People Behind the Plans: Navigating Mobility Justice with Naomi Doerner

About This Episode

As a growing number of cities develop mobility justice initiatives, Naomi Doerner, MUP, is helping planners navigate these efforts to address systemic inequities and barriers in transportation. Doerner, principal, and director of equity, diversity, and inclusion at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates and former program manager of Seattle's innovative Transportation Equity Program, sat down with host Courtney Kashima, AICP, to talk about what mobility justice looks like in practice, including some inspirational examples from around the world.

Doerner is also a co-founder and national co-organizer for the Untokening, a multiracial collective that centers on the lived experiences of marginalized communities to address mobility justice, and equity. Growing up riding public transit in Chicago and translating for her mother, Doerner draws on her personal experience as a translator and navigator to help planners and municipalities build bridges with communities, so the people living in them can play a prominent role in determining how places and spaces serve and support their needs.

Episode Transcript

Naomi Doerner: The ability to move freely, the ability to self-determine how you want to move, where you want to go, what you want to do, and to thrive, right? And to be able to do all of that without persecution, without harassment. So that is, concisely, what mobility justice is.

Courtney Kashima: Welcome to People Behind the Plans, an American Planning Association podcast. This episode continues our series that takes a look at the work, life and stories of planners from across the profession. I'm your host, Courtney Kashima, founder and principal of Muse Community Design.

Our guest today is Naomi Doerner. Naomi is a principal and the director of equity, diversity, and inclusion for the consulting firm of Nelson\Nygaard. She's based in their Oakland office. Naomi recently served as the city of Seattle's — and the nation's — first-ever transportation equity manager. Naomi is the co-founder and national co-organizer for the Untokening, a national collective of leaders of color working to advance mobility justice. Naomi, welcome to the podcast.

ND: Hi. Thanks, Courtney.

CK: So, your work professionally, and in a volunteer capacity, centers around mobility justice. I'd like to hear how you define that and what it looks like in practice.

ND: Thanks for asking. So, in terms of mobility justice, all the work I have done and do and will do really does center around this multi-dimensional idea of mobility justice. And what that means to me is, a lot of people think of mobility justice in terms of the modality, right? The options that you have. So, whether that's transit, whether that's with a vehicle, whether that's on foot or with a bicycle. But mobility justice to me is less about modality, and it is really about the self, right? And the ability to choose and not to have predetermined choice, but yet to be able to say, "This is how I want to move, and I can do that freely in every single sense of the word."

And so, what does that look like in practice? I grew up in Chicago, and my mother was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, Central America. And what it would have looked like was my mother being able to get up in the morning and choose how she was going to get around and not have to be delayed, not have to worry about losing her job, not worry about being too cold or waiting outside for too long for the bus. She would have just been able to choose how she wants to get somewhere and would have had the freedom and the ability to do that safely, affordably, sustainably. It is the ability to make those choices and to do those things without the barriers that do exist.

CK: I appreciate that definition, and I think it's something people can relate to. And it is important to think beyond just the modality of transportation. There was a show I binged during lockdown, and a line in the show was, "You didn't make good choices, you had good choices." And I wonder if that's where this intersects with your work, that not everyone has the same choices. And so, self-determination might sound to some people like a sort of bootstrappy, American ideal, but we have a responsibility to communities, in the physical sense and in the social sense, to provide better choices, certainly equitable choices. And I wonder if you would agree with that statement.

ND: I definitely agree with that statement. I think even to this day, we have communities — because of historical decisions — that are really in a place where they don't have the ability to make these choices for themselves in a way that results in the choice that they might want to make.

CK: So, what does mobility justice look like in practice? Either things you are striving for or working towards — or even better, if there are examples of success? I understand it's probably a bit more of a journey than a destination, but curious to hear about what it looks like in practice.

ND: So, I think about in Leimert Park in [Los Angeles]. Leimert Park is a commercial area. It's historically Black, definitely Black-owned businesses in a Hispanic and Black community, definitely a transit hub. So, today Leimert Park is feeling — like many cities and many communities, especially in L.A. — pressures of gentrification, and the community there has been pretty involved in a visioning process. And we're using sort of these mobility futures and really using Afrofuturism and futurism principles to take on the visioning exercise, which I thought was really exciting to see. And I did get to see some of it and learn from folks in the community when there was a gathering in L.A. But what it looks like to me is, again, self-determination, right? So, this community, sort of, at the crossroads of the past and the present and the future, really developing their own vision and mobility options, the kinds of options that they want to see, who they want them to be operated by, who would benefit, things like that. And so, I think to me, that's what it looks like in practice is self-determining what not only the present can be but what it ought to be and what the future will be.

