“The Untokening” Was a Frank Discussion of the Livable Streets Movement’s Equity Challenges

Sometimes advocates of color find themselves at odds with the leadership of mainstream transportation advocacy groups.

Two-thirds of the Untokening attendees were people of color. Photo: Argenis Apolinario
Two-thirds of the Untokening attendees were people of color. Photo: Argenis Apolinario

Editor’s note: Streetsblog Chicago sent writer Jean Khut to Atlanta last month to report on The Untokening and share lessons from the event that could be applied to transportation justice efforts in our city. Read Jean’s coverage of the “LA X ATL Exchange” panel here.

Mobility advocates strive to create safe streets and livable communities for everyone. But when advocates who work with or are members of marginalized populations, such as communities of color, try to achieve this goal, they often find themselves at odds with the leadership and members of mainstream transportation advocacy groups.

Frequently, their voices aren’t really heard when they bring up issues in their communities that members of largely white, male, and affluent organizations don’t fully understand or acknowledge. It’s becoming more common for the subjects of equity, diversity, and inclusion to be discussed in active transportation circles these days. But when mobility-related social justice issues, such as gentrification and police abuse, come up, it often makes relatively privileged people uncomfortable.

This was the focus of the Untokening, a convening held in Atlanta last month to discuss injustices and inequity in transportation and public spaces. The event was a companion to Facing Race, a conference held in the city on the same weekend. The day before the Untokening, Tamika Butler of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and Zahra Alabanza from the Atlanta chapter of Red, Bike, and Green took part in a panel discussion called “LA X ATL Exchange,” moderated by Streetsblog Los Angeles communities editor Sahra Sulaiman.

At the Untokening ground rules were established to help ensure a respectful environment. Click to read the whole list. Photo: Jean Khut

The panel addressed the question of how people from marginalized groups can do advocacy work in predominately white spaces without being “tokenized” — forced to serve as the sole representative of their race, for example, or having their social justice concerns dismissed as a distraction from the agenda item being discussed. This theme continued during the main Untokening event.

“We wanted to use this space to name the barriers that exist within the mainstream mobility movement,” said Naomi Doerner, one of the event organizers and a transportation equity consultant based in New Orleans. “[We wanted to] gain a communal understanding of the structural reasons for why justice isn’t currently at the center of the mainstream movement’s frame.”

The Untokening provided a venue for an honest and open discussion of a wide range of subjects, including housing, culture, gentrification, economics, education, and gender, and how these things intersect with transportation and public space challenges. The event drew 130 people who are involved with active transportation issues, from urban planners to community organizers, from across the country. Two-thirds of attendees were people of color.

The morning started out with three roundtables on street safety, which included discussions of bureaucratic, socioeconomic, cultural, and physical barriers. In the afternoon, the conversation was extended to gentrification, community engagement, and culture. People were encouraged to identify and address any “elephants in the room” – topics that can be difficult to talk about but need to be addressed.

Some of the issues discussed included white privilege in public spaces; the racial history of highways; street harassment of women; challenges facing transgender people and other LGBTQ folks; the inequities associated with infrastructure investment; and gentrification and displacement in communities of color.

As an ice-breaker, attendees were asked to pick an image printed on a piece of paper and describe how they related to it. Photo: Jean Khut

For example, attendees talked about the Atlanta BeltLine project, which is replacing disused railroad tracks around the perimeter of the city with a corridor for walking and biking. Much like Chicago’s Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, it has sparked concerns about trail-related gentrification reducing affordability in the area.

Participants noted that plans for new transportation infrastructure or traffic safety initiatives, such as Vision Zero, often overlook the fact that “safety” means different things to different people. It involves more than just building protected bike lanes or writing more traffic tickets. In marginalized communities, discussions of safety may also need to include issues of access to housing, education, and jobs, as well as gun violence and police harassment. Those whose safety is most at risk tend to not be part of the conversation.

Dan Reed, a Washington D.C.-based transportation planner and advocate, told me the roundtables emphasized the need to make space for “people who aren’t traditionally represented in planning affairs.”

