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Episode 71 guest Veronica Davis

If we are to truly bring about change and address the barriers to inclusive, equitable and healthy communities, Veronica Davis of consulting firm Nspiregreen says we need to get at the root cause of the most challenging problems in our communities.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Davis: Veronica Davis

Cohen: There’s a lot to like in today’s episode of The Movement podcast with Veronica Davis of Nspiregreen. Perhaps my favorite though is an emergency room analogy she used about an economically and geographically diverse county that she consulted with that was wrestling with how to apply an equity framework to Vision Zero. 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: My guest today is Veronica Davis. She is a civil engineer who is a cofounder and principal planning manager of Nspiregreen, an environmental and urban planning consulting company based in D.C. She is also the cofounder of Black Women Bike. Excited to have Veronica on The Movement podcast, so welcome to The Movement, Veronica.

Davis: Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Cohen: So I want to start a little bit by sharing a little bit about your background. So you actually literally have transportation in your blood, so maybe give us that story.

Davis: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think, on my personal website I talk a little bit about growing up with my dad. When I was born he worked at the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. And then he went to go work for Sea-Land, which then became CSX, and overseeing shipping operations at the Port of Elizabeth in New Jersey.

Cohen: Wow.

Davis: And then my mom worked for New York City Transit Authority, but even before that my grandfather used to own Lincoln Cab Company in Raleigh, North Carolina. My grandfather is no longer living; but they started that in, I want to say, like the ‘70s or so and at one point got up to 35 cabs that were working for him. So it goes back multiple generations.

Cohen: Wow. I mean, when you were growing up—you know, my parents were teachers, and so I didn’t—I kind of pushed against that. It sounds like you’ve kind of embraced that a little bit.

Davis: Well, I think that I had a natural curiosity growing up. And my parents, I think, did a phenomenal job fostering that. I think especially what happens to a lot of young girls is, you know, when people raise girls they give them dolls and things like that. However my parents—I had dolls too. I had Barbies, but I also had Tonka trucks and I had Transformers and G.I. Joes and the Millennium Falcon, for all the Star Wars fans. You know, I had all those toys as well, and I just had a natural curiosity that my parents cultivated.

So it was things like I was curious about how a radio worked, and so my parents got me an older radio that I was able to take apart and just see the different components. I couldn’t figure out how to put it back together, but I think I had fun taking it apart. And I had a chemistry set; I had a biology set. So I think some of it is, you know, one, the exposure from a young age into this world of engineering and transportation as well as parents who really pushed and fostered both my sister and I in terms of understanding the sciences. And so she is now a physician after studying biology in undergrad. So we both ended up in STEM fields.

Cohen: That’s pretty cool. So I’d love to maybe get some insight into your work at Nspiregreen. So you founded this company. It was about 10 years ago, it looks like. And I’d love to maybe understand a little bit about some of the projects that you’ve especially enjoyed working on.

Davis: So many projects. It’s funny to look back over the last 10 and a half years and all the different types of projects we’ve been able to touch and the evolution over the last decade for how we do transportation planning. But we’ve had the opportunity—we mostly for transportation mostly working on surface transportation and specifically working within the public right-of-way. Because I think, you know, sometimes when people hear transportation planning, it could be everything from match, operational side of it, to the physical of, “Where does everything go within the public right-of-way?”

And so we are the latter, the, “Where does everything in the public right-of-way?” We were the project lead for the Vision Zero plan for the District of Columbia and the City of Alexandria and one of the first Vision Zero plans in the United States that actually had community engagement to develop the plan. And it was everything from—you know, we did popup meetings all around the city; and a pop-up meeting is literally show up with a tent, a table, and some goodies and you pop-up in a neighborhood. And we did advertise it, so people who were really plugged in to what Vision Zero and the concept of it, you know, they showed up. However, it was great because then you just people off the street.

And from a demographic perspective over the course of all 10 meetings the demographics matched the city pretty well in terms of race and in terms of income. Age, you know, it skews obviously for adults, but we did interview kids. We interviewed some kids on the street, and then we also interviewed almost 300 youth that were part of the summer youth employment program and getting their feedback. And it’s interesting. And because of the work we did with the youth, we actually softened a lot of the enforcement language.

