Throughout Naomi Doerner’s career and community involvement, she has married transportation and mobility justice to not only better understand community needs, but to begin to shift power from dominant structures back to the community and its constituents.
Read more about transferring power back to the community in Leadership Upside Down, Josh Cohen’s framework for an equitable, accessible, and verdant future.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Doerner: Naomi Doerner
Cohen: Starting from a young age when she translated English for her mother, to her career where she has translated the technical aspects of the planning profession back to the community, Naomi Doerner has continually asked why and how decisions are made all in an effort to help ensure marginalized communities have ownership in the decisions that affect their communities. 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 on The Movement podcast is Naomi Doerner, principal and director of equity, diversity, and inclusion for Nelson/Nygaard Consulting. Prior to this role, Naomi was the Transportation Equity Program Manager for the City of Seattle’s Department of Transportation. She is also a cofounder and co-organizer of The Untokening, a national collaborative comprised of leaders of color working to advance mobility justice across the U.S. Welcome to The Movement, Naomi.
Doerner: Hi. Thank you so much. Thanks you for having me today.
Cohen: Well, I look forward to this. We had a brief talk earlier this week, and I’d really like to start with something that you mentioned to me when we talked then, which is that as you—you know, I mentioned several of your roles there professionally that you’ve done. And you said that you’ve married transportation and social justice in all of those roles and used that to allocate power back to the community and its constituents. And I’d love to just kind of dig into that a little bit. I mean, how mindful was that, or did things just kind of evolve based on your lived experiences? How did you kind of come to that?
Doerner: Yeah, thank you. And to answer your question, it’s been an evolution. It’s an ongoing evolution, as I think a lot of movement strategy and organizing work is. And it is very much rooted in my personal experience. I think I started telling you a little bit about some of that, but I’m first generation of my family to be born in the United States. I was originally born in Chicago, lived there for the younger portion of my life as a kid, and my mom was undocumented, from Honduras, Central America, single, working multiple jobs. And I was often a translator.
So, you know, we spoke Spanish in the home. She spoke Spanish in the home. And firsthand I just [INDISCERNIBLE] holds and remember navigating literally life with my mom as a young child through the City of Chicago. And we would do that by walking, taking transit. And, you know, I would often be frustrated because it would take so long to get places. It was often long waits, and, you know, so I had these experiences. And I also saw my mom really working a number of jobs, as I said, and having to rely on each other like family and colleagues or friends, I should say, in the community. So there was a lot, like—you know, I didn’t have vocabulary for it, but there was a lot of mutual aid. Right? And there was a lot of abundance in that way and provision and providing for one another. And that I wouldn’t say made up for but it certainly was a critical component to, like, being able to make advancements in our own lives. And, you know, there were definitely some limiting factors, some barriers that had to be overcome such as getting around the city.
And, anyway, I just hold all of that, and I like to start with that and say that because that was from my earliest memories, like, in our experience. And I served as a translator a lot. Like, I was a bit of a translator literally in terms of translating language, but also I think that that term has evolved in my work and in my life as I’ve done this work, because I feel that I’m often a translator between what has become, was not always, but what has become a technical profession and community. So I really feel like I serve at that vector. And so, yeah, that’s my origin story.
And then how that has translated into work over time? I was always very curious because of my upbringing about why things worked in certain ways. And later I became interested in the question of, “Well, how did these decisions get made?” once I understood that there were decisions. And that’s really been my exploration through this profession and now is really flipping the script in terms of—because I do understand how decisions are made, it’s like, “How do we really ensure that community not just voice but power—” because communities, like I said, do have power. There is abundance there—“how do communities, especially communities of color, low-income, Black, Brown, Indigenous communities really have ownership in the decisions being made about processes that are directly related to their communities?”
So that’s where I see a lot of the work and strategies that I move from, and then the home in which I’ve been able to, you know, like, organizing at a national level through The Untokening is really been such a profound experience for me because I have found a cohort of other leaders who are kind of coming from these similar experiences within their own work, whether advocacy, whether as an academic, or whether as a professional planner or what have you and having these same experiences and bringing that to the fore and for a time feeling that, “Oh. Well, this is getting in the way of—” you know, being told that it was getting in the way of, like, the core work of transportation or the core work of whatever was at the heart of that organization.
And now it’s encouraging to see that this is perhaps the most top-of-mind conversation that we’re having in our profession and in these spaces today. And so I really think The Untokening and that collective and the movements and the strategies that are kind of coming through that space have been really in some of the roles I’ve held since that, like Seattle Department of Transportation, they really—it’s been me exercising applied strategies for mobility justice.
