Reflecting on his 10 years as CEO of Rail~Volution, Dan Bartholomay highlights the importance of vision and true community engagement to create the alignment —and energy—required for truly impactful transportation projects.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Bartholomay: Dan Bartholomay
As someone without prior transit experience, Dan Bartholomay was an unlikely candidate to lead Rail~Volution. Instead Dan used his community development experience to highlight how the traditional silos between housing, transportation, and jobs are barriers to the opportunities our communities deserve, coming up next 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: Our guest today is Dan Bartholomay, the CEO of Rail~Volution, a national nonprofit network of leaders, practitioners, and advocates inspired by the potential for major transit investments to shape more vibrant and equitable communities.
Jensen: Bartholomay has a strong record of community involvement and nonprofit work, serving in executive roles at the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, the McKnight Foundation, and North End Area Revitalization in Saint Paul. Welcome to The Movement, Dan.
Bartholomay: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Jensen: We’re excited to have you.
Jensen: So I guess we’ll just go ahead and get started, jump right in. Dan, can you tell us a little bit about your journey? How did you end up where you are today as outgoing CEO of Rail~Volution, a member of the board of directors of Up for Growth, and an all-around guru on community development?
Cohen: Guru? All right. I like it.
Bartholomay: Yeah, that may be a little bit more than I am prepared to be—[LAUGHTER]—but it’s very nice. I appreciate that. Anyway, you know, I’ve been at Rail~Volution 10 years, and I came to Rail~Volution really with a strong community development background. And so I was not your normal kind of candidate for a transit related organization actually. I had done a lot of different kind of work, and I will say that it really began back in college when I designed my own major in what I called the urban decision-making process, which was interdisciplinary and cross-sector in its approach. And I’ve been using that idea, that concept ever since I got out of college. It’s kind of stood me well through all of my jobs.
And so I’ve got 11 years at the community level in Chicago and Saint Paul running the CDC and that kind of thing, and then I went and worked for a pretty large foundation and did about 30 million a year in grant making, mostly around regional growth management and community development and affordable housing. But also I did a couple of programs in Southeast Asia and Africa, so I have kind of a broad and deep sense of what it takes to do community development work. And then I was for a short stint the commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, and that was based largely on the work that I did at McKnight. And I was recruited to go there because I redeveloped their housing program and they were a major housing investor, and the person who had the job before me asked me if I’d come because he was using essentially my work plan from McKnight as the framework for the Minnesota Housing Finance. So it’s kind of tough to leave the golden handcuffs, but I guess I’ll try it and went to the state for a couple years.
And then after I left there—I was pushed out during a political transition—I was looking around and I found this job for Rail~Volution. And, you know, it was interesting because I had never been to the conference, and I was aware of the organization, but I wasn’t too familiar with exactly how it was set up. But as I went into it a little bit further I discovered that it was an incredible group of people. I mean, I think of it as a learning network, a network of practitioners really. And I’ve always been interested in, you know, what happens on the ground, how things get done, and so this organization really intrigued me.
And I think I was kind of, like, for lack of a better term, the black horse in the race for the job. I think people were pretty surprised when they hired me, someone who really didn’t have a transit background. But I, you know, kind of knitted together the ideas of transit, land use, and development and all of my past experience at the local, regional, state, and national level to kind of fashion a perspective that I think has been really helpful in leading the organization.
Cohen: L’erin, have you been to any Rail~Volutions yet?
Jensen: I have not.
Cohen: Okay. So I’ve gone to—I was in Denver, and then I was in Vancouver. And, you know, I don’t know if that’s due to your role or your experience, Dan, but certainly my experience when I went there, the role of housing with transit were, like, interlinked. Right? I mean, they’re super, super important, and obviously, you know, by factor of what they do, they kind of have to be, but too often it feels like they’re not looked at together. And so certainly I think that’s one of the key things of Rail~Volution, is really kind of stitching those together to make sure we’re talking about both of those important topics together.
Bartholomay: Definitely, I think. I will say transit is not an end of itself; it’s a means to an end. And so I always think of transit as a leverage, as something that levers a lot of different possibilities really around opportunity but also around development. And so the idea of housing and in particular affordable housing being located near transit has all kinds of benefits. There’s a location efficiency benefit; the cost, the opportunity benefit; and the reshaping of the community benefit, which is part of what I think I brought to Rail~Volution, was this notion that transit does provide opportunities for folks and it’s a connector. And I always talk about it at different scales, the regional, the corridor, the neighborhood, the station area, and all those different scales. You need to think about it in that context to really understand how to leverage the investment for both the regional economic vitality but in particular the impacts on the local communities that it runs through and serves.
