“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” —T.S. Eliot
Do you have a dream so big that it scares you? That was the position Holly Pearson, an experienced urban planner from California, found herself in. She dreamed of taking her career to the next level as an international consultant, but wasn’t sure how to connect the dots from her past experience to her future aspirations.
Instead of remaining comfortable in the role she knew, Holly took the leap to stretch beyond her comfort zone as a MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellow. Continue reading to see how she met the challenge head-on, ultimately surprising even herself in terms of what she was capable of.
What inspired you to take the leap and join MWI?
I wanted to jump-start a career transition that would bring me closer to making a lasting impact within my profession. My field is urban planning, which is a public interest type of role, but I felt too far removed from the wide-reaching impact this sector can make — I had strayed off into this world bogged down by bureaucracy and regulatory red tape. Looking for options, I had two specific professional development goals in mind: the first was to get back to more innovative work that directly created positive impact, and the second was to transition my area of focus from local projects in the San Francisco Bay Area to international projects abroad. MovingWorlds immediately appealed to me because it gave me the opportunity to further pursue career opportunities, while also giving me the chance to go on an Experteering trip abroad to put my skills to action in another setting.
What did you do on your experteering trip?
I worked with Ecocity Builders, an organization that works with citizens, universities and local governments in cities around the world to develop and implement policy, design, & educational strategies to build thriving and sustainable urban centers. An “ecocity” fosters healthy relationships among the city’s parts and functions, similar to the relationship between different parts of the body in a living organism. Their approach integrates city design, planning, building, and operations in relation to the surrounding environment and natural resources of the region, utilizing organic, ecological and whole-systems lessons to actually reverse the negative impacts of climate change.
I had been familiar with Ecocity Builders’ work for a long time, and was very interested in gaining more exposure to their innovative approach. Through the matching process, I worked with MovingWorlds and Ecocity to co-design a project for me in Medellin, Colombia. In a nutshell, my project involved looking at a plan for the neighborhood of Moravia that had been previously designed in collaboration with the community, then doing a strategic analysis to help them figure out how to implement that plan in a way that is consistent with the City’s policies and regulations for that specific area. I worked with government representatives from the city of Medellin to help bridge that gap between ideation and implementation so we could start making this vision into a reality.
What’s so unique about the EcoCity approach is that it’s very grassroots/bottom up, and its plans are based on the voice of the community. Although city governments almost always incorporate community outreach in urban planning processes, these efforts can often tend to be somewhat “surface-level” or lacking in authenticity, resulting in plans that are top-down and based on technical analysis and data rather than human connection. So my role was really to reconcile those two approaches so that ideally the future of the neighborhood can be determined in a way that is true to the needs/wants as the residents and the city at large.
In terms of social impact, realizing this plan gives the residents of Moravia a more meaningful and greater voice in the City’s decision making process and the future of their neighborhood. Ecocity Builders’ plan for Moravia has a focus on capacity building and training of residents around specific architecture/urban development issues so they can work with the City directly. The City’s official plan for Moravia proposes to relocate people from their homes to new housing, and thanks to this project residents will be able to receive training and education to have a greater voice in those decisions. It was really rewarding to be able to make progress toward making the capacity building and community education a reality, which will ultimately lead to greater empowerment and civic engagement.
I learned so much being immersed in this new environment, using my existing skills but applying them in a new way. I speak Spanish fluently at a conversational level, but like any professional specialty, urban planning has its own set of jargon that is more specialized. While in Medellin I wanted to increase my level of proficiency in a professional context so that I could ultimately work in urban planning as fluently in Spanish as I was able to in English. That was an important goal for me and I feel like I made real progress towards that!
What was the highlight of your Experteering trip?
There are so many, it’s hard to pick just one. I think the whole project was a highlight — just getting to be there on the ground and working in the city of Medellin with such a great team. In the urban planning world internationally there are certain cities held up as examples of success and innovation, and Medellin is one of them. I had this kind of starry-eyed idolization of the city of Medellin, so for me to actually get to go there and have meetings with people at the City and dig into all of the nuts and bolts of how they do urban planning was just so rewarding and interesting – I felt inspired. It was an honor to be welcomed into the community and to get to share my knowledge about these sustainable development topics I’m so passionate about. Every day I would wake up and be so excited to get to work. Getting to be exposed to how this world-renowned city is doing urban planning was a dream come true.
What was the highlight of the entire MWI?
It’s hard to choose, there are so many things I could say! I would say the highlight of the whole experience has been re-framing how I see myself in my career. I gained so much confidence in myself by taking the leap and realizing that international urban planning was no longer just something I dreamed of doing, it was now who I am. To be able to start embodying that, and see myself in those terms, has opened up a world of new possibilities.
In the coworking space we worked out of in Medellin, there was a wall with the message “if your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough” painted in big letters. I thought that was perfect and really reflective of my experience. At the beginning, I was completely terrified by what I was doing. But I did it, and did it well despite being so far out of my comfort zone challenged with a new language and culture. Being a high-level consultant in a foreign city is a dream I’ve had for a long time, and for me MWI has been awesome in helping me fire up my internal confidence to go from having goals and dreams to seeing myself as the person who actually does those things.
What advice do you have for people thinking about applying to the MWI?
I would absolutely recommend it! It’s a wonderful program. There was so much well-curated content in terms of all these different approaches and angles to use in solving real global challenges and creating social impact. I would also say that it is a pretty significant time commitment, so try to block out that extra time each week to dedicate to the program so you can get the full richness out of it.
Even if taking the leap is scary, I would encourage anyone thinking about applying to MWI to go ahead and apply! I think you will surprise yourself in terms of what you’re capable of, just like I did.
If you’re like Holly and have a dream so big it scares you, apply to join our next cohort of MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellows to gain the skills, confidence, and tools to make your dream a reality. You may be surprised what you’re truly capable of!