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Episode 83 guest L'Erin Jensen

Like many of us, mobility shaped L’erin Jensen’s life, from public transit in middle school to an electric scooter last week. In her new role as co-host of The Movement Podcast, she’ll leverage this life experience and her journalism credentials to advance mobility equity.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen

Cohen: If you didn’t catch my blog post last week titled “…And let it begin with me” you might not know yet that The Movement podcast will sound a little different going forward. I’m not going anywhere, but my colleague L’erin Jensen will be bringing her storytelling skills to The Movement podcast as a cohost going forward. On the podcast today you’ll get to know L’erin, how she ended up at TransLoc, and why I thought she would be such a great addition to the team. 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: Well, this is a special episode today, as I introduce a new member of The Movement podcast. L’erin Jensen who has previously been behind the scenes helping to make the podcast a reality each week is now going to step out in front of the mic on a regular basis. In addition to some of TransLoc’s communications work, L’erin is a journalist and storyteller with bylines in The Daily Tarheel, The Durham VOICE, and Scalawag magazine. Welcome to The Movement, L’erin.

Jensen: Thanks you, Josh. I’m excited to be here.

Cohen: Yeah, this is great. I mean, we’ve been working together for over a year now. And, you know, I think for me it was really a function of how do we make the best possible product for the listeners, and how can we keep advancing the mission that I’m trying to bring and now you’re going to help with around leadership and the importance of leadership to achieve the equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that we want. And, you know, I think the more the merrier here.

I think, the more perspectives we have here, I think, the better conversation we’re going to have, and I think I’ve certainly seen that with some of the guests we’ve had. So I’m excited to kind of bring you in, and my goal today is really just to kind of introduce you really to our audience here. I think they’ve probably gotten a little bit of sense of me over the course of the last year and a half, but I want them to kind of get to know you a little bit. So maybe just kind of give us a little introduction to yourself, maybe where you’re from and how you ended up here.

Jensen: Yeah. So I’m originally from Southern California. I’ve lived in North Carolina for—[SIGHS]—11 years now. I don’t think that I ever intended it to be that long, but Durham is a pretty-cool place. I’m not mad about living here. I went to school for journalism, so I am a journalist by trade. I ended up at TransLoc, I think—once I got into journalism grad school, I realized that it was a lot different from what I expected in journalism [ph][3:00].

Cohen: In what way?

Jensen: Journalism is hustle. So I envisioned myself—like, originally I wanted to go into academia. Like, I wanted to be a college professor, but I didn’t really think that I had the undergraduate resume to get into that. So I started thinking about what attracted me to academia, and it was I really enjoy the learning process and I enjoy sharing that information with people once I’ve learned it. And I also really like the college pace of life. So I started thinking about other careers that I thought kind of had some of those similar qualities, and I landed on journalism.

So, I think, the first two journalism absolutely does have. I mean, think about it. They’re there to—they’re knowledge creators in a sense as well. They may not be doing the same type of research or statistical research that most professors do, but they’re still there to unveil new things and share with the world. So I was like, “Okay, I think I could do that.” It does not have the college pace of life though. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

Jensen: It’s much more of a grind, much more of a grind. It’s not quite as stable as being a professor or other jobs. So I thought to myself, “Well, know what? I think that if I can come out of grad school with just being, like, a really proficient storyteller I can take those skills anywhere. Like, I can use that in any market.” So fast-forward, I started off at TransLoc as a contractor. I had no clue what TransLoc was, I think, like a lot of people; but I came to the interview, and the team that interviewed me—so the marketing and coms team—they were, one, wonderful, and at the time the CEO Doug Kaufman was also pretty great.

I know he told me in the interview that, you know, when he was interviewing for his position he told Josh Whiton, the founder of TransLoc, that he didn’t want to just work for a company that wanted to make a bunch of money; he wanted to work for a company that wanted to change the world and then make a bunch of money. So I was really drawn to that because, I think, naturally who I am is someone who thinks that we need to give more back to this world than we take from it. I’m a Black woman; that’s the lens through which I view the world, so when I see things, you know, I see things through that lens. And I’m like, “Okay. Well, how am I affected by this?” You know, we all have our privileges and things we go through, and I’m part of multiple marginalized groups.

