Three women—Dr. Destiny Thomas, Tamika Butler, and Sahra Sulaiman— who have been doing the work on the inequity in our communities share why reform isn’t enough if we want to eliminate the harm, marginalization, and disenfranchisement of communities of color.
For more from The Movement Podcast host Josh Cohen, check out Leadership Upside Down, a framework to build the equitable, accessible, and verdant future we all want.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Thomas: Dr. Destiny Thomas
Butler: Tamika Butler
Sulaiman: Sahra Sulaiman
Cohen: Perhaps you’ve seen the sign at a rally, “If you’re not outrages, you’re not paying attention.” Similarly, if you don’t leave this conversation with Dr. Destiny Thomas, Tamika Butler, and Sahra Sulaiman understanding that the planning, mobility, and architecture professions are designed to keep Black and brown people in their place, then you’re not paying attention. Coming up next on The Movement podcast, a powerful conversation on the active participation needed to undermine the racism in the built environment all around us as well as our professions. 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’m joined today by three women who have been having the conversation, doing the work, and writing the stories on equity in our communities and in mobility for years. I’m grateful for their continued scholarship, leadership, and lending voice to these important topics; and I’ll look forward to learning something today and lifting up their voices. You have been trying to teach us for years, and I’m hopeful now that more people are listening.
My first guest is Dr. Destiny Thomas who is a cultural anthropologist, a planner, founder/CEO of Thrivance Group, which works to bring culturally restorative concepts into the lived experiences of their clients and community partners. She just wrapped up a 23-hour teach-in last week called The Un-Urbanist Assembly, confronting the legacy of anti-blackness in the built environment. Welcome, Dr. Thomas.
Thomas: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Cohen: Tamika Butler is also joining us, the principal and founder of Tamika L. Butler Consulting where she focuses shining a light on inequality, inequity, and social justice. I have been corresponding with Tamika for about a year now wanting to have her on the podcast, so I’m really glad that we could make today happen. So welcome to The Movement, Tamika.
Butler: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Cohen: And our final guest is Sara Sulaiman, the communities editor for Streetsblog LA, coving the intersection of mobility with race, class, history, representation, policing, housing, health, culture, community, and access to public space in Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles. She actually just released an article earlier this week about an un-housed resident that got brutally beat up by the Los Angeles Police Department earlier this year, so that was a really important story that she is telling as well. So welcome to The Movement, Sahra.
Sulaiman: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Cohen: So, wow. Y’all are so accomplished. I’m so grateful to have you here. So I want to start here, which is this fundamental premise of what I’m trying to do on this podcast, is that we need leadership to achieve the equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that we all want. And, you know, I look at leadership as not just being principles. It’s actually action; right? And I think that’s what we’re kind of here to think about. So some of that action is hidden. You know, that’s the learning and the contemplation. Some of it is not; it’s making decisions; it’s advocacy. So I’m curious what you think are some specific actions that you think our industry needs to take today to actually achieve that equitable, accessible, and verdant mobility future. And I’ll let anybody who wants to kickoff kick us off. Go for it.
Butler: Dr. Thomas, I think you had some thoughts to start us off on this one. Right?
Thomas: Yeah. So, you know, a lot of the work that I do is situated in programmatic-based interventions and policy-based interventions. I recognize that how we experience the built environment has a lot to do with the institutions and the structures that design these spaces in a way that’s incredibly repressive and oppressive. And so when I think about some things that the industry could do right now, some of the things that come to mind—ne of the things that sticks out first in my mind is we really should do this sort of, like, reclassification of civil service positions by greatest stressor.
Both as a formal civil servant and now as a consultant, has a lot to do with the fact that the people who are in implementing and decision-making positions really lack the deep connections with community that I think is necessary, has been necessary but especially at this point. I don’t think we should be moving forward with planning that is not happening through the work and hands and perspectives of people who actually live in the footprint of the project area and that that work should not be transactional, that we shouldn’t be going to communities and asking to build relationship over night for the purposes of a project. I think the inverse should be happening and that planners should come from communities, be ever-present in them, and our ideas and concepts should be generated through longstanding communication and dialogue with those communities.
