Over the last few months, the policy failures of government responding to the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued this nation throughout 2020, along with a lack of racial justice that has plagued communities beyond the last six years of the Black Lives Matter Movement; many companies and organizations across the country have started to have these “talks” about the purpose and intent of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout their spaces and places. Not just in the context of employers but also in policy, actions, and training; this is also indicative of industries and locations especially in tech, government, transportation.
I’ll preface this by saying that the last few months have been spent reflecting on how myself, an administrator, and a Black Man, have been providing space and making changes, no matter how small, throughout my career. I look at the achievements (especially in the last five years):
- Helping to rewrite Pace Bus’s Title VI Program and their service standards to help improve service delivery and evaluation for many of our communities – including those with low-income and minority neighborhoods.
- Helping to improve service standards to SamTrans through the community shuttle program and the school services to help new riders get to where they need to go.
- Hiring and mentoring past and current staff to be aware of issues about race and to have a mindset of mobility and environmental liberation and justice.
- Improving mobility and transportation access at the Cal community by mandating mobility partners to identify and include equity and communication to students and the City of Berkeley (including outreach and communication, not just discounted programs); working with AC Transit to enhance and improve local service; working with private and regional partners to bring statewide transit options to the East Bay (where access isn’t impossible but it’s also not easy).
- Working as the chair of the Sustainability Transportation Working Group in bringing and improving sustainable transportation practices with DEI impacts, not only at Berkeley but through the entire University of California system. Also – as a co-facilitator of the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Sustainability Working Group of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CACS-WGDEIS) needing to create an intersectionality approach in all forms of sustainability.
- Working with the Association for Commuter Transportation and Seamless Bay Area to address Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the work that we do: advocacy, planning, recognizing current practitioners and their work, and building a future for identifying and empowering future leaders. ACT has taken a huge step to address DEI for our country (not just the San Francisco Bay Area), in which I’m proud to work with them this summer.
My experiences are unique in wanting and needing to make changes happen, but also to thrive in environments where we strive to improve our operations, our quality of life, and improve and include access to all – regardless of income, sex, gender, sexual orientation, neurodiversity. However, many of us don’t have the flexibility or the guidance to make the changes happen – whether or not it’s the decision-makers above our pay grade or colleagues who fail to see the impacts of the issues at hand (we tend to not pay attention to the bigger picture).
These spaces have issues in not only their customers – mainly the people that we are charged to help and improve – but also in terms of representation. Whether it be the pipeline (our young talent), the makeup of our representatives that exist in the organization (regardless of position and decision-making capabilities), but also the communities that we serve. The oft-perception (and if you live and work in larger cities, highly noticeable) is that employees approach decisions with an “ivory tower” approach and aren’t representatives of the communities that we serve.
For example: if a transit or mobility employee who works in the industry doesn’t perform outreach to the community. Many decisions are left out of the equation in terms of options, but also being relatable to the community. We sometimes ignore that community connection that goes beyond checking a box for a Title VI requirement or to fulfill an RFP requirement. And even if it means that you don’t have the staff that could identify, relate, and connect.
Then comes the internal issues within our organizations. Does the organization value, recognize, and build up a culture of diverse employees so they can do the jobs they were hired to do? Does the organization assist with building up the pipeline of future leaders so that they can further improve the quality of life in and out? Do the organization’s leaders recognize the issues with DEI (both with inward/organizational but outward for the customers)?
The one thing that seems to be problematic, in corporate culture, is having these discussions internally. Something beyond the level of performative activism or allyship – do leaders who choose to have these “discussions” just want to have them to check a box? Or are they seriously intent on wanting or needing to make the changes needed for a better outcome for all? And even if the discussions are taking place, these are met with either tone policing (“We don’t want to make people feel bad”) or, to the degree of the last six years, rejection of recognition of the problems (“all lives matter” and the like).
It’s not just limited to our corporate world, in person, but also through Social Media. I grew up in the early days of the social media age in the mid-2000s (remember MySpace?) where we’ve gone from wanting to take pictures of our nights out to “flame-wars” and “fake news” (the latter has been a problem since President Obama’s first term!). LinkedIn is far from exempt for any and all experiences, I am sure you’ve seen them. Tone-deaf responses, hijacking of the conversations, and rejections to our experiences with the above with the immaturity and failure to understand the sources and processes of our issues (how did we get here and how did this happen?) Then come to the whataboutism arguments – for example, gun violence in Chicago. This is a source of rejection of Black Lives Matter statements and thoughts without recognizing the source of gun violence (studies show that many of the guns are trafficked in from Indiana and Wisconsin) and the economic development neglect in Black and Brown communities that date back to the first Daley Administration! (Read Mike Royko’s “Boss” for more context).
Often, the brunt of the work to make the changes needed falls upon the skilled Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) amongst other persons of color and women too (remember, intersectionality counts, and is critical). Many of us have unique expert abilities in our field and have unique (and sometimes intersectional) experiences. However, whenever we want to make changes, we are met with resistance: bad management, bad culture, lack of resources, or lack of commitment. Oftentimes, we practitioners are left with demands of how to fix it, rather than having extremely difficult and uncomfortable discussions of recognizing how their organizations have made mistakes. You cannot have a spirited or productive conversation without
If we, employees, and practitioners of color choose to do ANY level of #DEI volunteering and demonstrating we should be appreciated and thanked. This is a task that we are already on the fence about – but if we don’t speak up and be leaders, who else would do it? Appreciation and acknowledgment are one of the first steps to ensuring that forward progress isn’t just performative. This is something that we choose to do for free – which makes this even more important that our efforts should be addressed, but one that does require said acknowledgment, appreciation, and apologizing for any wrongs that may have been made.
One other thing that was left out of the equation – erasure. Erasure would be defined, by a 2016 article in the New York Times as:
The practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out.
This one is problematic because this takes into the failure of not recognizing, appreciation, or rejection of individuals who choose to volunteer to explain about improving DEI in their communities. This has directly impacted me personally with a recent macroaggression where my presentation of DEI in the transit space was not recognized as a follow-up, but the folks who’ve found a problem with the contextual matter of applying DEI in the workplace was essentially tone-policed and fail to understand the impacts of implicit and explicit bias. The space that I am involved in the Bay Area already lacks representation of middle and higher management; to be an effective administrator of color whose primary goal is to make the quality of life significantly better than how we left it makes is total erasure – without recognition or acknowledgment in follow up – is racist and violent and makes hopes of any form of justice impossible to reconcile and negatively impacts forward movement.
Organizations and leaders must do better to recognize their problems but willing to have the tough discussions WITHOUT the need to tone police or disagree about its content. Practitioners should assess whether or not they should spend the emotional capital to be stewards when organizations have failed. Organizations and their membership must call out infractions of micro (and macro) aggressions because if those infractions are not checked, we cannot hold the level of accountability to each other – professionally or personally.
I will continue to work in my field and improve transit and mobility access for all (although there have been many conversations in which I’ve wanted to leave it). Because I see my work as a high standard to being a steward for the community and I can hold myself accountable knowing how I want to improve the community and those who live in it; and if I don’t do it, who will?