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‘Centering Equity is a Matter of Life and Death’: Responding to Anti-Black Racism in Urbanism

In the wake of the public murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the ensuing protests, Black urbanists are building a roadmap for how to respond to racism in the built-environment professions — and in a webcast yesterday, five celebrated practitioners shared some crucial first steps.

Panelists Jay Pitter, Orlando Bailey, Tamika Butler, Anthonia Ogundele, and Will Prosper explored how urbanists and advocates could "take tangible actions to integrate more equitable approaches in their practice" in the Canadian Urbanism Institute webinar, "Moving to Action: How Do We Respond to Anti-Black Racism in Urbanist Practices and Conversations?

The  event followed a CUI panel earlier this month that attracted more than 2,000 live viewers and went viral on Twitter. (Streetsblog Chicago's Courtney Cobbs recapped it here.) The response was so resounding that the Institute brought back the panelists for a follow-up — with an emphasis on helping practitioners take meaningful antiracist action.

(For a recording of the webcast, click below.)

Some highlights:

1. Equity is a matter of life and death — not an "add-on"

Many street-safety movements historically have focused so heavily on the dangers of car traffic that they've failed to recognize other major safety threats — such as racialized violence against Black people — as barriers to the safe use of public space. Jay Pitter, CUI senior fellow, underscored this failure elegantly when she reminded viewers of how such supposedly "neutral" urban-planning policies as land use zoning, transportation planning and architecture have been used to oppress, brutalize, kill, and destroy intergenerational wealth among BIPOC communities.

“Centering equity isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s a matter of life and death," Pitter said. "None of us [in the built environment professions] have clean hands. We are not working in a pure profession. What we need to do now is work actively to mitigate gaps.”

When it comes to mobility, advocates stress that real justice starts with the simple recognition that centering equity is integral to street safety — and not, as some Vision Zero chapters have claimed, an optional sixth "E" in Vision Zero's "five E's" framework for achieving zero roadway deaths. (The other 5 E's are Enforcement, Education, Engagement, Encouragement, and Evaluation, with the sixth and seventh E's of Equity and Engagement considered to be "encouraged" but not integral to the framework among some Vision Zero groups.)

2. Center Black communities in transportation planning

Planners must fundamentally rethink their profession in order to center the lived experiences of Black communities who are affected by planning projects — rather than paternalistically assuming that they know what the community needs.

Tamika Butler of Toole Design described an incident when a client could have fallen prey to that trap, but chose another path. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation had contracted with Toole to engage a predominantly Black community in a scooter project, but quickly found that the community didn't want to discuss scooters — because it had other, more urgent government priorities.

"[You have to] acknowledge that the work you’re doing is not guided by you," Butler said. "If you’re going say, 'we're going to talk to communities,' you’re going to have to listen to communities. And you have to be willing to listen with curiosity...You have to be able to say, well, why don’t you want to talk about scooters? Tell me what else is going on?"

Butler said that, sometimes, those conversations will lead to different projects than the practitioner may have initially envisioned — which is a good thing. In the case of LADOT, she says, they were open to switching focus, which helped the agency better meet community needs.

"Decision makers, you have to be open to pivoting," Butler said. "[City agencies] can’t just use [planning consultants contracted to perform community engagement work] to check a box, and if we tell you that people aren't really talking about [your scooter program], use that as an excuse to say, 'well, I'll never hire you again, you didn't get what I wanted.' We got you what you needed. You have to know the difference between what you want and what you actually might need."

3. Honor Black anger

Several panelists touched on their peers' surprise that Black communities express anger in community-engagement sessions and other interactions with their government — even though government institutions have a long and well-documented history of harming those communities.

"We have to stop being so scared as practitioners of being cussed out and having high-energy conflicts and tensions in these meetings. Let it happen!” said Orlando Bailey of BridgeDetroit and the Urban Consulate of Detroit, Mich. "[There are] systemic forces that traumatize residents in the city of Detroit. That trauma has to show up somewhere. We need to make room for it."

Bailey gave the example of a planning study he lead on the Lower East Side of Detroit, which made room for residents to voice their trauma and for planners to understand and translate that anger into meaningful change. The conversations were so intense that a three-month contract ultimately lasted two years — enabling his group to address a much wider range of local problems than the study initially anticipated.

It's not hard to imagine how allowing more space, time and support for Black communities to express their concerns — and express their rage — could turn transportation projects into tools for restorative justice, rather perpetuating harms.

4. Rethink who the "experts" are — and bring them to the table

Many built environment professionals struggle to center Black community expertise — because for their whole careers, they've been taught that professionals are supposed to be the experts.

"[As professionals,] we are trained terribly," said Pitter. "Everybody is told that they’re brilliant. Everybody is told that we’re going to come in with these sparkly ideas and solutions…[So now,] I approach every city with three good questions. I don’t come into a city opening up my mouth and speaking big ideas. The true sign of professional and emotional intelligence is to be able to come up with great questions to ask and then sitting in a humble silence to listen and to answer."

Listening to community wisdom, of course, is not the same thing as handing someone without a civil engineering degree a construction budget and telling them to build a bridge. The meaningful, non-paternalistic translation of community priorities into community-responsive projects and policies is key.

"We had a person [in our community] who was a victim of racial profiling," said Will Prosper of Montréal-Nord Républik and Hoodstock. "That person is not going to be able to write a grant as good as [a professional grant writer.] That person is not going to be able to have the same conversation in a [professional] meeting that people in that organization might be expecting. But that person...understands their lived experience more than anyone else. So we pair up people whose experiences are not normally validated with people who have [more access to professional language and] experiences and try to find a solution."

Racial profiling, of course, is all too common in transportation — and victims of racist policy are rarely brought to the table in internal institutional conversations about reform, much less listened to by professionals who can take restorative, anti-racist action.

Taking that steps — and all the steps recommended by the panelists — could transform our roads forever.

For more resources mentioned in the webinar, be sure to visit CanUrb's website. 

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