Critical Conversations in Transportation Planning: Tamika Butler

About This Episode

Every two years, the American Planning Association Transportation Planning Division publishes the State of Transportation Planning Report to highlight innovative ideas, cutting-edge research, and interesting experiments in transportation planning in the United States. As part of the 2022 edition of the report — titled "Intersections + Identities: A Radical Rethinking of Our Transportation Experiences" — we're bringing you a series of critical conversations with pioneers and industry leaders across the US who are offering their insights into some of the most challenging issues facing our field.

In this episode, we hear from Tamika Butler, a national expert on issues related to public policy, the built environment, equity, anti-racism, diversity and inclusion, organizational behavior, and change management, who wears many hats (and bike helmets!). The conversation covers a wide range of topics related to Tamika's research, which employs a critical race, historical, legal, and policy-based approach to examine how transportation policy and infrastructure have been used to segregate, isolate, and prevent the mobility of Black and other historically oppressed groups of people. Tamika is the principal and founder of Tamika L. Butler Consulting and a doctoral student in Urban Planning at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Episode Transcript

[00:00:04.410] - Em Hall

Every two years, the APA publishes the State of Transportation Planning Report with the intention of highlighting innovative ideas, cutting edge research, and interesting experiments in transportation planning in the United States. As part of the 2022 edition of the report titled Intersections and Identities a Radical Rethinking of Our Transportation Experiences, we're bringing you a series of interviews with pioneers and industry leaders across the US. Who are offering their insights into some of the most challenging issues facing our field.

[00:00:34.410] - Divya Gandhi

Hello, everyone. I'm Divya Gandhi.

[00:00:36.900] - Em Hall

And I'm Em Hall.

[00:00:38.290] - Divya Gandhi

And we are the co managing editors of the 6th edition of the State of Transportation Planning Report.

[00:00:44.610] - Em Hall

And this is critical conversations in transportation planning.

[00:00:49.160] - Divya Gandhi

In this podcast episode, we are excited to hear from Tamika Butler, who wears many hats. She is a national expert on issues related to public policy, the built environment, equity, antiracism, diversity and inclusion, organizational behavior, and change management. She's the principal and founder of Tamika L. Butler Consulting and also a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs. Welcome, Tamika.

[00:01:23.380] - Divya Gandhi

Tell us a little bit about your background, your journey, how you came to your current role.

[00:01:28.950] - Tamika Butler

Because I make bad decisions. So my background is as a civil rights lawyer. I'm originally from the Midwest. I left the Midwest to go to law school in the Bay at Stanford, and after that practiced in San Francisco, doing employment discrimination primarily focused on racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and then LGBTQ discrimination. And when I started, my project was to open up workers rights clinics in the historically black communities of San Francisco. So western edition and and Bayview hunter's point. And it was at the time when when the Tea Line was was fairly new in Bayview Hunter's Point. And I think that's really my first interaction with the way that that transportation was was just so important to all of these other issues, right? Like no one really wanted to talk to me about work. If they couldn't get to work, before folks could trust this young lawyer who wasn't from the community, they wanted to know where I was on Muni, right? Because there are a lot of folks who felt like it was just a line that was built to get tourists to Candlestick, not necessarily to help the black folks in that community.

[00:02:49.430] - Tamika Butler

And that always stuck with me being really invested in that. But eventually I met my partner who was in LA. After being long distance for a while, I moved down here. I left law behind because everybody's happier is a former lawyer than an actual lawyer. And I had a number of nonprofit jobs and I had a really tough go at a nonprofit where I was doing racial justice and LGBTQ work. It was kind of like an intersection of my identities. It was a dream job, but it was just a grind. And I had a friend who suggested I apply for a job at the bike coalition, and I wasn't really sure about that. I loved riding my bike. This is a friend who had taken me to get my first road bike. Convinced me to do AIDS Life Cycle and ride from San Francisco to LA. And so she hadn't steered me wrong thus far. And she suggested I apply for the job at the bike coalition. I applied, got the job as executive director. And I think that really changed my trajectory, because urban planning was this field I didn't necessarily know about. Right?