And I know now where we are today in 2020, enforcement is a very tense topic, but we did remove a lot of enforcement language. So when you look at The District’s Vision Zero plan and you look at what’s enforcement, it really focuses on dangerous driving behavior versus anybody else, so not jaywalking, not all those things, but really focusing on the truly dangerous behavior like speeding, driving erratically, and those things. And largely it was because of the conversation we had with the young people that said, “You know, sometimes I’m jaywalking because I’m considering my personal safety of maybe I’m in a different neighborhood and I don’t want to get jumped or I just don’t want to interact with a certain group of people, so I’m jaywalking because I’ll take my chances with the cars. At least I know the cars might stop.” So it was just a very interesting conversation.

And we’ve also worked on two projects recently also that have been super exciting. One is we did a project in Montgomery County, Maryland. And for the listeners that aren’t aware, Montgomery County has a lot of wealth. You know, a lot of very wealthy people have a second home in, like, Potomac, Maryland. It has a lot of wealth. But it also, I would say of the counties at least in this region, it goes from extremely urban to very rural very quickly. And so it’s a county with a lot of different land uses.

And so one of the things that we worked with them on is developing an equity framework for their Vision Zero. And I know everyone is, like, on the buzz term equity; “Everyone gets what they need.” And that’s cool when you have infinite resources, when money is flowing like manna from heaven. When you have plenty of hands to work the harvest, you know, sure, everyone gets what they need; but that’s not the case. We know that cities and counties have constrained budgets. There are constrained people resources. So now that means we have to prioritize, and so that’s what we did with that framework.

It’s almost like, you know, if you think about an emergency room. Everyone that goes to the emergency room is going to be seen, but your money doesn’t matter. It comes down to the priority of, you know, one who—you know, who got there first, but then if you’re there because you cut your finger and someone else is coming in because they severed their arm, the person with the severed arm is going to go first. All the other stuff doesn’t matter. And so that’s what, you know, the concept we came up with the framework of; there are communities that really need triage because they are being killed by motor vehicles. And the data is showing it, that there are communities that are repeatedly being harmed by motor vehicles; and so that’s where we really need to focus the resources to get those communities stable in terms of a safety perspective.

So those have been fun. And then lastly, livability studies where—it’s what they called them in The District, but basically looking at neighborhoods and developing particularly on local roads of what can be done in the next five years or a year and a half and is very tangible projects. And so we worked on one in the western part of the District of Columbia. And it was a really great project in that we didn’t start from this, “Tell me what are your problems?” We know what their problems are; there’s documents from years and years ago over the last decade of issues and concerns that the public had, so starting with that and then moving from there and working with the community to develop a plan.

So those are just some of the highlights, but we’ve done a lot of really awesome work. We’ve worked on bus rapid transit; we worked on the streetcar program; we’ve done a lot around biking and walking. And it’s an exciting time now as, you know, for many of us in the mobility justice kind of world. The things that we’ve been shouting from the rooftops for the last decade, people are now actually listening. And so I think it’s an exciting time in the industry, and I think it’ll be interesting to see if the shift really happens.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. That example you gave about the equity framework in Montgomery County is an interesting one. I actually used to live in Montgomery County. I love the ER example that you gave, because I think that makes complete sense; and I think anybody that would hear that would say, “Of course.” I guess it makes sense in the ER, but it doesn’t seem like that’s been the way that we’ve spent our transportation money in the past. And so I guess I’m curious what kind of pushback or resistance you got to that, especially because the wealth, or if that was even an issue at all.

Davis: You know, I think it comes down to a few things. So, one, how transportation money gets spent now—and I’ve worked pretty much in several cities along the East Coast mainly. I’ve also worked—you know, prior I’ve worked for Federal Highway Administration, so that also gave me a very national view of how people do transportation planning. And I spent some time embedded in the North Carolina and Maryland division offices of Federal Highway as well as as a regional counsel in Texas.

