There’s No Shortcut for Understanding the Context of Your Community

TransLoc MarketingThe Movement Podcast

For Remix’s Rachel Zack and TransForm’s Jamario Jackson, the combination of technology and advocacy to advance mobility justice is more than an academic exercise; it’s a tool to achieve more equitable outcomes, if we’re willing to do the work.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Zack: Rachel Zack
Jackson: Jamario Jackson

Jensen: To remedy the injustices that impact people every day requires swift action from those already engaged in the fight for justice. That’s the spirit that Remix’s Rachel Zack and TransForm’s Jamario Jackson channeled in creating “Remixing Innovation for Mobility Justice,” a guide to equitable planning, coming up on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.

Cohen: We’ve got some great guests this week. Rachel Zack is the director of policy at Remix, a software company that helps planners explore new concepts, make informed decisions with data, and rally people around their vision. Jamario Jackson is a senior community planner at TransForm, a California nonprofit that is promoting walkable communities with excellent transportation choices to connect people of all incomes to opportunity, keep California affordable, and help solve the climate crisis. Welcome to The Movement, Rachel and Jamario.

Jensen: Welcome.

Zack: Thanks, Josh.

Jackson: Thanks for having me.

Cohen: I met Rachel a couple years ago at a conference. I’m just meeting Jamario now. And I reached back out to Rachel because Remix and TransForm just released a brief called “Remixing Innovation for Mobility Justice.” And based on some of the topics we deal with on the podcast, it certainly caught L’erin and I’s attention. And so I’d love to maybe have y’all maybe start by giving an overview of the document and sharing what inspired it?

Zack: Yeah, absolutely. Remix has long built—just, like, a little context; Remix has long built tools that accelerate the work of transit agencies. So, for example, under Title VI, transit agencies must determine whether service changes will have a discriminatory impact based on race, color, or national origin. And what we found from talking to our customers many years ago is that in fact they were slow to make changes because they also had to budget for this Title VI analysis. So they were actually less responsive because this would take more process.

So we built that engine to help them move more quickly and respond to their community needs. And in early 2018 we had started building tools for DOTs or departments of transportation and wondered, you know, what in their process might be getting in the way for delivering mobility justice and equity to their communities. And we actually really admired the work coming out of OakDOT, and a lot of that work was done with TransForm as their community-based organization.

So we had sort of started to orient around what could we build and how should we contextualize that work, who should we work with to get that off the ground. And so that’s really where the origin of the report started. We knew whatever we built was going to have to be delivered in the proper context, that technology wasn’t going to disrupt equity. It’s really a floor, not, like, a ceiling of what can be done. And so the report was really to contextualize what we were doing in the whole ecosystem of what needs to be done to deliver on mobility justice.

Cohen: Jamario, I know TransForm, and you were obviously kind of the principal author on this brief. Give us perspective from your perspective on what really provided some genesis for you and your interest in being a part of this project.

Jackson: Yeah, so the partnership itself was very unique and interesting. So you have two nonprofits working together with a private company. So Elemental Excelerator is a nonprofit, and they were also our funder for the project. So they funded the TransForm role, and they funded the Remix role. And so Elemental Excelerator works with startups oftentimes to help fuel some of their ideas and innovation. And so with this particular partnership we were able to invite advocacy into the conversation of product development, which doesn’t traditionally happen. So that was a really awesome experience for all of us involved. And so when it came down to writing the paper, it not only is a document that summarizes and describes the partnership and the key outcomes of our work together but we also wanted to write something—and this was really birthed out of the conversation with our project advisors who are also experts in the field, but we wanted to write something that also highlighted the racial injustice throughout the urban planning profession.

We knew we were working with Remix on what a software tool could look like to advance certain equity-related practices, but we also wanted to make sure that the undertone and the undercurrent also acknowledged a lot of the injustices within the field that we hope to fix through partnerships like this. That fix doesn’t happen overnight, but it was something that we wanted to address. And we thought the audience for this particular brief document was not only DOTs and planners but also advocates, folks in community that do the work as well in regards to community engagement and relationship building.

