Gibbs College of Architecture communications intern, Haley Sandell (H), sat down with Kimi Diedrich (K), graduate Regional & City Planning student, to talk about her journey to the RCPL program and her passion for planning, especially in marginalized communities.

H: Hey, Kimi! How’s it going? 

K: Great! Surviving COVID-19 and going to as many protests as I can! 

H: Good for you! Doing what you can is the most important thing right now! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey leading up to Gibbs? 

K: Sure! I’m from El Paso, TX and I went to school at Texas State University. That’s where I got my undergrad in Anthropology and my master’s in History. I wanted to work in museums; that was my dream, and I loved the idea of it! But, when I started taking those classes, I realized the dichotomy between the actual history and what’s presented in museums. It took a soul searching, but I read an article that was called, “Mecca Blues Flats,” and I wish I knew the author, but it’s basically about a narrative that’s associated with a place and it’s how “Blues” was associated with this Mecca flat in Chicago. I thought “why don’t we hear about this?” and that article started my love for historic preservation and architecture. From there, I got my degree in Public History and then I got a job with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) as an architectural historian through a program sponsored by OU. I decided that this was what I wanted to do, then I realized I was kidding. My boss saw an interest in Regional and City Planning in me and I thought, “why don’t I just get another degree?” In my mind, it was just more school, and that’s something I know how to do—as weird as that sounds. 

H: No, yeah! That makes sense! 

K: But yeah, that’s kind of how I got here, and I love the program so far. It is exactly what I want to do with my future, and it’s so exciting to be around a group of people who are like-minded and understand that they want to help communities without gentrifying them which is amazing. 

H: That’s really cool! I love that story; it’s such a wild rollercoaster story. It sounds like you are where you’re supposed to be. 

K: Honestly, at first I was totally distraught because with my original master’s I didn’t know what I was doing, and I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t using it, but I realized I could still apply it to this new job and that’s what I hope to do! 

H: And RCPL is so broad! You can incorporate other interests into your career. 

K: It’s amazing how much, with what I want to do, culture and heritage are a part of city planning, but I feel like that’s a thing that most people don’t recognize and don’t think about when they are introduced to a new city. The feeling of the area, the character, it’s defined by the people who live in that city as well as the political structure TO me, that’s amazing! 

H: Definitely! Because it can’t be a “one-size-fits-all” type of thing; you want different cities to have their own personality and let the people guide how it’s going to look which prompts variation. 

K: Exactly! Listen to the people; see what can help them and build it for them. 

H: It’s funny what happens when you listen to the people. 

K: I know! I feel like our current political justice system could take this key. 

H: I would agree. On a different note, how did you decide that you wanted to come to OU? 

K: As I said earlier, my job is, essentially, a sponsored program through OU for the ODOT, and I was already working on campus. I started looking into programs at OU and realized that I’m considered faculty/staff, so I was able to get a waiver on my tuition. Roughly half of it was waived and I said to myself, “I can afford half!” 

H: There you go! That’s pretty convenient! 

K: It’s kind of weird how, even though I don’t believe that there’s a path, things fell into place when I least expected it. And now I’m starting a new life. 

H: It sounds like something you’re super passionate about! So, what current projects are you working on? 

K: So, right now, I’m kind of working on a little bit of everything. For work, I’ve been working on building a narrative based on the built environment of African American businesses along Route 66. I’m working and collecting the history, and of course, what I’m finding that there’s very little written information. I feel that I really need to do this. 

H: Wow, that’s a really cool project to be working on. 

K: It’s something that I’m really proud to be able to work on, and I hope I’m able to make a difference with this project. 

H: It’s such an important thing to shine a spotlight on, especially in Oklahoma. What’s a project that you are most proud of? 

K: Okay! I did an oral history in Dr. Lee’s class. It was planning for diverse communities and doing that was amazing. I’ve done oral histories with my previous master’s, but this was different because I did it with my mom. It’s so funny that you think you know your parents, but then I started to ask questions that I never thought to really ask her. What was your childhood like? How was school? I finally learned with she hates nuns, and I learned that I am more like my mom than I evert thought, especially with her feisty attitude. I guess that’s where I get it from. 

H: She sounds like a cool woman! 

K: She’s amazing! She’s an attorney, actually. 

H: Wow, good for her! I think it’s really cool that you were able to bring in your family for this project, and that’s one to be proud of! 