I also think that from a policy standpoint our environmental protection policies and regulations need to be updated to include protections around cultural makeup of communities. And I think at this point, in the same way that the public health community or fields have begun to recognize racism as a public health crisis, I think it’s also an environmental issue. And so thinking about having antiracist policies imbedded in things like MEPA or CEQA as a part of the process before agencies implement things. And then also to that end, getting rid of the streamlined waivers for things like bike lanes. I don’t think you should be able to subvert CEQA because you’re building a bike lane. And then lastly, which I can get to later, I think we need to be focused more on harm reduction in our design and programmatic components within the transportation field.
Cohen: Awesome. Awesome. Yeah, I like that perspective of the reclassification. It’s almost turning—totally rethinking public engagement and actually making public engagement kind of almost ground-up as opposed to kind of top-down.
Thomas: Yeah. And, I think, how we define professionalism is also rooted in racism, and so moving away from that. If we’re really truly interested in doing planning and transportation planning that is antiracist in nature we have to remove the academies’ influence, racist influence in that process.
Butler: I also just think, you know, to that piece about professionalism, what you’re seeing right now all over the internet, the newspaper, and your real life—and I know the three of us sometimes live and lurk on Twitter. You know, you’re seeing these folks. Just today I saw somebody, you know, “What my experience was like being Black at the LA Times.” You know, you’re seeing food bloggers; you’re seeing actors and producers. Really any industry there is, you’re seeing Black folks speak out.
You know, there was this movement in the literary community, like, “What was your advance?” And what folks of color, particularly Black folks were advanced compared to white people is astonishing. And we haven’t really seen that in the transportation movement. What we have seen is folks of color, particularly women of color, particularly Black women speaking up and kind of owning their own narratives and their own voices and creating a space for healing. And I think that’s what Destiny did with her 23 hours a few days ago. I think that’s what Sahra does in her writing. I think so many of us read her writing and love it because it feels healing and it feels like you’re being seen.
But I also want the transportation industry to take a step back and realize that we are not immune. And, in fact, in many ways we are worse. Who is running the agencies? Who is running the departments? Who is running the consulting firms? And just because now they’re starting to reach out to those of us who are folks of color who have been doing this work doesn’t mean that they’re actually committed to that deep change. It doesn’t mean they’re actually committed to relinquishing some of that power. And it means they’re actually hoping to find the polite people, the people who will sit there quietly and do what they say—“Yessa. Yessa,” you know—and do that work. But the second these folks try to push back and have independent thoughts and say, “No, I actually have ideas; I’m not just here to be your Black or brown face,” then those folks get pushed out. And that’s why we’re not seeing them in the upper echelons of management, because they’re just getting churned. And then people are saying, “Well, why do they bounce around? Well, why can’t they keep a job? Well, what is it about them?” And it’s because they’re trying to do the work and have been trying to do the work that now everybody is coming to.
And so now that everybody wants to come around to it they have to realize that if they really want to do it, that power structure has to be dismantled, has to be relinquished. And that’s really, really hard for people. And the transportation industry is lucky that folks aren’t on Twitter left and right saying, “This is what it was like for me to work here. This is what it was like for me to work here. This is what this person said to me.” But there is a reckoning happening, and the reckoning needs to be acknowledged.
Thomas: What would the hashtag be though? Just hypothetically speaking—[LAUGHTER]—if we were to be on Twitter talking about what it was like? Just throw a hashtag out there in case I might—
Sulaiman: #MobilityInjustice. I don’t know.
