My Lessons from PolicyLink’s 2018 Equity Summit
I was one of 4,000+ people fortunate to have the chance to participate in PolicyLink’s Equity Summit in Chicago in April. I attended as part of a small but engaged Vision Zero delegation that I helped organize to bring together advocates working to integrate equitable approaches and results into our Vision Zero initiatives across the nation.
For me personally, the Summit represented a vital step in my ongoing education of understanding the privilege I was born into as a white woman in this country. For years, at least in my mind, I have advocated for greater equity in my hometown of San Diego, mostly focusing on more equitable investments in safe transportation infrastructure. And part of the reason I was excited about engaging in the Vision Zero movement, both locally and nationally, is because I saw the potential to prioritize equity in even more impactful ways.
It’s only been in recent years that I became more conscious of my white privilege and resulting limited point of view that influence my work. Thanks to leaders and friends in the active transportation movement like Adonio Lugo, Tamika Butler, Monique Lopez, and Randy Van Vleck, I feel like I am being “woke up” in many important ways.
The ideas that I share below, all themes at the Summit, are helping me adjust my worldview to better understand equity and my role of privilege in influencing change, as well the challenge of influencing the right kind of change. I’ll be the first to admit that I have more work to do, but the learning is motivating and important.
THOUSANDS GATHER IN SOLIDARITY
The always inspirational Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink’s Founder and CEO, kicked off the Summit with a challenge to all of us to use radical imagination to gain results, to stay focused on the long game of changing policies, systems, politics and possibilities for millions of people who have been left behind. The Summit built on this challenge by offering up real solutions to get the work done.
“Radical imagination fuels the will and strengthens the ability of activists to upend old assumptions and topple the economic, social, and civic structures that hold millions of people back. Radical imagination can spark the creation of equitable economies, a new social order, and sweeping public policies that build and sustain a truly inclusive society.” - Angela Glover Blackwell
I believe the Vision Zero movement to eliminate traffic deaths and create safe mobility for all people -- especially those who are disproportionately impacted, including people of color, people of low income, kids and seniors, and people walking and bicycling -- certainly has a role in this.
Amidst the whirlwind of events and inspirational speeches were a lot of thoughtful conversations on how to get to results. For me, five themes stand out as the most urgent and relevant for the Vision Zero Network’s efforts and the broader safe mobility movement:
1. We must understand the past to fuel change for the future.
Understanding the past to move into the future emphasizes the importance of understanding the root causes of problems we face today. We need to ask: “How did we get where we are?” For example, WHY is it that people of color suffer traffic deaths in higher numbers than others? WHY are Blacks and Latinos twice as likely to be hit by cars than whites? WHY are people of color more likely to be pulled over in traffic stops than whites? Taking time to explore root causes often points back to the history of segregation and racism in our country. And when we talk about intersectionality, this is what we mean, that the root causes for equitable access to housing, working wages, excellent education, and traffic safety are related, if not the same, and untying one thread cannot happen without loosening others. In the next few months, the Vision Zero Network will look forward to sharing what we’ve learned about this history and how it affects our work, hoping to build greater awareness, understanding, and solidarity in moving forward to make positive change.
2. Equity must happen from the inside out.
How do organizations – including the Vision Zero Network operationalize equity in our everyday work? As someone poignantly said during the Summit, equity is not an “add-on” like a spice you shake over a problem, it is the work that happens every single day.
At the Summit, panelist speaker and founder of Public Equity Group, John Newsome presented an equity continuum, to allow attendees to consider how their work measures up. The continuum had three categories: (a) We should do better, (b) Addressing equity is a top priority, and (c) Equity is our work.
Where does the Vision Zero movement fall along the continuum? I believe we are closer to (a) than (c), so we need to make a shift. It won’t happen overnight, but we need to consciously work to make that shift. Over the next few months, we will share new resources that we hope will lift up these lessons learned and move us closer to (c). The Network has started this work by publishing recommendations toward Centering Equity in Vision Zero and facilitating conversations between city staff and advocates to raise awareness and encourage action to address equity needs and challenges.