Cohen: Yeah, and I think that’s a great point. I think—and certainly two of those project advisors were together on The Movement podcast on “Episode 073,” Dr. Destiny Thomas and Tamika Butler. And so if you haven’t heard that episode, audience, I highly recommend you finish this episode and then go back and listen to that one because it is a really, really good one that kind of really dives deep into some of those specific things that you just mentioned, Jamario, about the kind of White supremacy culture that’s kind of baked into our planning process right now and what needs to be changed in order to do that. And I think that’s part of what you’re trying to get at, obviously, in this document, is really helping to provide another avenue to address these issues that are rooted a little bit more in an equity-based way.

Zack: That’s right.

Jensen: Rachel, in your role at Remix, and Jamario, in your role at TransForm, both of you guys are engaging with practitioners out in the field. Have you guys noticed more of an appetite now to tackle these issues of mobility justice?

Zack: Jamario, you want to take that one first?

Jackson: Yeah, I can go first. So—[LAUGHS]—it’s a good question; that’s why I laugh. So I sort of mentioned this in the previous question. You know, we knew who are audience was, in terms of who would really gravitate towards these Remix products, who was really interested in a data conversation. So we knew we were talking to, you know, planners, folks at DOTs, folks that work maybe in industry or work in government, but one of the things that we really highlight in the paper is that we’re writing for people who also want to do the work. Right? We didn’t start off by wanting to write something that really broke down certain fundamental concepts of how to do planning, but we really focused in on the justice lens, and we were writing out of a place of folks wanting to read this and also do the work, perhaps folks that are already doing the work but wanted that boost of encouragement or that extra resource or that something else that they’re looking for in their work to continue to keep them inspired. That’s who we really wrote this for.

Some of our recommendations are low-hanging fruit in certain cases depending on where folks work or the areas that they’re trying to influence. And so most of our recommendations don’t even require a budget, but they require difficult conversation and a conversation about structure. And so, for me, that’s really a sticking point. So when I think about, “Is there an appetite?” well, I know who we’re talking to, and we’re talking to folks that are ready to do the work. And they have not only the appetite but they have the hunger to continue to keep pushing for advocacy and justice within their communities and areas that they work in.

I think, the other side of that question is, like, “Is there an appetite for folks that might be new to this type of discussion or might not be as well versed?” I would imagine that there is an appetite, but there’s a lot for those folks that are newer to this conversation that they have to sort of learn and catch up on. The document does give them a nice introduction and some resources to that, but for the most part, in terms of is there an appetite or not, we’re really writing for folks that are already sort of hungry and already know where to go and know what to look for to start moving this work along to make sure that what they’re doing is meeting the public’s needs.

Zack: Yeah. I would add to that that that’s exactly right, Jamario. We were—our advocates really were writing to folks who are ready. From our perspective, from Remix’s perspective, you know, when we started this work in 2018 we really felt like it was going to be ahead of a curve that we saw. Maybe out of 20 DOTs that we were researching, three of them had a social climate analysis or some type of obligation to think about infrastructure with some sort of equity or demographic application. And so we really felt like we were starting to see this trend. And throughout the next two years it’s very much accelerated, and I do think that even our equity advocates, one of the reasons that they were moved to write in this particular way was that they wanted to do something that really pushed.

And so they wanted to speak with folks who are ready because they were getting more and more requests for individualized, custom, “How does my organization think about this?” when in fact, you know, we need to be moving pretty quickly on this stuff? These are—this is people’s lives who are being impacted every day from our inaction. And so to write something that could make those who had the ability move more quickly was really the thrust of what we were after. You know, mobility justice aims to empower folks we’ve long marginalized from a political process. So making the changes today will be challenging without continued pressure from advocates that are well organized. And so, I think, this paper is just a reflection of that, that we need to keep pushing on that cusp for organizations to move along with this type of thinking.

Jensen: Well, there you go. You answered my next question, which was going to be just that, like, how do we sustain that energy. Because I’m of the belief that, you know, movements of sorts kind of go in ebbs and flows, and people get really excited; and then as some progress is made, that energy dies down, but keep pushing forward.

