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February 2023 - Episode 11

Centering Intersectionality in Public Transit

To quote the famous Black author, Audre Lorde, none of us live single-issue, nor single-identity lives. When you consider how people with compounding identities may experience overlapping structures, and systems of oppression – we call that intersectionality. And when it comes to arrested mobility, an intersectional approach can reveal more about the challenges that different Black people face when they enter and move through public space.

Today, we’re going to focus mostly on how Black women, femme and trans folks have had their mobility arrested while navigating public transit. We’re going to think about what equitable, accessible, intersectional mobility looks like.

Centering Intersectionality in Public Transit
Photo by Linus Ekenstam on Unsplash

Chandra Christmas-Rouse:
I think that we have to lead with fundamental belief that Black folks, trans folks, femmes, women, Black women exist in the future. So I think being able to start with something that can seem trivial but it’s actually one of the most radical starting platforms you can have in policymaking, that we exist in the future. There’s just so much at stake and there’s such an urgency for this work.

Charles T. Brown:
I am a Black American. When I step outside my door to go on a bike ride or walking around the block, I become vulnerable to overly aggressive police enforcement and brutality. This includes harassment by individuals who are not formally in law enforcement. The bottom line is that it’s safer for a white American to exist in public space than it is for me.

But, as a Black man, I have a different experience existing in public space than a Black woman. As a Black, cisgendered, heterosexual man, my experience waiting for the bus is not the same as how a Black trans man experiences waiting for the bus. As a Black person currently without a disability, I get around train stations differently than a Black person with a disability. Either way, it is not our differences that truly define us in this context, it is our similarities. That is our Blackness.

To quote the famous Black author Andre Lloyd, “None of us live single issue nor single identity lives.” When you consider how people with compounding identities may experience overlapping structures in systems of oppression, we call that intersectionality. When it comes to arrested mobility, an intersectional approach can reveal more about the challenges that different Black people face when they enter and move through public space.

Today, we’re going to focus mostly on how Black women, femme and trans folks have had their mobility arrested while navigating public transit. We’re going to think about equitable, accessible, intersectional mobility looks like. My name is Charles T. Brown and this is Arrested Mobility.

As a quick clarification, I want to define what I mean by femme and trans folks. Trans people have a different gender identity than what they were assigned at birth. They might be men, women, gender non-conforming, non-binary, or gender-fluid. If a person is femme, it means they present or pass as a woman, regardless of what their gender identity is.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris is a professor of urban planning and urban design at UCLA. Some of her research specifically focuses on the experiences of women and trans women on public transit.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:
My name is Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. I’m based in Los Angeles, California. I have been, for the last 33 years, a professor at UCLA. I’m currently the interim dean of the School of Public Affairs. Some part of my work, for a number of years, I would say decades, relates to issues of mobility justice and how people move around in the city, rights to the city.

Quite recently, I became interested in how women’s mobility, and particularly if we will look intersectionally, specific groups of women which include Black women and transgendered women, their mobility is constrained in public transit because of harassment. And often, sexual harassment. I have done quite a lot of surveys and a lot of work on this to show that that’s the case, and how this results in constraining mobility in them either choosing not to take particular trips, or making their trips much more difficult because they have to only travel, let’s say during the day, because of fear. Or, to take particular precautions such as carrying something that they could possibly use as a weapon, et cetera. This is not an equal right to the city.

I have written quite extensively about that. What I was finding was that because harassment is so much under-reported, and there are very good reasons why it is under-reported. These most vulnerable folks would feel embarrassed, would feel that nothing is going to happen. They would be intimidated and harassed sometimes by the police. They didn’t feel that the police would do anything, even if they go and report. So all that resulted in an environment that I had found in surveys, that up to 80% of women were being harassed, and some of these groups that I’ve mentioned, much more so. But they would not report it. And on the other side, the transit agencies would say, “Well, we don’t hear any complaints, it’s not a problem.”

Charles T. Brown:
The harassment that many women, femme and trans folks experience on public transit is a serious barrier to equitable mobility. But this is particularly a concern for those that identify as Black. Professor Loukaitou-Sideris is working with transit agency and policymakers to elevate these marginalized voices.

In some ways, this is a question of visibility, and whose identities and voices are integrated into structural and systemic decision making. While harassment is under-reported and misreported in transit, there are many challenges that are even harder to identify and research. It takes a very intentional approach to untangle complicated intersections of identity and the barriers that may accompany them.

Dr. Destiny Deguzman, an urban planner based in Los Angeles, always strives to think about gender, ability and racialization in mobility in an intersectional way.

Dr. Destiny Deguzman:
My name is Dr. Destiny Deguzman, formerly known as Dr. Destiny Thomas. I’m the founder and CEO of the Thrivance Group, which is a for-profit urban planning firm that works expressly in the interest of racialized people.