So I’ve seen a lot, and I can say that the process for a good majority—and I don’t know the percentages, and I don’t want to start throwing percentages out and then people ask me for receipts, but, you know, in my experience there are very few transportation plans and transportation improvement programs that aren’t political.

Cohen: Mm-hmm. Yeah, totally.

Davis: It is very much a political process, and those who know how to navigate the system always get what they need. Whether it’s calling an elected official or what have you, it’s people who know how to get things done are able to get things done; and then you have communities that have been trying to get things done and they can’t. And I will tell you; and it’s not unique to the District of Columbia.

In literally every community that I have stepped into, when I go into a low-income community it’s the same conversation. And people are going back decades. “In 1986 I sent and email to the mayor because we needed a stop sign to make this a four-way stop. And it’s been dangerous ever since.” And then someone gets killed and, you know, nowadays particularly with social media which is what I think we’re seeing now in this country as it relates to what’s happening with George Floyd, social media allows the information to spread faster and so then you have departments that are being shamed, if you will, in to making the changes that communities have been complaining about for decades. And I’m telling you; every community, it’s the same; every low-income community it’s the same story. And sometimes not even low income, just, you know, even black middle class communities, it’s the same thing of, you know, “For decades we’ve been complaining about this street, and nothings gotten done.”

So that’s the story. But with the framework with Montgomery County, this is just one pot of money; so that doesn’t mean that you can’t politicize all the other pots of money, but for this specific pot of money the decision has been made that this is how we are going to fund these projects. And we worked with leaders in the community to develop this framework, so it wasn’t like Nspiregreen and my teams, like, sat in and huddled in a corner and developed the framework. You know, this was developed over a course of five meetings with a taskforce in Montgomery County representing different geographies, so representing the very urban areas and the very rural areas.

And it’s interesting in that, you know, we had to take them through a series of exercises and conversations to back-end into this definition. Because the problem is if you tell—if you ask anyone, you know, “What does equity look like, Josh? Like, what is an equitable outcome for your community look like?” people will give you the most beautiful platitudes like, “Oh, equity looks like a child who is born, can thrive.” Like, they—you’ll get all types of stuff. But when you say, “Okay. That’s great. Let’s put the metrics around it,” people—it’s just this natural inclination to add metrics that benefit your community, because that’s your frame—and it’s not a—it doesn’t come from a place of selfishness; it just comes from a place of, “I live in my community every day, so I am very familiar with the needs of my community, and that’s the frame and the lens that I view everything else; so I just assume everyone else has the same problems that I have.”

So it was interesting in these conversations that despite the data showing another community, let’s say, being a part of the, you know, where you have a lot of crashes, where it’s extremely dangerous for people, when you start getting the metrics all the metrics—the metrics wouldn’t point to those neighborhoods. And, again, it’s just natural. But we got there. It was we came up with the statement of what we specifically mean by equity as well as, “Here are some guiding principles to layer on top of that.” And that is for that pool of money. But I think that Montgomery County is also in a place.

And I’ve seen it in a couple where we’re also working in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they are taking equity very seriously in terms of trying to move beyond a platitude but also, you know, really saying, “ No; this is what we mean.” So Grand Rapids has a racial equity plan, an equitable development plan, and a mobility plan; and so we’re working now on a BRT line there to do transit oriented development but do it equitable. But when that’s your foundation you can get there, but if you try to—what tends to happen on most transportation projects, you layer it in on the backend, and it’s like—you don’t get there. So I think that there is a slow shift that is happening. And I think some people are finally getting equity.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. Well, I think that kind of leads to another area that I wanted to get your input on, which—so Shelley Poticha was one the podcast a couple months ago, and she was one of 10 other women that joined you at the Salzburg Global Seminar and produced a statement on Confronting Power and Privilege For Inclusive, Equitable and Healthy Communities. The work that you did there—I mean, that was a couple of years ago, I believe. So it was obviously relevant then; it’s relevant now, and it seems like it’s a good framework for those in roles of power to reflect on that power and really ensure that those folks are making the adequate change in our communities to equitable, inclusive, and healthy. So I’d love it if you could maybe give us a little bit more context on that statement that you produced as part of that and how you are either seeing it used already or you hope to see it used going forward.