So I did kind of bring that perspective. I will say that, you know, when I started, Rail~Volution was really well liked and well known as a conference, and they had done some great work around transit-oriented development writ large. And, I think, when we started there was this question of whether or not transit-oriented development was going to be a thing, that it was really going to work. But I think that was proven to be true, and the market responded quite well, but a lot of times the transit-oriented development didn’t include, you know, the kinds of things that would allow lower-income people to live there, to provide the kind of amenities and the rich assets that the community could offer.
So I really brought this perspective of, you know, we can’t be siloed; we can’t be standing side by side; we have to be thinking about the connections between things. And I’ll leave it with this; in particular, being clear about what the objectives are about projects that you’re trying to do at any scale, so this idea that you would do a project focused just on building the rail line and be an agency that’s supposed to build and run the rail but not think about the communities it runs through just doesn’t make that much sense to me, although that was kind of the way a lot of agencies were working, and some still think that way, frankly. But the opportunity to change that mindset and to think about what I call the win-wins, the triple bottom line, the ability to actually transform communities rather than just transact in communities is really a powerful way to think about things and really the key to doing anything that I call beyond the rail, beyond the transit, to really facilitate the kind of relationships and collaboration that lead to really innovative and interesting and creative development on the ground.
Jensen: I want to dig into that a little bit deeper, but first I want to plug Josh’s blog from a recap of Rail~Volution in 2019 called “Moonshot.” You can find it on TransLoc.com/blog; TransLoc.com under the blogs tag. But, Josh, I remember when you wrote that blog that’s one of the ones that has stuck out to me the most, really you stressing the emphasis on community involvement in the process. So I think that’s wonderful that that’s come across at the conferences as well.
But in the 10 years that you’ve been CEO of Rail~Volution you really have transformed the way that the organization thinks about mobility in many ways. It’s introducing different modes of transportation, talking about those and how they address societal change. But what do you think COVID-19 has taught us about mobility and community development that perhaps we didn’t know or just kind of ignored previously?
Bartholomay: Well, you know, I don’t know that it is completely new, but I think it reemphasizes or kind of punches out the importance of local communities in particular, the thing that everything is local really. And when you think impacts that we discovered with regard to COVID, we know that it affects lower income communities and people of color much more fully, much more impactfully than the others. And that’s largely in relationship to land use and decision-making around, you know, where people can or can’t live or where affordable housing is, etcetera. And I think what that does is punctuate really the importance of thinking about transit as a service that serves to equalize and expand opportunity for people and to better serve those areas that people might call transit dependent, obviously.
And the essential worker thing is really an important discovery, I think. I mean, these folks have always been there; they’ve always been doing important work, and now we kind of validate the fact that their wages are low and yet they’re so important to us. And so one of the things I think a lot about is, you know, this challenge of opportunity, accessing opportunity, and if wages are going to stay low—and they have been for a long time—then you have to find ways to help people live without cars and other options that allow them to get to where they need to work and where they need to buy the groceries, etcetera, without having to own a car. And that’s fundamentally—I mean, when you think about the cost of living, it’s largely between the home and transit or transportation actually. And when you combine those two, I think, it represents about 60 or so percent of people’s income. So if you can reduce the cost of transportation you actually put more money in people’s pockets. I mean, you can actually increase their livability and their disposable income by reducing the need for a car.
So those two things come together. It’s really important. But in the COVID thing I think it’s really important just to acknowledge that what we plan for is what we get, and what we have are a lot of isolated communities that are less well-served both by transit but also in the community at large in terms of access to opportunity and that the COVID really reinforced that in terms of the disparities and the isolation of some communities from the mainstream.
Cohen: You know, that makes me think of a great book I read. I’m curious if you’ve read it, Dan. It really jumped out to me, Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg.
Bartholomay: I’ve not read it, but I’m sure it’s good.
Cohen: The subtitle is How social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. And, you know, I like the way you frame that in the sense that everything is local. Obviously COVID-19 obviously is a global problem, but the infections happen locally. Right? So, you know, the infection that happens across the globe, you know, might impact me in a matter of weeks or days even, but if I’m going to get infected today it is from the people in my immediate place where I’m going to be. That’s why we’ve all mostly tried to as much as we can, especially at the beginning, tried to limit that.