Zack: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it is definitely—we’ve seen organizing have an impact at the national level; we’ve seen that our Secretary of Transportation, you know, is now speaking openly about historical harms of highway building. We’ve seen that, you know, he is talking about more sustainable funds for transit; we’ve seen his team talk about centering their work on access. I mean, these are fundamentals of making sure that folks can have access to opportunities, that they can experience the same benefits of any recovery we have. I mean, we have to do these things well to—and we also need to start by acknowledging our harms. And so it’s pretty amazing to see that happen at a national level, and that too came from advocacy and coalition building.

Cohen: Yeah, and, in fact, you mentioned a couple of these DOTs that are looking at this with an equity-based kind of lens or framework. And we’ve actually talked to a couple of them on The Movement podcast. We certainly had Ryan Russo from Oakland DOT talk about that on “Episode 021,” and then we also had Sam Zimbabwe of Seattle talk about that in “Episode 072” as well, just how Seattle and Oakland have integrated equity into essentially everything they’re doing and all of the decisions that they’re making from a policy perspective, you know, where they’re paving the streets and where they’re investing in slow streets and so forth, which, I think, is going to be necessary to kind of reinforce that advocacy that y’all both talked about there and kind of what you’re trying to seed or water or kind of help cultivate there.

Zack: Absolutely.

Cohen: I want to maybe dig into this a little bit from the standpoint of—and Jamario, maybe you touched on this a little bit, but what’s still missing?

Jackson: Yeah, thank you for asking. There’s a lot that’s still missing, but before I go into that, I think there’s a lot to acknowledge in terms of what’s already been accomplished. So a lot of my work focuses in at the neighborhood level. I find myself primarily working in East Oakland, which is a historically Black community that has been marginalized over the years and doesn’t receive much investment. And so, for me, what I see out in the field, whether it’s East Oakland or not, that there is a lot of resilience; there’s a lot of folks that are pushing hard to make ends meet. There’s also different planners and advocacy groups that are helping out as well. And so we still have a long way to go that’s ahead of us, but there are certain strides that some cities are making, that some communities are making, that some CBOs are making in terms of the relationships that they’re building with one another. So, I think, there’s a lot to celebrate. Oftentimes, just being acknowledged and heard, having your issues acknowledged and heard is a lot already. That’s already a big feat and a big accomplishment.

And so we’re able to go past that acknowledgment stage and make sure that some of these principles and practices are actually carried out in real life. So there’s a lot to celebrated on that front.

I think, the other half of the question in terms of what’s missing, for me, a lot of it becomes structural; and much of it is structural, but it’s also political in nature. And some of this part didn’t make it into the final project brief, but what we know at the end of the day is that even when you use a tool like Remix Explore, is that there’s still another arena, another venue for you to enter. Right? So we know after you plan this great project, you scope it out, you sort of anticipate and see what the impacts might be while using Remix, we know that that advocate or that planner is still going to have to show that to community. We know that that advocate or planner is still going to have to go to a city council meeting. We know that the work doesn’t end at the computer at the desk, but it continues in our streets and in our neighborhoods.

And so there’s still a push and a fight to turn the data into narrative when we’re articulating the importance of certain issues like funding public transit. We know that in the process—and this is part of what makes it so political, is that we know that even when we have data to show an impact or why something is needed and necessary, sometimes that’s still a very tough fight politically because of certain processes and even sometimes because of many different structures that are in place. And so there’s a lot of work ahead. I think Remix Explore is a helpful tool for an advocate, and it’s also a great advocacy tool to be in an arena where you need to make a policy push or a policy ask or you’re trying to make sure a bill makes it to the governor’s desk.

I think that’s all needed, but—and we touch on this a little bit in the paper, is that there’s a whole world out there that needs reckoning. And so there’s a lot of work ahead. I think, oftentimes we actually know, at least from the advocate’s standpoint we also know what it is we should be doing and how we should be doing it; it’s just that we’re up against certain systems and pressures and institutions and interlocking systems that weren’t designed for folks of color, that weren’t designed for folks that are non-White. And so there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m happy to be a part of that work. I’m happy to work with folks like Rachel and our advisors especially to help keep me encouraged and to help move the work forward.