Butler: #MobilityInjustice, uh, and then this white person said, “That’s too long of a hashtag—
Sulaiman: #Immobility? I don’t know. But to speak to both of what Destiny and Tamika were saying, to sort of tie it together, I mean, it’s sort of this chicken-and-egg issue because you have all of these institutions and structures that have been built that then make it possible for the white folks who are in power to say, “Well, you know, that’s not part of what we do because this is what this is asking of us.” And so there is this sort of, like, “How do you begin to change it?”
And I think about that a lot with regard to CEQA when I’m looking at projects which are moving into disenfranchised communities of color and where the community is speaking up with heart-wrenching stories of living in overcrowded homes of maybe 10 people in a three-bedroom apartment, three different families, and all still struggling to cobble together $1,500 a month in some of our most overcrowded neighborhoods in the country. And then you’re going to put—you know, like there was four years ago—I think it was—the Reef was a billion-dollar project that was set to go in on the edge of the most overcrowded neighborhood in the country. And from a perspective of a planner, it’s a great project because it’s TOD.
It’s right there at a stop; it’s close to downtown, so it’s moving jobs and people all into the same area. But at the same time, like, the potential ripple effects of what that would do in a community where life was so precarious like that where you did have—it is the most overcrowded neighborhood in the country. You did have all of these folks that are barely getting by. They’re working in the informal industries, and that now are going to be more heavily policed because it was very clear from the developer’s presentation that city council and city—I’m sorry, the planning commission, that they didn’t want affordable housing in the project because they didn’t want the rest of the community feeling like it was necessarily theirs.
And so CEQA doesn’t allow for a conversation around displacement and indirect displacement. If people are not going to be directly moved from a space where a project is going in, that conversation is not allowed to happen. There’s no space for it to happen. And I was looking at, for example, the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. There was a project that was planned, a redevelopment of the mall, and there were two and a half pages in the CEQA report that were dedicated to the impact that construction workers might have on the library nearby if they went to the library during their work break. Two and a half pages within CEQA were dedicated to describing whether or not there would be some sort of impact on the library’s ability to serve the community during the construction period. But the fact that you have this historically Black corridor and all of these business, the last remaining Black corridor like this in the city, you can’t examine the ripple effects of that because you’re too busy looking at whether or not construction workers are going to use the library on the break. There’s no—and so we don’t have a mechanism within planning to calculate the cost of disenfranchisement, to calculate the cost of the years of disinvestment and the vulnerabilities, you know, that legacy.
And then to Tamika’s point, then you get folks that say, “Well, that’s not part of what we do, because this document doesn’t call for it,” or, “You know, that’s not within the parameters of how we think about these things. That’s outside of our purview.” So it becomes this very difficult thing. You need people in place, like Destiny is talking about with reclassification, reorganizing who has power and who has voice and what they get to talk about and then, you know, changing the actual institutions and structures themselves. So it’s both. I don’t remember where you started with your question. It had something to do with verdant, and I know we’re not there. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: No, no, but this is good. This is good. So I want to build on this, because this theme of power, I think, is one I’m hearing. Right? And so, Dr. Thomas, you wrote a recent piece in CityLab. Tamika, you wrote a recent piece in Bicycling magazine. And, you know, I guess a the thread through both of those was kind of this frustration towards those in power and privilege who kind of seem content to nibble around the edges as opposed to really getting at the root of the matter. Right? And so we’re celebrating closed streets while ignoring the racism that went into the environmental degradation of the communities that are around those areas or the continued harassment and profiling of Black and brown families on the streets.
You know, and this became clear to me with the “Black Lives Matter” Mayor Bowser did on the streets of D.C., and my initial reaction being, “Oh, wow. That’s cool,” and then it’s like, “Oh, but what is she doing about funding the police department?” So I guess the question I have is, is reform possible or do we literally need to start over? Because I feel like this power imbalance, until we get that right—because I think that’s part of what you’re getting at, Dr. Thomas, with your initial comments about the reclassification, is it kind of flips that on its head a little bit. So can we do reform, or do we actually need to tear this whole thing down and rebuild it?