So I really, really appreciate that perspective on everything is local. And I think you’re right; the result of some of these decisions that we’ve made many, many years ago—and that’s kind of what Eric talks about in that book Palaces for the People; it talks about the role of these kind of third places, whether they’re libraries or parks, these kind of community gathering places that, I think, for a lot of communities either, A, they were not invested in for the past, you know, X number of years or have been unavailable because of COVID. So I think that just highlights the issue that you just mentioned about the lack of connection.
Jensen: Great. You know, Dan, I’m curious. What American cities do you think are getting it right? And, I guess, by that what I mean is, like, which cities are taking the right approach to building livable and equitable communities, and what are they doing differently?
Bartholomay: Well, I—you know, it’s hard to pick out certain cities. I mean, I will say that there are a lot of cities that are changing and adapting and recognizing that they need to think and plan differently. And so I would just say as a starting point—and you guys mentioned it earlier—what really makes the difference for cities and for communities is involving those people who are going to be affected by the decisions in the decision-making. And we know that that creates additional benefits to them, but it also creates projects that are better overall and saves money in terms of leveraging development and things like that.
I will say that the areas that are making the biggest difference are trying to think about their landscapes or their land use projects, including complete streets and other things and sidewalks and all that stuff in ways that are more people oriented. And people-first focus, I think, produces a lot of very good results both in terms of, for lack of a better term, buy-in. And what’s really important is to not just engage people but to listen, and then their ideas—if you listen carefully, they may have ideas that you never thought of that actually don’t inhibit or make the project more difficult; they just make it better.
So communities that are thinking about land use, thinking about their streets, thinking about housing, and really planning for the people who are least fortunate as parcel to the larger economic development. And we all know that cities and regions are the economic driving entities of the world really, and so regions are competing against each other, but really for the regions to compete well they need to have a strong and effective, educated labor force; they need to be connecting their lower-income communities to jobs and reducing poverty, really. So cities that are thinking about the relationship between how and where people live and what their conditions are with the objective of improving the outcomes for everyone are the ones that are more likely to succeed.
I will use an example of what that might mean in a particular context because I think without explaining or, you know, kind of creating a scenario that you can understand I’ll use a project that I was involved in a bit, which is from Minneapolis-Saint Paul. It was the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. And you may or may not know; the Green Line connects Downtown Saint Paul to Downtown Minneapolis and runs through some of the lower-income areas of the whole region. So it’s a really important line that was being planned, and what this group did was to start working on community engagement and community planning four years before the line was even being constructed. So I put that out there because that is the way to do it, is to start early, to engage early, to think broadly about what’s possible, and to gain buy-in both at the city, county, and region level, but also at the neighborhood scale.
And in that case there were community groups and community basically advisory committees formed on a variety of topics including affordable housing, small-business retention and development, beautification, greenspace connections, public art, a variety of things. And they laid out before the line was built what they were hoping to achieve in terms of outcomes, for instance, 4,000 units of affordable housing in the corridor, more greenspace, etcetera. And what that does is it creates a vision and a practical vision for what’s possible, and it creates energy and juice behind the entities that might be able to make a difference in that. So, out of those discussions came resources and alignment between entities, between public, private, and nonprofit entities to create new opportunities and to create these kinds of things.
And this particular corridor has exceeded almost all the goals that they set. That was only because they were established early, they were broadly engaged and agreed upon by the powers that be, including public entities, and the community was involved and engaged all along the way. And that’s a really great example of the cities that are doing good work are doing that kind of planning up front and planning ahead and then creating the kind of partnerships that can make that kind of development happen. I will say that with Rail~Volution one of the key things that we’re all about is this idea of public, private, and nonprofit partnerships that actually allow you to do projects that otherwise would be really complicated for any one entity to do, but together you bring a smattering of resources, different kinds of resources; you can make projects that otherwise would not be viable.
Jensen: You know, Dan, you said something that reminded me—it was so similar to what one of my favorite quotes is. I don’t know the exact quote because I haven’t been able to find it, but a professor of mine once said it. I believe it’s from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogia of the Oppressed, but what he said is, “Reality is best observed when the scholar reasons from the point of view of the oppressed.” And so this idea of starting with the most marginalized communities and that having the most benefit and being the closest to what is really happening in this world and working from there, just it really hits home.
