When Malcolm Oliver boarded a plane for a study-abroad program in South Africa in 2002, he didn’t know he was embarking on a decades-long journey trying to help create a society with opportunities for all citizens.
Nor did he imagine he would someday champion wonky city planners, even more than glib politicians or inspiring social-reform leaders, as the people who create the real-life conditions in which social justice can blossom.
Oliver, who eventually earned his Ph.D., joined National Louis University in September as program chair of the M.A. in Public Policy Administration program, as well as the social sciences bachelor’s programs in the College of Professional Studies and Advancement.
During his stint on that South Africa student exchange program in 2002, Oliver observed something striking. Eight years after the fall of apartheid, the country’s white, black and colored populations were still separated, but not just figuratively. Their neighborhoods were literally separated by highways, rivers, train tracks, etc., and the government had zoned areas based on race.
Government provided better schools, roads and other services to certain areas, and the areas zoned for black residents got lesser services.
“I saw that the tools local agencies utilized have dramatic impact on people’s life outcomes,” Oliver commented.
He realized a similar mechanism was at work in many parts of the United States. In many cities, such as Chicago, certain zip codes which have a 90 percent or higher black population have higher poverty and lower school quality, he said.
“But it struck me that if these (planning) tools can be used to segregate society, they can be used to integrate society,” he observed.
Thus he decided to go into city planning.
His first stop, after getting his bachelor’s degree in political science in 2004, was a job as a city planner in Pomona, California, located in Riverside County. It had a more working-class, urban environment and was struggling for economic development after aerospace jobs had left the area.
There he faced a chicken-and-egg question that often confronts planners. In order to attract and foster economic development, a community needs social development like good schools and libraries, since employers want a well-educated workforce. But in order to fund good schools and libraries (social development) a community needs the tax revenue provided by economic development.
While working as a planner, he also took graduate courses and earned a master’s in public administration from Cal Poly Pomona in 2007.
After being inspired by a professor’s suggestion to travel, Oliver quit his job and traveled for six months, visiting Thailand, India, Tanzania, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Zanzibar and the United Kingdom. He returned to a U.S. in the middle of recession in 2008.
Fortunately, he got a planning job in Lancaster, Texas, a community south of Dallas. It was projected to double in size over the next 20 years, but the city faced the enormous cost of building infrastructure like roads, water, sewers and drainage.
Oliver was tasked with working with the regional council of governments on inter-jurisdictional development, land use annexation. He also worked with developers interested in developing projects in the city.
Once again, he pursued graduate studies, earning a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2012.
“My specialty is urban management–how municipalities can face challenges,” Oliver said. “Many of the issues the U.S. faces are faced elsewhere too–like transportation, the shift from rural to urban, and the shift from manufacturing economies to service economies.”
He taught and served as the program director of the master of public administration program at the College of New Rochelle in New Rochelle, New York before joining National Louis University in September.
“For me as a practitioner and a scholar, it’s about using the tools available within public policy administration for students to go into the field and get a handle on the challenges,” he said.
Through higher education, he is working on empowering future practitioners within the public and non-profit sectors.
“A lot of what I do is train people to use these tools to work for a more just and equitable society,” Oliver reflected.