Thomas: Yeah. So my bumper sticker says #Abolish. You know? I think that we should be actively doing the work of reimagining everything that we do, because everything that is happening both in this moment and everything that has happened leading up to this moment has been yelling through bullhorns that, “We have failed to consider entire beings, entire ways of being in every aspect of our lived experience.” Everything needs to be redone.
To that end, I would say that this—really I’m seeing folks struggle. Like, and I am a consultant, and so people come to me for advice on how to be responsive right now. And people are really struggling with this question of reform and really having sort of this internal crisis around, “If I acknowledge that our way of doing this work has been racist and that there is no feasible means for what we think is reform, what does that say about my job? What does that say about my ability to remain the leader of X, Y, and Z transportation campaign?” And I think that that’s a personal struggle that people are going to have to come to on their own. But, I think, from the perspective of a Black person who experienced the built environment in a Black body, I will say that I don’t want people to continue to think that this is an ongoing discourse about whether or not we will or should reform.
That’s going to have to happen. Right? People are in the streets about this. People are leaving their jobs about this. People are erecting entirely new businesses around the notion of undermining the legacy of racism in planning. So this is happening whether folks are ready to do it or not. And I think to that end it’s important that folks know that this is an all-hands-on-deck effort. Everyone is playing a part, media too. Right? Media needs to evolve in the language and terminology that they use and their understanding of the various issues that are coming up in this work so that they themselves are not reproducing notions and frameworks that are racist and that are erasing entire groups of people and communities and cultures from our analysis.
And so, to your question, whether or not reform is possible, my response lends itself to something that I mentioned earlier, which is we’re in a state of crisis; and I think there are a lot of ideal things that we want to see. And I think that—yeah—we want to see quick-build and rapid interventions and density, density, density, but I also think that, number one, those projects that are supposed to be quick-build have proven to be very slow, and the infrastructure that is the backdrop of those projects needs about three-years work of reconstruction in order for quick-build to be possible. And I also think that the literal landscape is going to have to be looked at from a harm reduction standpoint.
Everything that creates an issue of safety or unwellness needs to be addressed, and transportation as a field is one party to that discussion. It is also public health; it is also education; it is also media, I think, saying, “Okay, we can’t put a protected bike lane in here right now without displacing everyone that lives here through speculations.” Harm reduction though is saying, “We recognize that Black and brown people because of our neglect of their communities are being killed in the street as a result of traffic-related fatalities and other things.” And what is the intervention? Right?
This is a public health context. What is the intervention? We’ve got prevention; we’ve got things like transformative and restorative justice that help us get to some reaction, some reactionary steps; but what is our intervention that reduces harm from the perspective of the entire wellbeing or lived experience of a person, not just moving from point A to point B from a transportation perspective? Does that make sense? Did I land on an answer to your question?
Cohen: Yeah, totally. Yeah.
Cohen: No, I mean, look. I think, this is a thing that I think we have to wrestle with here. Because I think we want to make progress here, but—as in, I think, the analogy to what people are talking about with police departments is contextual here, which is can we actually—is it a bad apple, as Mayor Garcetti—or, “A good cop hates a bad cop just as much,” or I forget what the exact quotes are. I can probably fill me in on that. But, you know, is it something like that? Or is it, like, really we have to rethink the whole thing because the fundamental premise is flawed? Right? And that’s the part that I think is potentially really transformative and exciting and hopefully will actually get towards actual equality.
Sulaiman: Tamika, were you?
Butler: I was just—you know, there’s that video of the sister—I think, Latrice [ph] or—she was on the John Oliver show. And at the very end of her comments she said, you know, “Y’all are just lucky that we’re just asking for equality and not out there seeking revenge.” Right? And so for me whenever I hear a question premised in what is possible, I shut down from there, because I don’t actually give a shit about what’s possible because the whole existence of my people is built on the impossibility that we continue to survive. Right?