Cohen: What about you, Rachel?

Zack: Jamario hit on so many wonderful things; I almost want to just let the mic drop. But, you know, there’s a lot we could do. You know, we could do transit-oriented development, electrify fleets, build light rail, but all these take a decade to deliver fruit. So what we can do today is to continue, like, the federal funding for transit operations that we’ve seen in these emergency relief packages. We can prioritize infrastructure projects with proven ability to delivery on access. You know, the transit service that we have in the U.S. is notoriously poor versus many other countries. And the sad fact is that poor service disproportionately impacts Black, Asian, and Latino communities. So if we want to have an equitable recovery and we’re looking at the tools that we have today, it means providing more operational funds to transit operations, and it means centering around access, really making that the focus, which, again, to Jamario’s point, that’s from a framework perspective on how to plan and deliver things in a more equitable way.

However, there is no shortcut to understanding the context of your community. There is no shortcut for working and developing trust and delivering something that feels contextualized to the people who live there today. And so we really see that there are processes where technology can accelerate this, and that’s really at the planning level, but what we really need are people working on developing those lines of communications where these projects are actually going to go and doing the hard work to understand that context and deliver projects that feel and are responsive.

Cohen: Well, I think, there’s a couple lines in the brief that really kind of speak to some of those points that you and Jamario just made. One is, “Data cannot talk, but people can.” You know, and certainly, you know, when you have a tool like Explore, certainly it’s providing a way to look at some of that data in a new and different way. But at the same time it’s not going to replace some of those unique perspectives that you get from those community meetings. And, I think, a couple of the advisors mentioned that directly. And then the second one was, you know, something about the biggest obstacle may be political will. And certainly, you know, I think that’s what I think is going to be really interesting. So I want to maybe tag onto that to maybe put both of you on the spot.

You know, to build on something, Rachel, you just said, do you think this new administration is going to—certainly, I know they’ll call for it, but do you think through Congress they’ll get appropriations to allocate more money towards transit operations, which is something that L’erin and I talked about a couple weeks ago based on the TransitCenter video they put out a couple weeks ago as well about the relatively small amount of operational money that could make a huge, huge difference as far as dramatically increasing access for more people, more communities? So I guess I want to put both of you on the spot to ask whether you think that the new administration will be able to get through increased funding for operations for transit agencies?

Zack: I am certainly hopeful, and I’m glad you brought up that TransitCenter video, which I thought was a tremendous storytelling on the part of their team. We actually worked with them on the maps for that video. And, I think, it does an absolutely fabulous job of making clear why operations funds are needed. I am hopeful. I feel like the day that all of the appointees were announced was an incredible one for folks who have been working in the policy field. The decision to—you know, Stephanie Pollack heading up FHWA, you know, just the list is endless, so many city folks who are in positions to make change. So, I think, I am very hopeful that if the opportunity arises they’ll take it.

I know that Chuck Schumer played a big role in getting the operations funds passed to date in these emergency CARES packages, getting the money to transit agencies. So I am very hopeful that we are lined up in a way to make some change. However, it is hard for me—[LAUGHS]—after years and years of knowing the 80/20 split, years and years of knowing, you know, that we will just do another surface reauthorization. You know, it’s hard for me to fully believe, but from what everything I’ve seen, I am feeling a hope where there was none before. And so I’m very hopeful.

Cohen: Jamario, care to hazard a guess on whether you think the administration will be able to get that through?

Jackson: Um, I wish them well. I wish us well because we’re also, you know, advocating for bus operators and public transit operators as well. For me, what I think helps the political will to work out in our favor—and by “our” I mean folks, you know, on the front lines who are, you know, living in poverty and have lived in it for their whole lives, folks that have to show up to work to make ends meet. I’m thankful that I’m in the position that I am with my job, but I think the political climate itself has changed, and there’s a couple things that have made me be more hopeful in the political process and to figure out if there is political will to make these changes.

