Share on Social

Episode 78 guest Darnell Grisby

As the American Public Transportation Association’s policy director, Darnell Grisby understands the unique role that transit can play to increase access to opportunity not only for riders, but also for the next generation of diverse industry leaders.

Episode Transcript

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Grisby: Darnell Grisby

Cohen: Before we can address the systemic racism inherent in our communities’ infrastructure or policy, we have to address it in ourselves. It’s like when they told us when we used to fly places. Remember that? “Put on your own oxygen mask first, before helping others.” In this episode of The Movement podcast, Darnell Grisby shares the frame he’s using to address racism at an individual level. 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: Darnell Grisby is director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation association, the nonprofit association that represents all modes of public transportation with more than 1,500 public and private sector members around the world. Prior to APTA, Darnell was the deputy policy director for Reconnecting America, a national think-tank focused on building equitable, market-based, transit-oriented development. Welcome to The Movement, Darnell.

Grisby: Thank you. Hello.

Cohen: I saw a recent post in CityLab recently that you posted that really just resonated with me. It was about your experience growing up in Riverside, California and the racism that you and your extended family felt there. And I want to maybe just start there, because it was such a powerful piece, and it showed a lot of vulnerability to share with a larger group. And I’d love to maybe get some insight into why you decided to share that with the broader world.

Grisby: I really felt like I had an obligation to do so, and part of that is because I’ve gotten so much inspiration from those who have been sharing their stories as of late. And I saw people sharing their stories, people taking risks, and I felt that it was more appropriate for me to say something about my own story. Part of the reason why I’m in transit, why I do mobility work is because of what I experienced growing up and what my family has experienced over the generations. That’s one reason why I do the work that I do. So as I saw other professionals in other industries speaking up I thought it was time to share my truths as well, because I think there’s real work going on right now to try to perfect our democracy. And I thought I should try to do the same because I love America.

Cohen: For sure. And, I think, beyond your personal story which you shared, you also had a couple actions I thought were really important that you recommended. So one was transit governance and funding, you know, “Who is paying the bills and what power do they have?” Two was on systems thinking, you know, and that really kind of ties together your different professional experiences; “If we fund transit but not housing kind of we’re just kicking the can down the road.” And then the last one, which I thought was really interesting and something I’ve definitely seen as well in our industry was, “Who’s in the room?” You believe there’s not enough people of color in senior leadership roles, and I agree with you. So I thought that was three really clear kind of points that you made there. And I’m curious maybe to dig into those a little bit more. I mean, are there some specific tactical things that you would like to see us do in the industry to really help move forward on those issues?

Grisby: I think, I really came to understand the power of what public transportation can do for communities. So I understand that sometimes the industry does not get its just due; people do not understand the work that we do. And I really wanted to share with people that transit is one of the keys to unlock a better-functioning democracy, because we can provide that access to opportunity. But within that I thought there was some work that we could do collectively to better connect ourselves with the efforts to perfect democracy, and some of that involves looking internally at our own practices and who we are as an industry.

I’m a big reader, and one of the books that really spoke to me is called How to Be an Anti-Racist. It’s by Ibram X. Kendi. And really what he did, he provided a very simple frame, which is there’s racist policy and then there is antiracist policy. So it’s really not good enough to be not racist; we have to be antiracist. And what that does—it allows us to look at our behaviors, our governance, our hiring, our policy frames all within some level of analysis. We can look at those actions and say, “Are they racist, or are they antiracist?” It would help us unlock some of those existing structures that still have vestiges of unequal outcomes, and there are many of them.

Now, of course, one thing I understand as a transportation professional is a lot of those decisions are in fact local in nature, so I’m not going to tell people what they should do locally in their communities except for thinking in this frame, because what it does—it allows you to look at, “Well, we might have a governance structure because it provides fiscal viability and political sustainability, may be reasons why we have our current governance.” However, if we are self-aware that that governance structure may in fact have a suburban bias, may in fact have a racist bias, we can just begin to act differently knowing that the structure has that ingrained bias. And to explicitly be antiracist in those policies allows us to even govern ourselves with the existing governance better if each one of those elected officials or appointed officials on a board are thinking in terms of antiracist policy.

Cohen: Are you starting to see some of these communities start to think not just, “Is this policy okay?” but, “Is it explicitly antiracist?” Are you starting to hear some of that yet?

Grisby: I think it’s really important for individuals to take personal ownership to do that, because it may be difficult to really change governance structures until we can have a bigger bite of that apple and do so in a systemic way. So in the interim I think it’s important for people to take those personal actions to look at your structure and say, “Historically, have there been biases that we have been making more ingrained?” and doing that as a professional is a very concrete action that we all can do as individuals.

