Natalee DeJohnette will leave Ball State soon with two years of work experience, a mentor, a graduate degree, and a clear vision for the future.

Not long ago she had no idea how to apply her econ major. With some wiggle room in her spring schedule, she took the advice of a friend and added urban agriculture, an elective in the Department of Urban Planning.

From there, everything fell into place.

Scott Truex

Scott Truex, who chairs the Department of Urban Planning, taught that urban ag class and perhaps saw Natalee’s future before she did. Urban planning is a diverse and growing field that embraces artists, engineers, real estate developers, city policy experts, computer geeks, and nonprofit community activists. To name a few. Truex comes from the community organizing branch of planning, the side that listens to people’s stories, weaves them together, and helps to codify a vision.

Truex phoned Keith Broadnax, an alumnus of the Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning program and told him he’d found the perfect graduate assistant for him, someone who shared Broadnax’s love of numbers and wanted to apply that in a meaningful way. Broadnax, senior vice president of business development at Cinnaire, needed little convincing. He’d long mentored short-term interns and was excited that a graduate assistant would work with him for two years.

At Keith’s side, Natalee has attended conferences and meetings and learned how to apply her knowledge of economics to real-world projects; often she found her work lined up perfectly with urban planning lessons she was learning in the classroom.

Cinnaire is a nonprofit community development financial institution that creates opportunities for people in need by seeking out and developing partnerships with mission-focused organizations and investors, and by deploying capital and expertise to foster community-driven revitalization.

“All of these projects are being created by people who really have a passion for helping people, minorities, low-income, and at-risk populations,” says Natalee. “I enjoy finance and numbers but being able to apply it to making people’s lives better, that is where I really found a connection.”

Keith and Natalee are both African American and share an awareness that they are often the only people of color in a room. It makes the mentoring relationship that much more meaningful.

“I walk into a closing, and I look around that table, and I see developers, appraisers, architects, and attorneys — and I look at my industry and wonder where the diversity is around that table.  It’s even less diverse. It’s even rarer to have an African American woman who is an underwriter,” says Keith who hopes to keep Natalee working with Cinnaire after graduation.

“There needs to be more representation in the field,” Natalee agrees. “I definitely want to be a part of that change. More organizations are starting diversity and inclusion workshops and conferences and creating entire departments within their organizations, so I hope that going forward, we’ll start to see change.

“This experience, I’ve never had anything like this. I connect with Keith on multiple levels. He’s an inspiration. I would love to bring another person of color or another woman under my wing one day and be able to teach them just like I’ve been taught.”

Before Natalee graduates, she’ll finish her research project to study initiatives in Chicago to see how implementing an effort to “defund the police” relates to social sustainability and community resilience.

“This is a different person than the one who walked in our office two years ago,” Keith says, smiling widely as he listens to Natalee describe her research project. “I’m listening to her, and wow, I am thinking this has worked. This has really, really worked.”