Q&A with New Principal, Cali Williams

Karp Strategies is thrilled to welcome Cali Williams to the firm as Principal. In her new role, Cali will provide executive project leadership and staff oversight, guide internal initiatives, and help spearhead the firm's growth and development. Most immediately, she is overseeing the firm’s engagements with the New York State Energy & Research Development Authority and the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s Brooklyn Montgomery Coastal Resilience initiative. Cali brings an exceptional background in public service, having served at the NYC Economic Development Corporation for many years, most recently leading the Sunnyside Master Plan project.

We recently caught up with Cali over a virtual coffee to hear her insights on meaningful community engagement, inclusive urban planning practices, preparing for a sustainable future - and her thoughts on making the jump to consulting.

1. You join Karp Strategies after a long tenure at NYCEDC, where you served as Senior Vice President. What attracted you to work at Karp Strategies? What lessons will you take with you from your previous work as you transition to a private consulting firm? I was aware of and impressed by Karp Strategies for a long time through my experience at EDC. Part of what interested me in joining is that it is a mission-aligned firm, and in some ways, a start-up. From Rebecca (Karp), there’s a real priority around leading from the heart and around learning and growth as a team and alongside our partners and clients. What drove my work at EDC was making sure that people who weren’t at the table in decision making were able to participate in inclusive processes. I saw my role as bridging the gaps between government and local residents, business owners, and other stakeholders. This was a major priority of mine throughout work at EDC and will continue at KStrat. I look forward to taking what I’ve learned from my experiences leading neighborhood-wide planning, infrastructure, and resiliency projects across all five boroughs. I hope to continually grow my understanding of urban planning, to innovate, and think more creatively.

2. You also served as NYCEDC’s Director of Sunnyside Yard, which recently completed an ambitious master planning process involving a complex diversity of stakeholders. How did you go about the community planning and engagement process? What are some of the key takeaways?

The most important piece of any stakeholder engagement process, whether it was for Sunnyside Yard, or Jamaica Now, or Downtown Far Rockaway, is listening. Listening to community members, and I define community members broadly, to learn about their priorities and concerns. Taking time to make sure people are able to share what’s important to them by meeting people where they’re at. We spent nights and weekends going to people’s kitchen tables, churches, streets fairs, barbeques, you name it. By holding space to have these conversations, we are better able to understand what people love about their neighborhoods, what people find challenging, and what people can see happening differently there. One of my key takeaways from years of leading neighborhood planning and engagement processes is that transparency is critical. Transparency about who we’re representing, the parameters of what we’re able to do, and what we’re asking from people when they participate. For large-scale projects like Sunnyside Yard, the key is being able to hold a long-term vision that will span decades with immediate needs and desires.

3. Historically speaking, the urban planning field has been responsible for perpetuating policies of neglect, pollution, and disinvestment in BIPOC communities. This summer, communities around the world rallied together to demand racial justice and structural change. What must we as urban planners do to meet this call to action? Urban planners need to take responsibility for our role in upholding systemic racism and white supremacy. It’s our responsibility as a profession to not just acknowledge what we’ve done in the past but to take actions to undo institutions of racial oppression and plan differently. This summer there have been a lot of protests, articles, social media posts, book clubs, all-around a realization and acknowledgment that we need to do things differently. But I’m concerned that much of it has been performative and that energy and momentum to create change have been lost. Intentions are meaningless without impact. We as a firm need to live by our values of equity through the projects we engage in. We need to ask which people and/or neighborhoods continue to be ignored? Which projects are getting funded, and what are their impacts? All of this work should be scrutinized through a racial equity lens.

4. As a native New Yorker, you’ve seen the city go through intense periods of ups and downs. COVID-19 has profoundly affected our lives, and its full impact has yet to be realized. What do you hope to see as New York charts its path to recovery? This is an opportunity for us to think beyond recovery, and vision a new New York. I want a New York where people of all backgrounds can realize their full potential. By rethinking how we plan our City from streets to transportation to housing and giving voice to those who have been most impacted by COVID-19, New York can become a leader in the world in how we think about racial equity and how we invest and lift up community stakeholders. And while the focus right now is on the pandemic, we also must think about the climate crisis if we want to have any kind of future. Any planning decisions and investments in New York’s future must proactively combat climate change - which is why I’m thrilled to be leading the Karp Strategies team’s work on the Brooklyn-Montgomery Coastal Resilience with AECOM and the New York State Energy & Research Development Authority’s Offshore Wind initiatives. My daughter is a sixth-generation New Yorker. I want NY to be a place she can afford to live, where she wants to live. A place that has open space, public transportation, and schools that are able to really meet the needs of our growing population. A city that continues to be a place where people from all over the world want to live. A city where artists are celebrated and compensated. I am committed to the city and want to use my skills, knowledge, and relationships to help make it reach its full potential. My love and commitment to New York were what drove me to become an urban planner. And it’s what drove me to take the job at Karp Strategies.

5. And lastly, Karp Strategies has been fortunate to be fully operational throughout COVID-19 and responsive to our clients’ needs. As we continue to work remotely, do you have any sheltering-in-place tips? What are your favorite socially distant activities? I’ve been exploring parts of New York that were new to me. My husband and I were looking for new parks where my three-year-old daughter could run free and be in nature. We explored Shirley Chisholm park, parks in Staten Island, Greenwood Cemetery -- quiet and peaceful parts of the city. It was great to see that people were taking social distancing and mask-wearing seriously, but were also continuing to live their lives. And now, we spend a lot of time in Prospect Park, especially to meet with friends who also have kids. Having socially distant picnics has been wonderful. Saturday evenings it feels like Prospect Park becomes everyone’s backyard. In every corner people have lights hanging up and live music. The open streets are also inspiring. I love how creatively restaurants have set up umbrellas and chairs. By taking away cars, streets have been reclaimed as they should be, by people.

Interested in connecting with Cali? You can find her on LinkedIn, or reach out directly.

You can read Cali’s recent op-ed she penned with Rebecca Karp on creating systemic change in NYC’s planning and development processes.

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