I’m not trying to play, like, you know, victim Olympics, but I’m affected by things differently than you are. So that was big for me, when Doug said that to me. And then, you know, I started working at TransLoc, and transit was something that was easy to hop behind. You know, people who are transit dependent are poor; many Black people are poor, so—and I’ve had my own experiences with transit. Growing up in Southern California I took public transportation to school both in middle school, so seventh and eighth grade, and then at the end of high school. And I know both of them—like, I mean, I probably lived a 15- to 20-minute drive away from my house when I was in middle school taking the bus, and it took, like, two hours each way to get to school.

Cohen: Wow.

Jensen: And then, again, in high school my junior and senior year of high school I lived in the same city. My school was in the same city that I lived in, and so it was probably like a seven- or eight-minute drive to school, but class started at 7:08 my senior year. I had to leave the house before, like, I think, 5:50 in the morning. So 9/11 happened when I was a senior in high school. And so because I leave the house before six o’clock—and I’m on the West Coast—the planes had not crashed yet. So I get to school; I get to class, and everyone is like, “Did you see what happened?” And I’m like—they’re all talking about it. I have no clue what’s going on, and they’re like, “Two planes crashed into the Twin Towers.”

So—yeah, so—[LAUGHS]—that was just a big moment. And, I think, if we had better access to transit and mobility, that’s not, like, something that I would have missed out for. When people talk about 9/11 it feels different for me because, like, I didn’t watch it. My memory is that, like, I didn’t hear about it; I wasn’t there.

Cohen: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Jensen: So—yeah—that’s where I can relate to it. I’m all about equity. And having a car, I know from personal experience, like, it just—it’s hard to get around. It’s hard to get a good job, to keep a good job. You know, it’s hard to get to school. It’s hard to access health care. All of the things that we talk about at TransLoc and here on The Movement all the time are affected by not having access to mobility.

Cohen: Sure, and I—you know, certainly, that experience or that resonant kind of feeling that you talked about when you interviewed with Doug, I think, is definitely something that as I’ve worked with you over the course of the last year has definitely—I’ve definitely seen. Right? For you this is—you know, you, I think, are similar to me in the sense that our goals are much bigger than just how can we quote-unquote, “make a bunch of money,” but the goal is how can we make this world a better place.

And so, I think, that’s part of why you really jumped out to me as someone who could provide that perspective but through that lens of, like, what can we do to help make this world better. And I think that’s certainly the goal that we have at TransLoc in general and then certainly with The Movement podcast more in specific. So I want to dive into something you mentioned earlier. You talked about storytelling and enjoying telling stories. I’m curious if there are any stories that you worked on as a journalist, or maybe even not as a journalist that maybe even personally that really resonated with you or really have stuck with you.

Jensen: Oh gosh. [LAUGHS] That’s a loaded question, I feel like. [LAUGHS] I will say that I’m most moved really by a lot of the academic research, not necessarily, like, you know, “Hey, this happened,” but, “These are things that happen in the world” and people philosophizing, “How do we change those things?” So, I think, like, the people that I’m most inspired by, the things that I’m most inspired by are engaged scholars. So, like, Angela Davis—I don’t know whether she’s an activist first or a scholar first, but she’s certainly both—a bunch of other Pan-African scholars; Kwame Nkrumah, the former president of Ghana; W. E. B. Du Bois; Amílcar Cabral; so a lot of these guy who they have this idea for how to improve Africa as a continent and as a people as well and how they get to those. Because I like getting to—we can’t really come up with a solution, if we don’t know the actual problem; and so those are the things that I’m moved by.

