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Episode 69 guest Lateefah Simon

For over half her life, Lateefah Simon has served her community as a civil rights and racial justice advocate. Now, as president of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors, she brings that same dedication to ensuring that everyone in the Bay Area-—regardless of income—can access mobility.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Simon: Lateefah Simon

Cohen: The death of Oscar Grant in 2009 at the hands of Bay Area Rapid Transit Police partly inspired Lateefah Simon’s decision to run for the BART board of directors, which she joined in 2016. On today’s episode of The Movement podcast Lateefah shares her thoughts on the recent killing of George Floyd, the impacts of COVID-19 on BART, and how she is weaving social justice into her current role as President of the BART board of directors. This is a great one, folks. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: I wanted to have Lateefah Simon on the show for many reasons. She is a transit rider; she is a social justice advocate; and now she serves her community of member of the Bay Area Rapid Transit board of directors, currently serving as its president for 2020. She is also the youngest MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner ever, so that’s a first for the podcast. So welcome to The Movement, Lateefah.

Simon: Thank you so much. What an honor?

Cohen: I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the issue of the day, which is the unfortunate killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the responses across the nation to the troubling pattern of police killing of black men and women. BART obviously has had some own challenges related to this. Obviously Oscar Grant in 2009—BART Police were involved with that, as well as Shaleem Tindle in 2018. And I read that Oscar’s killing maybe helped inspire you to some degree to run for the BART board. So I want to just start by giving you some space to share your feelings and reaction to George Floyd’s death and the protests that have stemmed from it as well as your experience with BART and how that impacts this as well.

Simon: You know, the nation and in fact the world is at an inflection point. And Mr. Floyd’s murder and the murder of so many folks at the hands of the state, it’s important. And the folks who—it’s important in Floyd’s passing, his murder, it’s shifted a dialogue and a narrative. But I think what’s really important is we in this promise of a democracy, we should be up in arms when American’s are killed by people who were sworn to protect them on the concrete. We have a justice systems, regardless [INDISCERNIBLE] flawed. It requires a judge and a jury. And, yes, Floyd was murdered over $24 not only by the police who had his knee in his neck but also by the officers who were also holding him down.

And, for me, in speaking with folks just this morning, other activists and organizers, not just about the killing, it’s also about the men and women every single day in communities who are not seen as human by the men and women who are sworn to protect them, the dehumanization of real people because of the melanin in their skin and where they and how they were brought here is—if you have black and brown skin, it’s the topic not only of the day; it’s the topic of every day in how you navigate through white supremacy.

And white supremacy is important that we contextualize it because it’s not just about KKK and hate speech; it’s about space. Right? It’s about who and why and where and how we live, where you’re allowed to live, where you’re allowed to study; and how you walk into spaces. And me being an elected, which is the furthest thing that I thought that was going to be my life—the BART board is an elected board—I represent three counties and 19 cities. Yeah, of course part of the reason that I ran was that transportation for me as a legally blind woman is essential. And movement and mobility for me, I’ve always thought of those ideas not as only ideas but as human rights.

But being a lifelong transit rider—okay—and when Oscar was murdered—and I buried—one of my best friends was murdered by the San Francisco Police Department. He was shot 33 times. He had a nail file—his name was Idriss Stelley—in the Metreon theater. It’s almost been 20 years. You know, so being at those funerals and looking at the eyes of their mothers—and I remember looking at Wanda Johnson’s face, and she said they had him handcuffed and they shot him in the back. And watching the BART board week in and week out post the killings, you know, it took me nine years to get the gumption to say, “You know, there are voices that are intersectional, disabled voices, black voices, activist voices, policy voices. You know, I have those, experience in all those places. It’s actually my responsibility to be on this board. I have to be on this board.”

It is not sexy; it’s not glorious, but the idea that transit must be safe for all is a real value that I have and that we all have, especially folks listening to this blog. So this moment, the national uprising where hopefully not just black and brown people but it looks like a lot of while folk are coming together and realizing that the stain of racism in fact hasn’t been erased; and how people who have power over folks relate their own internalized and sometimes very upfront racism in real life, it harms all of us. So it’s—now being on the other side, being the president of the BART board trying to figure out also how to mitigate danger in this moment where there are multi-city uprisings in my district is also sort of what’s on my spirit right now. So it’s good to be on in this moment, this time. Yeah.

Cohen: Of course. Yeah. And I know BART, you know, obviously having to adjust a little service I’ve noticed due to some of the protests; and obviously COVID-19 has been a huge topic. I guess you guys had a special board meeting last week to really work through some of those issues. How is BART dealing with COVID-19 on top of all the other kind of challenges associated with running such a complex organization?