[00:03:59.020] - Tamika Butler

I come from a family where neither of my parents had gone to college. And I was smart. I got good grades. It was like, be a lawyer, be a doctor. And urban planning was filled. Once. I was at the bike coalition and I learned about it. I was like, Whoa, this is insane. There's a bunch of older, able bodied, cisgender white dudes sitting in rooms making decisions about how we can move, where we can go, where we can stay. No one tells young kids of color or young women or young queer kids or immigrants. You care about social justice? Be an urban planner. People don't really say that, but I think once you learn about urban planning, you realize how fundamental it is to all of these other social issues we face. And so for me, it was perhaps to some folks a Securitis route, but I feel like still very much focused on social and racial justice. And once I got the job at the bike coalition. My job after that was at a parks organization that built parks and gardens and low income communities. And so at all stages of my career, I've remained intersectional.

[00:05:15.580] - Tamika Butler

Transportation is what I do the most of. But it's really the intersections of transportation and, you know, racial justice, housing justice, environmental justice so many other issues.

[00:05:26.790] - Divya Gandhi

Wonderful, Wonderful. Thank you. Tamika. You know, the theme for the 2022 report is Intersections plus Identities. A radical rethinking of our transportation experiences. So, yes, thinking a little bit about current transportation issues that you find in most need of a radical rethinking.

[00:05:46.990] - Tamika Butler

Something I always talk about is I think in our planning world, no matter what type of planner you are, and planning is so interesting because it's not just like if you're in law, you're a lawyer, right? But in planning, you can be an engineer, you can be a planner, you can be a landscape architect. Right? So I think it's hard to just talk about our profession. But I think broadly in this industry, one of the things I personally feel is that folks who get into this work, I think we're mostly good people. Like we do this work because we care. We want to do the right thing. We want to connect people. We want to bring people together. We want to create inviting spaces. And some of us do that through engineering. Some of us do it through design. Right. But I think as more people have started to talk about racial justice and more people have started to talk about equity, particularly over the last few years with both the Pandemic and I think the way the Pandemic resulted in many people for the first time acknowledging the death of black lives, right? George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, they weren't the first, they won't be the last.

[00:07:08.240] - Tamika Butler

But people were stuck inside watching the news. And so I think as we've seen more parts of the industry, from government to private sector to academia, as we've seen more people put out their statements, realize that they need upgrades and planning class as part of their curriculum, or that they need a director of equity and inclusion at their firm or agency, we really focus on external facing equity work. So how can we do this project? How can we do this class in a way that feels more equitable? And I think something we radically need to rethink is that equity is solely an external process or can only manifest externally, right? I think what we have to realize is just because in your heart you want to do equity, you might not be ready. You may need to read, you may need to figure out why when you look around at your team, everybody looks like you. Everybody has very similar experiences to you, right? And so I think in the consulting world, this is something you see all the time. An RFP comes out that says we want to do this and that's an equity, equity, equity.

[00:08:35.760] - Tamika Butler

And you'll see these firms apply for it and you're like, you don't even have women, people of color. What is your skill set to be able to do this? And so I think it is important for us to focus on external facing equity. How can our projects, how can our outcomes be more equitable? But I don't think that could be at the sacrifice of doing the internal work. And I think that's something when I do trainings, equity trainings, people are sometimes I get feedback of like, we were hoping you took us through a process to evaluate projects in a more equitable way. But instead we're talking about our personal experiences with racism and we're reading and talking about the tenets of white supremacy culture in a workplace. And so what I always tell people is you have to rethink this idea that equity is just something you do out in the world. It's something that's deeply a personal journey and an organizational journey and a cultural journey. And if you can't do that right, you can be an organization that does your external equity work and recruits a bunch of folks of color to come work for you.

[00:09:59.340] - Tamika Butler

But if you haven't done the work internally, then what would those folks experiences be? You can do the external work to make sure your outreach and engagement process is more equitable. But if you haven't done the work and the folks on your staff who you're sending out to these communities still don't get it, then that's still not going to be a good experience for those communities. And so I think we have to just be more thoughtful about the fact that this is ongoing and it's also internal, not just external.

[00:10:30.010] - Divya Gandhi

Excellent, excellent. Yes. Equity work to be done externally as well as internally. What do you think equity means in the lens of transportation planning, in the lens of development infrastructure?