One thing we want to make sure we do is that we don’t disempower people from feeling like they can actually move the ball. So one of the objectives of the article was to state ways in which we can concretely move forward and things that individuals can do that would have a collective impact on the structures of racism in our society. If people who have local knowledge think in terms of that frame and act according to that frame as individuals, they can change the world.

Cohen: Yeah, for sure. I definitely think you’re right. How do you at APTA kind of engage with some of these other associations that you’re kind of simpatico with? How do you advocate and move public transit forwards in recognition that, you know, we’ve got to get transportation done well but at the same time if we’re suburbanizing poverty and pushing everybody out to the—you know, then it’s making transit’s job harder. Right? How do we really solve these problems in a systemic way?

Grisby: So I think part of it is to acknowledge the fact that the way we fund our transit and our housing essentially are in two separate platforms, two silos that oftentimes do not communicate well for obvious reasons, because each has its own governance structure, each has its own issues. For example, housing advocates may want to do more to get affordable housing near transit, but in doing so they may make it more difficult to build transit with some of their proposals. So we have structures that are in the way of us being able to work collectively.

So part of our objective, I think, is to understand and communicate with one another about some of the limits of policy, which takes us back to those individual acts again until we can make more sustainable change in structures that may separate what should in fact be concerns that are connected. Right? So housing and transportation are connected, but how often does that actually work itself out in policy without people having to take the reins? Right? So, I think, one of the objects I had of the article was to do what has been done for me, which is to have more people act courageously.

It took some effort on my part to communicate my personal story and to take action, but I was—I’m someone who has been encouraged by others to stand up because they stood up. So, I think, even if there’s individuals working in communities that are difficult to navigate, if you can stand up on these issues and speak more holistically about policy issues, you will actually end up supporting public transportation’s future in a much more bold and assertive fashion. So it is incumbent upon us to understand housing policy, because homeless people will populate our buses and trains if there’s a housing policy failure. And that’s another frame that I think is really important.

Homelessness is not a symptom of individual failure necessarily; it’s a sign of policy failure. Transit systems that are unable to meet community need is not a failing of the agency; it’s a failing of policy. So if we can start to think about policy in those ways and individuals in those ways, we can really change our perspective about who is deserving of help and support, which takes us back to reinvesting in the public realm that we all share, which, I think, over the decades there’s been some move away from supporting public services, which is why we’ve seen a degradation of those public services over the years.

And, like I said before, you know, there’s artificial walls between these policy areas, but they all work in tandem; none of them operate in isolation. So it takes us back to learning about other policy areas that touch our own and trying to become as expert on those connections as possible. And, I think, one of the things I like about the frame of racist versus antiracist policy is that it helps you see connections between policy issues that might exist in silos today.

Cohen: Hmm. Going to the degradation of the public services in a while, certainly I think—we touched a little bit on funding earlier. Kind of the news of the day—we’re recording this on Thursday, July 30th—is that obviously we’re several months into this COVID pandemic. There’s been a severe impact on public transit. And I think we have to accept—I think there’s going to be some challenges in public transit for years to come just with, you know, people working remotely.

I think some of the early concerns about safety, I think, have been mitigated with better information and with mask wearing. I’m curious what APTA is encouraging its public transit members to do as they’re thinking about moving forward, because I think you’ve got some headwinds in the Senate on some further relief as it deals with COVID. So I’m curious what APTA is telling its members and what you think maybe some of the best ways forward to address what’s likely to be a multiyear recovery for public transit.

Grisby: You know, one of the themes that we’ve really been communicating is the idea of building back better. And, I think, if we continue to use that frame we’ll be well served. Another thing that has happened is the establishment of a Mobility Recovery and Restoration Taskforce. They are working on a variety of different types of strategies right now, and we anticipate having some deliverables from that group in September of this year. And it is chaired by a number of luminaries in our industry. Phil Washington out of LA Metro; Joanna Pinkerton out of Central Ohio Transit Authority; Paul Wiedefeld from Washington, D.C.; and Kimberly Slaughter with HNTB; they’ve been tasked with coming up with some next steps for the industry.

In terms of funding, the CARES Act was of course a big win for the transit industry. We got $25 billion in support for transit agencies to help prevent, prepare for, and respond to this COVID-19 pandemic, a very successful lobbying effort by the association and its membership. However, we identified at least $23.8 billion of additional need beyond that CARES Act funding. So that’s some of the work that’s happening right now. There are many needs in the nation, and of course there is a lot of political tension right now. So we’ll see how those efforts work out in the next couple days, but we’re continuing to fight for additional funding because we know that the membership really needs it. It’s a tough time for the country.