And, frankly, the whole existence of people who are different in any way, whether you’re queer, whether you’re indigenous, whether you’re a person with a disability there is a world built around you where people are just trying to take from you and get you beaten down to a point where you only try to do the things that they have deemed for you are possible. Right? They have—and by they—right—like, white folks have told you is possible based on what they’ve taken from you, what they’ve stripped from you, what they’ve stolen from you, what they’ve beaten out of you.
And so, for me, I don’t really live in a world of possibilities because every day I am successful in this world is a day that I have done something that someone thought was impossible because they didn’t want it to be possible for a queer, Black woman who is somewhere along the gender spectrum. And so, you know, I really fight this, like, “Well is it possible? Can we do it?” Like, we’ve been doing things that are impossible. And I also just think, you know, this idea, this juxtaposition against reform versus, you know, throwing it all out and burning it all down, which is something that I know scares a lot of white folks to hear this idea of burning something down because if you burn something down is it that nothing was good to begin with?
And my question is, like, “Well, who was it good for? Right? Like, who was it good for?” Because if you actually asked many people they’d be like, “Yeah, this hasn’t been good for me,” and that’s whether or not you’re talking about a country, whether or not you’re talking about a city, a physical place, whether or not you’re talking about a state of being and moving about, whether or not you’re talking about a specific, you know, nonprofit or structure. Like, many things might not have been good for jump. But I don’t like the juxtaposition because there is some belief that Martin Luther King got more support than Malcolm X because he was less scary, because he was focused on reform. He wasn’t focused on, you know, grabbing his gun and saying, “White devil,” but the reality is both were surveilled by the FBI; both were killed before their time; and both were actually disliked greatly by white folks.
And so this idea that if we, like, maybe fight for reform because that’s more palatable than completely abolishing is just a false narrative that white people set, because if that was true people wouldn’t be all shook about Colin Kaepernick taking a knee silently and he would have a job. Right? And so I think there are these larger issues. And every time you come back to me I’m going to keep thinking of hashtags. And I feel like I think about—you know, part of our work, we’re always talking about the landscape, like, “What’s the landscape out there? What’s the landscaping? How are we making it look?” And I feel like in our field of urban planning generally and also transportation specifically there’s a lot of whitescaping. There’s a lot of, like, “How do we make this look in a way that feels safe and comfortable and good to white people?”
There is a constant desire to zone things and build things and fix things in the image of what white people will be comfortable with. And so maybe that’s one of my hashtags, #Whitescaping—[LAUGHTER]—because we can all share stories about spaces we’ve been in doing this work where we were told the way we did it was the problem and that way was based on this whitescaped idea of what it should look like.
Cohen: Wow. That’s powerful. Sahra, do you have something you want to add there?
Sulaiman: You want me to add that? [LAUGHS]
Cohen: No, it was totally—I thought that was good too.
Sulaiman: I think we’ll leave that one there. Like, she said everything. They both said everything.
Cohen: All right. That’s fair.
Butler: Sahra, you start the next one, Sahra. Yeah, you start the next one.
Cohen: So I’ve mentioned you write for Streetsblog LA. One of your articles—I don’t even know you call it an article. It was a tour de force really about rapper, entrepreneur, and South LA resident Nipsey Hussle that you wrote last year, someone that I’ll acknowledge I had no knowledge of prior to his murder.
Sulaiman: Hence the title. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yes, definitely. And the premise of the piece was how he understood cities better than anyone, and even though he played by all of the rules, as he grew older he was still marginalized. And I want to dig into this a little bit, because what struck me about that piece was I feel like there’s this lack of empathy and lack of trust between Black communities and many government organizations. And you even touch on that, the building of the Crenshaw Metro line and its impact on Black businesses. So I’m curious about this lack of empathy and lack of trust.