Early in the day, many attendees found it difficult to get the conversation going because opportunities for in-depth equity discussions don’t often happen in transportation advocacy circles. But as the day progressed, it became easier to share experiences and offer insights.

“It’s typical for transportation advocates, policymakers, and planners to plan for the most vulnerable people who use the street…[like] a young child or an elder,” said Helen Ho, a bike advocate from New York City. “We have to devise new ways to make streets safer for [people] who are harassed, shot at and killed in our public spaces. After all, what good is a street if people are too scared to leave the house?”

The purpose of the Untokening wasn’t to find quick solutions to the transportation and public space challenges marginalized groups face, but rather to bring these issues to light so that more people are aware of them. Impor, the event brought together a diverse group of mobility advocates and provided a space where they could be their authentic selves, without being tokenized.

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  • davistrain

    Should we expect to see “untokening” become one of the new words in the Oxford English Dictionary?

  • AndreL

    Without dismissing the valid concerns underlying the article, the execution and form of this meeting makes me cringe. It particularly worries me this nefarious trend of putting personal experiences at the pinnacle of public discussions, and then shield them from criticism, honest debate or else, while also dismissing facts or broader data-based arguments as somehow hurtful and subsidiary to feelings, perceptions and else.

  • Dr_Ace

    It seems like their main concerns aren’t things that could be addressed with transportation planning.

    “We have to devise new ways to make streets safer for [people] who are harassed, shot at and killed in our public spaces. After all, what good is a street if people are too scared to leave the house?”

    If street or transit infrastructure isn’t going to fix the problem, then of course a transportation planning meeting isn’t going to “listen to these complaints.” If these same complaints were ignored at a meeting about police enforcement, that would be a much bigger cause for concern.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    No one’s “dismissing facts or broader data-based arguments” here. Rather the issue is that urban planning has historically relied on quantitative data to make decisions, often with bad methods for interpreting that data, such as prioritizing “Level of Service” for drivers above all other concerns. One of the takeaways from the Untokening is that, along with data, planning should be informed by a greater amount qualitative info, in the form of input from the people who will be affected by these decisions.

  • @AndreL – So, what’s your better way to execute a meeting? Because the forms that transportation activists/advocates have used for the last few decades have been exclusionary and dismissive, and the whole point of this effort is to fix that.

  • sahra

    To a lower-income black or brown youth in Los Angeles, for example, those concerns are not separate from each other – the youth needs to be able to access the public space to access transit. Transportation planning tends to assume access. To plan for everyone and have a more functional system, we need to have a better handle on access issues (among many other things).

  • sahra

    I agree that there are limits to the extent to which personal experience should guide planning. However, what more privileged advocates don’t seem to realize is that so much of transportation planning and advocacy is based on white-centered and privileged experiences and culture. That means access to the public space is assumed (where for folks of color, especially lower-income folks of color in communities marked by disinvestment and repressive policing, access to the public space can be deeply constrained) and transportation is often framed as a choice (where lower-income folks here in LA actually often rely on cars because they juggle multiple jobs, jobs at odd hours when transit doesn’t run, and/or multiple family obligations b/c they care for sick or extended family or may be single parents…meaning that planners’ assumptions that cars are bad for the poor and that affordable housing TOD should limit parking might actually work against mobility for lower-income folks). Data on the needs and factors impacting the mobility of lower-income folks of color is actually quite poor and placed within contexts/scenarios/expectations based on assumptions that don’t apply to the communities they are trying to help.

    So, these advocates were focused on questions they aren’t able to raise in white-centered spaces. That doesn’t mean that every question raised would necessarily lead folks to fundamentally different conclusions in transportation planning. But many of them would. And some of the questions raised had to do with what needs to happen in mobility advocacy for there to be space for advocates on the margins to even raise those more concrete questions in the first place. Right now there isn’t a lot of space for that. Hence this gathering and the effort to begin the process of raising questions.