The Oberlin Stories Project

On preparation

Yvette Chen ’16

“Three years into college, I can say with confidence that my experiences inside and outside of the classroom have equipped me with the skills to fight for what I believe in.”

A group poses at a city bridge.

Before anyone embarks on the journey to college, at least a dozen times you are asked an iteration of the same question: What are you studying? I would shrug and smile, assuring people that I would figure it out. To be honest, I had no idea what lay ahead. I enjoyed art throughout high school and was fascinated in photojournalism, which prompted me to think about social and political issues. I came to Oberlin because I knew there was a legacy of students involved in social justice. Three years into college, I can say with confidence that my experiences inside and outside of the classroom have equipped me with the skills to fight for what I believe in.

My first year at Oberlin, I signed up for a variety of courses, including darkroom color photography, Chinese calligraphy, and a first year seminar on the 2012 election taught by Oberlin College’s president Marvin Krislov. In my second semester, I spontaneously enrolled in introductory sociology and urban economics classes, with two professors who would end up being my advisors. I was struck by the connections between the inequalities we discussed in sociology and the economic models of housing segregation. While both approached urban inequality from different perspectives, together they offered a fuller picture. This picture was deeply troubling to me.

Last summer, I interned at a public interest law firm called Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC) after learning about the firm from a book I read for my urban sociology seminar. In my reading, the FSHC was noted as a laudable and powerful organization that fought for fair housing in my home state of New Jersey. Growing up in the affluent suburbs, I had never considered the importance of housing and the housing policies in my own state. During my internship at FSHC, I quickly realized that the battle for housing in New Jersey is extremely contentious, filled with bureaucracy, delays, and corruption. Rich towns like my own had blocked out well-deserving residents for decades.

A state agency, the Council on Affordable Housing, used a complicated mapping methodology to determine how much affordable housing each town in New Jersey needed to provide. Luckily, during winter term my sophomore year, I learned how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) through an on-campus group project. This was the same mapping software that the Council on Affordable Housing used. My boss at FSHC tasked me with following and investigating the methodology used in the study, which was done by a planning expert at Rutgers University for nearly $300,000. To my surprise, I uncovered egregious errors and eventually contributed to preventing vastly inaccurate and underestimated affordable housing numbers from moving forward in the process.

Oberlin has given me many tools to approach my interests from different angles. As a junior, I took an environmental studies course called Urban Political Ecology in which I analyzed the financialization of urban planning projects with large, typically negative ramifications for affordable housing. In a sociology class on New Immigrant Destinations, I investigated the forces that relegated immigrants, working in high-end ski resorts, to poor housing. Along with more concrete skills like GIS and analyzing data, I have developed the critical analytical and theoretical frameworks to approach broader discussions around spatial justice. Now, I’m using this background as a summer housing policy intern at The Century Foundation. At this think tank, the broad aim of my work is investigating the policies that promote economic and racial segregation, while also theorizing inclusionary policies that will foster a more integrated society.

Our nation continues to battle deep-rooted racism and historical disenfranchisement. Just as racism has evolved, so too have insidious housing policies. Race-neutral on their face, they serve to block out minorities and low-income individuals. With progress always too slow, it is easy to feel deeply pessimistic and even resigned. However, through the opportunities Oberlin has given me, I now have a network of invaluable mentors that continually inspire and encourage me. With the knowledge and deep passion I’ve developed at Oberlin, I intend to continue fighting for spatial justice and the prospects of a more equitable society.