July 5, 2003 — She has written poetry and research papers; studied architecture and urban planning; took up oral history studies and is preparing projects on two local tradition bearers; edited an issue of a planning publication; gave a graduation address on behalf of her Rutgers University doctoral program after defending her dissertation; intensively studied a historic Puerto Rican community which is chiefly descendants of enslaved Africans; founded an international consulting firm to pursue her interest in scholarly research and publication; lived in six different cities and locales but just now has come home to St. Thomas; worked on the King airport master plan and the Hurricane Hugo reconstruction program; is a mother and a daughter
In short, she's what is termed a Renaissance person: "a highly cultivated man or woman who is skilled and well-versed in many fields of knowledge, work, etc., as is the arts and sciences," according to the fourth edition of Webster's New World College Dictionary.
She is Wanda Mills, Charlotte Amalie High School Class of 1979 and daughter of Dr. Fiolina and Kenneth B. Mills, and she's just added another feather to her cap.
The latest cap she wears is for a doctoral degree: the scarlet academic cap (and gown) with black velvet trim, which is the privilege of Rutgers University doctoral graduates. She wore it to deliver remarks on behalf of the doctoral program's graduating class at the Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy's graduate recognition dinner in May in New Jersey.
Speaking before an audience of approximately 400 persons, Mills urged the Bloustein administration and faculty to maintain the school's high academic standards, to be receptive to changes in the profession, and sensitive to the implications of urban planning and policy-related decisions.
Rutgers was established as the colonial Queen's College in 1766 "to train young men for the ministry in the Dutch Reformed Church." In 1864, the state legislature designated the school as a land-grant college, and later the State University of New Jersey in 1945, according to a release from Mills. She participated in the 237th commencement exercises on May 22.
She notes that Virgin Islands born scholar Edward Wilmot Blyden applied to the college in 1850 under the guidance of St. Thomas Dutch Reformed Church, minister John P. Knox. Blyden was denied admission, and soon after relocated to Liberia in West Africa.
In her address, Mills also spoke of the "rags-to-riches" transformation of the Bloustein School into a premier multi-million dollar research and teaching institution, and the resulting loss of intimacy and the decline of informal intellectual exchanges among professors and students. Earlier, the urban planning department was housed in cramped quarters on Livingston Campus. In 1995, the year that Mills joined the program, the urban planning department relocated to the state-of-art Civic Square facility in downtown Brunswick.
The Bloustein School now offers sixteen degree and dual degree programs in planning and public policy, and is host to ten nationally recognized research centers, including the renown Center for Urban Policy Research. Mills successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in November 2002.
Mills conducted interdisciplinary research on the topic of identity politics in the field of historic preservation and urban planning practice. Her doctoral dissertation, "Identity, Power, and Place at the Margins: Negotiating Difference in 'El Barrio, San Anton Ponce, Puerto Rico," pioneers the use qualitative and literary methods to examine community agency, and the legitimacy of oral traditions and traditional ways of knowing within urban planning practice. The historic San Anton community, which is chiefly the descendants of enslaved African people, also shares common roots with the Danish West Indies and 19th century mercantile economy of St. Thomas.
Writing and publishing projects
The founder of Synthesis Development Consultants, Mills plans to focus on scholarly research and publication, and consult on international development projects in the Caribbean and West Africa. She is employed part-time as a district correspondent with the Office of the Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen.
With poetry already published in St. Thomas in 1988 — a 45-page book of poems, "Meditations in Solitude," accompanied by a tape — writing will certainly be part of her future plans. "I perceive myself as a writer (instead of a poet)," she said, in an e-mail interview, "who will rely on the literary medium that is most appropriate for what I hope to accomplish. At this particular time, I am interested in use of oral narratives to document everyday experiences through my writing."
In line with that intent, last year Mills was one of the Alton Adams Music Research Institute workshop participants. The workshop taught residents methods of oral history to preserve the words and music of tradition bearers, and Mills' projects were on radio personality and drummer Irvin "Brownie" Brown and on saxophonist Alwyn "Lad" Richards.
