Nathaniel Chan, 24, is a gay, Chinese American dedicated to using city planning to serve the community he loves. While his determination got him a position with the city, his path there was not always clear.
Like many college students, Chan struggled to pick a major.
“Anthropology really spoke to me because it was sort of this study of culture and people and community,” Chan said. “That’s kind of how I got into doing this kind of work.”
He stuck with that, along with environmental sciences, through completion of his undergraduate studies at Florida Atlantic University. He quickly realized that he wasn’t sure what to do with his degree.
“So the next best guess is to go get another degree,” Chan said.
He continued his educational journey at UF, seeking a master’s in urban planning. Chan hoped to marry his interests in people, community, the built environment and improving quality of life across communities. Still, his next step was not obvious, he said.
“I think I actually took a test or quiz online that was like, ‘what can I do with my degree?’ and this [city planning] was one of them,” Chan said.
From there, the career choice was a perfect fit. When he finished his studies, he stayed in Gainesville with his husband, working on the future of the city.
Chan didn’t just see Gainesville as the town of his alma mater; he really fell in love with the community.
“I’m very fortunate to work for a progressive city and in a community that is accepting,” Chan said.
Chan feels that in larger cities, people are more likely to find their communities. In a city the size of Gainesville, that feeling is much less common.
“I guess I would say that it’s easy to pick me out from the crowd, I guess,” Chan said. “It’s like ‘oh yeah, that’s that Chinese guy.’”
While being one of the only Asian Americans he knows in his circle helps him stand out, Chan said having other people from the same background as him helps greatly.
“My Asian colleagues are awesome and we sort of go through the same motions that you might go through at other places,” Chan said. “I do my best to celebrate my identity, be it being gay and Asian.”
Chan described himself as “100% Chinese.” His grandparents are from Hong Kong and his great-grandfather brought his family over to the United States. Though he has lived in Florida his whole life, his parents are from Boston.
Though he celebrates his Chinese heritage, Chan said he does not let it affect his work.
“It’s just doing the work and so long as that’s good then there shouldn’t really be any questions about my identity or any of my personal life,” Chan said. “If there are, then that’s unfortunate.”
The city’s tolerance stood out to Chan, not only as an Asian American, but as a member of the LGBT community too.
As a gay Asian American working in the public sector, his life is not without hardships –– even locally.
He still experiences microaggression on occasion, with bigoted residents dropping Bibles on the floor of his rainbow doormat, he said.
Chan felt that without representation, it’s easier for people to perceive him by his race.
Chan hopes the work speaks for itself. He is responsible for both the current and future planning of the city, which is usually divided among two people, he said. His work includes approval of buildings, ensuring code compliance and tackling the city’s problems through long-term planning.
Combining his urban planning knowledge with his environmental science studies, some of the key issues he focuses on are climate change, sustainability and sea level rise. He also looks at quality of life in terms of tree abundance and walkability.
Chan is also focused on racial equity and, “addressing the actions that were made by the city, for better or for worse.”
On a city level, Chan is tackling inequality issues with a comprehensive plan titled Imagine GNV.
The plan aims to control where homes and communities are built in relation to businesses and community resources to make access more equitable.
“It is very new in terms of the types of comprehensive plans you might see across Florida, but not new to some other cities around the U.S.,” Chan said.
His colleagues seem to approve of his work, including Andrew Persons, the special advisor to the city manager.
“[Chan] is certainly one of the brightest stars in the department,” Persons said. “He’s a great member of the team.”
Persons hired Chan to the city when he was the department director and has worked with him on several projects, including the Imagine GNV plan. Persons said Chan has a warm spirit and loves his sense of humor.
Beyond coworkers, Chan’s greatest support came from his mom, who Persons said publicly encouraged Chan’s ambitions.
“Nathaniel’s mom came, which was awesome, and watched him give the presentation from the audience,” Persons said. “Of course he thought it was a little bit embarrassing, but we all loved it. We thought it was the best thing ever.”
Though that may just be one example of his mom standing in the wings for him, Chan said that his mom has been an important figure in shaping who he is.
“I owe everything to my mom and all of the strong Asian women in my life,” Chan said. “They’ve really inspired me–they’re strong, they’re intelligent, and they’ve taught me who I am.”
Contact Jacob Sedesse at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JACOBSEDESSE.
Jacob Sedesse is a UF Media Production, Management and Technology senior and general assignment reporter for the metro desk. You may recognize his work from WUFT, where he anchored Morning Edition on WUFT-FM among other programs.