[00:10:42.390] - Tamika Butler

Yeah, it's so tough, right? The reason I think it's tough, I was at a Lake Arrowhead conference a few years ago and there was a researcher there from the University of Minnesota. During his presentation he said equity is like the color blue. Right? We're all saying it, but some people mean sky blue, some people mean electric blue, some people mean dark blue, some people mean navy. And so I think for me when I talk about equity, I'm always centering race. Right? Now that doesn't mean you can't have an equity like initiative or work or project that centers older adults or trans people or undocumented folks. Right? But for me, I'm always centering race. I think sometimes it is less important to have a definition of equity that everyone in the world can agree with and more important that whoever you are working with you or in community with your trying to make change with you make sure you're all on the same page. You make sure you all have the same definition. When I try to simplify it, I think of equity as being the folks who have historically had the least, get the most and they really lead the way.

[00:12:07.430] - Tamika Butler

But in the absence of that, I think whenever you have a project, whenever you have a team, whenever you have a thing you want to do, the most important thing is that you get on the same page about what equity means. Because you never want to be in a situation where you're you know, you're six months into something and you've all been saying equity and you realize that you are all talking about a different shade of blue. You know, for me, something that I've really tried to encourage people is equity become more of a buzzword and in some ways perhaps is losing some meaning as a result. I always feel like we can't have real conversations about equity if we're also not talking about power. Right? To me, power is almost more important. So someone says I want to do equity work.

[00:12:56.090] - Tamika Butler

That's not as sexy to me as if someone says I want to do power work. I want to talk about the redistribution of power. I want to talk about recognizing power in communities. And it's not as sexy to me as if we talk about self determination, right? And how do we allow communities to self determine what equity looks like for them.

[00:13:20.640] - Divya Gandhi

This is great. Tamika, that was super well booked and thank you for really tying it with your personal experiences and of course, ending it with the combination of equity plus power. That's pretty huge and really a way to shift the way we think about a lot of these things at this point. So really moving on to one of our next questions, which is where do you find the biggest gap between how transportation planners view the world and how can non planners perceive mobility and accessibility and transportation in their everyday lives?

[00:13:56.650] - Tamika Butler

So I think your theme on intersections is important and I think transportation planners are getting better. However, I think there is still sometimes this frustration that I think sometimes transportation planners can be so myopically focused on just transportation. And like Charles Brown, another one of my favorite colleagues, I remember hearing him speak once and saying if you're on my team and you show up at a community meeting about transportation and someone says to you, but I'm worried about displacement, I'm worried about my home value, I'm worried about getting pushed out. And you say, oh, I'm sorry, I'm the transportation planner, I can't answer your housing questions, then you're probably not the right planner for my team. I always try to tell folks, and I usually have this Audrey Lord quote that I share, which is there's no such thing as a single issue struggle because we don't need single issue lives. And I think that's something that I just wish all transportation planners could just like imprint somewhere because we might go out to a community meeting to talk about a bike lane or service change to transit or new project. But for the folks who are talking to, there are so many things tied up in that transportation planning project, right, because they don't leave single issue lies.

[00:15:37.970] - Tamika Butler

And so if more transportation planners could try to adopt the idea that the struggle we're in is real and that great things come through struggle, but it can't be singly focused on transportation, I think that would dramatically change how a lot of people approach the work.

[00:15:58.360] - Divya Gandhi

Well, that's such an important point, Tamika, thank you. Thank you for really tying it up with our team as well, but really not just about mobility or just about.

[00:16:07.980] - Divya Gandhi

Transportation, but it intersects with just everything, be it our land use, housing, public health, technology. And it's such a good reminder here that at the end of the day, we are here serving our communities and that understanding that our work is very intersectional is key. So Tamika continuing to think about our community and the planning fraternity to say the audience of this report entails many students and early career professionals that have contributed to the report as well and will be listening to this podcast interview. So what advice or words of wisdom do you have for them as they advance their careers and contribute to their communities?

[00:16:58.790] - Tamika Butler

The first thing I would say is something you said in response to my last piece, you said mobility. And I think that's important. I really think that as you're early in your career and you're interested in transportation and especially because when we go to school, that's the specialty, right? Like transportation, I think we have to realize that a lot of the work we do in transportation is really about mobility and whether or not that social and economic mobility are getting around and just an ability to be mobile and to be mobile with dignity and as your full self. And so one I would challenge people to really think about our work as mobility work, as justice work, not just transportation work or not just transportation policy work, right? How do we think about this work as mobility justice work? I also think with transportation we're always thinking about how to move things. And I think whether or not you were talking about indigenous people, whether or not you were talking about highways ripping through communities, whether or not you were talking about on house folks, I think we also have to understand that part of our work has to be about how do people stay in place?