But I think the ideal is that it isn't just a sliver or slice of a project or a small community engagement budget that sort of tokens to a community, but rather it's the un-tokening of a process, where it's really developing a community plan, saying this is what we envision, this is how we see not only transportation systems, but how open space and how commerce and how all of these different things that exist in our community ought to be. Is this happening at large scale? No, not quite. There seems to be a lot of movement in that direction where we're not just seeing small allocations, engagement processes that might consider the voices of community. We're actually seeing projects that are starting to really center and require a racial equity framework. Mobility justice is being spoken of as part of a framework at the federal level for the U.S. [Department of Transportation], so it's pretty incredible. Mobility justice, as a term, is now being applied and actually being used as a rubric for making decisions and ensuring that the communities at the center of injustice are at the center of creating justice.

CK: Yeah, it's always interesting to me that just a change in terminology, it's in this bucket of things I call "easy but not easy." And so, if you're seeing at the federal level some intentionality in word choice, and then what we have to hope is there's funding that follows. I see a lot of RFPs that say they want lots of engagement, but perhaps not the budget to match — and budget not just for consultants, but going directly to communities, which is a trend I'm encouraged by.

How did you first get into this work?

ND: I don't think I ever had a choice. Yeah, I think it was just my upbringing. I think it was just my ability to kind of see as someone who lived at an intersection myself, right, of being American, but the daughter of an immigrant; of being an English speaker, but also a native Spanish speaker; of being someone who lived in a mostly immigrant, low-income community to eventually moving into more of a middle-class area and realizing these communities are really different. We took public transit everywhere when I was young. In fact, I lost my first Cabbage Patch Kid, my first doll, on the bus.

CK: Heartbreaking.

ND: Yeah, it was a sad day. Her name was Ali. I'll never forget getting off the bus and realizing that my Cabbage Patch Kid doll was on there. My mom was sad, too, because she had worked really hard to buy me that. But all that to say, I think I grew up being a translator navigating this transportation system. I remember asking, why did it take so long to get places sometimes? Or when it was really cold, we were standing on a bus stop but couldn't stand on the stop because the snowplows had plowed over the corner, and we were in the street. It just didn't seem right. We'd go to different places in the city, and it wasn't always like that in other places. So, I always asked why, and I never stopped asking why. I never stopped being a translator, and I never stopped being a navigator. And so, I think it's actually not a surprise that I ended up doing this work. I got to undergrad, and I had taken a GIS class, and I realized, "Oh, there's all this data under here, and this data is what helps people make decisions." Which led me to go to grad school. I was very interested in continuing to explore this question of why, but through public policy. And so, rather than go to the technical planning route, I went the more public policy route so that I could continue to be that navigator, but in a different way.

CK: You were city of Seattle's first-ever and the nation's first-ever transportation equity manager. What did it mean for the city of Seattle to name that position?

ND: The transportation equity program manager came out of community advocacy and work. While Seattle did fund the position, it was community work and advocacy for years and years. I think it meant a lot to the community. I think it meant a lot to the advocates, and I think it meant a lot to the city because it then said, "Okay, now we have this, but we don't actually have transportation equity defined internally." We had to define what transportation equity was for us. My role was to navigate this discussion about how are we spending our resources, how do we want to spend our resources, and then bringing in community voices to help us understand the experiences of people who were not experiencing equitable transportation but could help us really define what that could look like for them and the communities that they were coming from that they represented.

I think initially the city was really thinking about it from an affordability lens because, as you know, the city of Seattle and many other cities was and is really experiencing high growth and a lot of new people coming in and a lot of other people, families and people that had been there for a long time or of lower incomes, that were being pushed out and immigrant communities, as well, being pushed out of the city itself. And so, there was a real focus around affordability. But what we learned was affordability, while it was a big component in terms of definitions or things that defined inequity, it wasn't the only thing. There were many other barriers. We worked really closely with the community to help us define transportation equity, and that work continues. There are additional programs that are addressing the other barriers, such as barriers that seniors have, barriers that school-age children have.

CK: And I'm wondering if the idea has caught on with other large cities.

ND: One thing that many cities already had or were really investing in were offices of equity or chief equity officers. That was for the entire city or for the entire department. I think what's unique about these roles is that they have a very squarely internal-facing role to support staff internally to ensure that their work was reaching communities in an equitable manner, including investments. But then there's also a very external-facing way that this role functions as well, which is to actually engage with community and to actually lead programs. And so, I think that was pretty unique, and I do see more of that type of inside-outside work happening with roles that are being created like this.

