Untokening Leadership Succession and Executive Hiring in Active Transportation Advocacy

Key authors and contributors to this statement: Adonia Lugo, Tamika Butler, Liz Cornish, Naomi Doerner, and Carolyn Szczepanski

We are a collective of individuals whose lived experience within marginalized communities underpins our professional work in the U.S. transition to sustainable mobility. We refer to our effort to build a multiracial movement for mobility justice that decolonizes active transportation advocacy and planning as untokening.

We are untokening decades of organizing and visioning work done by active transportation advocates. Marshaling the resources of researchers, engineers, planners and other technical professionals, their advocacy has resulted in more political interest in expanding sustainable mobility infrastructure than ever before. However, political imagination tends to be limited, much more limited than the dreaming of social movements.

Many active transportation leaders have chosen to define their work within politically palatable terms, sacrificing the slow work of bottom-up people power in the name of the seemingly quick work of top-down political power. While the term “equity” has become a buzzword in many active transportation settings, there has been little interest in pausing political work in order to create an inclusive movement for active transportation. We are not closer to liberation just because the changes our cities are undergoing are done in the name of those with little structural ability to benefit.

This lack of interest in truly decolonizing the vision for sustainable mobility lies at the heart of the tokenism problem within the active transportation profession -- and particularly within progressive white, cis, male-dominated institutions and spaces. When we have reckoned with the white supremacy embedded within the advocacy process of defining problems and solutions, we will we be able to call our advocacy equitable. Only then will the existing political and technical machineries for active transportation move in a direction that serves our communities.

Whether you are focused on land, narratives, movements, or other phenomena, an equitable process is one in which your organization is part of a larger movement and context. This process grows from what historically has been happening in a particular place, with leadership from those who historically have been doing justice work. There are community leaders who have been in this struggle for decades; they do not need saviors, they need allies who are willing to recognize their own influence and make it available toward collective benefit.

At this moment, we are aware of many vacancies within the leadership of influential active transportation organizations around the U.S. We are taking this opportunity to assert what leadership elements we believe will aid in the transition to sustainable transportation within the communities we know and serve, communities where many people already use active transportation under harsh conditions.

Here are our recommendations:

Learn from past mistakes. At this point, there is a lot of wisdom out there about recurring examples of organizational practices that systematically undermine equity, diversity and inclusion within our growing bike/walk movement.

Get ready to dismantle the old and build something new. Equity is an operating principle that is inherently disruptive, not something you simply sprinkle on your current programs when it's comfortable. This has been such a clear sticking point for the organizations we've been involved with — and the reason why certain leaders don't get the consideration they deserve for their knowledge, ability and interest in executing something so difficult and transformative.

We believe that any organization that values equity, diversity, and inclusion should begin with intentional hiring practices that seek to ensure a diverse pool of candidates. While we understand that an extensive search process takes time and resources, we are confident that an open and transparent searches yield many qualified candidates and help organizations regain the credibility and trust that is essential during a period of transition.

Whose trust? Trust divides along racial lines are a reality. Are you looking to hire somebody who inspires trust in an all-white board? Someone who can talk to community members in low-income neighborhoods? Someone who already has political relationships? We encourage you to consider deeply whose trust you seek with your leadership selection.

Have their back. Diversity without inclusion and systems to support people of different backgrounds, needs, abilities, etc. harms their success. What institutional barriers persist for diverse leadership to both emerge and grow within the professions that guide policy and decision making around transportation and mobility? If you hire a black leader, are you prepared to fight anti-blackness? If you hire a woman leader, are you prepared to recognize moments when her authority is challenged? Are you creating an environment in which your leader can be honest about their experience of oppression?

Hire for vision. It is possible to train somebody in the technical and political background of active transportation; it is much harder to train somebody to be a movement leader.

Absence speaks louder than words. Be open about why people of color have either opted out, or been pushed out of the formal advocacy space and what we can do as practitioners to ensure those interested in the profession receive the training and experience necessary to be successful in these roles. See also: Pay advisors.

Look beyond transportation. Hiring searches should be outside of the traditional transportation spaces. Here are a few intersectional fields that might be ripe for applicants: public health, affordable housing, community organizing, and climate justice.

No one organization is the movement. The skills to build a popular movement are not the same as fundraising, management, etc. We ask nonprofit organizations to recognize their role in a larger movement without appropriating the language of the grassroots. Recognize your strengths, and determine how they can fit into a cycle of collaboration. This could mean developing shared leadership structures within your group in order to elevate the knowledge of your staff who have closer community connections.

Own your constraints and plan accordingly. There’s a disconnect between folks wanting to support more leaders of color in a leadership role, but not understanding the HR constraints of small organizations to recruit and train and support people new to an advocacy space.

Pay advisors. Anytime your organization enters into a reflection or recruitment process that will involve outside advice, consider who is going to get paid for participating. Each of us has been through disorienting moments where an established active transportation figure is being paid to solicit advice we are expected to provide for free. We believe that if our thoughts are worth hearing, they are worth compensation. See also: Absence speaks louder than words.

Make pay scales transparent. Understand that wage gaps are gendered and race-based, and when hiring for paid active transportation and mobility roles, make information about your pay scale transparent in the process. Further, asking for previous employment pay is inherently inequitable as most women and people of color, especially women of color, are likely to have been underpaid relative to white male peers. Thus, basing pay on previous pay scales only contributes to wage gaps and structural inequities.

Share data on hiring practices and staff composition. Best practices in equitable hiring practices encourages the sharing of data on hiring practices and staff composition. This keeps an organization and/or institution accountable and benchmarks progress towards stated equity goals. Additionally, transparency and accountability are great talent recruitment and retention tools.

Go beyond an “only.” When an individual bears the burden of speaking for absent masses, they cannot bring their full selves to this work. Every step your organization takes in the direction of diversity should be followed by another move forward. Over time, our networks will be transformed, the untokening will be complete, and we can move toward our vision of just mobility.

Show your support by signing on to this statement below — and sharing your experiences and ideas, as well.