In early November, I attended PolicyLink’s Equity Summit in Detroit, MI. PolicyLink, a national research and action institute, based in Oakland, CA, focuses on economic and social equity. Summit attendees were able to take in a wealth of ideas, information, stories, and wisdom from work being done around the world. The conference brought together activists, elected officials, researchers, policy makers, organizers, and community leaders from around the country, and some internationally, to discuss the issue of equity. The attendees were an amazingly ethnically and racially diverse mix, which allowed for some very powerful conversations on race, class, power, and privilege between black, white, Asian, Latino, and indigenous people who were in attendance. With over 2300 people and a delegation of 150 from the Twin Cities region alone, it was a powerful experience to see the number of people who were able to come together for the conference.
PolicyLink’s motto is fairly simple, “equity is the superior model for growth for the 21st century.” In other words, focusing our resources for those who are the furthest behind —in terms of employment, education opportunities, and achievement, etc. —will provide the greatest amount of long term economic benefit for our nation. PolicyLink and others in the equity movement explain the need to move an “equity agenda” forward due to the rapidly changing demographics in this country that will see people of color become the majority by the early 2040s. In a globalized world economy, diversity will be a major strength in connecting to the rest of the world, but major disparities still exist across racial lines in the US that would limit the extent to which all communities could contribute to the economy. Hence, there’s both an opportunity and also great urgency in addressing equity, or as founder and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell put it “equity is no longer the moral thing to do, it is now an economic imperative.”
The Summit was filled with inspiring plenary sessions as well as very informative workshops, which was great since it’s rare to find both at many conferences. Plenary sessions focused on talking about work to support equity in different regions and communities. The workshops were more issue-based; there were a number of workshops on transportation equity and transit organizing, which I attended. Some of the most inspirational speakers were people doing transportation equity work in some of the most segregated, poorest, and isolated communities in this country.
Nick Tilsen, a young community leader from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, described the process of working with leaders on their first ever comprehensive transportation plan as part of a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Sustainable Communities grant. The need for giving decision making power and input to communities that have been historically left out of transportation planning was front and center in his story. He stated, “no one had ever asked the Lakota people what they wanted for their future.”
In another workshop on winning organizing campaigns for equity, Lou Turner, an activist working on transit equity issues on Chicago’s south side, discussed the need for better transportation options for residents. Turner’s group, the Developing Communities Project, has been working on getting the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to extend the Red Line further south and in 2009 was successful in getting CTA to approve a plan to expand to the city’s southern limits. They are now working with community members to leverage benefits from new transit oriented development near proposed stations.
Both Lou’s and Nick’s stories reminded me why I got into organizing work in the first place: a desire to empower myself and other people to improve our communities and our circumstances, and, ultimately, ourselves. Sappy as it might sound, it’s true any work that claims to promote racial, social or economic equity must start with empowering people and communities. I left Detroit feeling reenergized from new information, talking points, ideas, and relationships that I’d gained from a three day stay at the conference.
At Transit for Livable Communities, we believe public transit to be a more equitable form of transportation because of its affordability when compared with the high cost to purchase and maintain a motor vehicle. Our region still needs to ensure that more of the regions’ jobs, education, health care, and entertainment, can be accessed by public transit. But just because we advocate for a more equitable mode of transportation doesn’t mean that we’re pushing forward an agenda that always addresses core issues of equity in our region. At the core of inequities in our region and our nation is still the issue of who has power and who doesn’t; who sits at policy and decision-making tables and who isn’t included. This dynamic has certainly played itself out in terms of transportation investments and development patterns in our region over the last half century. Communities of color and low-income communities have seen transportation investments either directly damage (St. Paul’s Rondo Community) or provide minimal access by further spreading out jobs and economic opportunities to parts of region only accessible by car.
At TLC we still have work to do internally to address where we can be stronger in advocating for equity and move to be a more inclusive and racially diverse organization. Externally we’ll continue to bring new voices to the places where decisions are being made about our region’s transportation system while expanding and deepening relationships with communities. I look forward to continue working with members, staff, board members, and our allies in doing this work. Having been part of the 150 person delegation to this Summit, it’s clear to me that equity is now front and center in progressive work in the Twin Cities region and TLC needs to be and will be part of the movement.