CK: It certainly caught my attention when you were named. Having positions with that title in the name is powerful. It's just a start. And then penetrating down into departments, I think, is crucial. You can't just have the commissioner of a department or someone in the mayor's office, positions that are more likely to change with election cycles. So, it sounds like some of that was baked in, and I think there's something to that.

ND: It's challenging in that you needed to have enough clout that you can cut across oftentimes what are, sort of, verticals within a department. But at the same time, you have to just be cognizant of political winds. And that's why the broader the team can be that's doing this work, the longer the staying power it has. I think it's really important for the departments and agencies and anyone that's doing this work to really internalize the values because if it's just a title that you hire someone to hold, but it's not really embedded in the everyday practice and work, then it will go away if that person leaves. Otherwise, you are able to really codify the value, and regardless of who's in that role, it'll just grow.

CK: Let's talk about the founding of the Untokening and the impact it has had.

ND: It's exciting, and it's also incredible. For those who are just hearing this for the first time, the Untokening is a multicultural collective of leaders of color who come together to share their own experiences as people of color working in transportation, as well as to work with communities of color that they identify with to achieve mobility justice. And we've had a series of gatherings, the first of which happened in Atlanta, and it was in 2016. That was actually where we came together to then develop what became the Principles of Mobility Justice about a year later. In terms of the influence it has had or the impact it has had, we still try to quantify it. To this day, we'll learn about people in Mexico City, for instance, or Colombia or what have you, South Africa, who have come across the principles and are adapting them or adopting them to their own use here in the United States. To hear that the federal government is developing an internal mobility justice framework is also pretty remarkable. How that gets funded, to your point, Courtney, that's also something that we're interested to see. And, certainly, how the communities that are facing the greatest injustices as it relates to mobility, how they get to shape that is also pretty critical.

I think it's been far reaching. Many of the members are coming from agencies or coming from planning firms, academia, people that are in the arts, that are squarely in advocacy. So, we have a variety of folks, but the thing that we all have in common is that we're coming together as people who do identify as having identities and experiences that have been politically and historically marginalized in our sector in the history of this country. So that is what we share in common. But it's also this place in space where we're talking about our identities, and it doesn't feel exploitative in some of the ways that it might feel in other spaces to talk about our experiences. It's very healing for folks to be able to come to the gatherings and to actually share and talk about not just experiences but strategies and not be looked at in some strange way. However, the shift in the last two to three years, really, I mean, has been incredible, like with the Black Lives Matter movement, really the large-scale social awareness and awakening that's happened. But I think that that has really helped move the needle for folks and open conversations up.

CK: Any specific examples of progress you've seen in your own work or in the field, generally, that you think planners in particular should be aware of that perhaps the Untokening has helped shape — like through the exchange of ideas and experiences and strategies?

ND: I was looking back at our principles, and I think that the co-create principle — co-creating new decision-making processes — I think that one has really started to take hold. It's a really challenging one because I think that government and agencies have for so long been the sole decision makers. Right? And they engage with community —

CK: — when they want to and on their terms.

ND: Right, exactly. And that engagement doesn't often come with a budget, as you mentioned, or very little budget. What I'm starting to see, on a much larger scale, is an openness for co-creation. And it's not easy at all because of the dynamics — the power dynamic especially. But I think that that is one of the things that has been influential. And I don't want to say that it was just us, right? Because I think community has been wanting this forever. But I think that we definitely codified it. I hear that language in more and more proposals even. And I'd never seen that before now. I also think just the use of the word "mobility justice" is something that we hadn't seen until more recently. And that is definitely something that we see has been impactful. People at agencies are actually talking about what this means inside of their organization. I also think we certainly aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement and have been talking about rejecting policing as a street safety solution. And I think that's something that we've maintained, and we're definitely seeing. And again, it's not because of us, but I think a big change that is happening is this reimagining of public safety as it relates to transportation and the intersection of traffic enforcement.

CK: So, you mentioned places — like you said, Mexico City and Colombia — adapting parts or all of the Untokening's Principles of Mobility Justice. In North America, it feels like the status quo is always to look to Europe for solutions. Curious to hear what you feel like is missing or left out with the Eurocentric view on these issues. And if there's anything happening in other parts of the world, particularly Central and South America, that planners should know about.