Cohen: No, I love it. And I think that’s certainly consistent with some of the themes we talked about in Leadership Upside Down as well, that as far as to ensure that you’re engaging with the folks who are closest to the problems, and they’re likely to be closest to the solutions as well. Right? They have the solutions on how best to make their community what we want. And I don’t think they necessarily need this top-down approach to say, “Here; let us tell you how we should make your community better.” You know, certainly there is a history of that going sideways with the interstate highways and how they cut through communities of color in our cities and the government saying, “We know what’s best, and so we’re going to go do that.” So I think that’s a really thoughtful approach.
And I guess my follow up to that really quick would be I love that example you gave. Right? They invested so much time, four-plus years into doing this right. What can you tell other communities that are scared to do that? I mean, you just gave a great example of kind of the benefits and the outcome that can happen from that, but for a community or a leader who is scared to try that, what other thing can you tell them to—because they’re scared it’s going to take too long, it’s going to derail the projects, whatever, like, what other kind of confirmation can you provide that might help there?
Bartholomay: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that what you plan for is what you get, to some degree. Plans, you know, obviously they don’t all go forward, and they can fail and all that stuff, but if you don’t plan for it, you’re definitely not going to get it, to some degree. And there’s a couple of things I think about that are kind of parallel or things to think a little bit about, and that is how do you think about—I’ll just use an example of underwriting for housing and/or commercial development as an example of short- versus long-term benefit.
And we know that a lot of the financing industry out there is focused on building housing that’s going to return on investment in five or six years. So we’re not building housing in the way it should be built anymore. It’s not to last. I mean, it has to be replaced in 25, 30 years; it needs a full rehab job. Well, you could think about kind of an example of that or similarly in terms of what you gain or lose by involving or engaging communities. In the end, it’s very difficult to retrofit something once it’s done. I always say it’s harder to restart than to renew, or whatever. And that concept is really important for leaders to understand, is that risk-taking is what creates innovation and risk-taking is what creates new and different places. And I would say that there is a greater risk in some ways of not doing this kind of way and resulting in projects that don’t really change the equation.
And so, you know, one of the things we always struggle with is kind of been just an ever-occurring thing, is how does concentrated poverty continue to exist, and why does it seem to never change even with the efforts that are put in to make the change? I think, a lot of that has to do with a lack of understanding from the powers that be about how it is or what is needed in communities to do it. I used to be involved with a group of business leaders called The Itasca Project back when I was in the foundation world. And one of the things that was hardest to get folks to realize was that concentrated poverty is a real thing, and the dynamic at the local level is one that is at the local level. And while you can try to do things around the edges and try to work from the top down, you really need to dig in and grab and understand what’s going on in order to change those places and more importantly to inspire and change the kind of norms and the behaviors that are there, try to get people to feel there are opportunities and connect them to opportunities outside of it.
So, no risk, no reward. And I think that the chance to try something new is really how systems-change happens. I will say again for my life and world in the philanthropy, it was really clear to me that the policy changes that were going to be most effective and powerful were those that came from the folks that were doing the work on the ground. And so what I saw even in the human services realm were demonstration projects around what you’d call wraparound services, for instance, and this idea that people who need services are going to have to navigate a very complex system with multiple agencies, 15 touches, all this bureaucracy.
What would it mean if someone knew all about those bureaucracies and just said, “I know the 15 things you need to do. Unfortunately, if I were you, I wouldn’t know what to do and I couldn’t do it, but with my advice you can succeed and get all that help and then move on.” And that the wraparound service idea holistically turned out to be the most cost effective thing even though it required some additional staff. It saved additional money on the backend because all these services were being underutilized. So this idea of trying to be aware of what it’s really like to be in that situation and what the supports and what the notions are that you can do to make things more accessible and easier to use is really the trick, and that applies to transit as well.
Cohen: Oh, it totally applies to transit. That’s my biggest bugaboo with transit, is how hard it is for a non-regular user to use it. So if you’re not a transit geek who geeks out on transit maps like I do and I’m sure y’all do as well—but, like, if you’re not like that, you know, trying to take transit for the first time in a community is really hard. It’s like, “Do I need exact change or not? You know, is this going to take me inbound or outbound? How often is the bus coming?” Like, all that stuff is like—and too often I find that the system is oriented around, “How do we make it as simple as possible to operate, not to use?”