Simon: You know, I’m really happy to be in the position of president this year even with all of the tension and the reality or the nightmare of COVID, because working with this really great management team and a majority of our board—we really agree how to be creative and steadfast in the value that transportation is essential not only to the recovery. Right? Who knows when that’s going to really happen? But the right now.

And so some of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make in the past 11 weeks was because we were literally bleeding $9 million a week. It’s really bad. We’re now to about eight percent of ridership right now. But even with that we had to make some decisions that we were going to look data literally every day and make decisions, that our decisions about shifting service were not going to be emotional; they were going to be based on data; they were going to be based on what we were getting from the consultants that we’re working with. We have a very smart team of managers but also with McKinsey some of the best epidemiologists they’ve hired to advise us as well as folks from the five counties that we operate in, the health and safety staff.

So, you know, with all of that put together, some of the hardest decisions we’ve made were, again, very small but huge to the life of riders. Our system stops at 12:00 a.m. We decided that based on ridership and where the essential workers and how they were moving, that we were going to have to suspend service at 9:00 p.m. Very difficult. We also in week—I believe it was six or seven, transitioned to 30-minute headways. And as a lifelong BART rider, you know, one of the things I love about BART is if you miss train one, you can get on train two in like five minutes and then transfer.

Cohen: Yeah.

Simon: BART is only bad when it’s bad. I tell people all the time, “You hate it when you hate it; but the six days out of the seven, you’re getting to where you need to go on time.” And so shifting that and making way and making sure that people could socially distance but also having 10-car trains, putting all of these new ideas creatively to figure out how we keep moving, I myself and our general manager, that’s our goal throughout this whole pandemic and moving forward. Yes, the money is a real thing. We have a very interesting revenue structure, which it needs to shift. Seventy percent of our operating budget comes from farebox, unlike a lot of transit systems that you see where their farebox recovery is maybe 20% of their operating budget. Seventy percent; right? So if you lose 94%, 95% of your riders, you don’t have revenue to keep going.

So the CARES Act saved our lives. Hopefully the MTC will be wonderful again and provide BART with a second tranche of funding from the CARES Act for our next fiscal year. And it’s going to be tough, but I deeply believe we need to be there. And so by firing staff, furloughing staff, and, as you know as a transit enthusiast, you know, we hire people and train them deeply to be able to get people where they need to go safely. So if I’m laying off somebody tomorrow who is a train operator and he gets or she gets or they get another job, it’s going to take me six months to certify someone new. We want to keep our people moving so that not only the staff—right—but so folks who are still out there working keeping our stores open, our hospitals open, some of our daycare centers open—and I can go on and on—so they can continue sort of holding us up and making sure that our staff are consistent, well trained, and also safe. So it’s been tough, but I think leading through crisis is—it’s a wonderful experience in the sense that, you know, if we can get through this we can get through anything.

Cohen: Hmm. Yeah. I want to touch on that in a minute. I think that’s an interesting way to look at that. I’m thinking about, you know, you have these challenges with COVID-19; and even before those challenges, even before this crisis that you’re dealing with you were tackling some really big issues like fare evasion and the growing homeless population that has sought out BART train stations and trains for shelter.

Simon: That’s right.

Cohen: And so I know some leaders and even maybe some BART leaders in the past have shied away from some of these issues, especially because the cause of them is way, way beyond just your kind of purview. And you’ve really leaned into those issues, and so I’m really curious how you have balanced those kind of issues that obviously impact you but are kind of from outside of your purview with the more operational issues that you have to address as well every day.

Simon: Yeah. You know, I start this conversation off by, you know, I’m super humbled by these sort of systemic issues and how they relate to a transit agency. My dad struggled with homelessness and addiction for many years. And so when I see the brothers and the sisters in our system and as I talk to our police chief every week as we’re creating strategies around homelessness and houselessness, I’m very clear that dignified shelter must be the goal. No one should have to take up shelter in a tunnel, on a subway; and no one who is doing it literally wants to do it.

And so instead of simply criminalizing the reality that people are trying to figure out restful sleep or they’re dealing with their addiction issues, no one likes to look at or feel intense poverty, especially the person experiencing it. But that our job instead of—of course you have to make sure; you have to check on people; you have to get them to where they need to go; but I’m really, really clear that my responsibility and our responsibility as a board is to work with, push, and hold accountable our local leaders—many of them are my friends—to say, “This issue; house and clothe and take care of and provide treatment on demand for your people.”

So as an advocate who for 25 years I’ve been in the face of politicians before I even tried to be one, we are making good on that promise. It’s not going to over night shift. And our police officers, you know, their goal is not just to be the enforcers, but in fact they’re moving towards thinking about, “Okay. Actually I have to get this person off the train, but what is more the systemic issue that we’re dealing with? This person needs care.” And so they’re working now. We have facilitated contracts with local counties, with our counties and our cities, and our supporting street outreach around our stations, within our stations to make sure that there is also a referral network.

