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Episode 74 guest Charles Brown

What happens if you do planning work not from behind a desk, but in front of a community? That’s what self-described street level researcher Charles Brown does, allowing him to hear the voices of the people who are truly the experts in their communities.


Cohen: Josh Cohen
Brown: Charles Brown

Cohen: Humility, empathy, and optimism play strong roles in today’s podcast featuring street-level researcher Charles Brown of Rutgers University. When you’re done with this podcast, you’ll agree with Charles that the experts are the community members answering the researchers’ and planners’ questions and not the other way around. Let’s go.

F: Mobility is an essential component to the cities of our future. To build this future, we need to do more than invest in technology; we need to invest in the people who will make the hard decisions necessary to create vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities. Welcome to The Movement where we talk to the brave leaders who are effecting change in an effort to build a coalition of leaders who will make tomorrow real. Here is your host, TransLoc’s National Director of Policy, Josh Cohen.

Cohen: My guest today is Charles Brown. Charles serves as the senior researcher with the Voorhees Transportation Center and adjunct professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, both at Rutgers University. He also serves as the 2020 fellow within the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in partnership with The OpEd Project. Several of my former guests suggested that we have Charles on The Movement podcast, including Keith Benjamin and Tony Garcia. Welcome to The Movement, Charles.

Brown: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Cohen: I think what is super cool about your research and of particular interest to me is that you consider yourself a street-level researcher. Tell us kind of what inspired that approach to be a street-level researcher.

Brown: First and foremost, I would say, the inspiration came from when we would approach communities to do work when I was a practicing planner. We would always have questions around how can we improve a city or a town or a county or a state. And as part of that process when we did it well it meant that we would engage in a very authentic way with members of the community. And so we would go to the community, ask them a question on ways in which we could improve their community, and as you would suspect or expect they would have an answer.

And so I would leave there with a sort of bittersweet feeling. And the bittersweet feeling came from the standpoint of I was being paid as a consultant to ask a question of a community that had an answer, but when I left I was deemed the expert and not the community. And I thought something was wrong with that approach. I feel that if I have a question and you have an answer you are the expert, not me. So in that humility I started saying, “Instead of taking the ivory-tower approach of thinking that I’m gods of gods, what I’m going to be is a voice for the people. I’m going to go into the communities, and I want to see from them what the problems are. And if I want to be deemed an expert, I need to work with them in finding the answer to that problem.

And so that’s when I started taking on this mindset of a street-level researcher, that being one in which the answers are present in the streets, not in the towers of privilege across America. And so I value the input of everyday citizens just as much as I do a peer-reviewed research article, a planning study, or any other thing that we deem more credible than the voices of the people in those communities. And so I’m proud to call myself a street-level researcher because I know that the research that I produce is answering a question that they have posed to me as opposed to a question I posed to them.

Cohen: I guess I’m trying to, like, process through kind of how we got to that place where you asking those questions to the public and then you’re considered that expert, and you’re kind of pushing against that. I guess, did we come to that because of kind of this desire to just have one perspective and to kind of go into the street and to ask the community—because, you know, the community is not monolithic; right? There’s lots of variation there. And so to engage with the community like what you’re doing I would argue it probably takes more work.

You know, and I’m guessing the reason why we’ve kind of defaulted to this other approach is that it’s quote-unquote, “easier.” It may not be right, but it’s easier to just say, like, “Let me just give my perspective as the expert,” you know, without engaging the public in the way that you’re doing it. Do you think that’s right, or is there some other kind of behind this orthodoxy of kind of this ivory tower kind of giving the answers from on high?

Brown: Yeah. And I know I mentioned ivory tower to start as one of the many examples, but it’s not just ivory towers; it has a lot to do with how we engage the public in general. And to answer your question more specifically, yes, it has a lot to do with the fact that many people consider it too much work to have to spend time with the community, giving them the ability to ask questions that are off script and us having the answer to those questions. It also reflects the fact that many levels of government don’t prioritize the opinions of communities by putting forth a budget that is sufficient enough to engage with them in a more authentic way.