And a couple of them that come to mind are public health. We’re in a national pandemic, and we’ve been in it for a while, and we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of that. And there are certain things and factors and issues that have been highlighted and emphasized that folks that I work with, we see it all the time, but there’s other folks that hadn’t seen it. And so now they’re seeing it. Going back to being acknowledged and heard, they’re finally seeing it. So the public health pandemic, and then the other piece is also racism. Our country is seeing and experiencing racism, honestly, similar to ways that it was experienced in the 1950s, but we’re still experiencing it even thereafter and especially today. And so we’re not in a position where it’s easier to have the conversations, but they’re being heard more frequently, and I think that helps tell stories that were not always in the forefront. And so that’s encouraging to know.

We write about this in the paper in regards to how it oftentimes takes a tragedy, not as any particular kind of tragedy but a tragedy for folks to be awakened or be enlightened or come to a realization that something is happening. And so once we get past the point of, like, acknowledging it and talking about it over and over again, are we willing and able to actually do the work? And some of that work is not just through legislative policy at the federal level, but a lot of the policy, in my opinion, is also at the state and most localized levels as well. And a lot of that work is also internal in terms of personnel management and training and relationships and skill building at a lot of these institutions.

Folks come into the planning profession, and they don’t have an equity lens. They come into the planning profession, and they haven’t worked in Black and Brown communities. And so we need to start putting people in position that are willing and able to do the work and equipped to do the work. And so some of that, I think, can and should be legislated. And then a vast majority of it can’t necessarily be legislated, but we can do different things and put different strategies into practice. I see it happening at my organization. I know it happens at a couple other DOTs. And so we just have to keep pushing forward to make sure that we see that change. And so political will is a tough question to answer because the climate changes from hour to hour, from day to day, but I think there are some things that have played out in our favor that help us share this message so that one day we can see further policy change where needed to advance the work.

Zack: You can’t hear me nodding along with you, Jamario, but I’m nodding away. [LAUGHTER]

Jackson: Thanks.

Jensen: Well, I love the optimism I’m hearing. But I do want to pivot a little bit, and let’s talk about you guys and just some of the leaders past or current that have influenced you in your career and why have they been so influential for you.

Zack: Jamario, you want to go first?

Jackson: Sure. This is actually a really hard question for me to answer, but I’ll start with shouting out all the advisors because this partnership wouldn’t have been what it was without them. So quick shout-out to Tamika Butler at Tamika L. Butler Consulting LLC. Shout-out to Dr. Destiny Thomas at Thrivance Group. Shout-out to Hana Creger at The Greenlining Institute and Leslie Aguayo. And shout-out to Jonathan Pruitt at Catholic Charities of Stockton. They were with me; they were with us every step of the way.

They poured their hearts and souls out into this project. They exerted a tremendous amount of energy and time spent preparing for meetings and conversations and just being available to all of us. And so as a young professional in this space coming from working with elected officials and now working more at a more hyper or localized level in the planning field, I’m appreciative for their partnership; I’m appreciative for their leadership, longstanding leadership at that, in this field. And so I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for all of them in the role that they played in my life to not just write the paper but just to also be present, to have them available for conversation, whether that was via text or email. And to just celebrate this moment with them, I thank them for everything that they contributed.

So they’re an inspiration to me. And I met them through this partnership, was able to work with Destiny and some others prior to this, but we were able to establish a nice working relationship that will be continuing from hereafter. So excited about that piece.

But in terms of, like, do I have a role model, what inspired my career, I know as a Black man I gotta honor those that came before me. So in honor of Black History Month, there’s just fundamentally people who have given their lives and their time so that I could, you know, have a job, go to work, travel on a bus, and live in certain places. And so I thank all those people for what they’ve done. It’s not limited to Dr. Martin Luther King, but even the ones we don’t know of; so there’s that. And then I’m also encouraged by a lot of my coworkers that I’m able to forge relationships with. I’m encouraged by my family members and then, most importantly, I think, my faith as a really big influence on my career. One of the things that I don’t take for granted is that especially coming from the world of politics when I worked for elected officials is that my career path that I chose is not linear.