K: Exactly! I think to be able to plan for other communities, we have to know how to observe our own history. Being able to construct narratives about what my mom was saying—my job is not to alter the narrative given—and listening to the cadences in her tone, I realized that this was how other people were going to talk about things. Whether they’re excited or upset, everyone has different cadences and tones—maybe they’re not interested because you are a stranger. Learning how to ask questions was good, too. 

H: Definitely, good for you! What is your favorite thing in general about GCA? 

K: Yes! Honestly, the diversity. At Texas State, there was mild diversity among the teachers, and it could just be the programs I was in, but in Anthropology and History, I was more exposed to Mexican American, African American, and White professors. Being here, I feel that there is more diversity within the general student population and the professors, and having those perspectives really helps ground you in what to look for in people and what’s important to each individual because everybody is different. Going back to my mom and that project, now I see how her development and her growth as a child is demonstrated and has shown her as a grown woman. Just imagining and understanding that everyone has different backgrounds is so interesting. With this program, the students are so diverse, which I love, and it’s open communication. We bounce ideas off each other and hear about what it’s like back in their hometown, back in their country. Personally, being American, and having my eyes opened, that’s beautiful and amazing! Seeing how it is different, how people’s interactions are different, allows us to get a better understanding of a community as a whole. 

H: Absolutely, and diversity makes all the difference. Having those different viewpoints, especially different from your own and the small group that surrounds you, is really valuable, especially in college which is a formative time. 

K: Yes! I wish more undergrads had to take classes like these. 

H: Freshman year, I took the RA course, to be a Resident Advisor, and I feel like everybody—all the undergrads—should have to take that class because it’s a class about inclusivity and diversity and how to be a welcoming individual. It’s funny enough that we must have a class about that but yeah. 

K: That sounds awesome! Freshmen, especially at Texas State, had to take a general “welcome to college” course, like college 101, but it doesn’t teach you anything. It’s one of those blow-off classes that “makes you feel better because you’re with your advisor,” but in reality, you don’t learn about interacting with different people which should be taught. 

H: Yeah, that’s why you go to college, right? There’s so much that can be done. It sounds like RCPL is doing its part! 

K: I completely agree! It’s educating us the way that we need to be educated, and, also, just generally how to be better people. 

H: Definitely. That is extremely important. So, when and why did you first become interested in Regional & City Planning? 

K: My job used to have this thing where, if you found a conference you wanted to go to, go to it. They would pay for it, and I was really excited to take advantage of that because going to conferences is expensive. Even for some conferences, the student fees are upwards of $500! 

H: That’s like rent for a month! 

K: Exactly! So, I started looking for conferences, and the main ones I could go to were transportation-related. My main focus when I got hired was supposed to be Environmental Justice (EJ), and that’s working with minorities or low socio-economic social groups and creating equity amongst the community. But when I was hired, my plan diverged, and I wasn’t able to do as much EJ work as I wanted, so I looked for conferences focusing on that and all of them were based on

H: Exactly! Especially since conferences are so expensive, you can put that money into getting a degree. 

K: Yes, and a degree would be a lot more useful than going to a conference. You learn some stuff, but it doesn’t really mean as much on a resume. 

H: I’m glad that it led you here! You are where you’re meant to be. 

K: Yeah, it’s really funny how that works. Are you from Oklahoma? 

H: I am! I’m from Oklahoma City. 

K: I never thought I would be in Oklahoma! I knew it was a real state, but it’s Oklahoma, it’s OK. No offense. But moving here, by myself, was like a big adult step. I feel like I’ve grown so much being here and Oklahoma City is growing and seeing the planning, I really like how they’re utilizing green space. Tulsa as well; I feel like it’s an upcoming Austin, TX, where it’s like 80’s style with modern architecture.  

H: Yeah! I would agree with that! 

K: Seeing a city develop is very important, but I’m nervous because the inclusivity is not exactly in mind a lot of times. 

H: Agreed, it’s really cool to see downtown OKC and Tulsa being built up, but they’re ignoring a lot of other places that need to be built up. 

K: Yes, exactly. I kind of sucks that our government is built around funding and money. I get that that’s the end result, but how far can you go when money is always the end result and people’s lives are just neglected? Everybody needs to have the same opportunities. I’ll admit, I am privileged. I am thankful that I am able to get this education and I want to help others so that they’re able to have the same access to what I had. Yes, my parents worked hard, and I don’t doubt that their parents work hard—I bet they’re working harder, in fact—but they just don’t have those opportunities, and I want to make it my job to give them these opportunities because they deserve it. They are the people who are the backbone of our country, and they deserve to have a voice. 

