Madison Roberts graduated from UC Berkeley with a Bachelor's in Urban Studies in 2019. She was a student in the 2019 GUH Undergraduate Studio on New Orleans co-taught by Anna Brand in Landscape Architecture and Bryan Wagner in English (LDARCH 154+199/AMERSTD 102), focusing on the relationship between historical memory and urban design. Currently, she is an AmeriCorps volunteer working for the city of Salinas as Housing Resources Coordinator, and we asked her to share her Global Urban Humanities experiences in this short intervew.
You were one of the students in the 2019 GUH undergraduate studio focusing on New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about your experience in this course.
I applied to the GUH studio because of the Paper Monuments project, an effort to redefine memorialization in New Orleans to inform a more socially just future. Like New Orleans, my hometown in Virginia was slowly replacing the Confederate namesakes affixed to its high schools and street signs. The course had relevance to my own city, while also providing an immersive experience in another.
At the end of the semester, we traveled to New Orleans to visit many of the sites, neighborhoods, and individuals we had studied throughout the class. We toured the Paper Monuments exhibit at the New Orleans African American Museum, interviewed influential members of the community (like Demond Melancon, Big Chief of the Young Seminole Hunters and one of the best beadworkers in the world) at The Storybook Project, and envisioned a future Claiborne Avenue overpass with New Orleans-based landscape architect Austin Allen.
I really appreciated the ability to physically explore the culturally vibrant and historically rich city we had made our intellectual home for a semester. As an Urban Studies major, I’m fascinated by the ways in which the built environment’s aesthetic design reflects and significantly shapes a city’s political and social values. I interacted directly with this concept through the studio’s collaborative research and visual projects.
Are there any moments from the New Orleans studio that stood out to you?
As an interdisciplinary studio, the program introduced me to peers from a variety of departments. Our diverse academic perspectives enriched the Paper Monuments and Critical Cartography modules. This was never more apparent than during presentations, when the same prompt would inspire wildly different interpretations— for example, a stunning light show narrative and an analytical GIS tool.
The best part of the trip was getting to walk in the Money Wasters Second Line, a Sunday tradition hosted by local community organizations. Like a traveling block party, the crowd grooves alongside a brass band and other performers while parading through historic neighborhoods, such as Treme and the 7th Ward. That was an experience I’ll never forget. A few edible highlights include beignets from Cafe Du Monde, sno-balls in Treme, and lunch at Lil Dizzy’s!
Tell us about your current position as a Housing Resources Coordinator for the city of Salinas. Did the GUH studio course have any influence on your decision to pursue this position?
I am five months into my year of service as an AmeriCorps Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA), a federally-funded program designed to alleviate poverty in the US. The agricultural community in Salinas suffers from a deteriorating and overcrowded housing stock, where low farmworker wages and a migrant workforce exacerbate California’s housing shortage.
As the Housing Resources Coordinator, I support the City’s organizational capacity to address it’s unique affordable housing challenges. I bridge the gap between the housing and planning divisions to facilitate farmworker housing construction, accelerate ADU production, and implement tenant protections, among other community development initiatives. Some of my current projects include a rental registration program, suitable development sites map, hotel-motel conversion ordinance, and downtown upzoning strategy.
When tasked with designing a monument for a city I had never been to, I struggled with the validity of my perspective. The GUH studio course taught me the critical thinking and self-awareness needed to approach problem-solving as an outsider. I learned to step back before stepping up, but felt empowered to pursue a program like VISTA.
Do you have any advice you would like to share with current GUH students who may be looking for jobs after graduation?
Ask everyone to coffee: professors, GSIs, relatives, previous employers, coworkers, family friends, neighbors, third connections on LinkedIn, everyone. Informational interviews hold the keys to years of honest, industry-specific insights you can’t gain elsewhere. It can be nerve-racking to initiate the conversation, but I’ve never left a coffee chat without additional wisdom, connections, and direction. I learned about urban planning and policy-related AmeriCorps positions through, yes, a coffee chat! This is something you can do virtually while sheltering in place too.
I would also encourage current students to consider service programs like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps in addition to traditional entry-level positions. These organizations provide opportunities to gain valuable experience, dive into a new community, and most importantly, use your degree to make an immediate impact. Many, including VISTA, even offer scholarships you can put towards a graduate degree. Whether you’re interested in sustainable development or youth education, there are many opportunities for GUH students to apply their interdisciplinary studies.
Right now, we are facing the coronavirus pandemic and everyone is staying at home to prevent more spread. Can you share (at least) one thing you are reading/listening/watching that is helping you get through the isolation?
If there’s a bright side to be found in quarantine, it’s the ability to disconnect from our increasingly digital world and reprioritize hobbies that our social and professional calendars tend to obscure. I’m loving the ability to take long walks with a podcast (Vox’s The Weeds is a favorite), revisit half-finished writing projects, paint with watercolors, practice yoga, and read for pleasure. I’m currently digging into a few different books, including Annie Lowrey’s Give People Money, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, and Enrico Moretti’s (Go Bears!) The New Geography of Jobs.