Sulaiman: Empathy on the part of whom?
Cohen: The people in power, of understanding the lived experiences of those that are feeling the brunt of that power, I guess.
Sulaiman: Okay. Yeah, I had to put my hair up for this one. Yeah—[LAUGHTER]—because I don’t—and the reason I ask [INDISCERNIBLE] if it’s empathy because I don’t think it has anything to do with that. I mean, you know, like what all the things that I just described in that piece are really a deliberate effort to, as Tamika mentioned, to make white spaces safer at the expense of Black folks in particular. And that’s part of the issue, getting back to kind of circling back to the points that Destiny raised or both of them raised early on is, the folks that are the ones in power right now are the ones that benefitted from that process and don’t have any understanding of what it was like for the folks that lived through that, that paid the cost for their comfort.
And so that was kind of the impetus for the piece, is, like, that entry point that we cannot create more vibrant, more healthy, safe, accommodating, welcoming, uplifting cities if we’re not recognizing that disparity, that issue, the fact that the folks in power have benefitted so much over all of this time. And their ideas and their views and their visions of what cities can be is so shaped by how much they were able to benefit from that process. And so did Nipsey play be the rules? I mean, he was a genius in the way that he managed to—as Tamika was talking about, you know, everything was set. Literally every step of the way was set to defy his ability or to harm his ability to thrive, and yet he still managed to get around that.
And that’s part of what the Destination Crenshaw project was about. And the node that will celebrate his life and experience was about that resilience, that ability to win at every step of the way; you’ve been pushed down; you’ve been punished; you’ve been harmed, and everything has been taken, and still to be able to build community, to be able to thrive, to be able to lift up your own people, to be able to create brilliant art and to be able to tell that story the way that he did. Yeah. So as far as, like, a question of empathy, I mean, I don’t—I just don’t care about empathy one way or the other, because at this point it’s not necessarily—I mean, white folks have a lot of work to do on their own shit. Like, they’ve got to do that work. But it’s really about recognizing just how deep inequity is embedded in all of these structures and where and how.
And so when I do a deep piece like that where I kind of go, you know, step by step by step along the history, it was sort of like at each moment how all of these things work together. When it was no longer a possibility to segregate by racial covenants then you had the freeways built through the Black community to undermine it and also to facilitate the exodus. And then you had the disinvestments. And then you had the disenfranchisement. And you had the drug war. And you had, like, these massive sweeps that would grab a thousand young, Black youth. In a weekend they would set up a processing center at the coliseum, and the youth would be swept up and arrested just for being in a neighborhood where drugs were sold. And so you sort of—you moved youth into that system, and you begin processing in them that way and shuttling them then down another path. And, again, all of this to keep the whites north of the 10 comfortable. And so you can be as empathetic as you want, but that was a really deliberate, over-decades process. And so unpacking all of that and figuring out, like, how do you even begin to undo that kind of harm. Where do the reparations begin? Like, where do you even begin? I don’t know.
But he had this really unbelievable vision, this ability to see. And going back to what Destiny had talked about with regard to who you bring into the conversation and what they know about the community and sort of where they put the emphasis, how well they understand what has happened within a community, he understood because he had experienced it. And so he knew how to lift up the folks around him. He wasn’t afraid to reach out to them and to bring them into the conversation. And he knew that you had to bring the folks that had been pushed the farthest to the margins, that when you brought them in and you lifted them up that the rest of the community would thrive because of that. And that’s where he started. I’m sorry. Like, I go in tangents. Like, I’ll go all the way around. But I hope I got somewhere there.
Thomas: I really want to add to that, because when I think about empathy it triggers me because I know that when we talk about the humanity of white people it is codified and our posture is such that we are amplifying this notion of humanness across all barriers, across all borders, across all race lines and economic whatever. Like, I just think that when we talk about empathizing with or for Black people, whenever we get to a place where we’re talking about Black people’s humanity the audience is always Black people. It confuses me. I mean, it is this process by which we have an—it’s like an ornamental acknowledgment of humanness for Black folks that never makes it to policy or never makes it to, like, actual protections and, like, code that supersedes or is resistant to a lack of empathy. Right?
