Alumni Profile: Audrey Harris
By Rylee Rodriguez, MCRP ’22
“Stick to your core values and live as the person you want to be in this world” is the guide MCRP alum Audrey Harris, class of 2013, lives by every day in her career as a transportation planner for the Oakland Department of Transportation (OakDOT).
In her current position, Audrey plays many roles in advocating for the disadvantaged communities that reside in the East Bay city, specifically by being on the planning and project development team focused on corridor and neighborhood level planning and land use development review. In her position, she manages the review of proposed major development projects, their environmental analyses and site designs; as well as coordinates with current policies and plans to ensure future projects contribute to the overall mission of the City of Oakland in making sure they don’t generate adverse impacts on the current residents and neighborhoods.
Audrey studied engineering as an undergraduate at UC Irvine and graduated with a degree in urban studies. This influenced her to pursue a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from Cal Poly. However, when Professor Dr. Cornelius Nuworsoo reached out to her and encouraged her to try out the dual degree transportation program based on her past experiences, she opted for the switch. Originally thinking she was no longer interested in engineering, Professor Nuworsoo became the catalyst in her career change and supported her in applying for the dual degree program. She feels fortunate, too, that she was joined by an all-female cohort as it became an extremely empowering experience.
Being able to do both programs—planning and transportation—afforded her the background and foundation needed to help her tap into all the different realms of planning, Audrey remarks. “Transportation is related to so many other aspects in planning, including but not limited to land use planning, urban design, providing mobility options for communities, visioning, environmental reviews and CEQA, and so on.”
Taking all the different courses offered in the dual program supported Audrey in being able to tackle the roles she took on throughout her career thus far. Also a member of the National Society of Black Engineers, which has continued to shape her activism throughout her profession, Audrey feels “Cal Poly was a rich experience that has had a major contribution in shaping my career and who I get to serve today.”
During her time in the program, she got an internship in the City of Los Angeles’ planning department; and though it was an unpaid position, Audrey notes “that it was worth it in the long run” due to the experiences and knowledge she gained— though hopes it was the last of the unpaid internship positions!
After graduating with the dual degree, Audrey applied to jobs in cities she favored, one of which was San Francisco. Though she didn’t get her first-choice position, she was put on a list for other eligible roles where she was hired as a planner in a data and analysis team in the San Francisco planning department. Here, Audrey started off doing data analysis, graphic design, and later working on a team that was responsible for updating the housing element. In this team, Audrey says she owes a lot to her manager at the time, a leading and passionate Filipina woman who wanted to “shake up the industry” to be more representative of San Francisco and to better understand and reflect the communities they served. “Having her as a mentor has greatly influenced and shaped the work I choose to do, along with who it’s for.”
After building a strong cohort group and wanting to rediscover her initial interest, she gave transportation planning another try. Audrey first worked on the “Connect SF” project, a long-range planning project that was a collaboration between the San Francisco Planning Department, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA). Eventually, she managed the San Francisco Transportation Demand Management Program (TDM). This program’s primary purpose is to reduce vehicle miles travelled (VMT) generated by new development projects. After seven years with the City and County of San Francisco, Audrey moved into the new opportunity with OakDOT in the City of Oakland.
Audrey feels proud of the work she is doing with the City of Oakland, such as changing and shifting how they operate as an institution, through her involvement on their Racial Equity Team, where they invest their funds, and who they plan for (click here and here to learn more). “Since Oakland is resourced differently than a lot of other Bay Area cities, a lot of their projects are grant funded,” Audrey explains. This circumstance has prompted her to get into the grant writing herself, as well as help coordinate project developments to go after [grant] funding that specifically focuses on providing solutions and services to communities that have and are experiencing the most disparate life outcomes.
One of her proudest moments as a planner includes being on an implementation committee for the West Oakland community through the West Oakland Community Action Plan, where the strategies developed are focused on reducing air quality burdens for the residents. Originally a large West Coast jazz scene, the predominant African American community was redlined and pulverized by highways in 1985, obliterating the neighborhoods and homes in the area (Oakland Connect, n.d.). As a new planner at the time, Audrey mentions she went to a lot of working group meetings with the community; and one of her proudest moments was being able to break bread with those community members and have honest conversations with them about what they wanted and needed. She soon discovered a great new funding opportunity with the Sustainable Transportation Equity Projects Grant hosted by the California Air Resource Board that was a perfect chance to implement prioritized strategies that improve this community.
Audrey admits, without ego, that she didn’t really know what she was doing with the grant writing process, but she simply relied on her core values— listening first and working with community members to find solutions. She worked a lot of hours outside of her normal workday because she was so passionate about this opportunity and project. Despite not originally getting the funding, she was extremely proud that she was able to do this for the community without any prior grant writing experience. As fate may have it though, a couple of months after getting a rejection notice, the California Air Resource Board reached out to say they loved the project and wanted to fund it as well. You can read more about this project here.
When asked how she was able to do this grant with no experience, she mentioned that “the justification was there. I felt like nobody could refuse that this community needed these resources, and that all the funding that would go into this grant should be a catalyst for breaking down undue burdens of policy decisions made in the past that harmed our Black communities and neighborhoods in West Oakland especially. However, it really goes back to my core values of serving people and especially those who need it the most that have been harmed by our governmental institutions and decisions, such as redlining or tearing down homes to build freeways. So, it’s a small act in hopefully a sea of future acts. I am very hopeful to see government opening opportunities to specifically focus on addressing institutional harm.”
In being inquired about “why be a planner?” Audrey inspirationally tackles the question with the simple answer “the biggest benefit of being a planner is being a part of planning for a better future, and to help others, especially those who need it most.” She goes on to say a great advantaged in the field of planning is its level of diversity of focus. “For instance, you could be a transportation planner, but more specifically, you can be an environmental justice specialist within the field of mobility. Working for and with a community to ensure that their quality of life is, first and foremost, sustained and improved by having access to the services in life that they need and want… that is the beauty of being a planner; and being able to help people live their lives through the built environment.” She goes on to further encourage the mindset of future planners to be “working for and with the people, often going in with a listen-first approach to learn and understand a community’s needs and demands.”
As for career advice, Audrey prefaces her response with the fact that she finds many young people are often anxious about finding the exact right opportunity to the exact passion that they have, but it’s more important to “first and foremost think about your core values; and with whatever career you enter, always center yourself in your core values.” For herself, she finds purpose and passion in living through her values of serving people. Also, she says, “to just try! Don’t be afraid to step into a new role. If it ends up not being for you, that’s okay! You can always find another role. Just make sure to hold true to your core values as a person and who you want to be in this world, and the careers will come.”