Charles T. Brown:
Thank you for joining us, Dr. Deguzman. As someone who is a community activist, who is a Black woman and a urban planner, your perspective often addresses intersectionality. Can you please tell me about how your personal, professional and community experience-

Dr. Destiny Deguzman:
Oh, I love this question.

Charles T. Brown:
-has affected your perspective on public transit?

Dr. Destiny Deguzman:
I’m somebody that I grew up using public transit. But also, walking. For me, preferring those two modes, I encounter a mixture of obviously oppressions, but also community assets and things that caused me to thrive and to be inspired. As a Black woman, as a Black, cisgendered woman, sometimes that has meant that I’m subject to heightened sense of scrutiny in certain neighborhoods, so I might be policed by other non-police citizens or vigilantes. I might be looked at like I’m up to trouble. I get followed around the stores still, as a 37-year-old. People think I’m stealing. But also, I’ve dealt with my fair share of street harassment. Even as a young person, I can vividly remember three incidents where I was victimized and almost became a victim of sex-trafficking. I have those personal experiences.

As someone from the Bay Area, from the East Bay in California, also very affected by the killings of Oscar Grant, and later Nia Wilson, and all of the policy brutality that the city of Oakland is known for. Being a witness to that, and being a part of the community during community-wide warning and suffering has really shaped my views in the transportation planning space. And really, motivated me to seek change primarily through that sector.

But I want to back up a little bit, because I think what we don’t talk about often enough when we try to or attempt to gender mobility is the extent to which Black people and Black bodies don’t have access to normative notions of gender in the first place. Africana study scholars and ethnic study scholars, and even sometimes gender study scholars, have noted that the way the Black body has been socially constructed, particularly in the United States but probably in other places as well, is such that we are inherently perceived as non-normative. If you’re a Black woman, a Black, cisgendered woman, you’re not always going to be perceived as feminine. Or if you’re a Black man, you’re probably going to be perceived as even more hypermasculine. Or in some cases, if you don’t conform to masculine norms, the assumption is that you are gay or that you’re transgender, when that might not be your identity.

There’s this confusion that happens in society when Black people are visible. They don’t know how to mark us all the time, they don’t know how to place us all the time. So when we talk about the experience that transgender or femme Black women are having, we also have to acknowledge that that is an aspect of our experience as racialized people. The difficulty with a gendered analysis of transportation is that often times, it leaves out the process of racialization within that. I just want to make that point really clear.

The other thing that comes up, because we are deemed as not normal or not normative as Black people, Black people in general have a very similar and linked experience with transgender people in general. Both of those experiences are tied to systems of oppression that people with disabilities experience. Because essentially, what we are saying to someone when we label them disabled, is that how their body or how their mind naturally functions is inconvenient to the design priorities that we’ve implemented or imposed in the built environment. If we understand that those three experiences are linked, then we have a more broad, more accurate understanding of what the gendered experience is for the transgender or femme Black woman.

It causes us to remember people like Elijah McClain, who we know was killed while walking home by police officers who suspected him of being mischievous, was their term. He had to walk around with a pocket card that his mother had printed and laminated that said on it, “I’m different. I have sensory differences. I’m not making trouble, I’m socialized differently.” This is similar to the talk that we have to give young Black youth every day, of how to engage with society, how to engage with law enforcement in ways that mitigate hyper suspicion, or literally just survive and get home. But what we haven’t seen happen is that type of discourse happening around the experiences of people who are transgender and femme presenting.

We have to take a look at what we call hostile infrastructure. We have to expand our existing understanding of what hostile infrastructure is. For those of the listeners who don’t know, these are where we start seeing those oddly shaped benches that really no one can sit on comfortably, but certainly an unhoused person wouldn’t be able to lay down on. Or, doorways that are very difficult for people with larger bodies to fit through. Or, transit stations that have lighting, and smells and paint colors that are really difficult to navigate for people with sensory disabilities or cognitive differences. We have to begin to address these things, first of all, so that the experience that we’re having on transit and in public transportation is humanized and dignifying. But in addition to that, the chasm that we are dealing with is how do we address these inequities which are truly interpersonal, without relying on old tactics. Without relying on policing, which is an extension of slave capture.

That’s really the conversation that we need to have. I think the safest transit and transportation experience for a transgendered person, especially if they’re racialized, is one where we have meaningful and viable alternatives to policing, combined with infrastructure that goes beyond what we have socially accepted as physical disabilities that we’re willing to accommodate. Sometimes, I imagine I’ve been asked to imagine my personal ideal transit stop.