Like, there are certain things that I know I cannot do to a white person or say to a while person because I know that the institutions and structures that center them will come down hard on me if I do. That reassurance is not offered to Black people or to people in Black bodies. And I think about how, going back to your previous question about reform, it really is this idea that whiteness as an ideal is germane to our field. It is what our field is, the centering of whiteness. And so to abolish what we know to be planning and to imagine a version of it that exists beyond what we have today is the idea of implicit humanity, like implying humanness, implying dignity, implying and centering Black futurism through our work, through the policies that uphold it and not only be talking to Black people about how human they are as this performative gesture that falls quite short of anything close to reparations.
Butler: Yeah. And, you know, I love empathy. And for me part of why I love empathy is because one of the things that I take great pride in is that I’ve worked really hard to try to be emotionally intelligent to know how to read a room. And something that I often really struggle with is, with white folks, is they don’t know how to read the room. And part of why they don’t know how to read a room is because they don’t see everyone in the room. Right? And so when they read a room and when they are being emotionally intelligent they are doing it from the frame of whiteness.
And so as urban planners when we are going into a community, whether or not we’re talking about a bike lane or a park or housing, we are trying to read the situation but from a very white perspective. And so that is why when white people get mad or say, you know, “Why are Black people looting?” or, “The shooting should start because Black people are looting,” when they say those things it’s because they don’t know how to read the room. They don’t see what is causing that. Right? And so, again, when folks go to a community meeting in a white neighborhood, they’re well informed; they are passionate. And when Black folks want to stand up and be, like, “Not today,” then they are not only defiant, not only angry, but what they are doing is policed. Right? What they are doing is always policed.
And as folks who inhabit Black bodies, we learn very early on how we can move in space. What we don’t learn is that there’s a whole profession, like, built on keeping us policed, a kinder, gentler profession. Right? Like, we’re saying, “Abolish the police and defund the police,” and what we also have to acknowledge, that the profession of planning, the profession of architecture, of landscape, like, of all of these things, these professions about built environment are building environments to keep some of us in our place—right—to make sure we know how we should comport ourselves and act in a public space. And, again, why? Because we will be policed if we don’t do it right.
And we are policed in the workplace when people take things to our supervisors and when we get written up and when we get told we’re not doing things the right way. We are policed when we don’t get the same opportunities to shine, when our work is not promoted in the same way as other people’s work, when we are not compensated in the same way as other people; and we are policed when we walk into a store and we know someone is following us. We are being policed because what are we going to do, steal something? And so the people who are building these environments and always making sure that we stay in our place, that we don’t steal, that we act accordingly are actually people who built their whole premise on stealing, stealing my people from our homeland, stealing land—like, we’re all on stolen land from indigenous folks and trying to strip them of their culture, of their language, of their heritage. Right? Like, literally building a whole society on thievery and mediocrity where they couldn’t do it without other people. And when we try to say that that is the case, we are policed. Right?
And so you hear us all coming back to reparations because the reality is what’s happening in this moment is that folks are, like, “Okay, we’re going to start listening to us, but I need you to help me.” And the reality is people owe us; people owe us. And so there is nothing you can give me short of reparations that are going to ever help me get back to where I’m supposed to be. And so, yes, do the things that you think you should do, but white folks have to realize that they have to be active participants in this. It is going to be more than writing a check or elevating a voice or giving us a platform. Like, it is really, really being active participants. And even if you do those things that are writing a check, elevating a voice—because those things are important too—who are you doing it for? Are you doing it for the folks who will shuck and jive in the way you want and be the types of folks that actually none of us really mess with because we know it’s not real? And so who is getting elevated in those places?