I mean, you put somebody off a train, and as soon as that train goes by if you don’t have a system of care—and who would ever think that transit professionals would have to think about this, but that person gets right back on. Right? And so it’s about us being very, very thoughtful. Let’s take the issue of fare evasion. You know, I struggle with it as well. Right? I was a poor kid, and I never had resources to move throughout the Bay Area. I had internships as a kid, and I was always the one ducking under. Right? We’ve got to make transit affordable. And in the meantime I understand.

You know, I have not championed anti-fare evasion. Other board members have, but it is what people want, to make sure that the system is safe and secure. I understand that. But I feel like my role—everybody has a role. Everybody has what my grandmother used to say, “a ministry.” She used to say, “Baby, what’s your ministry.” My ministry in the fare evasion conversation is to continue to advocate for affordable fares. So, you know, the MTC has been amazing in the Bay Area thinking about how we could have a means-based fare pilot.

We were supposed to start that pilot in April; COVID happened, but even in this moment more than ever we’re going to launch that pilot in this quarter. I’m pushing for that to make sure that folks who food stamp eligibility and now more—think about it—unemployment eligibility, folks who are in low-income [INDISCERNIBLE], that there is an opportunity for them to get a 20%. And that’s still not enough for folks who really can’t afford it. Rail in the Bay Area is expensive. It’s not New York. It’s not one price from Wall Street to the Bronx. It’s expensive. Again, going back to that, how our farebox recovery moves into our operating budget.

So we have some big questions to answer, but I have leaned into both of those issues clearly because they’re issues on the top of the minds of our constituents who are on BART. But, for me, thinking about non-criminalizing poverty is important, figuring out ways to make sure that BART is affordable, and then, again, pressing on folks who themselves have taken an oath to clothe and feed and secure the most vulnerable, that’s my job.

Cohen: I agree. And I think that goes back to, you know, questioning how the fundamental way that we’re funding some of these critical needs, whether it’s mobility, whether it’s housing, dignified housing for everyone, it seems like the fundamental way that we’re trying to fund these things is it’s just not enough. Right? It’s just the baseline. Right? So let alone if there’s any economic impact.

So, I guess, like, there’s got to be some, like, fundamental changes. And, to me, the only way to do that is at a broad, broad base. You’re not just saying, “I need all of the people that are using BART to pay for it, but I need the whole Bay Area to pay for this because if BART works well and mobility is a human right that everyone has access to, then that’s going to make the Bay Area stronger.” But if we can’t do that it’s only going to hurt everybody. And I really struggle that sometimes we can’t see that.

Simon: Well, here is what I have come to understand. You know, BART will as of June 13th, you know, be in the Silicon Valley, so we’ll be operating in five counties. You know, for the 45-plus years that BART has been around we have taxed residents, and many of them are fed up. They want more extensions. You know, we can clean the BART system. In the morning when we open up it’s shining, and then by 5:07, you know—[LAUGHS]—it’s disgusting. Right? And that’s what people see. And in 30 minutes we’ll clean it up again, but, you know, the reality of how people experience transit—they are frustrated when we’re late, and they’re not thinking about it when they’re on time.

If you don’t use transit and you drive and you get that tax bill and you see that transit allocation, you’re pissed off. We have to do a lot better job as a community consistently, not only when it’s time to run a ballot measure but to consistently talk about the beauty of public transit and why not only that it’s a human right—I always say that—but that it actually solidifies the economy, it solidifies community, and it solidifies our value around earth justice. Right? But we have to make sure that those messages reside with folks.

I have folks in my family who they’re going to be in their cars until those cars drive out, and then there’s public transit riders. So the fact that the taxation continues to happen and folks are frustrated about it and we’re going to need more bonds and we’re going to need more ballot measure moving forward as the Bay Area shifts and changes, it’s going to be tough. Unless you’re an enthusiast or unless you’re using it every day, you’re not thinking about it. So we have a big job to do, and I don’t have the answer there, but I absolutely think the State of California has to be thinking about mass transit very differently in our annual budget. And in this moment it’s almost impossible, not just around recovery, but—I mean, my God—every state in this union is dealing with the realities of not having sales-tax revenue for three months.

So as we move forward it’s something that’s right of mind with me and my colleagues and I’m sure all the folks who are listening; how do we fund all this transit? How do we fund it like other countries fund public transit where it’s seen as deeply essential to the culture, the fabric of the communities?