But then lastly, the thing that isn’t talked about enough is that we have a lot of experts in planning, all forms of planning, transportation, environmental planning, you name it, academia, etcetera, who write about things in which they’ve never experienced. I can tell you there have been many occasions in which I have witnessed researcher—and I’m not speaking about any particular institution here—who write about barriers to biking and they’ve never biked themselves. In fact, they don’t know how to bike. There are many academics and planners who talk about the impact of crime on walking, and they wouldn’t dare step foot in the communities in which crime is most prevalent.
So I think what you have is a lot of people who are performing these jobs, who write about things from a distance, but they’ve never experienced them. The difference you get with me is I’m very intentional about experiencing that in which I write about, which is why I’ve taken on the personality of the street-level researcher. If I have not experienced it, I don’t feel credible enough to even write about it. But I don’t find that to be the case in many academies, in planning, and engineering firms across this country.

Cohen: I mean, that’s troubling, this lack of empathy that can come from not having experienced something directly and then what the blinders of that can then put on. Do you get a sense that there are some evolutions now? I mean, are you inspiring folks to [INDISCERNIBLE] some of these approaches so that we get more of that into this field? Because it seems like that’s going to be necessary for us to get where we need to go.

Brown: Absolutely. I would like to say that I don’t think you have to experience something to have empathy. Empathy is taught; it is learned, but I don’t think you have to experience it to have empathy. So it’s not to say that these people don’t have good intentions, but what it is to raise is the fact that you must question what we deem to be evidence based, because there’s going to be gaps in how you approach your research or your planning projects when you have not fully experienced what the barriers are in those communities, coupled with the fact that you have an insufficient amount of funding to do real outreach and engagement. So what you’re then defaulting to is something you’ve read by other scholars or you’re defaulting to your lived experiences, both of which in some cases are not reflective or indicative of the challenges that these communities are facing.

Another issue I find—and let’s be real candid here—is that many of the people that do these jobs are antisocial. And so what I mean by that is that they would prefer to be in an office working solely on a project, not engaging with the public, but then you give them a project which requires sufficient public outreach and engagement. What do you think they’re more likely to do? They’re more likely to do the check-the-box style of public outreach and engagement instead of the street-level research style, which is, “Let’s get in; let’s understand with intention what the issues are.” So that has a lot to do with it.

I am hopeful because there’s a lot of amazing work being done in our field, but it’s important to have balance and talk about that which is deemed credible but lacks experience, because too often we hold these things up equally, and I think they are impacting the community in ways that are probably unintentional but still negatively impacting them even so. And I think that’s why it’s important to have that conversation.

Cohen: Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on that has resonated with you or spoke to you in some way or stayed with you, maybe is another way of saying that?

Brown: Yes. I was working on a project at Rutgers University. It was a New Jersey Department of Transportation funded research study, one of my favorite studies to date. It was understanding barriers to biking and walking for women and minorities and women and other minorities in New Jersey. Another study I’ll add. I have two favorite studies. The second one, also funded by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, looked at the impact of crime on walking frequency and propensity in New Jersey.

The latter study, if I had to chose between the two—the one that was the impact of crime on walking frequency and propensity was probably my favorite because of some of the nuances that were revealed in that study. One was the way that women view a city and the potentiality of crime versus how men viewed it. Women were doing whatever they could do to avoid large gatherings of men. They would rather have placed themselves in danger of a particular traffic incident, meaning potentially being the victim of a vehicle-and-pedestrian crash than walk by a group of men. Now, being a man, I didn’t quite—I was never privy to that information prior to this study. I did not know the amount of fear that many of these women lived with. So that study because it was very focus-group driven alongside surveys, intercept surveys of pedestrians, I was able to kind of see or be made aware of something that I wasn’t aware of previously.

In addition to that—and I’ve been saying this for over a decade—too often our transportation studies focus on one side of safety, and that is traffic safety. It was so evident in both of these studies the importance of the duality of discussing safety, which is not just the traffic safety but also personal safety. Personal safety concerns came up so much in both of these studies. And to give you one quick example, in the impact of crime on walking frequency and propensity study we were working—we did focus groups in three separate towns.

I don’t know how familiar you are with New Jersey, but Newark, New Jersey was the main city. Bloomfield, New Jersey is what some would consider a city or a first-ring suburb of Newark. Then we had Verona, which was two cities over or maybe a city over from Bloomfield, but it’s much more of the suburban, quote-unquote, “suburban” town. Now, if you know Newark demographically, Newark is majority minority. Bloomfield is either majority minority or very close to it. And Verona is mostly white residents. When we asked them where did they feel safe walking, we asked Verona did they feel safe walking in Bloomfield or Newark, and we repeated the question to each town.

