Confessions of a Tokenized Advocate

This blog post was co-written by Safe Routes Partnership staff Keith Benjamin, community partnerships manager, and Mikaela Randolph, community engagement and evaluation manager.

group photo"Sometimes we have to tokenize ourselves for the sake of pushing the movement forward."

Tamika Butler, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition, blurted this out in the middle of an impassioned call to action during our 2016 Safe Routes to School National Conference session, "Race Class and Equity: Where Do We Begin?"

As we stood there as moderators, we could see each other fall into that two-second daydream, where one rehearses past occurrences to see if they indeed resonate with what we heard and saw in the present. They did.

As the two African Americans on our increasingly diverse but still predominantly white staff, who had been tasked, from the beginning of our hiring three years ago, to "raise the drumbeat of equity," we've been unapologetic in our work around building healthier, safer, and more accessible communities.  From leading two national task forces to providing state and local policy/program support to collaborating between our regional staff and our full technical assistance team, the needle has been moved.

Yet, in that moment, we were reminded about how far we—and the movement – need  to go.  Would this session have happened if we were not staff at the Safe Routes Partnership?  Would this session have happened if we did not push for it with senior staff?  Would this session have happened if our immediate director and deputy director, both white women, had not seen the imperativeness of such a space during the conference?  Would this session have happened if we weren't able to discount the conference pricing for our panelists?  Would this session have happened if other national and local organizations were not prioritizing the diversification of their staff and boards?

The session definitely would not have happened without the deep expertise of our panelists and their willingness to explore difficult conversations. Jennifer White, health equity partnerships manager at the American Heart Association, is a longtime partner of ours through her previous work in the Health Department of the NAACP. Pedro Arista, engagement program manager at the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum, sits on our National Shared Use Task Force. Waffiyyah Murray, Safe Routes Philly coordinator at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, was a technical assistance recipient of the Safe Routes Partnership through our Voices for Healthy Kids Initiative. Our own Bill Sadler, California Senior Policy Manager, has brought his previous experience in equitable transit-oriented development and environmental justice to both our policy and program implementation. He provides a strong voice for equity inclusion in key documents that provide guidance on active transportation and community design. Their participation and the expression of their passions proved that we must be intentional in what we believe, who is at the table, where they lead, and how their stories are elevated.

Expanding the base of the movement for active transportation, health, and safety is an essential starting point for a more holistic approach to integrating equity into our policies and programs. But it is just the initial seed planting.  Life experiences, relationships, and collaborations are the fertilizer that insures the maturation of our movement.  As an organization, through the leadership of our Executive Director, we are setting strong commitments on how our work around equity will continue to challenge narratives, practices and concepts.  We have set the following strategic goals for the Safe Routes Partnership as well as for our partners: 

  • Achieve on the ground change through focused work with leaders and local organizations in low-income communities and communities of color.
  • Build the internal expertise and capacity of Safe Routes Partnership staff to advance social equity. 
  • Develop a greater fluency and capacity to address issues related to but not at the center of the work of the Safe Routes Partnership that affect equity.

These are the commitments we’ve made as an organization, but what about you? Where will you begin? How will you be intentional in your work around equity and active transportation? Will you simply lean on the one woman or person of color or advocate with a disability on your staff to be the voice of equitable reason, or will you push further? How will you step out of your comfort zone to promote equity in the movement? How can we help you? The conversation didn't stop at the Equity workshop, and it doesn't stop at this blog post.