H: Exactly, especially now, during the Black Lives Matter movement and during Pride month; it’s the time for everyone to take what privilege they have and turn around help lift others up and make space for more people to share their stories. 

K: Yeah, exactly. I’m hoping that’s what this movement really does it make everybody aware. 

Image credit: Kimi Diedrich, attending a protest on campus

H: Yeah! This is kind of off-topic, but so many people are saying that 2020 is a cursed year and everything bad is happening now, but perhaps it’s what we needed; it’s the year that we’re screaming to make change and people are actually waking up and doing things instead of sitting back, waiting for it to pass. Instead, 2020 slapped us with a pandemic and protests, and it’s wild. What a time! 

K: I know! I completely agree with you! I’m not going to lie, this might be the history nerd in me, but I have been saying for years that a pandemic was going to happen. Seeing how much our population has increased and the rate of transportation and how we develop as a community, something was bound to happen. I think this is nature’s way of saying, “alright, we’re taking back the planet now,” and that has caused everybody else to realized that they need to take care of people. Everybody counts. 

H: Exactly, in another podcast, we talked about how COVID has brought about awareness now of these class divides. So many people aren’t able to get tested for COVID because of financial need. We’re starting to see the split, and that all comes back to Regional & City Planning. 

K: Yeah, it’s also proximity to healthcare areas like hospitals. They don’t have the same tools that they need. There was a lot of talk earlier about African American communities being hit the hardest. I read a terrible post that said, oh, well they aren’t social distancing, they aren’t doing what is right, they are asking for it. I remember seeing that and it’s not true at all. They just don’t have access to the same type of medical care that we do. Their hospitals are miles away, they don’t have the cleanest water, they don’t have access to the same types of food. It just all goes back to city planning and demonstrates the systematic racism in this country. 

H: Absolutely, which is why it’s so important to have equity and justice for city divides instead of gerrymandering. Build up these societies and these parts of the cities that need to be focused on. 

K: I think it’s just time—and hopefully this generation can do it—to have new types of city planners who realize that it’s about those who don’t have a voice. It’s our job to build a community for everyone, not just those who are entitled. 

H: And that’s why you do what you do! I love that! It’s all true, and it’s something that needs to be brought to the front of everybody’s vision right now. 

K: Yes, I think 2020 is doing that like you said. Maybe 2020 is not our individual year, but it’s our community’s year. 

H: Yes, 100%, retweet! Well, back to city planning! This was perfect, I love these types of conversations! What is something that you would tell prospective students about the RCPL program? 

K: Get ready for a lot of different perspectives. Even within the RCPL program, there are those who are construction-oriented versus community. I’m a community-based person, and even the construction-based individuals have different perspectives, which makes sense. They think about how much money it would cost to build an area, and I’ll admit, I have a little feisty attitude, but I have gotten into good discussions, and I think we need to realize that discussions are good. Don’t have an argument; don’t start yelling and don’t have a closed mind about the other person’s opinion. Listen to what the other side has to say because, even though, as a community planner, I don’t want to care about the money, the reality is the people who are doing construction are going to be the people on the ground, helping us build these communities. Learning the maneuvers that come with dealing with somebody whose brain is different than yours, it’s amazing how much you can learn just from a different perspective. Also, it’s okay, if you’re going into the grad program, you’ve got this. The teachers here—amazing! Your classmates—amazing! Reach out to people and develop your community, even to start a study group.  

H: That’s really cool! It sounds like the RCPL program is like a little family. 

K: Honestly, I feel like it is. Even the director of our program, Charlie, is fantastic! He listens to us, which I know I’ve been lucky in my past programs to have very listening directors, but with Charlie, he cares to a different degree. Having a professor who listens to your needs, wants, and concerns, and who recognizes you as an individual and recognizes your potential as an individual and as a student is a completely different realm. He’s great and the staff! Don’t makeup lies, keep an open line of communication. Don’t be scared of those who are higher up. 

H: Yeah, they are here to help you and you are all here to help each other. 

K: Yes, I feel that everyone wants to see everyone else graduate. Seeing everyone’s passion is so good. 

H: If I were a prospective student, I’d feel so much better now! Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

K: Don’t be afraid to take risks. That’s the only way you’ll know if you really like something or not. Go, explore, talk to different professors, and see who you get along with. That can open up doors to what kind of planning you want to do. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.