You know, you have some people who choose or happen to work in, like, the actual hard sciences. So they might want to become, like, doctors, maybe in certain social science fields like being lawyers; their trajectory is for the most part, when you think about the start and the starting point and how it goes up, it’s pretty linear. It really is. And then in certain social science fields, like the ones that I’ve chose, they’re not linear. So one day or one moment, you know, I was working as a field rep, and then I went to go work at a transit agency, and then I was back working as a field rep, and so you Ping-Pong around. Sometimes it might even feel like you plateau.

But what I do know is that the trajectory isn’t linear, and so having that piece of encouragement and understanding the pathway to my success isn’t always going to be predictable, but as long as I stay on the course for the ride and stick to the mission itself, then I can do whatever I want anywhere I go. So that’s a little bit about me and how I—hopefully answered your question.

Cohen: I love it, love it.

Jensen: What about you, Rachel?

Zack: All right. Yeah, so, you know, um, it’s a hard question for me to focus on specific leaders. I’m a Queer, Jewish woman who has family members experiencing homelessness and mental health issues. So for me it’s been less about individual leaders and more about working to create a world where the people I love can survive and thrive. That’s the reality. And so that’s been the most influential part of my career, for sure, is just knowing how fragile safety is, knowing how fragile political opinion is on your lifestyle, knowing how important that is to liberate folks to thrive. And so that’s been the biggest catalyst for me.

And then when I think about the leaders that I’m drawn to, it’s folks who are willing to put that boundary up and be like, “This is the reality of how this practice impacts my life.” And each of our advisors was, you know, picked for their ability to do exactly that. And so Jamario has already named every one of them, and they are incredible. But I want to double tap on Tamika Butler, who is also an advisor for Remix. And I really appreciate her ability and the work that she puts in every time she makes clear how, you know, this world or these processes or these structures impact her as an individual. It really catalyzes, I think, a lot of folks to understand the harm that is being caused by continuing to sustain an unjust and unfair system. And so I really appreciate her work.

There is also local leaders in San Francisco I appreciate. I think Janice Li does that really well. She is a BART board member; and she, again, brings sort of her queerness to the fold to address issues of safety and discussions on how to make who safe on BART. I really appreciate that lens and someone politically representing that perspective. So, yeah, I mean, for me, again, I think the strongest thing is the movements that are created from a bunch of individuals working together recognizing the harm that’s being caused by perhaps an unjust system or laws that have, you know, saved lives and kept folks alive. You know, whether it’s World War II and hiding Jews or it’s the Underground Railroad, you know, there a lot of times there are individuals that come together, and they’re what help people survive.

So we each have a role to play. Not to compare city planning to any of those other examples, but we each have a role to play in a larger coalition, and I just—that’s how I think about my career, is what opportunities do I have to make sure that folks are surviving and thriving.

Cohen: That’s beautiful. Thank you each for sharing that. You know, L’erin, we may have to reconsider that question, because everyone says it’s the hardest question.

Jensen: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: And yet it always kind of brings, you know, very personal perspectives out, which I think are really valuable. So, I don’t know. Maybe we just got to let folks sit in that uncomfortableness for a little bit to kind of—to bring out such truth that you both shared there. Thank you for that. Before we wrap up, I want to just make sure folks have a chance to access this document. Where is the best place to find it?

Zack: You can find it on either Remix’s website or on TransForm’s website. So we both have it up. You can also just scroll through, I think, TransForm or Remix’s Twitter to easily find it. And so Remix is Remix.com. We could do another whole podcast on how we were able to get Remix.com. [LAUGHTER] Remix.com. TransFormCA.org; is that right, Jamario?

Jackson: That’s right.

Zack: And so you can download it from either of our websites.

Cohen: And the title is “Remixing Innovation for Mobility Justice.” Well, Rachel and Jamario, thank you so much for joining L’erin and I today. I really appreciate you kind of sharing kind of what went into this document and then even tying that a little bit more to personally what’s driving each of you in the work you’re doing and, I think, which is consistent with the work L’erin and I are doing, which is helping to create that world where we all can, as you put it, survive and thrive. So thank you both so much for joining us on The Movement podcast.

Jensen: Thank you.

Zack: Thank you, guys, so much.

Jackson: Thank you Josh; thank you, L’erin.

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.

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