Cohen: Yeah. Well, and I love this concept of translation and how you talk about kind of translating what I presume at the early stages you were talking about language translation—
Cohen: —and then kind of as you got older and you had the education particular to the planning space, then it’s about translating that to this community that you have a relationship to. That’s a really powerful kind of way of looking at that.
Doerner: Yeah. I mean, like I said, it wasn’t necessarily intentional. It was more organic and natural, but as I learned about power and sort of histories of our planning in the United States and the ways in which White supremacy are enmeshed in these processes, to me, as I really started to learn and unpack a lot of that started to realize that there was and is a real need to be intentional about how we are actually using power, how we address power and are transparent about that, and how we really shift power.
Cohen: That, to me, is kind of the crux of this issue. Right? It’s this reallocation of power in a way that is going to be more equitable and allows for equitable outcomes. So I want to maybe dig into that a little bit to say, what are some of the strategies that you have used to help allocate or reallocate that power? Because I do think this is, like, the critical thing that I think our industry needs to tackle right now and our country needs to tackle but and also our industry. What are some of these specific strategies that you think we can use or you can use or the community or our industry can use to help do this?
Doerner: I mean, it’s probably been said a thousand times, but I don’t know that it can be said enough, is, you know, there really is this deep wealth of knowledge, deep wealth of community. And I’m not saying that this is ubiquitous. Like, I think, each community has a very different contextualized way in which these things are expressed, but I know deeply that that is true. And the only way to really know these things is to be connected to and not only to listen but to actually be connected to. So I feel one of the strategies is we often hear people say, “Well, we have to listen to communities,” but that’s not really sharing power. Right?
Doerner: And so to hear someone say what they need but then to give and to resource and to allow a community to really self-determine what a visions is and what, like, principles that they hold and value, the ways in which I have been able to do that, like, shifting from just the listening to the actual resourcing. When I was at the Seattle Department of Transportation, in part what I wanted to see if it was possible to really work with community in an intentional way and to really have that community help build capacity for understanding internally at the departments in an institutionalized way which would then lead to co-creation.
So the community really helped identify, like, what and where their existing barriers to transportation—right—and what was disallowing communities from thriving in the current context, not just historical, and then how we take those barriers and then what goals that they had for how they could thrive, how then we took that information and then really looked at, you know, short, medium, and long term in terms of the work we do, how did we need to do it differently to get to some of these outcomes and how did we need to resource that. Right? That is really long and ongoing work, but the resourcing the community to come together to beginning with to even be seen as experts in their lives, that was a lot of capacity building that had to be done internally because we’re so used to being able to engage community and have them participate in, like, a project for a finite period of time.
And what was really being asked was, like, “Okay. Let’s really, like, talk about holistically, like, what is the reality that you’re in, and what are the barriers, and then what is the future you want to live in?” And then how do we through our varied, core operations either contribute to the barriers, remove those, and then really change things so that we can—like, the mechanics of how we do things so that we can get to these, like, goals, these core principles? How do we enmesh that into our organization? So that’s just a really different way because we’re so used to just, like, on these projects here and there.
So that’s work that’s underway. I think we were able to actually use the procurement. It sounds so boring, you know, but contracting procurement, like, we hire and contract with people all the time. So we were able to develop a contracting agreement to fund these folks to participate in this process. There was a curriculum that was developed, and the secret of that is that we didn’t really have an internal 101 of, like, how does the department work and where do we have some potential areas of opportunity in terms of equity to grow. And so we—there was literally a curriculum that was developed.
There was an internal, interdepartmental team of staff from across the department that helped to really create this, because I didn’t have that information. That was the information that was imbedded within our institution, but it wasn’t documented. And so that in a way was capacity building for us internally to put all that together. And it was literally a curriculum and a capacity development tool that we used so that we could transparently share with community our core work, how that work happens and also transparently indicate, “Here are some things that we’re doing that we think are equity oriented. These are some of the outcomes. This is how we’re doing it. What do you think about these things? Are these actually meeting some of the needs that you have, or is there—” You know, it was a way to kind of do an assessment. So, yeah, that’s what I mean about that kind of capacity building that’s both internal and external and building that relationship and building this dialogue and this trust in an ongoing, not project-oriented manner but like just broader.