For me, that looks like the permission to be in that space without having the need or purpose of traveling anywhere. Well, it is transit. What does it look like to have transit stations that serve the dual function of being safe spaces for kinship formation, and for joy curation, and for local and underground economy where I can engage with community artisans? What does it look like for transit stations to be so programmed that a person could literally take their child there for daycare? What does it look like to have 24-hour, free access to the internet? What does it look like to allow people to eat a meal? Some of us are commuting many hours a day because housing is not affordable near where we work. It’s really unfair and inhumane to have rules such as no eating and no drinking on the train or on the bus. What does it look like to have crisis interventionists who can recognize cognitive differences, and who can troubleshoot when troubleshooting is needed, and who can do so in a compassionate way that’s not penalizing people for things that they can’t help?

There are so many things that we could do if we just back up and ask a simple question like, “What do we need as humans to survive? What if those things existed in the transportation journey?”

Charles T. Brown:
Dr. Deguzman’s ideal intersectionally designed transit station envisions viable alternatives to policing and penalization, accessible infrastructure that is not hostile, diverse staffing that supports compassionate accessibility and safety for Black people in public transit spaces. And, additional public spaces designed to cultivate joy, kinship and community. Like any good, thoughtful urban planner, Dr. Deguzman has tried to consider everyone’s comfort, dignity, respect and safety. She always wonders, “What kind of people might need to use this?”

This is the same question that Chandra Christmas-Rouse asked herself one day, while walking around Chicago.

Chandra Christmas-Rouse:
I was walking around the city of Chicago and saw all of these signs saying, “Building a new Chicago.” It was a capital campaign being led by the Department of Planning and Development. It really got me thinking about what do we mean by building a new Chicago, new for whom? Would would benefit from these types of developments? And why that language just seemed so inconsistent with a lot of the ways that I was seeing people across the city remake and reimagine the future of the city. So a lot of the influences that I had at that point in time were through a number of different types of space-making practices.

One of which was a project that Tonika Lewis Johnson was leading around her Inglewood billboard project. For me, this was an opportunity to change the narrator of who was defining what a new Chicago looked like and how we can plan for a future when we haven’t addressed and violence things that have happened in the past. So this ability to take imagery like photography and billboards, and to be able to literally take up space in the city to assert what narratives she and her community wanted to tell about the neighborhood of Inglewood, to me, was really grappling with this intersectional question of what does it mean to not just navigate the city as a Black person, but specifically as a Black woman, and the ways that the city tries to erase your experience or tries to replace the narrative that she was sharing through her photography.

Charles T. Brown:
Your previous work, you focused on equitable transit oriented development and healing-centered engagement. What did this process look like in practice, from a research, policy and community engagement and outreach perspective?

Chandra Christmas-Rouse:
The framework that I helped to develop, called The Healing Centered Community Development Framework, mentioned in a paper that I helped to co-write called Building to Heal, was really about providing guidance on how to practice being in the right relationship with each other, ourselves and the land for which we are stewards. I wanted to lead with a focus around healing, to really center an asset based approach to how we do community development work.

In that particular framework, that focused on a process on restoring holistic health and wellbeing. It really focuses on the emotional, spiritual and psychological health and processes that relieve stress, achieved acceptance, restore relationships, and how relationship building can take on the form of intervention for community based practitioners and how we engage with each other.

We had a cohort of grantees from around the country that we would convene to better understand how culture was being kept, maintained, sustained, and as a form resilience as a part of community development work. So being able to speak directly to folks that are space keepers and folks that are community champions. And often, the folks that were at the helm of these organizations, or projects or neighborhoods were Black women, were Black trans folks. So being able to offer a framework that allowed their needs to come first and allowed them to also rest, and able to articulate what it looks like to sustain their own bodies in this work. So all of that has then helped to inform how we would approach equitable transit oriented development.

Charles T. Brown:
Chandra’s health-centered engagement framework is an invaluable tool and exactly the kind of solution we need to promote the cause equitable intersectional mobility.

For Professor Loukaitou-Sideris, an important solution is to help connect marginalized communities with public projects and transit planning decisions that will affect them.

Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris:
I think it is very important to recognize that transit is a major mode of travel for a lot of Black women and a lot of trans women of color, and to really give that mode of transit the attention it deserves. Transit starts not only from when you’re inside the vehicle, but also from the time you exit your door and try to approach the transit station. More investment needs to go into these particular communities that we have these concentrations of this sub-group, a lot of attention about the first and last mile connections. How do you bring people in a way that is safe, where these stops are located?

Earlier studies on transit crime I have done show that the exact location of the bus stop has impact on bus stop crime. If you put bus stops, you locate them in desolate spaces, where people can be easily victimized and harassed, it is different than when you put them in much more naturally surveyed spaces. How do you incorporate these voices in transit planning?