[00:18:13.390] - Tamika Butler

What is our work at helping people stay in place and have the right to stay? And then the other thing I share is that planning is so interesting to me. I was doing planning work for a long time without a planning degree. Now, of course, I've decided to go back and get a PhD. So I'm really getting a planning degree. But I think that something I've had to learn is there is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. And so Patricia Collins is a black feminist thinker who really lives in the world of intersectionality. And she talks about the difference between wisdom and knowledge. And so sometimes I think it's planners, we think we have knowledge because we've gone to school and got this planning degree. But planning is like I did it for a long time without a planning degree. But wisdom is something that we all have because we all move in space and sometimes we like to go into communities and say we're going to provide a lot of knowledge because we went to school and we've been trained to do this. But the homies hanging out on the corner, the grandmother who knows everything that's going on in the community and knows everybody, they have wisdom and they can tell you everything you need to know about the speed of traffic on that street.

[00:19:37.860] - Tamika Butler

They can tell you everything you need to know about the reliability of the bus and when it comes and when it doesn't come and what's happening, right? And so we have to not just trust knowledge based on things that we're used to seeing on a resume or being told to make someone smart. We have to learn how to also trust wisdom and trust lived experiences.

[00:20:03.810] - Divya Gandhi

That is so powerful. Trusting wisdom and our lived experiences. You know, Tamika, it reminds me of something a professor of mine back in my undergrad in India said to me, to give you some context here, I was in my sophomore year and wanted to do an internship with this professor for the summer. And I go to him to check in a semester before, and I ask him, what skills can I really focus on this semester? Is it design skills, data analysis skills? What do you think I should be ready with to bring to this internship? And he responded by saying, just bring in some common sense. So, yes, hearing you talk about knowledge, common sense and wisdom and really defining it for us today is such a great perspective to have and move forward with.

[00:21:00.450] - Divya Gandhi

So that really kind of brings us to one of our last questions for today's conversation, which is what, according to you, is the state of transportation planning in America today?

[00:21:11.220] - Tamika Butler

I am cautiously optimistic about the state of transportation planning. I think something that's been really energizing for me being a consultant in the planning world, working on projects you all jaded and being back in an academic setting and seeing this next generation of planners who do understand and care more about intersectionality, who are queer women, folks of color, undocumented. This next generation of planners looks and thinks differently than the folks who are still holding positions of power. And so that makes me really optimistic while at the same time I'm a black, queer, gender, non conforming person in America. So forgive me if I'm not completely sold that things are going to be changing. I've seen and lived in experience, both personally in jobs I've had, but also we see it in the news every day. What men in power, white folks, folks who have historically had power, whoever that may be, in a particular country or landscape, what fear does to them when they feel like they're losing it, or that things are changing. Right. I think our profession is changing. I think the future is bright, and I think the state of things is that the horizon that we're looking at looks different.

[00:22:49.290] - Tamika Butler

But do we get there or not? I think oftentime whether or not we get there is really dependent on if those who currently have the power are willing to relinquish some of it, to share their knowledge, to get out of the way if they don't feel ready, or if they're going to hold on for dear life. So I'm optimistic, if not cautiously so.

[00:23:16.700] - Divya Gandhi

Well, thank you, Tamika. That's great ending. On a very positive note here and being optimistic about the future, how do you think can our audience get in touch with you, connect with you further, and learn more about your work? Where can the best reach out to you?

[00:23:30.530] - Tamika Butler

Oh, man, these days in a library somewhere. But I would say I'm always happy to talk to folks. I always try to make myself available. I know that I've only gotten to where I am because of incredible mentors and support systems, and so I always encourage folks to hit me up on Twitter. And I'm really easy to find at Tamika Butler on almost every platform. Twitter, LinkedIn, everything. And also, folks can always hit me up through my website, which is just, and I respond to every email and I'm always happy to chat with folks.

[00:24:17.180] - Divya Gandhi

Wonderful. Thank you so much, Tamika, for joining us today. And thank you all for joining us for this episode of Critical Conversations in Transportation Planning. To learn more and read the entire report, please visit the APA's Transportation Planning Vision website at transportation planning.

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