Okay, so—yeah—we want to live in a better world; we want a more equitable society; but why isn’t it equitable now? Like, okay, so we have Jacob Blake who was just shot in the back seven times by police, but why did they shoot him? Okay, because they thought whatever, like whatever reason, but this happens over and over again; why is this allowed to happen? I think those are the things that I’m most moved by, peeling back the layers of things really and then trying to find a solution from there.

Cohen: That’s a great perspective. And I hadn’t really thought about that from that perspective. Obviously that’s one of the roles of academia, is to really kind of connect those dots on different issues. I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns right now, and it is—I guess, it’s an academic work because it’s nonfiction, but it almost reads like fiction because the author, Isabelle Wilkerson, does such a great job of kind of providing the context for the Great Migration where folks where moving from the South because of Jim Crow laws and racism and so forth to the North and to the West. And you’re right; I didn’t really connect that to academia, but you’re right; that is kind of one of the key virtues of academia, is to really make sure we understand the current context.

Because what she goes through in this book is impacting what we’re living through today with people expressing the inequities that are found all over the place but especially within some of the police brutality that we’ve seen more recently but what we’ve seen with some of the guests when they’ve talked about mobility access and, you know, who are safe streets for and so forth. That thread is there; I just had never really made that connection.

Jensen: Certainly, certainly. And if I’m okay to go off on a bit of a tangent about who safe streets are for—

Cohen: Sure.

Jensen: You know, just in our conversations, things that we’ve discussed, I know we talk a lot about bike lanes. We’ve had conversations about, like, the limit on how fast you can go on Emperor Boulevard right in front of our job and how you can get to be [ph][11:41] too fast and then Durham’s lack of bike lanes even though—I know, you’re on the board of Bike Durham; is that correct?

Cohen: An advisor, yeah.

Jensen: Advisor.

Cohen: I’m not on the board, but I advise them informally.

Jensen: So when we look at Durham there are some designated bike lanes, but they’re placed very specifically in, like, nicer neighborhoods in the more suburban areas. And it’s just I don’t think this is something that I ever thought about until talking to you, but I was in New Jersey not that long ago and I see people, like, in a more urban area of New Jersey, and there’s people riding bikes.

And then I think back to my own experiences growing up, and, like, again, my mom not having a car; and I remember my brother riding bikes to stores. And, like, so many of the people that we lived around in these, like, underprivileged neighborhoods, ghettos and stuff, and they’re riding bikes because they don’t have cars. Like, people just don’t have cars in the ghettos. There are some, but—and they break down all the time. But there’s no bike lanes in the neighborhoods that most need them. Like, people do use bikes there, but if you’re using them you’ve just got to ride it in the middle of the street.

And it’s the same thing. I was in Downtown Durham last weekend. And me and some friends, we took out some of the scooters that they have down there, and there’s no, like, designated bike or scooter lanes. You’ve got to ride those in the streets with cars going 45 miles per hour. We rode from Downtown Durham to the Hayti Heritage Center, so you’ve got to cross over Fayetteville Street on a scooter. [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Oh, yeah.

Jensen: There is no way I’m going to ride a scooter that goes 18 miles per hour on a major street that crosses a highway with cars going 45 miles per hour. So we rode them on the sidewalk, and you’re not supposed to do that, so.

Cohen: Right. Right, yeah, and that issue kind of just gets multiplied. Even within that example you just gave when you talk about equity issues, there’s layers in there. Right? So one is riding on sidewalks, and I think there’s been some good research to show that people of color get ticketed more for riding on sidewalks than White people do. You mentioned the Hayti Heritage Center. The Hayti is the historically African-American neighborhood that was ripped apart, bisected by the Durham Freeway when that was put in. Y’all going there, it was a lot harder to get there than it was before the freeway went in. That really limited access and really destroyed that community really.

And obviously the heritage center is doing its part now to try and build that community or retain that community as much as possible, but the Durham Freeway still is a scar on our city unfortunately. So, again, I think those equity issues just in that you going downtown is kind of layer upon layer upon layer there. It’s just—and I think that kind of reinforces kind of what I talked about in the blog post last week, which is that these issues, while it wasn’t something that I probably quite understood to the same level as I am right now, these issues have to be a part of every conversation we’re having right now. And, again, I think to the example you just gave just reinforces that. Right? It could just be a conversation about, “Hey, we just took some scooters out. Hey, this is just about scooter,” or this can be a conversation about the inequitable impact of mobility and how that’s impacted Black and White and people of Latino background as well just throughout our communities.

