First Impressions

Cooper Chibomba has over nine years of experience in the fields of spatial planning, fundraising, and community engagement. Currently, Cooper is the president for Zambia Institute of Planners, a professional institute.

In 1990, I was eight years old when people gathered in my parents’ home, erupting in joy as they watched a seemingly frail man with a raised fist shouting “Amandla”! “Amandla” means “power to the people,” and the phrase was often used in resistance to the South African Apartheid.  These words excited the guests and yet to me this meant nothing. It’s been 25 years since I first heard these words… today I am a Mandela Washington Fellow. The life of a man that meant nothing to me has now become the focus of my leadership goal and role model.

“It can be said that there are four basic and primary things that the mass of people in a society wish for: to live in a safe environment, to be able to work and provide for themselves, to have access to good public health and to have sound educational opportunities for their children.” – Nelson Mandela

After a long haul to the US, we finally arrived at UW-Madison to a memorable welcome. Special thanks Meagan, Tess, Kyra, Anita, Daniel, Aleia and everyone that sacrificed their time to make us feel at home. That night I called my wife to tell her how organized and welcoming Americans were. She asked me what I thought of the U.S. My reply: “It’s so beautiful; the roads and architecture are amazing and you should see this.”

Cooper Chibomba. (Photo by Meagan Doll)
Cooper Chibomba. (Photo by Meagan Doll)

The next day my first impressions were tested as I tried to take my first selfie. Well, it wasn’t as easy as you think. For the record, it had nothing to do with the selfie stick (okay, maybe a bit). But the real problem was choosing the background for my first selfie… first impressions matter, right? I wanted to fit in everything – from buildings, trees and Burger King to my finger pointing at the U.S. Flag flying at half-mast. The selfie informed me about impressions and interests while in the U.S.

Madison is among the best-planned cities in the world. I know this because my selfie speaks a lot about the planning. I am an Urban Planner who is passionate about environment and climate change issues and how we model societies around these. My first unguided walk along State Street to the State Capitol on the second day was the most daring thing I had done since high school. Thanks to GPS devices! What struck me the most was just how perfect the street layout is designed and how inclusive it is. After years of practice, every planner wants to achieve such legacy: a functional city. Quickly my mind drifted back home with ideas of what I would do differently after the Fellowship.

The words “Amandla” to professional planners means taking decisive actions to create safe and inclusive spaces where people can live, work, play and learn from each other. We must give power to the people by planning for the things that matter most to them. We must honor the people we serve by being inclusive.