Cohen: Yeah. So, you know, Seattle is one of our more kind of progressive cities in kind of thinking about these types of issues, and you were the first person to kind of tackle that role, I believe, in the nation; right? So you’re doing that; you’re creating that from new. Seattle is already a pretty progressive place. I guess, you know, to maybe bridge that to some of your work at Nelson/Nygaard, how ready is the rest of our country to kind of build on some of those successes that you kind of were laying or starting to lay the foundation on there in Seattle? I mean, are we ready to kind of have more Naomi’s in other city transportation departments around the country?
Doerner: Yes. I think there is a lot of energy. I mean, that’s part of—that was a little bit of the inspiration. As much as I loved the work I was doing, very much loved the work I was doing and the team—I mean, because it wasn’t—I will say, like, while I was—and again, I’m a translator. Right? I’m a facilitator. And so, again, I took organizing and facilitation and translation skills and really helped and supported the city and community to, like, create a feedback loop, is essentially what I—in a simplistic term. You know, so there, I mean, the City of Seattle has had a longstanding Race and Social Justice Initiative at the city level, and then each department has its own initiative to really tackle discrimination and specifically to be anti-racist, to become an anti-racist institution and eliminate racial outcomes.
And so what we did at Seattle and what is, again, ongoing and continues and is really the ongoing work of many, many internal staff as well as community is to ensure that the work of the department is reflective and responsive to not just the needs but the equity principles and priorities that specifically Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities are experiencing or want. And so I think that, to your question, like are other communities—while I was at Seattle there were lots of initiatives, lots of efforts, lots of staffing whether Office of Equity or project program staff that were really, truly looking to examples of how to potentially do things differently. I wasn’t able to—you know, I was building a plane and flying it and unable to really provide as much of the learning. It’s really just, like, sharing and learning. There wasn’t a lot of that that I could do, but I was seeing a lot of folks really needing that.
So in my role now at Nelson/Nygaard that’s really what I get to do. It’s actually really exciting because I see so much energy and so much internal—I know that we don’t like to say this in government, but a lot of buractivism. Right? Like, there’s a lot of energy to really have work and programs and policies that are responsive and reflective of communities and also addressing the inherent racial inequities that are embedded in the policies and are the bedrock of, like, so much of governance in the U.S. And so, yes, I think people are ready, but I do think there is a lot of foundation work that people are readying themselves with. And when I say foundation work, so really having a deep understanding of the history of power and race like we just started talking about. Like, how did we get here is such an important thing to understand so that you can undo it.
And so I think there are a lot of communities that are ready, but they are readying themselves by really digging into the local context of the historical conditions that created the outcomes that they’re looking to undo and to ameliorate. Right? Because that, to me—the reckoning is about—so to me, like, when you really talk about justice and frameworks, it’s like there’s atonement, like, atonement can only come from knowing your history and knowing why you’re atoning for something. Right? And then there is the acknowledgement of, “Okay. These are the things that we’re actually doing that are still potentially perpetuating or that are perpetuating these things that we’re saying we’re atoning for and that we want to atone for.”
And then there is action. Like, how do you change—right—what you’re doing? What does the transformation look like? And that has to be done in partnership with community. And that’s, to me, again where the fundamental power-shift piece—and it’s a struggle. And it’s messy because it requires—to give power means you have to let power go. So I think that’s really probably one of the hardest parts. That’s why getting to the action has taken a while.
Cohen: Sure. I want to maybe—you know, we’re probably getting close to the end here. I want to maybe—is there a specific project that you’ve worked on either in any of your kind of roles in your career or even personally that really kind of helps to highlight either that translation where you’ve felt like you’ve really been able to just, like, kind of do that so well beyond the examples you’ve already given or maybe kind of where you’ve helped to reallocate that power?
And I appreciate kind of the example you gave with Seattle and working there. I think that’s an important one and kind of the capacity building within the organization, but I’m curious maybe from a more tactical—maybe not even tactical but from an emotional standpoint that really just like stuck with you.
Doerner: One of the big pivot points in, I think, my work and career—so I was in New York, got to work on a number of really great projects there, and then I moved to New Orleans in 2012, and I began working with the Tulane Prevention Research Center. And a lot of people are like, “What? You were working in public health?” And, yeah, it was such a really formative experience. It was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded program. So Tulane had written this pretty brilliant grant. These public health epidemiologists were working with the city and really wanted data from the city to understand pre-Katrina data so that they could compare with post-new infrastructure and conditions measures so that they could understand what the health impacts, benefits, and gains were in terms of, like, for communities, especially communities of color. Because, you know, as we know, New Orleans is a predominantly Black city.