I have worked for another project that did not involve transit, but involved public space and parks, with the Parks Department, to start a model that is called the Promotoris model. This Promotoris model really hires community members from the community who are well trusted to really identify the needs, the most major needs of the community, and relate these needs to the policymakers.

I was working with the Parks Department for a Los Angeles historic park at the edges of downtown that the Parks Department wanted to bring more people of color to use the park. It was very clear that we really needed to understand these communities and their needs. By just having public hearings and call people to come, they wouldn’t come. The element of trust was not there. So by hiring these promotoris and these community members that were living in the communities and organizing listening sessions, the Parks Department was much more successful in bringing members of these communities to the table to express what they wanted to see in the park, what kind of programming they needed.

This is an approach that is much more responsive to understand is lighting the most important issue? Is having a space for strollers on the bus the most important issue for young Black mothers, for example? It is a much more inclusive approach. It also elevates the voices, it makes these promotoris equal partners to represent the communities in the transit planning process.

Charles T. Brown:
We also have to be careful about which interventions we suggest. If an intervention is not intersectional, it can potentially cause more harm than good for the people whose identities and circumstances were neglected.

Dr. Destiny Deguzman:
Some of the, I guess, contemporary approaches to gendering transportation that I’ve seen will make recommendations like changing travel route schedules so that gender non-conforming riders don’t have to ride in the dark or at nighttime, which is really impractical. Or, creating alternative travel modes for people who are in these more vulnerable categories of identities so they don’t have to be bothered with mainstream transit experiences. Not only not practical, but also dehumanizing and othering. Suggesting to transgender and femme riders that they fully take on the identity of victims, so recommending things like don’t sit near other people, or only ride in groups. I’ve even seen extreme recommendations like dress a certain way so that you are not marked as a gender non-conforming person. I think instead of these types of interventions, we need to be able to take a cross disciplinary approach to intervening.

Chandra Christmas-Rouse:
We have to lead with fundamental belief that, first off, these folks, Black folks, trans folks, femmes, women, Black women exist in the future. Because I think, often when I try to interrogate the foundational values and structures that have created the inequitable policy that we see, that belief is just not present. So I think being able to start with something that can seem trivial, but is actually one of the most radical starting platforms you can have in policymaking, that we exist in the future. And that there are folks that have been experts of their own lived experiences in navigating spacial violences in the form of this investment, which is an incredibly traumatic and harmful event that folks continue to have to be subjected to.

I think I really focus on language and the ways that we can tell a more precise story with this work because we know that the narratives that we tell about communities then shape public policies because of the core beliefs, and ideas and values embedded in those stories. Those public policies then shape the material condition of Black communities. So being able to begin a project with that fundamental belief of who we are as a community into the future, and who has been leading this work and will continue to lead this work, I think is a starting place that I always begin as a part of my facilitations and training.

A big part of the Building to Heal work was also a recognition and response to the tremendous amount of burnout there are in our communities. There are so many community leaders that are over subscribed with this work and haven’t been given the opportunity to imagine themselves as being able to rest, and as being able to take a step back because there’s just so much at stake and there’s such an urgency for this work. As much as we’re asking folks to give input into surveys or to assess their community needs, I also think there needs to be opportunity to assess our own personal needs as a part of this work. What would we actually need to be able to dream, what would we need to be able to rest? And, what would we need to be able to heal?

Dr. Destiny Deguzman:
I’m very grateful to my guests. Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, Dr. Destiny Deguzman, and Chandra Christmas-Rouse, for making these complex conversations about intersectionality a little more understandable.

At the end of the day, advocates of mobility justice are concerned with the wellbeing of all human beings. In fact, we are very intentional about including Black people and experiences from all walks of life. We personally, and I personally, want to be sure that we understand how arrested mobility affects Black people with compounding identities that make them more vulnerable to marginalization and harm. But not just from law enforcement, from their neighbors and other people seeking to harm them.

Thank you for joining us on this season of Arrested Mobility. We’re going to take a hiatus for a couple of months, and then we’ll return with more hard-hitting stories about racist law enforcement and structural inequities in urban planning, transportation and mobility. Please, reach out to me if you have ideas for the show or know someone who would be a good guest. We’d love to hear from you all over email and connect with you all during this period, because we want to organize discussions on the various topics to date. Contact us at contact@arrestedmobility.com. Again, that is contact@arrestedmobility.com if you’d like to join us.

I also want to shout out Equitable Cities’ own Aliyah Elduble and J’lin Rose for their hard work on this season of Arrested Mobility. This show would not be possible without their individual contributions. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media @CTBrown1911 on Twitter or using #arrestedmobility. Visit our website and sign up for our newsletter at arrestedmobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple Podcast, or wherever you listen.

This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities, with support from my friends at Puddle Creative. Special thanks to Jonah and Sam. Thank you all.