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Climbing the Ladder: A Look at Sherry R. Arnstein

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herry R. Arnstein is a name that strikes a chord of unanimous recognition and respect across both the medical and public policy landscapes, as well as the greater community of underrepresented racial minorities and civil equality advocates in the United States.  

In her life, Arnstein was a woman endowed with many gifts, including a sharp wit, an exceptional aptitude for public policy, and the courage to stand up for the disenfranchised in her life and work. Arnstein was born in New York in 1930, later moving with her family to Los Angeles, CA where she would spend the remainder of her childhood and young adult years. She studied physical education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and, after graduating, spent a brief time working as a social worker in San Francisco, CA where she was first introduced to what would later be a career in public service. In the 1950’s, Ms. Arnstein moved back to the East coast, settling into a home in Washington, DC with her husband and taking a job doing community relations work for a hospital. In the early 1960s, Ms. Arnstein met a young Robert Kennedy, an encounter which led to a consulting position in 1963 with the Kennedy Administration's President's Commission on Juvenile Delinquency. In this role, Arnstein was assigned to help communities develop quality of life programs aimed at improving job opportunities, housing, and schools.

Not long after her appointment to the Kennedy regime, Ms. Arnstein was drafted by the U.S. Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare (HUD) as a special assistant to the assistant secretary. It was in this role that Ms. Arnstein solidified her name in history—and helped the nation take a major step toward social equality—by leading the development of a federal strategy to desegregate all hospitals in the United States. The segregation of hospitals, an issue causing public harm far beyond the day-to-day social injustices of the time, denied minority citizens the right to equal health care—which in many minority communities meant poor quality of life—as well as infringed upon the inalienable human right to life for many minority citizens with life-threatening conditions or injuries, particularly those in rural and urban medically barren areas where access to care was already scarce and access to adequate segregated hospitals was practically nonexistent.

In 1966, under the Johnson Administration, Arnstein continued her work with HUD, this time as chief adviser on citizen participation for the entire department, with particular focus on Former President Johnson’s Model Cities program, a federal urban aid program and crucial element of Former President Johnson's “War on Poverty.” Here she designed guidelines that involved community residents in their local planning and policy-making activities—a practiced now referred to as “citizen participation”. After her work with HUD, Arnstein went back to consulting for a wide array of public and private clients, including an assignment as a public policy analyst and project manager with Arthur D. Little, a Senior Research Fellow at the National Center for Health Services Research. In 1985, Arnstein took job as Executive Director of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), a position she held for 10 years before retiring in 1995.

On January 19, 1997, just two years after her retirement, Sherry R. Arnstein died in her Washington, DC home at 67, succumbing to advanced stage breast cancer.

Probably one of the most influential products of her career is her internationally-acclaimed article entitled "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," published in 1969 in the Journal of the American Institute of Certified Planners. The ladder in Arnstein’s article was her vehicle for articulating social hierarchy and the different ways in which citizens and public agencies interact. There are eight rungs on the ladder, and these are then divided into three categories. The lowest rungs are labeled "manipulation" and "therapy," and in the nonparticipation category. The next three rungs up, labeled "informing," "consultation," and "placation," make up the tokenism category. The top three rungs of the ladder, "partnership," "delegated power," and, at the very top, "citizen control," symbolize the degrees of citizen power. This representation laid bare the challenges facing disenfranchised communities and the ways in which public agencies were perpetuating this subjugation, forcing community planners to acknowledge planning as part of a larger democratic process and make changes to their processes. “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” has been reprinted more than 80 times and translated into at least five languages.

The guidelines Arnstein set forth in her article provided a framework for citizen participation that have since been incorporated into the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, and are considered a foundational element of modern community planning work. In 2005, in recognition of for her many contributions to community planning practice and theory, Arnstein was named an AICP National Planning Pioneer in 2005, almost one decade after her untimely death.

In honor of her life’s work and her dedication to public policy, Arnstein's family established the Sherry R. Arnstein Minority Student Scholarship Award, which recognizes underrepresented minority students matriculating or attending one of the nation’s accredited osteopathic medical schools. After the initial endowment AACOM continued funding for the program, which has grown steadily since its inaugural grants were awarded; each year receiving more applications and awarding more scholarships. This year, officials at AACOM were happy to announce that the program would award scholarships to nine osteopathic medical students, a record and a mark of AACOM’s commitment to fostering excellence through promoting diversity.

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July/August 2015
Vol. 9, No. 7/8