Here is what we found. As expected, those who lived in Verona did not feel safe walking in Bloomfield or Newark, but those who lived in Newark and Bloomfield felt very safe walking in Verona. And they felt safe from a traffic standpoint, but here is the catch; they did not feel safe, residents of Newark or Bloomfield, walking in Verona from a personal safety standpoint because they feared about being harassed by police officers. That piece, the fear that many minorities have when walking in cities and being harassed by police officers or by extension their white residents of a city who call the police on them was not making its way into our research early enough. And that’s something that I’ve been advocating for, this duality of safety and looking at harassment and police officers for a very long time now.

And what’s promising is the fact that now the world gets to see why that is important because of the unfortunate situations that we are experiencing now around the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and others, many, many others. That’s a sort of full-circle overview of some of the research I’ve done and how it’s relevant today.

Cohen: Yeah. I think that looking at safety just through this lens of traffic safety versus personal safety is one that I think is starting to come up a lot. I know Dr. Destiny Thomas has talked about that in the recent CityLab piece, which I think kind of reinforces that. And I think where my mind was going as you were talking about that was, to me that kind of comes back to who are the people who are doing this research to begin with.

Brown: Right.

Cohen: And so, you know, you mentioned that even some of these things that you were doing research on were not as top of mind for you as it relates to the women walking potential traffic harm to save their quote-unquote, “personal safety.” I guess, what that calls to mind is, like, if you have a group of engineers and planners who are in our cities and states and so forth we’ve got doing all this work and they have never experienced any of these things, whether it’s that woman walking, whether it’s that person of color from Newark who goes into Verona, it seems like it’s really hard to really help us move forward if they can’t quite—they don’t even see it—right—let alone be able to help put together policies that would help address it. Right?

Brown: Absolutely. And there are a number of things to consider. I also call myself a street-level researcher because dare I say it was a privilege for me to grow up poor in rural Mississippi. So I’ve grown up poor. I’m not extremely wealthy now, but I’m no longer poor. I’ve lived in rural environments. I’ve lived in suburban environments. I’ve lived in urban environments. I’ve lived in spaces that have been ruled by Democrats, spaces that have been ruled by Republicans. I’ve served in the military. I’ve worked in the private sector and the public sector. Now I’m in academia. Those life experiences have taught me, number one, that I don’t know anything. I need to rely on the community for the answers to their problems. So there is a certain amount of humility that comes from those lived experiences.

But I also know, having gone to school for planning, that most planners don’t look like me. We are a very privileged bunch of individuals, and in addition to being very privileged you have to question how are these schools able to do urban research when they know in the back of their minds urban is synonymous with Black and brown, yet the faculties and the staff that are present in these schools, that are present in these minority firms, these nonprofit organizations do not reflect the communities that they are serving.

In addition to that, I had a blind spot as a man when it came to the troubles that women were facing on the street because—guess what—I wasn’t taught nor did I have an experience that forced me to consider the concerns of women in transportation. I only got to that revelation through doing the work on the ground and allowing the community to be the experts. And I’ll say this to kind of wrap that up; less than, I think, three to five percent of the planning profession are people of color. And so all this planning work that is being done is not capturing the ideas and the lived experiences and the empathy that you talked about of Black and brown people in the profession. We need to do better to get more people of color and women in planning. And then lastly I would just say this is important because any system that is not diverse is inherently biased. You can’t see what you haven’t experienced.

Cohen: Yeah. No, I think that’s a great point. And I think that kind of illustrates the systemic racism and structural racism that, I think, we’re all facing.

Brown: Hey, and think about it, Josh. Before what happened to my brother George Floyd, my sister Breonna Taylor, my brother Ahmaud Arbery, think about the courage it took for—you mentioned Dr. Destiny Thomas who is a fantastic individual; you think about Tamika Butler; you think about Keith Benjamin; you think about Tony Garcia; you think about all the people that you’ve mentioned, many of which who have recommended me. Prior to these incidents happening, we would be in these spaces, and we would raise the issue surrounding the lack of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

This was a time when not many people that weren’t people of color were talking about it. Can you only imagine how people looked at us talking about race being an issue in planning? It was uncomfortable, but it was the right thing to do. And the reason why it was uncomfortable for them is because they lived a life of privilege where race wasn’t a factor; it wasn’t a variable that made them see things different. But guess what; now the world has seen why it’s important. The plus side of that is that I believe that tomorrow is going to be better than today.

