5 Questions with Humphrey School PhD Student Thalya Reyes

Why she moved to Minnesota from New Jersey, and what she hopes to accomplish
November 20, 2019
Portrait of Thalya Reyes, PhD student
Humphrey School PhD student Thalya Reyes. Photo: Melanie Sommer

From New Jersey by way of the Dominican Republic, and now to Minnesota, Humphrey School doctoral student Thalya Reyes has been deeply influenced by her connections to all these places.

Reyes is pursuing her PhD in public affairs and urban planning, focusing on transportation and housing policy, international development, and environmental justice. She recently was awarded an American Public Transportation Foundation (APTF) Board Scholarship, the first student from the Humphrey School to do so.  

That award is well-deserved, according to her faculty advisor, Professor Yingling Fan, who calls Reyes a “bold, innovative thinker” on issues surrounding urban planning and social equity. 

Reyes earned a dual Master of Public Policy and City & Regional Planning from the Bloustein School at Rutgers University, and a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Rowan University, both in New Jersey. 

We asked Reyes what drew her to the Humphrey School and what led to her interests in planning. This q/a has been edited for length and clarity. 

How have your family roots influenced your decision to focus on environmental justice? 

My parents are from the Dominican Republic, and their families moved to Passaic, New Jersey when they were teenagers. I’ve lived in that area all my life. The Passaic River runs through the city, and growing up in the Lower Passaic River watershed plays an important role in how I think about place, urban issues, and environmental planning. 

When I was a kid, we regularly visited my great-grandpa’s farm in the Dominican Republic, and we also would swim in the rivers and streams of the nearby mountainous areas. We were so immersed in the outdoors there, I began to wonder why we couldn’t do the same activities in the Passaic River.

After doing some research with the help of my parents, I found out the lower Passaic had been contaminated by decades of industrial and chemical waste disposal. It is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and the lower 8.3 miles is a designated Superfund site.  

Most of the cities and towns along that part of the river, including my hometown, are predominantly lower-income communities of color. I developed an analysis of the history of pollution and the ecological harm caused by the 70 companies and parties responsible for it. These struggles for ecological protection and restoration got me interested and involved in environmental justice activism and research. 

Why did you decide to pursue your doctorate at the Humphrey School?

I applied to several schools, but one thing that excited me about the Humphrey School was the wonderful visit I had to the Twin Cities for admitted student day in the spring of 2018. Professor Greg Lindsey was my unofficial tour guide, meeting me at the light rail station where we started our walk around the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

We also visited St. Paul and the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, in addition to other local stops. He explained some of the local history and context on issues of housing, transportation, sports, and planning.

I felt like this could be a great opportunity for me to grow as a person and scholar. I would be challenged, being immersed in a very different environment than back home. There are similarities in the issues people here face, too, such as environmental racism, ongoing legacies of colonialism, and uneven development across communities. 

What is the focus of your research? 

My research broadly focuses on environmental justice and social life in the Americas, particularly Latin America and the Caribbean. I explore the connections between environmental and land-use planning and international development, and how social movements rooted in solidarity politics accomplish the goals they set forth for themselves and their communities. 

I also want to better understand the role that transportation plays in people's lives. I’m a public transit nerd. I love riding trains, learning more about bus systems, and that sort of thing. I don’t have a car so I’m dependent on transit, although I walk or bike when weather permits. The wonderful thing about regularly riding transit is I get to see and talk to folks who use the buses and trains and find out if the system is meeting their needs.

One of the skills that I'm trying to build through my research is an ability to highlight the people who have been here before and who continue to be here, and how I can play a positive role as a researcher and organizer in solidarity with them. 

Why are community connections important to you? 

When people enter academia, I think it’s important that they understand the community where the institution is located. Before coming here, I was deeply involved with labor and environmental justice struggles across New Jersey. It’s important to me that my work here is rooted in community, as well. This worldview comes from my family and my Caribbean cultural background.

As a scholar and planner, I need to understand local knowledge and experiences, so I can become a part of the community and not just be a visitor, which graduate students so often are. This is how I intentionally connect the local to the global in my work. 

I’m extending my roots here by working with tenants’ rights and transit riders organizations, which are examining housing issues in the Twin Cities as well as policing on public transportation and the treatment of Black, Muslim, Latinx, disabled, women, and unhoused passengers (and people at these intersections).

This raises questions such as: Who is public space for? Who gets to be in public space without being targeted for harassment or abuse? Racial, economic, and social justice always interface with urban planning issues, and I intend on having this continue to be a central component of my research and organizing. 

How does the Humphrey School reflect that sense of community? 

At the Humphrey School, research professors aren’t neutral arbiters— they collaborate with action-oriented residents, community leaders, and practitioners to get things done. Professor Fan’s transportation equity work and Professor Lindsey’s work on pedestrian and bicyclist safety with Indigenous peoples, immigrant communities, and rural communities in Minnesota are both stellar examples.

These professors use their skills, resources, networks in ways that aren't about coming into a project as an external expert, but instead about being an active ally. That’s central to their approach with students, which is crucial for the development of justice- and equity-focused planners. 

Being in a policy and planning school at a land grant institution is a powerful position to be in because you can mobilize resources and connections in profound ways. If this work is done in intentional and equitable ways in solidarity with community members, professors can play an integral role in transformative social change. I hope and strive for this to be the path I continue on.