Black and Latinx transportation leaders say they’re satisfied with ATA’s hiring of Amy Rynell as ED
After Active Transportation Alliance executive director Ron Burke stepped down last August to take a job with Lyft, some Chicago transportation advocates said that it was time to hire a person of color for the position. For its entire 34-year history, the group had been led by non-POC men, and Oboi Reed, an African American who leads the mobility justice nonprofit Equiticity, argued that contributed to blind spots on racial justice issues.
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,” interim director Melody Geraci, who’s non-POC, said 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.”
Reed said that having a Black or Latinx person in charge, ideally a woman, could be helpful for avoiding tunnel vision on social justice matters in the future. He argued that these groups have been most impacted by structural racism in Chicago, and therefore are the demographics most in need of representation.
“Should Active Trans hire a Black or Brown executive director, and should everyone from the staff and board be fully committed to racial equity and mobility justice, they will enjoy the full support of myself and Equiticity,” Reed said last fall. Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield endorsed that position.
Ultimately, the organization didn’t go that route. After a long executive search, in March Active Trans announced that it had hired Amy Rynell, a non-POC woman with 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.”
“Amy Rynell was a standout candidate among a strong group of top contenders representative of diverse gender, ethnic, and racial identities and professional backgrounds,” said Active Trans board president Peggy Reins, who’s non-POC, in a statement. “The board’s search committee recommended Amy to the full board, which gave its unanimous approval… We were determined to conduct a search that was in-depth and comprehensive. I’m very pleased we achieved those goals, and it showed with the group of candidates who applied for the position.”
“Amy is a nonprofit leader who’s been fighting for human rights and social change for decades,” Reins added. “She has a well-honed set of skills in nonprofit strategy development, fundraising, and cultivating talent. She’s especially passionate about setting goals related to social change and leading diverse groups of people to accomplish them.”
Peter Taylor, an Active Trans board member who’s Black, said he’s pleased with how the hiring process turned out. “I have been a supporter of Active Trans for most of twenty years. Active Trans has gone thru phases with each new executive director and the job has evolved many facets and responsibilities. I expect Amy Rynell to be an exemplary director on all fronts.”
“I have been involved with the selection process intensely as a member of the search committee,” Taylor added. “Amy will obviously be the first ED who is also a woman. I am excited for the synergies this will bring. As an African American, I felt this past process was a great opportunity to discover an ED from a community of color who would have the visceral reaction that comes when confronted with historic disenfranchisement such as we have in Chicago. The search process was extensive, rigorous and fair with an equity lens. Amy has many unique qualifications that will make her the ED more focused on equity than any other.”
Reed, who is currently on hiatus from transportation advocacy, did not respond to a request for comment.
Shawn Conley, an African American who helps lead the predominantly Black Major Taylor Cycling Club of Chicago, partnered with Reed in 2014 to request that the city of Chicago focus more bike infrastructure and education in communities of color on the South and West sides. He said that while he would have preferred that Active Trans hire a POC executive director, his top priority was that the new boss would lobby the city to distribute bike resources more equitably. He said he’s happy that a woman was hired, and he’s hopeful that Rynell will prioritize social justice.
Julio Rodriguez is the director of the community development corporation of the Belmont Cragin-based Northwest Side Housing Center, which has partnered with Active Trans on mobility initiatives. Rodriguez, who’s Latinx, said that a nonprofit being solely led by non-POC executive directors might normally raise concerns. However, he’s cautiously optimistic about the advocacy group’s choice due to its close collaboration with NSHC, which he said has been helpful for his predominantly Latinx, blue-collar community. Like Taylor and Conley, he said he’s glad that Active Trans hired a woman who’s bringing an equity lens to their work.
So while Reed has yet to weigh in on the hiring, other transportation advocates of color are satisfied with the pick. But ultimately Rynell’s tenure will be judged by how well she is able to achieve the organization’s goals of making Chicagoland a better place to walk, bike, and use transit for all residents, regardless of who they are and where they live.
Mia Park is a multi-disciplinary artist and yoga teacher in Chicago.