Sulaiman: I don’t want to diminish anything Tamika said at all. I just want to kind of pick up on one thing that she said with regard to just seeing people and recognizing folks. I think with just tying into the story of Nipsey, I think one of the things that was most incredible to me—there were so many different things, but one of the most incredible things was that when he passed, there was a funeral procession. And it would have—if urban planners had really recognized, not just recognized him but recognized what the legacy of segregation had been within South LA and how contested the streets, how contested access to the public space really is because of the gang issues, because of policing, like, how much people have been denied ownership over the streets for so many years, planners would have seen that procession as what it was, which was the biggest open-streets festival this city has ever seen.
There were probably 100,000 people that came out that day. And I saw gang members from rival gangs embracing each other, throwing each other signs. Like, he did this 26-mile route that was the marathon dedicated to—like, because that was his last album; that was just sort of his motto, was, “The Marathon Continues.” And it was sort of his philosophy for how he was going to lift up the community. And so they did this procession from Staples Center downtown all the way through all of these different communities, all these different territories that as someone from The Rollin 60’s, from a gang, the largest in LA and one of the most notorious, never should have been able to cross through all of these boundaries.
But he had made his whole persona, his whole approach to lifting up the community was about breaking down some of these boundaries that had been, again, had sort of been a product of all of this bad planning and all of this repression. And so if planners had been able to see that, seen that as an opportunity to build on or to learn from, but there were cars involved in the procession, and so therefore it wasn’t seen as having any sort of open-streets kind of value. And so, like, that’s a very—like Tamika is talking about a lot of really much deeper issues with regard to being seen, but that’s just one way in which it manifests of just not recognizing the way that folks come together, what it takes to be able to come together. There’s just so much involved in being able to see really what the cost of segregation has been all of these years.
Cohen: Wow. We’re getting to the end of our time. I want to give each of you a chance to share where folks can learn more about your work. Dr. Thomas, would you like to start?
Thomas: Sure. You could find more information about the work that I do at ThrivanceGroup.com; T-H-R-I-V-A-N-C-E-G-R-O-U-P.com. But you can also follow me on Twitter at @DrDesThePlanner. That’s where I engage my colleagues and peers the most. And that same handle is actually on Instagram where I’ll be unveiling the photo project behind my 18-month dignity study, which I’ve been very quiet about but will be unveiling pretty soon.
Cohen: Wow, exciting. All right, thank you. Sahra?
Sulaiman: I write for Los Angeles Streetsblog, so you can find my articles there. Or I’m pretty active on Twitter usually with very long threads taking apart urbanist nonsense, so my Twitter is @SahraSulaiman.
Cohen: Awesome. And Tamika?
Butler: You can find me at my website, TamikaButler.com, T-A-M-I-K-A-B-U-T-L-E-R.com and then also at @TamikaButler on most of my platforms, LinkedIn, Facebook which I rarely use; it’s just for my mom and grandkid pics. And then Twitter is where I do spend a lot of my time, and I’m also on Instagram at @TamikaLButler.
Josh, you and I have been trying to figure out if we were going to do this for a year; and I didn’t want to do it alone, and so thank you to both Destiny and Sahra for joining this conversation. I think that, you know, I’m just so thankful for both of your voices, to be able to hear your voices, and to find myself in the things you say and the work you do. So thank you.
Cohen: Thank you all. You are all doing great work, and I’m learning a lot, and I look forward to everyone continuing to learn and continuing to take action towards several of those hashtags that you identified along the way.
Thomas: Somebody is nervous about this. [LAUGHTER]
Butler: Bye, guys. Thank you.
Sulaiman: Thank you.
Thomas: Thank y’all.
Cohen: Thank you.
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 TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.[END RECORDING]
For more from The Movement Podcast host Josh Cohen, check out Leadership Upside Down, a framework to build the equitable, accessible, and verdant future we all want.