Cohen: Yeah. Well, no, it certainly is. And I think the way out of this is, I think, maybe very similar to what you identified in that third piece, which is kind of, “Who’s in this room?” Right? And the way out of it, in my mind, is leadership. Right? They way out of it is how we’re understanding the needs of our communities, how we’re funding those adequately, so, you know—

Grisby: Mm-hmm. We play a very important role in justice; ensuring justice in the country, transit plays an important role. And that’s one reason why I wrote the piece, is just to remind the public even outside of the transit industry that we’re important for social movements that want to advance justice in America because we provide access to opportunity and we do facilitate economic growth. So reminding people who may not think of transit as a first-option tool to begin to think of us as a first-option tool, to help expand that coalition of people willing to fight for public transportation is very important in this era, and that can help us grow out of the current COVID-19 crisis.

Cohen: For sure. Let’s maybe wrap up wit this. I’ve been to hundreds of conferences; I know you’ve been to hundreds of conferences. And when I go to these conferences and I look around the room and I say, you know, very similar to what you posited in that piece, which is, “Who’s not in this room?” Right? And, you know, the public transit industry is kind of an older industry. I’m curious what more APTA and its member agencies can do to help ensure that we get younger, people of color, women involved in these senior leadership roles in these organizations.

Because I fundamentally believe that these transit agencies are going to be in a real world of pain in a few years when people start retiring. And if they have not done a good enough job of really getting a pipeline of folks that are ready to take the reins, I think this industry is really going to be—it’s going to have some bumpy times.

Grisby: There’s been a lot of outreach to high schools and colleges over the years to try to raise the idea of transit as a career option for people. I think, going a further step would be doubling down on and ensuring that if there are people of color and women in your trajectory towards top leadership, that you elevate them and provide adequate mentoring. You know, one of the things that is a constant for disadvantaged groups, whether it be women or people of color, is the lack of proper mentorship to help people throughout their careers develop themselves. A lot of times people have no clue on how to properly do that. So doubling down on those strategies would be useful.

Another one would be to think intentionally about how we do outreach to graduate programs. You know, we wish there were more people of color and women in these programs, but compared to what the transit industry currently has in the pipeline, we could probably add a lot more looking at policy programs, JD programs, MBA programs, and raising with them as first year students the idea of serving transit to improve our urban communities and make our cities and economy more functional overall, to really raise the profile of the industry in terms of what we can do for America and why it’s a patriotic act to work in public transportation.

We may not have the salaries of other industries, particularly when you start out, but it’s a patriotic act of service and to really make that clear to those who are beginning their graduate careers so that they view us a natural conduit when they have aspirations to give back to society. And I think that could be done more effectively, because, you know, I’m someone who always thought of transit as an option, but I can’t say that when I was sitting at Harvard that anyone really approached me about transit as an option. It was just something that I sort of knew I wanted to do. Something more intentionally developed and focused could be helpful for that.

Cohen: Yeah. No, that’s a great point. You know, I think there’s a combination of things there. Right? There’s the kind of top of the funnel, which is kind of what you’re alluding to there, which is, “What can we do to kind of help get more folks who hadn’t even considered transit to consider it?” but then also it’s once they’re in the funnel already. You know, one thing I think about a lot is that when you go to these conferences—and, again, I don’t know what conferences are going to look like for a number of years at this point, but, you know, when you go to conferences, half the value is not the sessions; it’s the hallway conversations where you’re running into people.

Grisby: The networking.

Cohen: Yeah. And it’s like if folks aren’t invited to be a part of that, they’re missing out on all of that opportunity. Right? You know, so if you’ve got folks that are just—they’re not even exposed to that. I think that’s a missed opportunity, in my opinion, that is really going to potentially slow down that potential opportunity for more folks.

Grisby: And, you know, one of the outcomes of COVID-19 could be ways to make our conferences, when we have them virtually, more inclusive. And perhaps even once COVID-19 is over we still continue to have virtual sessions that would allow people to network and be a part of the conference even if they are not far enough up the pecking order to have the company pay for a ticket and hotel to arrive there. That could be another strategy, is to rethink some of these conferences and make them permanently more accessible.

You know, one thing that struck me—I’ve seen some footage of some of the civilian review boards for police in some communities. And they’ve gone online and had Zoom meetings, and they’ve found that their attendance was through the roof and there was a lot of involvement from people that they would never hear from otherwise. So that could be a strategy to democratize further these conferences and even further democratize our own public hearings as an industry, is to figure out ways to have them online so that people can better access them.

Cohen: Tell us where folks can learn more about some of the work you’re doing at APTA or follow you on social media. What’s the best places to find you?

Grisby: I’m on Twitter; I’m on LinkedIn under Darnell Grisby, so pretty easy. D-A-R-N-E-L-L, last name Grisby, G-R-I-S-B-Y.

Cohen: Awesome. Darnell, thank you so much for giving us an introduction into kind of how you think the industry as well as our country needs to move forward, you know, using some of your lived experience growing up in Riverside, California and your experience working in the transit industry and making it better. Thank you.

Grisby: Absolutely. Thank you. Take care.

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.