"I am really excited about this project," she said at the time. "The documentation of oral histories is something that we really need in the Virgin Islands."
She was the first person to publish a book review of a novel in the Journal of the American Planning Association in the Summer 1997 issue. She reviewed the novel "Texaco," by Patrick Chamoiseau of Martinique, showing the relevance of the novel to planning theory and practice.
She presented a paper, "Field Observations and the Novelist's Imaginary: The Case of San Anton – Ponce Puerto Rico" at the American Planning Association's "Revolutionary Ideas in Planning" conference, which was later published in the 1998 proceedings.
She has coedited the fourth issue of the Indigenous Planning Times magazine, which will soon be available in local bookstores. The theme for the issue is "Globalization as We Would Have It". The magazine features "glocal" insights of local knowledge systems places such as Brazil, Boston, Martinique, and the Republic of Benin, West Africa.
Sean Robin, coeditor and founder, is a graduate of the Urban Planning Program at the Massachussets Institute of Technology. "We focus on issues related to communities of color, local knowledge systems and how they can inform the planning process," Mills said. "'Glocality' combines the global and the local, or 'globalization as we would have it."
"What is interesting," she said, "is that Sean and I were hardly ever in the same location. He lived in Brazil for two years while I lived in New Brunswick. Later, I moved to St. Thomas, and he returned to New York." She will be coediting Issue No. 5 as well.
Other pursuits along her pathways
"Since high school," Mills said, "I have lived, studied and practiced in six different cities/locales: Pittsburgh, Pa; Columbus, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minn.; Tempe, Ariz.; Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and New Brunswick, N.J." She pursued studies in architecture, and later urban planning, and alternated her studies with professional practice.
In Arizona, she was introduced to community and youth activism, and later applied these understandings to the operations of the Positive Tree youth organization in the Virgin Islands and her activism/research on behalf of marginalized Afro-Puerto Rican communities in Puerto Rico.
After departing the Virgin Islands in 1979, she returned to live on St. Thomas in 1988-1992, when she worked for deJongh Associates on the Cyril E. King Airport master plan and the Hurricane Hugo reconstruction program.
From 1997 to 2000 she was a lecturer in Rutgers urban studies and Hispanic Caribbean studies departments.
"I have been living on S
t. Thomas [again] since the year 2000," Mills said "but still maintain a home base in New Jersey and the other cities that I have lived in." A true world citizen, she seems to assimilate her experiences and retain them and her sense of place as she moves on with new projects.
Mills is the mother of a son, Alain K. O. Kouchica-Mills. "My son was born during the gestation period of my dissertation, so I feel that he is very much a part of the experience," she said. He "was present throughout the entire dissertation writing process. He made his presence known after I had conducted my field research. So, he is an integral part of this experience by being highly cooperative and supportive, despite his young age, two and a half years."
Mills' mother, Dr. Fiolina Mills, obtained her Ph.D. in library science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1982. She was formerly the Director of School Libraries for the V.I. Department of Education.
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Wanda Mills' graduation in 1983 from the Ohio State University School of Architecture. She later pursued programs of study in urban planning at Arizona State University and the University of Puerto Rico, where in 1995 she was named Urban Planning student of the year.
"So," Mills said, "I am well underway to establishing myself nationally and internationally. Why did I return to the Virgin Islands? Maybe it's an ego thing: If I could be so influential and make such a difference in other places, then why not at home? Serving in the Virgin Islands bears perfect relevance to my research and professional interests."
Current "significant affiliations" include: Research Fellow for Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis Black Atlantic Project and executive board member of the Friends of the St. Thomas Public Libraries.
She seems a perfect example of the reverse of brain drain: She went abroad to study and learn and gain experience, and has come home to the Virgin Islands, where she will doubtless study and learn and gain further experience.
And what hasn't she done? Name something, and perhaps she'll get around to it in time.
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