Davis: Woo. So the backstory of that statement; Salzburg Global Seminar, it has its own interesting backstory for how it exists, and I encourage your listeners to just Google to learn more about that. But basically the long and short—you know, there’s a longer history, but the short part of the history is the facility was owned by a person who was Jewish during—you know, you had the pogroms; you had World War II and all those things and the occupation of the Nazis. The owner escaped to the United States, and so it then became this, like, Nazi—a station for the Nazis.
And eventually the owners were found, and so these students came together, some of whom were Jewish, and they wanted to create a place where it could just be the meetings of the minds. And so that’s what Salzburg is in itself, and there’s no agenda. It’s not like a conference; you’re not just sitting there to learn, but it’s also not like a workgroup of, “Okay, we’re going to put you all together, and we need you to develop this thing.”

It literally is, “We’re going to put a bunch of people from around the world,” also different elements, so you had people from public health including physicians, people on the physical infrastructure side, both housing and transportation, and open spaces, environmental, all of these. “We’re just going to throw all of these people who not only speak a different native language but also speak a different professional language, and we’re going to put them in this place. And what happens happens; and what comes out of this comes out of this.”

And the background to the Confronting Power and Privilege that we had—I think for a lot of us—the American delegation was surprisingly mostly women and then mostly black women, African American, and people of African descent, Ethiopian and other countries within Africa. So it was very interesting to have this group representing the United States, which we know is not—which isn’t what typically happens. But, so one is we were talking about equity. So I think in the United States we already grapple with, “What does it really mean?” as I just talked about previously. And then you add in different languages. So you’re talking—you know, so someone whose native language is Spanish or native language is Italian and now we’re all speaking English, but, you know, now your words really have different meanings. And then you have, again, the people from different professions.

And so what we found, particularly those of us, the Black American women, we were getting increasingly frustrated around the conversation because we’re not starting from a shared definition of what inclusion means and what equity means and even what healthy means, to some extent. We’re not starting from a shared definition, and then we’re each bringing our own county’s context to the conversation. So one part that was getting frustrating was you had people from countries that were like, “Oh, no. We don’t have racial problems.” And the Americans are like, “Okay. What?” You know? And it’s like, one, how do you say that you don’t have racial problems in your country when you all literally colonized countries of people who are represented in this room? You know? So that’s number one. Like, let’s have that conversation.

Cohen: Right. Yeah.

Davis: And I was at a table with someone from South Africa and someone from Brazil and then America. And it’s, like, we—you have three countries that are sitting at, represented at this table that had been colonized by the European countries represented in this conversation; so we haven’t forgotten. So that’s number one; let’s have the global conversation. And then, two, you do have racial problems in your country, you know, and you have equitable problems in your country. You could be all white.

So there was one woman who was from a country where she was like, “Oh, but we’re all white and I didn’t grow up with privilege.” Right? Because people assume privilege is financial privilege. And it’s like, “Okay, but that’s you, but if I were to go ask a group of people, the nomadic people within your country, would I still agree with your statement that your country is equitable?” You know? Or, you know, you had one country—you know, the Netherlands; I’ll pick on them—where you have Black Pete. And so it’s like, “Are we really going to have this conversation?”

And so it was frustrating in that you had countries and you had people that just they couldn’t see the fence. So it came down to the people showed the graphic of equality versus equity. And I’m sure for the listeners that haven’t seen it, if you Google you can find it. It’s usually, like, three kids trying to look over the fence. And what we realized is if I can’t—there are people who don’t even see that there is a fence. That’s the root issue. If I don’t see that there is a problem, then I can’t even have an equity conversation. And so—woo—it was a lot.