ND: Yeah, one of the things that we definitely talk about in the Mobility Justice Principles is this sort of Eurocentric planning that we've adopted here. I don't think it's any secret. I mean, we definitely see that Eurocentric solutions are sort of a default. The mobility justice framework really values people as data and their experiences as data. The unfortunate thing about applying a Eurocentric solution in a place as diverse as the United States and in communities that are as diverse as the ones that many of our cities have, is that it doesn't take into account those realities, those needs, those experiences. And if we could actually value communities and the people in those places and create just the kinds of solutions that communities want to see there, we'd have really dynamic approaches that could be applied. And so, I think of the examples like Mexico City, all of the open spaces where there just aren't vehicles — And, now, I know Europe has those as well. And, yes, the Spanish did design an overlay over Indigenous land and spaces there, but all of these things do come together — You see the narrowness of the roads, you see the city square or the square being used for rituals. You see it being used for games, you see children playing, you see vendors, and it's very informal and it's very fluid, and it creates space for a variety of different uses. If you think about mobility and who's moving through those spaces, how it's being used, who's self-determining how they're going to use that space, I think that that's such a great example of what we mean by mobility justice. And so, if you were to just make that a bike way, you'd lose a lot of those other uses. It doesn't mean that it can't also be a bike way. We often prescribe certain uses for certain lanes or certain places, and there's an opportunity to make it a lot more fluid and responsive to the cultural needs and norms of a specific place and space.

CK: Something I talk about in my firm is being aware of a natural tension if you have an advocate's heart, but you're a consultant. So, I might take a moment to ask you about that.

ND: Yes, there can be a natural tension if we let it. Having worked in the advocacy space before I worked at the city, I was concerned about this, and then I realized, "Oh, no, we need your activists. We need people on the inside that understand what it takes to really build. Right? Not just programs, but build community and build trust." I feel like I've taken that same attitude in the consulting space, and, ultimately, I see — and I think many of my colleagues do, too — so our client is our client, but it's also the community that the client serves. And so, I think in that way, I ease some of the tension. And I think that many times our clients hire us because they really do want to understand and have a better ability to connect with their communities. And I think our job is to provide some of that cover for them, but also cover for community. That's sort of the liaison/navigator role I feel like these days.

CK: So, I've said on this podcast before that some of this work is hard, but some of it just isn't. What, in your view, are some of the easy — quote-unquote easy — things that should be done now to advance mobility justice? You're like, "Come on, can't we just dot, dot dot."

ND: Yeah. Can't we just hire people from communities that we're working in? I know that we have hiring processes, but all that is policy, and it can be changed. And so, I know that people think that's hard, but it's not that hard. So, I think that's one thing we do need to figure out how to pay community like we do our consultants. We have procurement processes. I know that those are sticky and very challenging, but we created the current processes and the policies. And so, I think we can come up with easier ways to get people paid.

CK: Definitely. What do you think the field of planning is getting right these days? What inspires you?

ND: Hmm. What inspires me? Art inspires me. People's expression inspires me. We are definitely becoming much more creative in our processes. We're not just talking to people. I mean, we're talking, but we're also, hearing their stories. We're getting creative in how we allow for people to tell their stories. I think that we're becoming more flexible and less archaic, and the ways in which we're doing planning, it can still be formulaic, but I think it's shifting. I think we're learning from other communities. We're learning from Indigenous practices. I mean, I've seen some really incredible work in different localities like Minneapolis in Minnesota, where you have Indigenous communities that are leading storytelling circles, and that's actually getting transcribed into historical and/or current existing condition type analyses. And I just think that that's the kind of stuff that we could do more of.

CK: Anything you're reading or listening to that you want to share? If people want to learn more about your work, where can they go?

ND: Well, if they want to learn more about the work, they could definitely go to the Untokening website, And then if you want to know more about Nelson\Nygaard, you can just look up Things I'm reading ... Wow, I wish I could say — I'll be really honest: I had a baby in November of 2021—

CK: — congratulations.

ND: Thank you. I can't wait to read my first book again. I do listen to podcasts. I like "99% Invisible." So, nothing super exciting from this new mom, but I'll be listening for others' recommendations, that's for sure.

CK: I think being principal of a firm and having a baby is plenty. I've been there, so I know something about it.

Well, I just really want to thank you for speaking with us today. I appreciate the insights and the places to look for inspiration. Thank you so much.

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of People Behind the Plans, an APA podcast. For more episodes, subscribe to the APA podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. If you're enjoying the show, please rate us on iTunes, and to listen to past episodes, visit Until next time, thanks for listening.

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