So that’s a really, really impactful kind of example you gave. You know, you mentioned—or I mentioned, I guess, at the beginning—I talked about how you’ve kind of helped me with The Movement podcast over the course of the last year. I’m curious if there’s any of the guests or themes or anything like that that have really jumped out to you.

Jensen: So I think that the work you’ve been doing lately, the people that you’ve been talking to lately, that’s probably where my interest lies in terms of, like, where I feel most engaged by the shows, the episodes. You’ve done a lot of work lately with racial equity or speaking to people who work to improve racial equity, I think, you know, obviously in mobility spaces; but they’re motivated by their own backgrounds and their own experiences to improve mobility. And so I had a classmate. She did an assignment one time, and I remember, like, the end of it was like, “When Black women win, everyone wins.” So people like Tamika Butler, Naomi Doerner—I’m sorry if I’m messing up her name—you know, you just had Ariel Ward and Brytanee Brown, so they all work in mobility spaces in some capacity in, like, different ways; but they’re motivated by their own experiences growing up, and because of that, because they are working for greater mobility and accessibility, everybody wins.

So not only do Black women win because now, like, they have greater access to mobility, but so does every other Black person and White person out there in the world. So those are the type of things that I’m most interested in. I really enjoy where it’s going. You know, the other stuff, transportation planning as well, because that, again, it has its impacts as well. But, I think, looking at it from a different lens changes things for the better of course.

Cohen: Yeah. No, I agree. And we’ve had some amazing guests throughout this time. And, again, I think this is a living and breathing organism here. This is something that is going to continue to evolve as we go. And so I think that’s just part of what makes it exciting, is that we can kind of build this and make this whatever we want it to be; and I’m grateful that you’re willing to kind of help here to provide your perspective on things as well.

I know you mentioned kind of academia kind of being an area of interest, the planning. The thing that we don’t know yet that L’erin and I are going to kind of experiment with is kind of how we’re going to do this. I think she’s got a guest we’re going to have on in a few weeks, so you can look forward to that, and then we’ll kind of continue to experiment as we go along and will certainly love any feedback that y’all can provide for us. But, I think, from my standpoint I think the goals that we’re working towards, we’re going to be a lot better situated to achieve them with L’erin’s perspective and some of the folks that L’erin will talk to along the way and getting some of her storytelling chops in here.

You know, maybe we can do another one like we did with the Charlotte podcast earlier this year, which was a little bit more of the narrative-style podcast. I think, L’erin’s expertise in storytelling could be really beneficial there as well, once we get to traveling again perhaps. But anything else you want to share with folks?

Jensen: So I’m excited and nervous all at the same time, but I think we’ll be good. You know, as you do more of these, you get better at it. I think this was a good experience. It’s always good to kind of flip the tables when you are a journalist or a podcast host to see what it’s like to ask the people that you’re talking to to open up about themselves and be vulnerable, so I think this was good practice. We’ll see what it’s like moving forward.

I know one of the reasons why you said that you wanted me to join the other side of The Movement was because like you I look at these things from, like, a policy standpoint. So for sure, I think, that if I were doing journalism full time, ideally I would have, like, a column where I talked about public policy and how it affects race. So, I think, we’re seeing things in the same way. Hopefully we’ll just get to uncover more of those things and really, really get to the point where we create these equitable, verdant, and accessible mobility futures for all.

Cohen: That’s right. That’s what we’re going for, and we’ll get there; we’ll get there. Well, L’erin, thank you so much for joining me. I look forward to having your first episode here in a couple weeks, and everyone can look forward to that, and we’ll go from there. Thank you.

Jensen: All right. Thank you, Josh.

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.