Alumni in Action

Public Service Spotlight

Vanessa Leon

MUP - 2010

Principal Planner Pinchina Consulting

What do you do in your current role?

I have been working as manager of public policy for the American Institute of Architects where I’ve focused on policy issues concerning sustainability, green building and livable communities in cities across the nation. However, I am moving on from this role in order to do more consulting through my firm - Pinchina Consulting. I founded the firm in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. In this capacity, I work with local institutions, primarily in developing countries, to provide urban planning, community development and project management support.

How did you decide to attend Wagner?

I always had strong interests in social justice, community development and policy but I was having a difficult time identifying programs that encompassed all of those interests in a holistic way. As I perused Wagner’s public policy website for ideas, I stumbled upon the urban planning program. Though I had never heard of the ‘urban planning’ field until that moment, Wagner’s description of it strongly resonated with what I had been searching for. Wagner’s urban planning program ended up being the only one to which I applied.

What is special about Wagner?

Wagner’s planning program appealed to me particularly since it is the only one in the country located in a school of public service. Thus, not only did I learn how to manage land-use development for present and future generations, I was also able to consider policies that affect the livelihood of people living in the communities I was learning to plan for.

Tell us about your career path. How did you end up where you are?

In a lot of ways, I feel like my career path chose me. I was finishing my final semester at Wagner when the 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. Suddenly, being a Haitian-American urban planner took on new meaning. I had never considered international planning before that incident but I knew that it was not a coincidence that I was receiving professional training in urban planning at a time when my country needed planners more than ever. At the same time, it is not just Haiti I worry about. There are many developing countries throughout the world that are in need of land-use, community and economic development guidance in order to improve their well-being. My career path, for the most part, is now dedicated to this cause.

What are the connections between your Wagner experience and your current work?

My Wagner experience makes me confident that I have the requisite tools to make positive contributions to my field and to society. I do not know that I would have been able to pursue this path of entrepreneurship if it were not for the leadership opportunities that I sought at Wagner and the rigor of my coursework that ultimately served to prepare me for the real-world experiences I am now encountering. I enjoy knowing that I am making a difference even if the outcomes of my involvement are not always immediately apparent.

Were there any skills you gained at Wagner that have been particularly useful in your career?

Patience. Research capstone taught me a lot of patience and team building skills!

What are your future goals for your career?

I have recently been elected to a two-year term as Vice Chair At-Large for the International Division of the American Planning Association (APA) and in Fall 2012, I will be pursuing my PhD in Urban and Regional Planning and Design from the University of Maryland - College Park. It is my hope that these endeavors will assist me in becoming a leading practitioner and scholar on land use issues affecting struggling communities throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as those in the United States.

Do you have any thoughts or advice for Wagner students / alumni?

Stay connected. Stay connected to your inner self, to each other and to the world around you. Everything we are grappling with as individuals and as a society is so much bigger than just us. In an increasingly global society, our well-being is predicated just as much on the well-being of those around us. As public servants, we cannot afford to overlook that.