The Power of Representation

The Power of Representation

by Armando Sullivan

Curitiba, Brazil; Bogota, Colombia; and Copenhagen, Denmark -- the rapid transit systems of these cities are some of the world’s most innovative, and were my first exposure to the field of transportation planning as a sophomore in college. These systems revolutionized circulation and access in their respective cities, and impressed upon me the power effective transportation can provide riders in determining their quality of life. After promptly declaring my major as Geography and Urban Studies, some of my first thoughts were about the potential for innovations in transportation systems in my community, which, at the time, was North Philadelphia. This predominantly black community regularly suffered impositions into its real estate and resources at the hands of my school: Temple University. I knew that the plight of this community and its relationship to mass transit would be the focus of much of my work throughout my undergraduate education.

While the professors of Temple’s Geography and Urban Studies department were diverse in areas of study, tenure, and demographic, there were few that looked like me. My final capstone course introduced me to Professor Rickie Sanders- an inspiring and knowledgeable instructor who forced her students to wholly and concisely explore our varying areas of interest, often leading to the cultivation of our intellectual passions. In my case, Professor Sanders helped me to elevate my final paper by exploring my topic of through the experience of people of color. I explored the effect that mass publication of maps had on the pace of urban development in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas while Brazil prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. I have Professor Sanders to thank for having urged me to look deeper. In my professional work as a planner today, I continue to use any opportunity, no matter the size, to shed light on the experience of communities of color.

Since undergrad, the number of black professionals I have encountered working in transportation planning, and urban planning, has dwindled. The further I ascended in my career, the rarer it became for me to see people that looked like me. This temporarily changed when I moved to Durham, North Carolina and began working as an Apprentice Planner with the city’s Department of Transportation. My mentor throughout this position, Dr. Pierre Osei-Owusu, serves as Transit Administrator for the City of Durham. Dr. Osei-Owusu, who is originally from Ghana and came to the US to earn his master’s degree, has been working for 20 years in different cities in the southeastern US on transportation-related issues.

Working for a black man with the level of responsibility, agency, and power Dr. Osei-Owusu had was  an inspiration to me for each day of my year-long apprenticeship. Furthermore, the City of Durham, GoDurham, Durham City Transit Company, and GoDurham ACCESS  functioned as the collective group planning, operating, and regulating transportation systems for the city, and consisted of more black professionals than I had ever seen in any other group of public agencies. Throughout my time in Durham, I interacted with and learned from black planners, engineers, architects, rapid transit administrators, accountants, lawyers, technicians, and vehicle operators.

Illustration by Kyle Steed

Seeing myself, my experiences, and my culture reflected in most of the people within my professional environment for a year was the most empowering thing that I have yet experienced professionally. It taught me that my position in urban planning and transportation allowed me to directly influence people in my community that looked like me. When I recognized disparities in access to transportation, I learned from Dr. Osei-Owusu to address them swiftly and directly. It was through this position that I learned the power of federal, state, and local grants in funding projects in communities of color. My tenure in this position culminated in applying for and winning a grant for $150,000 from the local metropolitan planning organization to expand the service area of GoDurham ACCESS’ paratransit service. This service provides demand-response transportation for older residents who are unable  to drive or ride the bus and are interested in continuing to pursue employment opportunities in the city center. By expanding the program’s service area, more of these people, who were predominantly of color, were able to generate income for themselves and contribute to the development of their city of Durham.

Dr. Osei-Owusu was one of the biggest advocates for me to pursue my master’s degree at Harvard University. He recognized the elusive power that an association with the institution would bring to me as a young professional black man. His advice was to earn this degree so that I could have the most agency possible in forging my career in urban transportation, wherever that might take me.

As a first-year planning student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, I had the pleasure of having Toni Griffin as my advisor and first semester studio instructor. Professor Griffin, a black woman, has a breadth of knowledge and experience in planning for communities of color in the US and runs the Just City Lab, which investigates potential outcomes of putting measures of equity, justice, and equality first in planning. Her body of work, including the Just City Index, had a major influence on my projects during that semester. She went out of her way to make our work great, and a last-minute desk crit with her before my final review elevated my project to one that could be applicable in the real world.

During my second and final year, I worked as a research assistant on the project Transforming Urban Transport: The Role of Political Leadership with Professor Lily Song, a lecturer and researcher of Korean heritage by way of LA. I worked with Professor Song to explore the different potential scenarios of the imminent autonomous vehicle deployment and how each might impact marginalized communities.

While at Harvard, I served on the organizing committee for a conference called Black in Design: Designing Resistance, Building Coalitions. The goal of this conference was to bring together black and brown practitioners in urban planning from all over the country to foster social and professional solidarity. Our dream was for the coalitions formed at this conference to solidify in their respective cities, uniting the influence brought by each member to their group. The success of this mission can be seen in groups like BlackSpace, of which I am a member, formed at the first Black in Design in 2015 and working through fields of design and planning to increase the agency of New York’s communities of color.

Despite seeing fewer people of color as I move through the world of transportation planning, I have been extremely fortunate to have benefited from the knowledge and experiences of a few key leaders of color. After I graduated  from Harvard, I moved to New York and began working for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants. It was here that my boss, Mike Flynn (an earlier contributor to Multiple Cities), told me about our firm’s sponsorship of the Untokening Detroit conference and an opportunity for me to attend. With our firm’s 2018 goal of growth through diversity, this was the perfect opportunity to connect with other practitioners potentially interested in working with us to increase representation in our firm.

