnerships to strategically lift up existing community experiences, local expertise, and indigenous knowledge to make a meaningful impact.

I’ve lived in several different cities–large and small, rural and urban, close to home and international. What I’ve picked up on is that communities everywhere face similar land use and regulatory barriers to living healthier and more prosperous daily lives. I believe this country has plentiful resources to overcome these barriers, but the way in which we approach problem solving must be rethought. Through SGA’s interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to tackling systemic inequality, dangerous street design, and climate change, I feel most equipped to work with communities to make the built environment more livable.

Currently on my night stand is the book, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, which is a collection of essays, poetry, and art from women at the forefront of the climate movement. It offers a spectrum of insights for how we can rapidly and radically reshape society, highlighting women and girls’ voices and agents of change.

Ebony Venson (she/her/hers) — Program Associate, Thriving Communities

Smart Growth America’s vision perfectly intertwines my personal passions for advancing equity, ensuring fair access to affordable housing, and expanding opportunities for economic mobility, specifically in communities of color. I joined the team with a desire to expand my understanding of the relationship between the arts & transportation, policymaking, and to enrich my perspective on social equity and justice. I am excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with community leaders, lawmakers, and professionals actively creating change and designing safe and more equitable communities.

One of my favorite accounts to follow as I have been exploring the world of transportation is @pedestriandignity on TikTok. They share videos/footage from the viewpoint of the pedestrian. Often showing the stark inequities in our built environment, and emphasizing the difference in the pedestrian experience depending on what you look like and how much money you have. Their videos are super relatable and break through the often wonky transportation concepts and policies.

Devin Willis (he/they) — Program Associate, Thriving Communities

I grew up on the windy, exurban roads of central Virginia where my friends and I spent our childhoods mostly watching TV, envious of those kids who lived in big cities where everybody could walk, bike, or subway from place to place. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a bit of the world. What I’ve learned from my travels is that I was always most impressed by the communities where safety, accessibility, sustainability, and equity were not considered optional. Smart Growth America has identified some of the most high impact strategies to touch lives and build better, more resilient communities. That’s the kind of place where I wanted to work. 

I’m listening to the Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan (currently on series 10 but I recommend a newcomer start with series 4 on the Haitian revolution). The Musas (2017) album by Natalia Lafourcade is also good listening. 

Stephen Kenny (he/him/his) — Policy Associate, Transportation for America

As policy professionals, we are trained to look for and solve root issues. Through my early career and graduate school, I tried to get to the root of why some people in the U.S. thrive and some are held back. I kept coming back to one central issue: place. For better and worse, our most significant predictor of success is where you grew up and where you live. I knew I needed to make sure people could live in safe and supportive places. I needed to fight for this with all I had. That, combined with my dedication to social equity and very personal concern about climate change, led me straight to Smart Growth America. This is such a unique organization, and I am humbled to join this team.

When I was 10, my mom had to get her hip replaced. Again. My dad was working 9+ hours a day and then going to the hospital to be with my mom. They were worried about taking care of me and my younger sisters. Then they remembered our community. The parents of neighborhood kids who we would walk to play with. Our Little League coaches. Parents of kids from the local dance school. Without hesitation, all these people and more brought food over to our house, picked my sisters and I up from school, had us over their house, and a million other favors. We were so connected from seeing each other downtown, walking into each other around town, parents talking on the train, and the proximity of neighborhood amenities that this was second nature. Instead of this difficult time being hard on my sisters and I, it turned into the best month ever, seeing all our friends all the time. I credit this and more to growing up in a dense, walkable, train-serviced town with a strong downtown. This is what motivates me.

Happy City by Charles Montgomgery has helped me to better connect smart growth with being happy. This is something I have lived, but that book has helped me connect it to my work in ways I had never before considered. Also, I have appreciated the first-person accounts on TikTok of how bad urban design hurts people. The fear people express while crossing arterial roads is powerful. Specifically, I’d recommend people go watch @pedestriandignity.

Abigail Grimminger (she/her/hers) — Communications Associate, Transportation for America

I grew up in rural Nebraska, a 15-minute drive from a small town of about 1200 people. I used to believe so many of the issues I experienced there just came with the territory. That’s why it’s so important to me now to make it clear that if someone can’t get to work, if a main street is struggling to stay afloat, if people have to drive long distances just to pick up some groceries, that these problems are made by people, which means they can be fixed by people too. I love working in communications here because I get to help spread this meaningful message in clear terms, and I get to feel the impact of working alongside a team of passionate, committed people every day.I’ve got a growing reading list that’s getting a bit out of hand. Somehow I picked out a bunch of books just about walking, which are fun to read but hard to finish because they really make me want to go for a walk! I’m currently on Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. Omaha, NE’s Chamber of Commerce also recently put out a reading list on transportation topics, and I want to dig into a bunch of those books as well. I’m excited to see that, in addition to recommending some reading, they’ve been discussing some (much-needed!) steps to better connect the city, like installing protected bike lanes and creating new bus routes.

Dennis E. Barrett (he/him/his) — Policy Associate, Transportation for America

I made the move to Transportation for America because I wanted to build on the work I did in Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s office as her transportation to develop policy solutions that support and uplift historically marginalized communities.

When I went to school, I had to take a transit bus to my school bus stop at 6 in the morning. If I missed the transit bus or it didn’t come on schedule, then I missed my school bus that drove over 45 minutes away and would end up being late for school. Having reliable transportation is imperative to connecting vulnerable communities to jobs, healthcare, and education.

I am always interested in books about the experiences of Black and brown folks and it’s amazing to me how transportation is a consistent topic. I was recently wathcing a new Netflix show called “High on the Hog” where a Black farmer is losing his land in order to build a highway. It’s a reminder that while we talk about the racist transportation investments throughout our nation’s history, it still persists today.

You can meet the full team working for the smart growth movement at