I mean, we had a lot of very tense conversations with people from other countries. And then it was interesting, is that everyone was like, “Why are you Black American women so angry?” And it’s like, “I’m not angry. You are assigning an emotion to me. I’m not angry. I’m having a conversation. I’m not yelling. There is no tenseness in my voice.” And part of it was we were challenging these other countries on their ideas because they were like, “Oh, no. We don’t have a racial problem.” And it’s like, “Sure. Okay.” I mean, you had New Zealand there; you had South Africa; you had Brazil; you had the European countries, and it’s like—there is very few countries that there is not—I can’t think of any places that don’t have some type of an equity issue.

And so we sat down and said, “Okay. We’re trying to push against something; and if someone can’t see it, you’re just—we’re going to just end up frustrated.” And that’s when we sat down and said, “Okay. How do we back-end this so that people can understand that there are inequities and understand that power and privilege, it’s more than just economic?” And that was the impetus for the framework. And there’s a series of questions of getting people to really begin to kind of peel back the layers and unpack all of these things. And it was interesting. So when we presented this on the last day it was like a light bulb went on and people just kind of got it, like, “Oh, okay. Now I get it. Now I get what you mean.”

And so it was trying to create that shared definition and creating a framework for people to be able to really understand what is going on. And it’s a framework that really can work in any instance. Right? So it’s like when you look at a situation and you can say—going back to what I said earlier, you have communities that for decades that haven’t have investment. So then you have to start asking yourself. And anyone can do it. Whether you are a city planner, an engineer, a citizen, an elected official, you begin to start asking questions; “Well, why is this problem not solved?” Because there’s a reason why it’s not solved, so why is this problem not solved? Who is benefitting from not solving the problem, and who continues to be harmed? And that’s just an example of how we came to that framework.

Cohen: It’s a really powerful and just straightforward framework that, I think, when you just sit down and read over it it’s fairly short. But it’s a very crisp kind of reminder of those of us who maybe haven’t had the lived experiences of others or who have some privilege to any degree, I think, can really ensure that we’re not only looking through that lens of whatever privilege we may have. And it’s a really just good framework. And I’ll link it out just so folks can have access to that as well. I appreciate you sharing a little of that context as well.

Davis: And I think the great thing about the framework though, it helps to get to—my husband makes fun of me because I always say, “What’s the root of the root?” Right? So it helps you get to, like, what is the actual root cause. And I think that if you take anything, you know, let’s say people dying on the roadway. Right? It’s you’re trying to solve the problem, and the problem is I don’t want people to die—right—and that is, like, an easy thing. And so once you start looking in the history because history can tell you a lot and it tells you—you know, once you start digging you see that it really has been the car industry that had the power, if you will, and the privilege to ensure, to push against any efforts to try to make streets safer.

You know, there is a really interesting documentary on cars versus bikes or bikes versus cars, one of the two. But it talked about how, like, LA had one of the most extensive streetcar networks but then the car industry purchased it and basically ran it into the ground because they want to sell cars. You have to look at history to be able to understand how do we get to the place where we are today. And, you know, even to put it in context of just because we’re in the thick of what we’re dealing with, with George Floyd as kind of being the spark, and it’s, you know, almost a perfect storm of people at home because of COVID-19 and so there’s no distraction.

So there have been other people killed within police custody and because of police brutality. However, it was easy to, you know, “Okay. We watch it on social media, but now I can go out and have brunch, and I’ve completely forgotten about this thing that just happened.” But people are stuck at home. There’s nothing else to do; there’s nothing else to think about; there’s no other distractions, and so I think it really set in. And it was to the point where there were other people who have had chokeholds who’ve said, “I can’t breath.” And, you know, people rationalize it away, but you can’t rationalize eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Cohen: Yeah.

Davis: And so, you know, taking the framework of power and privilege, it’s, “What are the policies, decisions that have contributed to the problem?” And when you look at our policing—and because this is a transportation conversation I’ll put it into transportation. If you look at the things that the transportation industry is asking people to enforce, we are putting people in harm’s way. When you look at—there was a study recently that, you know, for a lot of people’s interactions with police it usually starts with a traffic stop, and that is because the transportation industry has decided that we are going to regulate this public right-of-way.