My white brothers and sisters, my Latinx brothers and sister, Asian brothers and sisters, we’re all now fully aware of how important it is to talk about race, equity, diversity, and inclusion in planning. And so I believe now more and more people are going to be empathetic but also seeking the knowledge and the skills to do the job and do the job in a meaningful way as a result of that. The downside is you also have those groups who are now looking at this as a sort of opportunistic moment to capitalize on Black pain. Those are the people now, I think, it’s time for the industry to say, “No, we’re not going to allow you to do what has been done, which is to commodity this moment, to capitalize on this Black pain. If you weren’t speaking about it, working in it, doing your street-level research before these incidents, don’t do it now. Instead, go hire the people who we’re talking about or who have that experience. Go partner with them.” That’s what’s needed to really push things forward.

Cohen: A theme that’s kind of emerged here is this one of humility. I feel like certainly from my experience working with the best leaders that I’ve worked with it seems like they’re the ones who can acknowledge they don’t have all the answer and that they want and they need those perspectives of other folks. So, I guess, are there any examples of this kind of humble leadership in the public sphere that really resonate with you now or that you see and that are speaking to you?

Brown: My mother, who was and is a single parent; she raised three kids without any help whatsoever from a man. She’s a warrior. She reflects the best example of humility that I’ve ever seen. I would start with her. Debra Cotton [ph], I love you, if you ever hear this. Beyond that a lot of the people that I sort of get my humility from is people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, many other great leaders from that movement. Unfortunately many of them have transitioned. You know, they are no longer alive.

I read a lot of the autobiographies and biographies of great individuals, and one of the things that always comes up is the importance of humility and not seeing yourself for more than who or what you are. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you don’t know anything, especially when you’ve gone through school and schools have required you to know the answers on the test. But what I’ve learned in life, that you learn more from getting the question wrong in life than you do getting it right; and so because I’ve gotten so many questions wrong on life’s test, I’ve been humbled by that.

And I think because of my military service—that’s a part of it too—just trying to be of service to people. That’s all I want, Josh. I just want to serve people, and I want to make sure that when I have the microphone I’m speaking for those who don’t have the privileges that I have, because I’ve come from a place where people didn’t have those privileges. So when you come from a town of 500 people, there is not stoplight, there are no sidewalks, there is no opportunity to get quality food, you better quickly develop some empathy and some humility. And so I’m fortunate for that upbringing, and I’m fortunate for the mentors that I have who continuously remind me of why that’s important.

Cohen: That’s powerful. You mentioned surveying and kind of contributing. You know, I want to bring up this article that you provided to the Institute for Transportation Engineers journal a few months ago. You know, I read it, and it was really interesting because—I encourage everyone to read it. It’s called “12 Strategies for Centering and Prioritizing Equity in Transportation.” And what I thought was so interesting about it is that—when I read it, I think, especially if you’re dialed into this stuff already—and not that I’ve got it all figured out, but at least this is not new to me. I read it, and I was like, “Oh. Well, this seems fairly straightforward and uncontroversial,” but I imagine that for that group that that journal is targeted to, that audience might be some of those more less-social folks that you talked about earlier.

They are probably disproportionally white, probably disproportionately male. And so I’d love maybe if you could just give us a brief overview of that piece and what the reaction was, because I don’t know what the reaction was. I didn’t, like, scroll through Twitter to see. I’m not sure even Twitter would be the best place to see the reaction to that. But I’d love to maybe get some sense of, if you wouldn’t mind, just providing a brief introduction to kind of that piece and what you heard after you published it.

Brown: Yeah. So I wrote that piece—I got approached by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. I had written in the magazine previously. My first article that I posted there was on fear being a barrier to biking for Blacks and Hispanics. That goes back to the first study I told you about that was one of my favorites. And so in that study I quickly touched on how fear is this silent barrier to mobility for Black and brown folks. So when I got approached this time by ITE they were doing the special equity issue, and they wondered if I had anything I wanted to talk about.

I didn’t want to just do or cover some of my latest research, so instead I tried to answer a question that is often asked of me by many well-meaning people in planning and engineering, which is, “How can we center or prioritize equity in transportation?” There are many ways, the evidence-based people will tell you, that you can do that. But I thought I would have a conversation with the people. Like, if me and you are talking, what would I tell Josh instead of what would I say as an academic? Because I consider myself to be a pracademic, so I want to keep things practical.