Much like Black in Design, Untokening is a conference series that specifically brings together practitioners of color to develop ideas for addressing disparities related to mobility being faced by marginalized groups in cities around the US. Suffice to say I was excited to delve deeply into these issues again through the conference.

Detroit is one of the most studied cities within the field of urban planning. It is globally infamous for its experiences related to the disbandment of its auto manufacturing industry that led to extreme disinvestment and flight of white residents to the city’s suburbs. This left people of color abandoned in Detroit, now a city struggling to find its economic identity and exemplifying the cyclical process of urban development in the US that puts people of color last.

Detroit once had the nation’s largest streetcar system. However, following the collapse of its auto industry and white flight, much of the region’s wealth has since been invested in these suburbs, and over time Detroit residents have become reliant on opportunities for employment outside of the city. Unfortunately, these predominantly white suburban communities have continued to refuse political support for the construction of rapid transit linking the city center to key communities between it and the suburban job centers. Most recently, in the summer of 2018, Oakland and Macomb Counties, which make up key suburbs of Detroit, rejected the inclusion of the long-planned $5 billion mass rapid transit plan on the November 2018 ballot.(1) Once again, the city’s suburban neighbors have denied Detroiters access to rapid transit that could significantly enhance their quality of life.

It is for this very reason that Untokening was brought to the Motor City- so that planners, engineers, nonprofit organizers, grass roots advocates, politicians, creatives and other practitioners passionate about the importance of access to rapid transportation and mobility could hear from Detroit’s practitioners about their work to change the city for the benefit of its marginalized residents.

The personal passions that drove attendees to Untokening from all over the country spanned an expansive range of transportation-related disparities being experienced by marginalized communities. Some attendees, like me, were bright-eyed fresh out of school and hopeful to immediately take action to influence transportation planning and policy. Other more seasoned attendees were quite attuned to the barriers hurled at those advocating for increased access for marginalized people. This combination of diverse perspectives at the conference yielded just as diverse a set of takeaways. These people were equally passionate and action-oriented, and this resulted in the ideation of a significant number of specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely plans of action for the respective cities of each attendee. These plans targeted the use of new technology and human-centered design, conscientious policy engagement, and breaking barriers established to prevent Detroiters from participating in the planning process.

Illustration by Kyle Steed

The commonality between each of these plans is increased representation.

Representation is the only way to ensure that transportation resources and mobility are distributed equitably across communities. On a basic level, it has been the practice of those in power (of any form) to work to improve the quality of life of people with whom they have things in common. Regardless of deeper-seated political motivations, power has traditionally been used to serve those in power. Representation means an inherent consideration for groups of people sharing commonalities (race, income, socioeconomic standing, profession etc.) with those making decisions.

Reflecting on this, growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland provided ample examples of how this representation provided basic guarantees for my community. The unusually high level of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious, and general cultural diversity trickled up from residents to teachers, professionals, superintendents, planners, county executives, and other influencers in Silver Spring. It took a few decades to break ground, but the region’s new Purple Line light-rail system is currently under construction. While the region will experience a number of various benefits (and potential negative externalities) from the Purple Line’s trans-county route, I most directly associate the completion of this light-rail line with the provision of expedited rapid transit access for the predominantly minority residents of East Silver Spring and Prince George’s County, Maryland to the wealthy micro-hubs of Rockville and Bethesda. This project was first proposed four decades ago, and could not have been achieved without those in power advocating on behalf of the region’s diverse residents.

Today, working in the white-dominated field of transportation planning in the city of New York, I have already witnessed the power of representation in influencing transportation projects. In addition to seeing powerful practitioners of color effectuate change within their agency, as a planner at Sam Schwartz, the important role of advocates in this effort to increase representation in transportation has become clear.

My firm’s 2018 goal was growth through diversity. Dedication to this goal was exemplified by the opportunity I was granted in attending Untokening. My supervisor used his power at our firm to advocate for Sam Schwartz’s sponsorship of Untokening, and pushed for me to be able to attend. As one of few planners of color at the firm, I recognize how important it is for me to use my position to regularly explore opportunities to increase representation in our field. Fortunately, I work with people who also recognize the importance of advocacy and contributing wealth and resources to groups/conferences/programs/events that continue to work toward equitably distributing access to vital resources of mobility.

Learning from the examples of Durham, Silver Spring, and Detroit, it is evident that increased representation all but guarantees a foundational consideration for the experience of previously underrepresented groups. Silver Spring serves as an example of a place with recent history of advancing actions to improve the daily conditions for people of color. This is reflected in home ownership by people of color within the region, business ownership by people of color within the region, and students of color benefiting from one of the nation’s best public-school systems. While Silver Spring experiences as much general inequity and racism as any other place in the US, there are always people fighting to reverse these inequities. So far, diverse representation has benefited people of color across all facets of urban planning and development.

Having been raised as a black child in Silver Spring, with parents and grandparents with master’s degrees and PhD’s, community leaders of color, teachers of color who went out of their way to mentor me, and black urban planners, lawyers, doctors, politicians, and business owners, I can attest to the confidence that representation can instill in young people. Being able to see myself in these highly educated, successful professionals imparted upon me a deep-seated confidence in myself to achieve success in whichever career I chose.

Exposure to this representation from an early age teaches children of marginalized groups to envision themselves as successful actors in their communities. Representation has the power to break traditional cycles of marginalized groups being afterthoughts in urban development decision-making. This month, I urge you to use any opportunity, no matter the size, to shed light on the experience of communities of color.

Illustrations by Kyle Steed.

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