And instead of designing in a way that creates the behavior we want, we have over-designed roads where there’s access capacity. I have been around this entire country. I haven’t been to every state, but I’ve been to most. I’m working my way. There’s a couple in Middle America that I have missed. But I have yet to go to any state, any place, any city where there isn’t over-designed roadways.

Cohen: Right.

Davis: So we’ve overdesigned the roadways. People drive fast. We’ve made vehicles that go 150 miles per hour despite that there is nowhere to go 150 miles per hour. And instead of dealing with that and grappling with those decisions, both physical infrastructure and the vehicles themselves, we’ve created a list of enforcement, whether it’s, “Oh, you should have a taillight; and we’re going to pull you over because your taillight is out.” Why are we having police pull someone over because their taillight is out versus, “Hey, you know, your taillight is out. Here is where you can go get it fixed,” or we’re going to create a taillight program? Whatever.

You know, and I think that for us as an industry now, we really need to reckon with some of the laws on the books, you know, really led by transportation in the name of safety. You know, even with Vision Zero, enforcement is one of the E’s. And we have to ask ourselves, “Is that what we really want?” Are we asking police to do too much and police our roadways and prevent all of these things? Or do we say, “You know what? Look; we need to have this radical design, and we need to have radical ideas and literally just redesign our roadways so that they are safer.”
And as you have all of these kind of tech bros leading the way with autonomous vehicles, do we need to say, “All right. We need—hey”? Instead of letting them lead the conversation, cities standing up and saying, “Look; this is what we need. Whatever technology you need to do, it needs to be able to move a lot of people, number one, and, two, you need to be able to put speed governors so that we can make the infrastructure talk so that the cars automatically go a speed.”

Cohen: Yeah. No, I think you’re right. This enforcement issue, I think, is one I think a lot of communities are wrestling with now, including my own here in Durham, North Carolina. So I definitely think you’re right on there. I want to wrap up with this. When you look at some of the leaders that you’ve either looked at as a mentor or that you’ve worked with, I’m curious what they’ve had in common. Because part of the goal of doing this is that we want to get more of that leadership to build the equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that I want and I think most people want. So I’m curious from your perspective, especially because as a consultant you have a—by nature, you’re getting exposure to a lot of different leaders. And so I’m curious. Those one’s that have really resonated with you, what really jumped out?

Davis: I think the thing that they all, that leaders had in common is a willingness to move forward despite the fact that it might cost them their job. I can see that when I look at transportation agencies. And you can tell pretty quickly. You can look at someone’s resume and see where they fall in the, “Am I a person that has climbed to this? Did I luck into this position? Did I get this position because of politics?” Particularly for those, you know, kind of appointed positions, whether it’s directors of transportation or secretaries of transportation, whomever, when you look at their resume, you can learn a lot.

And so I think, one, the leaders that have really been transformative have been the ones that have had, you know, kind of bravery. And that’s one of the things we talk about even in the Salzburg framework, is brave spaces. But people who were willing to put their job on the line for whatever reason, whether it was something around equity, whether it was working with a particular community, whether it was trying to get a project done, but people who are willing to say, “I know this is the right thing, and I know doing the right thing might cost me my job, but I’m still going to do what I think is the right thing.”

Fortunately for many of them is they had an elected leadership, a mayor, who was equally as, you know, brave, if you will—or not necessarily even brave—or someone who had nothing to lose. And as an example when you look at, like, Janette Sadik-Khan and what she was able to do in New York City, you know, she had a team of people who had really kind of big ideas, but she also had a mayor who didn’t have anything to lose. Right? He’s not mayor for money, so when you have nothing to lose it puts you in a position to be able to make hard decisions. And it really has transformed that area of New York City where, you know, people can be and walk and move, and the Earth didn’t fall of its axis. So I would say that. I think it’s people who are willing to just kind of do the thing and push against the thing in a way that respects and listens to the community.

Cohen: Yeah. That’s good. I agree. I think that’s definitely something I’ve seen as well. Bravery is one of those things where it’s not rocket science, but it also is hard. You know?

