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Active Trans hires Amy Rynell, formerly of Heartland Alliance, as executive director

Active Trans board president Peggy Reins and new executive director Amy Rynell. Photo: John Greenfield

For its entire 35-year history, the Active Transportation Alliance has been led by white people. In recent years, mobility-justice advocates of color have pushed the organization to do a better job of representing the interests of low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods on the south and west sides. And after the last permanent executive director Ron Burke stepped down in August to take a job with Lyft, temporarily replaced by interim director Melody Geraci, there was talk about hiring a person of color for the job.

By its own admission, Active Trans has made some errors when it comes to addressing the needs of communities of Black and Brown communities, including oversights on issues like the equitable distribution of bike resources, and the role of policing in the Vision Zero crash prevention program. "We know we've made some mistakes," Geraci told me last fall. "But it's extremely important to us to be an authentic racial justice- and mobility-justice-facing organization, and that means working from the inside out."

Mobility justice advocates such as Oboi Reed from nonprofit Equiticity argued that having a person of color, ideally a woman, in charge could be helpful for avoiding such tunnel vision in the future. I endorsed that position.

Yesterday night at Active Trans' annual awards reception (Streetsblog Chicago was an awardee), the group announced that it did not go that route. Streetsblog will be publishing some reactions to the decision from local transportation advocates of color in the near future.

However, the new executive director Amy Rynell will be the organization's first permanent female director, and she has decades of experience working for social justice. Most recently, she served as the senior director of research and policy at Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit that works "to advance human rights and champion human dignity by providing services and promoting solutions to achieve a more just global society." (Last year Heartland Alliance was embroiled in controversy for its role in housing immigrant children separated from their families by Trump administration policies.) She worked at Heartland Alliance for 20 years.

"My career has been focused on tackling the root causes of social problems to move toward a more just, equitable society,” Rynell said in a statement. “The core beliefs of Active Trans resonate deeply with that experience, my values, and how I live my life. Having safe, viable transportation options is so vital for livability, access to opportunity, community connectedness, and beyond. Mobility matters. I began my career writing about why social workers should care about transportation planning; it is an honor to pivot back to support bold change in this arena.”

Rynell holds a Master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame. She has served as an Obama Foundation scholar, mentor, and strategist, and served on the State of Illinois Hunger Commission and the Human Services Commission.

Active Trans’ board of directors hired executive search consultant KEES last fall to help it conduct a national search. KEES interviewed me for input, and I recommended many well-qualified Black and Latino transportation professionals in Chicago and other cities as potential candidates. The board’s search committee recommended Amy Rynell from "an exemplary group of finalists" to the full board, which unanimously approved Rynell.

“Active Trans’ advocacy for walking, bicycling, and public transit lies at the intersection of the most critical issues of our day, including climate change, equity, and health,” said board president Peggy Reins in a statement. “The speed of change and disruptive factors impacting the transportation sector pose both challenges and opportunities. Amy is a leader who will help our organization continue to build a movement for the positive changes that will create more equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities.”

Rynell spoke at last night's awards reception. "I'm fired up to have the paths and passions of most of my life kind of converge at this moment with the Active Transportation Alliance," she told the crowd. "I'm an avid cyclist, I'm a walker, I take transit every day, I do it all every day. And I think along with probably each of you, I experience the best that Chicagoland has to offer, as well as the daily challenges we have in our system."

Rynell said that her priorities as executive director will informed the issues that "[keep] me up at night." Among these, she mentioned traffic crashes. "I had an employee recently hit by a [driver] on a morning on a Sunday in the West Loop, a highly walkable neighborhood. That's not acceptable."

"Our transportation systems aren't connected, they're not convenient, they're not affordable, they're not seamless in the way we know they could be," Rynell added. "Our car dependency is driving poor health... Not good for us, not good for our air."

Rynell said she plans to pay particular attention to communities that have been heavily impacted by racism and income inequality. "They feel all this three times over. From the cost of transit, to the poor air quality, to the accessibility -- major gaps. That's what keeps me up at night."

The new executive director ended her speech by calling the position "one of the most cool and important jobs in our city. That's why I'm here. I'm really committed to this."

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