Transportation Justice: The Work Ahead

Blog Post
The following message was sent from Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) Director Chris Warner to all PBOT staff on June 11, 2020.

Dear Colleagues:

The series of events that we have seen unfold over the past several weeks have jarred our collective consciousness. I have been thinking deeply and reflecting on the words of Marian Wright Edelman, civil rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund who once said, “The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place.” The calls to action that we have seen and heard locally, across the country, and throughout the world in response to the senseless public murder of a Black man, remind us that racism is very much our present reality as well as our past shame.

For too many, the spaces where people should feel free to use and traverse with ease – including the sidewalks and streets that our organization is responsible for managing and maintaining – unfortunately, feel unsafe. Racial injustice, marginalization of the Black community, and state-sanctioned violence against people of color are present-day realities borne out of America’s 400-year legacy of anti-Black racism. The statement, “I can’t breathe,” did not start with George Floyd nor was it uttered for the first time by Eric Garner. Since 1619, African-Americans have been breathlessly crying out for justice and advocating for the right to live with dignity. 

As your Director, I unequivocally affirm: The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) stands in solidarity with the Black community. We condemn the unlawful killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Tony McDade in Tallahassee, and Ahmaud Arbery in South Georgia. While I have only named the most recently publicized victims, we know that the full list is unacceptably long, has affected the Black community for generations, and includes the names of local Black Portlanders as well. We call for an end to racial discrimination and profiling, disproportionate policing, enforcement and police brutality, and social, economic and environmental injustice. Racism must end. We acknowledge and affirm that Black Lives not only Matter but are important, valued, and are an integral part of the rich tapestry of our organization and our city.

While PBOT’s role is to manage and maintain the city’s streets and sidewalks, we know that ultimately, city infrastructure belongs to the people of Portland. Right now, our streets and sidewalks are needed as space to demand justice for Black lives. We support our community’s use of city infrastructure for peaceful protest and organizing. I’ve seen many of you at public demonstrations and I thank you for your advocacy. PBOT teams have supported the ongoing demonstrations and have stood in solidarity with activists and conscientious objectors who stand for social justice, demand change, and remind the world that Black lives matter. PBOT, I see your actions and hear your voices and am proud of the way the bureau has shown up at this pivotal time.

While we are all feeling challenged, I am especially sensitive to the fact that many of our Black colleagues are struggling right now. I can see the exhaustion in their eyes and hear the pain in their voices as they, once again, share personal testimonies and seek to understand why change is not happening faster and why we are not stepping up our efforts as an organization with significant strength and influence. When we say Black lives matter, we are talking about our colleagues, their families, friends, and community. We are evoking the resilience of their ancestors and hopes for future generations.

I want our Black colleagues, stakeholders, customers, friends, partners, and community leaders to know that we stand in solidarity and will take action.

  • We will not remain silent on issues of social justice and human rights.
  • We acknowledge that our institution has contributed immensely to the historic pain and burden you bear.
  • We hold ourselves accountable for addressing the concerns raised by the Black community generally and by Black staff specifically as it relates to the impacts of transportation policies, programs, plans, and initiatives that have contributed to racial segregation, inequities, and the marginalization of the Black community in Portland.

In response to what I’ve learned and to what we have all seen, I am issuing a Call to Action. We will accelerate our efforts to both reconcile our past and current actions and set a new path forward. Portland streets and sidewalks should be safe for everyone. When we facilitated the Walking While Black focus groups, we heard clearly that Black Portlanders are still disproportionately affected by many forms of violence and aggression in public spaces. We were told that these experiences impact their transportation choices. Our relationship with Black Portland depends on our ability to address these issues, to reimagine our definition and approach to safety and to invest in the work that is most meaningful to them.

We have been reminded in our Results-Based Accountability trainings that being silent on these issues translates into complicity. Moving forward, I will be working with the PBOT Equity and Inclusion program and members of the Directors Team to put us on the path to becoming a more inclusive and anti-racist organization. This requires more than just a statement or well-spun words. Real change requires intentional work and a focus on outcomes and impact. We have begun to identify concrete actions that we can take on as an organization. We will elevate the needs and support the safety of our Black colleagues. We will invest in anti-hate work and collaborate with community organizations to better understand and respond to the concerns elevated by the Black community.  We will reevaluate the way that we prioritize and do our work. The financial investments we make and the promises we offer must reflect intentionality to undo and correct past harms while charting a path for the future of the bureau and the city.

Last year, we established the PBOT Transportation Justice Steering Committee (TJSC), representing a breadth of diversity from across our organization and that is already beginning to make our equity commitments more meaningful. I ask that they keep us honest and hold us accountable to our goal of being an anti-racist organization and our commitments to transportation justice. As we advance our efforts, we will also be seeking input from staff outside of the TJSC who have recommendations about how we can make meaningful change. 

There are a number of tangible ways that we will be activating to demonstrate our commitment to BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) communities both internally and externally. Over the course of the next several weeks we will be seeking input and evaluating recommendations about how we can do our work more intentionally while incorporating immediate actions, mid-range goals and long-range strategies. Your feedback will inform our actions as we move forward. Our broad focus areas will be:

  • Workforce Support and Accountability
  • Transportation Policy Intervention
  • Supporting and Empowering Black Portland
  • Reimagining the Right-of-Way Using a Racial Equity Framework

As a bureau, we can do more. As a community of transportation professionals who care about improving the lives of Black Portlanders, we will do more.  I invite your feedback and engagement on this work. If you have ideas or concerns to share, I encourage you to contact me directly or to reach out to the PBOT Equity and Inclusion Program at Together, we will make this a stronger PBOT and a better Portland.

With humility and in solidarity, cw