Cohen: Yeah. No, I definitely agree. So maybe transitioning to a little bit more of the forward-looking part of this. I know obviously that there’s no magic wand here and it takes a while to make something a reality, but also I also recognize there’s power in having a compelling vision of the future. And so I’m curious what you see as the ideal future state of BART.

Simon: We’ve been talking about moving towards a world-class system for quite some time—right—at BART and in other operators around the country. In this moment for me, not just in this COVID moment but in this moment I think it is safe for us to envision a system in the Bay Area—we have 27 providers of public transportation within the wider Bay Area. And we all do things very differently. We charge differently. We sometimes coordinate when we create new routes, and sometimes we don’t. We all have, whether it’s elected boards or appointed boards; we’re not speaking the same language, and we’re fighting for resources. We’re fighting each other for resources.
Seamless Bay Area is a policy vision that I’ve been really excited to sign onto. In any other sector we’re always thinking about ecosystems and how we speak to each other. Transit is somewhat late in the game, but, you know, folks like Assemblymember David Chiu and TransForm and SPUR—there are these great sort of agencies outside of sort of the operator space who are pushing us to think about how we move together, how we think about transit-oriented development together. The vision for BART for me, you know, on a day-to-day level, again, it’s a system that is extremely accessible, affordable, and accountable. I want that. And now being someone who has to deliver that, I know it’s tough; but it’s still a vision.

I want people to be able to get to BART. So for me that does mean a seamless Bay Area, these 27 operators being able to get people to stations so everyone is not clogging up the roads getting to BART in their cars and dealing with the fact that there’s no parking in the morning. You have 27 operators, and in a region that is large there’s no reason why such a large percentage of folks need to park. But what we have to do is provide people what they need. In communities people should have to walk a couple of blocks and be able to get on a bus. That doesn’t exist right now. Urban planners who are planning for some of these communities aren’t transit riders. Right? [LAUGHS]

So, you know, if you’ve never waited for a bus in the rain for 30 minutes and you’re designing—and in the rain, and then that bus passes you up, and you’re designing transit routes for folks, I would ask you to take 30 minutes of your day in the winter to sit at a bus stop—[LAUGHS]—like, not just when it’s warm. Like, when it’s raining, and that bus shelter that you designed or you got a contractor to do doesn’t keep the rain out, and the old lady is sitting there with her groceries, it’s miserable. That’s my whole life.

I will never drive a car, and so I see these realities and thinking, “Why can’t we get people to transit safe and dry? Why are we taking the cheap way out?” Some folks for the rest of their lives will have to use these modals of transportation. So, yeah, I mean, my vision is, I feel like, pretty aligned with a lot of sort of the transit scholars that I talk to, a lot of the folks who are doing land use and who are thinking about how we get more housing close to transit so people can actually utilize it.

But I also want to concede that I’m new to this game. You know, as a transit rider and as an activist and as someone who has been steeped in justice policy moving into the transit space, I’m learning. I’m learning. And that vision that folks have been developing even for seamless transit, I’m still a student of.

Cohen: Sure. Well, and I think that’s certainly part of the challenge obviously, learning some of the transit ins and outs that you don’t pick up as a rider that you obviously have to learn and also for you sharing some of those perspective with them about social justice and equity that, you know, they may have from an academic perspective but maybe haven’t been on the street in the same way. So I think that’s really valuable.

You mentioned Seamless Bay Area. I did have Ian on the podcast back in October on “Episode 032,” so certainly I think you’ve certainly identified a critical gap in what’s necessary to really make moving around the Bay Area as effective as possible. I want to wrap up with this, which is you mentioned kind of the opportunity that is available to you as a leader during crisis, during COVID, and so forth. I guess my question to you to maybe wrap up here is, in this challenging time obviously we still need to practice self care and fill up our own cups, and so I’m curious what you are doing as a leader to help you stay present and as effective as possible as a leader of a major, major organization that is critical to the success and mobility for hundreds of thousands of people a day.

Simon: Yeah. You know, for me it’s talking to people like you, sir. I’ve really—being at home—I’ve been at home for 11 weeks, and, you know, I started running a nonprofit at 19 with 20 employees. I have never been in one space for so long. So the beauty and the privilege that I have to sit on my couch and at my dining room table and connect with people every day is really special, because the busy and the busy and especially, you know—I mean, folks laugh and talk about, “Oh, Lateefah, I saw you running for a bus yesterday.” Oh, I was running for that bus. You know, I’m not doing that now. So but the honor that I have to just kind of sit is really, really, really, really wonderful. I do have to go. I have somebody at my door—[LAUGHS]—so I will talk to you soon. And thank you so much for this opportunity.

Cohen: Thank you so much, Lateefah. Keep up the great work.

Simon: Okay, bye.

F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.