Davis: Right.

Cohen: And I appreciate you bringing up the framework too, because that was the first step in that, was creating these brave spaces to have these conversations. And, I think, if we have more of these conversations or even if we have more of these elected and appointed officials who are at least willing to think about these issues in a way that allow for them to say, “Well, what do we really need to accomplish here? And what is the root of the root?” maybe to use your nomenclature there, I think we’re much more likely to get to a principled stance, which I think is kind of what that is, with encouragement from the community. I think that’s an important caveat that you indicated as well.

Davis: Right. And I also think on the consulting side—also local government side too, but mostly on the consulting side there needs to be—I’ve seen a lot of statements from a lot of consulting firms, some that I’ve worked with and some that I have not worked with. But I’ve seen a lot of statements. And it’s, like, you know, these racial equity statements recently and, “We stand with the Black community.” And I’m like, “Okay. Cool. Let me go look at your leadership.” And it’s like, “Your leadership is all white men. I go look at your board, if there is a board, and it’s all white men; so your statement doesn’t really mean anything to me.” It’s been interesting now that people are putting out all these statements. It’s, like, “I don’t really want your words. I want you to take—”

Cohen: Yeah.

Davis: You know, this is a good framework for even consulting companies to look at who are you hiring. And some of it’s not necessarily a conscious bias, if you will. I was a part of a conversation. And what tends to happen, like most people, is, you know, I went to the University of Maryland; I went to Cornell, so when you’re looking for an engineer, you’re a planner, you go to your alma matter. It’s just a natural thing. But when I go to my alma matter, you know, there isn’t a pool—you know, particularly Cornell when I was there, you know, I was one of two black people within my master’s program for engineering and one of two black people in my master’s for planning. So if I go back to Cornell I’m naturally going to eliminate a whole pool of people. And I think that’s what tends to happen for a lot of companies when you recruit.

And I think that that is one thing, but we can’t accept that any more. There are historically Black colleges and universities that are graduating really caliber talent. There are even, you know, Black and Latino people within predominantly white institutions that are also really great talent, but maybe they aren’t the Harvards, the Cornells, the Marylands of the world. You know, maybe it is Podunk State University but that’s a really great person.

Cohen: Sure.

Davis: And so we really need to work to not just diversity and not just hire someone but also mentorship and then really creating an inclusive environment, and that means addressing micro aggressions that happen in the workplace. And it also means grooming people to be leaders. I think it’s interesting that, you know, someone said, “Oh.” As a matter fact I was at a conference, and someone asked, “You know, when we had affirmative action, women and minorities were put in these positions, and they weren’t qualified.” They were qualified. The difference is that you put them in a position and then gave them no support.

And that’s what happens particularly with white men. Right? It’s a natural thing; you just tend to mentor someone who may look like you or because you went to the same university or whatever it is that connects you. You naturally are going to take care of them and lift them up, and so that’s what happens, is that you have put people in these positions and then you haven’t put any mentorship around them or grooming around them, or you make their life hell and so they leave. At least in the engineering world, there are so many reports of women who leave the workforce in their 30s; and it’s not just to have kids. There’s an assumption of, “Oh, they’re leaving because they want to have kids.” No, that’s not the reason, but you keep making this assumption. And even if that is the issue, it’s still the problem.

Cohen: Right.

Davis: So full circle back to the framework; it is about addressing of, like, what is the problem, and why are the decisions made, and how can we get out of this cycle so that we can truly have a diverse workforce that we can reflect the communities that we’re planning and serving.

Cohen: Amen. Where can folks learn more about you and your work?

Davis: Nspiregreen’s website is It’s My personal website is

Cohen: Awesome. Well, Veronica, thank you so much. This has been a great introduction to some of your work and also your background as a transportation expert from the beginning. And I appreciate all the work that you’re doing to help raise up these conversations, because I think they’re important conversations as it relates to power and privilege and equitable communities and so forth. So thank you so much for joining me on The Movement.

Davis: Thank you for having me on the podcast.

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.