3. Trying hard is not good enough. Results are what matter.
In Vision Zero, the desired result is pretty clear: zero traffic deaths and serious injuries. But how do we get there, and who benefits first? If we know that the most vulnerable people in our society – children, older adults, people of color, low-income populations, people walking and bicycling – are the ones most affected, what are the actions we are employing to make sure their safety is prioritized? The Summit emphasized the point that by helping the ones most in need, the benefits extend to everyone.
PolicyLink’s leader Ms. Glover-Blackwell especially emphasized this point and made the case for what she refers to as the “curb-cut” effect. The term refers to the 1970s win by advocates in Berkeley, California to ensure curb cuts, or ramps, on sidewalks to allow people in wheelchairs to safely transition from the sidewalk to the street. The win preceded the 1990 landmark adoption of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and literally paved the way for improved access for everyone, not only those in wheelchairs. The story demonstrates how providing remedies to the greatest inequities can produce positive results for everyone.
Given the well-documented, disproportionate impact of traffic deaths on people of color and low-income communities, the same theory should apply to Vision Zero. We at the Vision Zero Network have seen this kind of prioritization of solutions already start to happen - more cities are including underserved, vulnerable communities in their High Injury Networks - as we highlighted in a recent blog. But more work is to be done, and the Vision Zero Network will work to move along this path.
4. Elevate community and respond to local needs.
Vision Zero is, at its roots, a data driven approach. At the Vision Zero Network, we emphasize the importance of layering that data-driven approach with real stories and experiences, gathered by engaging with community members.
“Voices are data. Stories are data with soul.” – John Newsome, Founder, Public Equity Group
Just as important as collecting the quantitative data is gathering the human stories, or the qualitative data. Making time to seek and listen to personal stories is a must. No one knows a neighborhood better than the people who live there, and these real people can capture data in a way that a quantitative analysis cannot. Meanwhile, the personal stories of loss from families whose loved ones have been killed in preventable crashes are essential to remind us why we are fighting for Vision Zero in the first place.
“Engaging people doesn’t mean repeating something over and over, but listening and responding.” - Summit attendee
The Vision Zero Network is fortunate to work with a network of advocacy organizations across the country who have established deep relationships in local communities and who are working to lift up their stories. We will continue to relay the importance of community voices and authentic, early community involvement in Vision Zero with local leaders. And a reminder that one way to do this is by fairly compensating these organizations for their work as the Vision Zero Network highlighted in a recent blog.
5. Rethink enforcement in Vision Zero.
The subject of police brutality and communities’ understandable lack of trust in police was a prevalent theme during the Summit. Communities across the country have lived for too long under the weight of discriminatory policing and increased criminalization and are calling for less reliance on policing as a result and more reliance on strong community relationships. We at the Vision Zero Network can reinforce this message, while working with police to still provide – in a transparent manner - the important data needed to analyze and address traffic crash trends. This means that we have to continue to challenge the traditional traffic safety community’s emphasis on the 3 “Es” as building blocks to the movement. Most cities have outlined Vision Zero strategies on those pre-Vision Zero principles of Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. But Vision Zero is not fundamentally built on the E’s, but rather on a Safe Systems approach, which focuses on the built environment and policies to encourage safe behavior. This translates to an emphasis on safe roadway design and managing speed, not on an over-reliance on enforcement or education.The Vision Zero Network has been seeking input from diverse stakeholders about the role of enforcement in Vision Zero for some time and will be releasing suggestions, along with a series of forums for discussion and (most likely!) debate, soon.
“Are courts the only way to achieve justice? We need to put the “neighbor” back in the “hood”. - Summit attendee
Above all, the most powerful theme at the Summit was Solidarity. How can organizations team with others when the lift is high and help is needed? What are organizations willing to engage in to help the movement take a step forward?
I left the Summit feeling like I had a lot more understanding of my role in this movement, and even more questions. At the end of the day, Vision Zero is based on powerful principles to change the status quo in traffic safety, but principles must be manifest through actions, and actions must be oriented to reach results. And traffic safety is a thread connected to many other threads that affect communities and their perception of safety. On behalf of the Vision Zero Network, we will work to operationalize these lessons and to continue to listen and learn.