Cohen: You know? And that, to me, is exactly kind of what you’re getting at there with the wraparound services. It’s like, “Let’s make it as easy as possible for the person that needs it the most to be able to use it.” Right? Let’s get them all these services in one place or, you know, one caseworker to help spearhead all those things as opposed to forcing that person to, like, go to 15 different locations to get all of their support that they need. It’s just mindboggling to me why we make this so hard.
Jensen: Piggybacking off of the both of you actually, but this is the essence of what you guys were saying. I just want to add that, like, we should be clear that concentrated poverty doesn’t just happen; it’s created by these mechanisms that you guys are speaking of, you know, sometimes maliciously, but even when it’s not maliciously it’s done just because we’re not listening to the people who matter most, the people that it’s for, not including them in the process, or just by way of completely ignoring them we end up with these systems that drive people into poverty.
Bartholomay: I mean, I agree. I think, the systemic issues—and we know that from COVID, that the system is set up against a lot of folks. And that’s happened through a long period of time through a lot of different systems, different approaches that have, you know, biased systems really against those people who have the least resources and live in those concentrated poverty areas. It’s really unfortunate. But I will say that systems-change requires leadership. And I will say that one of the things Rail~Volution tries to do—and this is really important, I think—is that we try to acknowledge that everybody’s voice should have equal say. And the conference focuses on that; we focus on that; we try to make sure that we’re not stacking people up in a power dynamic where those who are the CEOs get the voice at the conference and they’re the ones who everybody is looking for. No, it’s like we want everybody at the table and to have that dialogue.
Second, I will say that leadership comes in a lot of different ways, different forms. And one of the things we’re trying to do—and I would say for some of those listeners out there to really take a time to look at the Rail~Volution website, to look at the podcasts and the webinars and things like that that are resources. You’re talking about how hard it is to get around and wayfinding is really important, but it’s really important to think about leadership from the inside out, recognizing that leaders come in all shapes and forms. And so you don’t have to be the CEO to be a leader. And I will say that one of the things that I have been most, you know, encouraged by is the ability for people who learn about these new ideas that might come from the conference around transit and really kind of brainstorm and kind of get an essence of a feel for what it’s like to think differently. It’s almost like changing your worldview a little bit, over time recognizing that if you just look at the picture or the equation from a different perspective, it flips everything around.
And so younger leaders at different places and different levels who pick these ideas up and then go in-house and suggest in the right meetings and the right times some of these ideas, we find that people in agencies actually begin implementing them because people who are in different roles choose to lead, choose to step out, step a little forward, be a little bold, take a risk, and oftentimes that leads to change within agencies. And so I always talk about top-down, bottom-up, inside-out, you know, you got to go it from all different angles, and so you want to make sure that you’re not just focusing on grassroots either. Even though that’s critically important, you have to be educating those that are in other positions. And I think really part of it is about holding folk accountable, and that has a lot to do with, you know, going back to the very beginning. And one of the opening comments was this idea of advocacy and acknowledging that there need to be folks who are watching and looking at how the systems are or aren’t working to hold those folks accountable.
So that’s all part of this process, I think, of level-setting and brining people together to acknowledge that if advocates could understand what the CEOs are up against in terms of funding and operations and things like that, they’re going to be in a better position to advocate and vice versa; if the CEOs understand what it’s like on the ground, they’re going to be in a better position to make changes in an agency that’s going to serve that purpose as well. So, Rail~Volution, we kind of bring that together, and I’ve been really focused on that notion since I came there of really stirring the pot and focusing on outcomes and focusing on collaboration and what I would call alignment of resources across the sectors.
Cohen: Wow. I love it. Dan, this is great. It’s so exciting to kind of reflect back on this 10 years at Rail~Volution and all the changes that have happened both with the organization and also in the industry. I think we’re undoubtedly better off than we were, and I hope we can look back in a few more years and see that pace of change continue to accelerate. So congratulations on wrapping up your tenure here shortly with Rail~Volution, and thank you so much for joining us on The Movement podcast.
Jensen: Yeah, this was wonderful. Thank you, Dan.
Bartholomay: Well, thanks for having me. It’s been a great opportunity, and I’m excited to be a part of it, so I appreciate it. Thank you very much.
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.