So they basically wrote this grant, and I was hired. I was the second person in that role, but they hired me to be sort of this technical assistant. I wasn’t a city employee. I was an employee of Tulane, but I was imbedded within the Department of Public Works. And I worked really closely with a brilliant engineer; her name is Jennifer Ruley. She’s still there to this day. Incredible strategist. But my role really was to build and support and grow a coalition of community leaders to be part of the process of both creating policy as well as advising on policy, so essentially informing—right—like, what from policy to actual design and how walking and biking infrastructure and to some extent transit was being planned and then how to program around that as well, so, you know, how to ensure that the communities that were there were benefitting from the infrastructure that would come in.
And this is in a context of a hyper-gentrifying city. So, you know, it was really a lot of community building, deep listening, understanding how resilient communities already were and ensuring that, like, the infrastructure was just going to enhance this and also strengthen it. So it was a—yeah, and so things that it led to, I mean, there was a mandatory ADA transition plan that had to be developed. So there was coalition input and work that went into that. There was, you know, a complete streets policy that was on the books that needed to be strengthened. So that was something that the community did, and it became—it’s much more equity focused now, focusing on, like, measures around communities of color. There’s also now a pedestrian and bicycle steering advisory committee.
There wasn’t at all; there wasn’t anything like this before. And so all of the community input really helped to inform some really critical pieces that are now structured within the city. So I guess those are some tangible pieces.
And then there was a Safe Routes to School program that never existed in the City of New Orleans. We got a $200,000 grant. I wrote it to the state, and then that became really the bedrock for what is now a Safe Routes to School program for the city where there was all this money that was coming in to rebuild these schools post Katrina, and there wasn’t a really coordinated plan around how to get the improvements into the schools before the schools opened. And so we were able to utilize this grant to help do some of that, to help leverage. So there was a number of different pieces that were really, I think, fundamental.
And now, I mean, all of this work lives on. You know, it’s become more institutionalized as the city has really exploded in terms of improvements around bicycling and pedestrian work. I went on to be the executive director for the local bike advocacy organization and really changed how we thought about campaigns, really centering the stories and the experiences and the needs of Black and Brown communities who were not the traditional quote-unquote “paying” members, like, dues-paying members of the organization.
But we really as an organization had to, like, wrestle with what is our role as an advocate who is advocating for the transformation of public space in a Black and Brown city when our membership is predominantly White. And there were really hard conversations around racial equity and racial justice and what does it mean for a bike advocacy organization to do that kind of work and to think differently and to advocate differently in service of a broader community that may not have been reflected in the membership. So those are just some examples. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Yeah. Those are fantastic. And, I think, you know—I know our local bike advocacy group Bike Durham, who I know you know Aidil Ortiz who is also one of the folks that are involved with The Untokening, which came to Durham last year. She’s also involved in that and is also a local bike and pedestrian advisory committee member as well. So I think that work continues, and I think it’s really important that we kind of reckon with the organization and then how it’s serving the community.
And I know Bike Durham is doing that, and I think they’ve done a lot of work with transit over the course of the last year, even though they’re nominally a biking group, but they recognize that transit and pedestrian has a big impact on that. In fact, I think they were one of the biggest advocates for ensuring that transit riders had masks and helped distribute a lot of the masks that were available, so truly important stuff. Where can folks learn more about the work you’re doing?
Doerner: Sure. Well, one, they can look me up on the Nelson/Nygaard and just go to Nelson/Nygaard’s webpage, which is NelsonNygaard.com. And then for The Untokening it’s just untokening, U-N-T-O-K-E-N-I-N-G.org. And then I’m also, just if folks want to follow me, on Twitter. It’s at @Bici_Urbana, so B-I-C-I underscore Urbana.
Cohen: Awesome. I want to put a quick plug in for The Untokening. They wrote “Principles of Mobility Justice,” coming out of their 2016 inaugural convening. And it is just a fantastic, very high-level, quick overview on the issues. And, I think, for all of us in the space that think we were kind of tuned in but were not really tuned in, I think this document that is several years old kind of says, like, “We’ve been working on this, folks. Pay attention. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.”
So I think thankfully a lot more people are now listening, which I think is a great start. And then the next step is, of course, action. I appreciate you sharing a little bit about how you’ve helped different organizations move along this process of atonement and acknowledgment and then on to action. So thank you, Naomi, for joining me today.
Doerner: Take care. Have a good one. Bye.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at 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]
Read more about transferring power back to the community in Leadership Upside Down, Josh Cohen’s framework for an equitable, accessible, and verdant future.