And so I said, “Here is what’s missing from this conversation around centering and prioritizing equity.” It is the recognition of these different social identities. You are Josh; I am Charles, but you are also Josh the husband, Josh the father; so am I. And then there are many other identities that we both share that transportation engineers and planners completely ignore. What they do is they assign a primary identity to us. In my case, they tell me I’m Black before I’m anything else, or they tell me I’m male before I’m anything else. And so what happens is plans and programs are created around our primary identities instead of our intersectional identities. And so if people want to do really great outreach and engagement, you must consider the totality of an individual and of a community.

So what I did was in those 12 steps I broke down why it’s important to engage identities that you’ve often overlooked such as religious minority groups. This is important, because if you are a person who is a religious minority, you find yourself often being harassed and victimized in public transit and other public spaces. It’s time that you identified and build with and consult with sexual minorities. Oftentimes persons who are identified as a sexual minority, especially those who are Black and brown, are victimized in public space at a disproportionate amount compared to their counterparts. And then I go into seniors; I go into the involvement of Black youth. All these things that seem obvious to me and you but are overlooked by these professional, I brought it up.

And then I said—because I think everyone should become a street-level researcher, I basically challenged them to get from behind the computer, get out in the street, talk to the people, meet the people, and see what the real issues are. Stop prioritizing so much quantitative data over qualitative data. Yes, we know you can do one plus one equals two, but can you summarize or can you draw from the lived experiences of people who you have conversations with on the ground every day? And so if there is something I’m sick of or something I’m tired of it’s people who develop surveys, it’s people who do plans, who do programs who have never stepped foot in these communities but they’re deemed this expert in these fields.

And so I wanted to challenge them in a very loving way—because this is all about love, Josh—to get out and do the work that is required to help identify what the issues are in these communities. And you can’t do that from behind your desk. It is more than a desktop exercise. So that was the whole spirit behind that conversation and writing those 12 steps, again, all in love.

Cohen: And how did that audience respond to it? Did you get any feedback from them?

Brown: I received a ton of feedback. What usually happens is that people contact you directly saying, “Thank you. We needed to hear that.” I think it got a lot of reviews; at least, the publisher told me it received a lot of reviews. It’s been shared a lot among people in the industry. I’ve gotten requests to do a number of keynotes as a result of that, and I do many keynotes per year already. So based on those metrics I would say it’s done very well.
I would say that when I went into writing that I didn’t care about those things. I didn’t care about if a thousand people would read it, if 10,000 people would read it. What I cared about was connecting to at least one person. If I can connect to one person when writing this piece, I believe that person will connect to another person, and then this chain reaction will happen where people will now have this new respect for doing street-level work, and they will be more empathetic and also more likely to convert to being street-level researchers as opposed to being desktop scholars.

Cohen: Wow. So it almost seems like you’re about ready for your own institute of street-level researchers to kind of help build this community of folks who are going to get out from behind the desk and really make sure they’re engaged with the community to—especially folks that don’t look like them and don’t share the same experiences.

Brown: That’s a good idea, man. If people are interested, they can definitely send me an email or something, and let’s get it started.

Cohen: Where is the best place for folks to see what you’re thinking about and get in contact with you if they’re interested in learning more?

Brown: Great question. So if people want to text me directly they can. I have a SuperPhone number at 385-282-4477. If they want to reach me on Twitter, they can at @C, as in Charles, T, as in Tony, Brown1911. Or they can reach me on my email at And I’m also very active on LinkedIn, and there you can reach me at @CharlesBrownMPA. I look forward to hearing from everyone.

Cohen: Well, Charles, thank you so much for giving this introduction into some of your research and even some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way, shows that humility that, I think, is a key theme of this conversation. And I look forward to seeing the evolution and maybe the creation of the institute for street-level researchers.
Brown: I want to thank you for giving me a platform to speak about this. It’s been great getting to know you. I hope to share coffee with you one day. Perhaps we can go out and do our own street-level research. So, thank you. I hope you and your beautiful family stay safe during this time, and I look forward to speaking and working with you in some form or fashion in the future.

Cohen: Thank you, Charles. I look forward to it.

Brown: Take care.

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