words by Tamika Butler
White men dominate the urban planning sector. If we’re to build equitable transportation, however, we need Black women. The Frontline invites Tamika Butler, a leader in this space, to write about how to create space for Black women to not flee but flourish in this sector.
I’ll never forget my first transportation conference. I stuck out like a sore thumb. Looking around, it felt like everyone was white. A white male attendee I was speaking to asked me why I dressed the way I did if I did not want people to assume I worked at the conference hotel. I looked at his Levi commuters and realized we were wearing almost identical outfits.
I got out of that conversation as quickly as possible and headed off to a workshop. As the workshop wrapped up and the facilitators were taking questions, a Black woman came to the mic and called out the all-white team’s failure to adequately address race in the session. She said everything I was thinking. I finally felt seen. I followed her out and asked, “Where are all the other Black folks?” She laughed and told me she was on her way to meet up with a few outside of the hotel. We became fast friends, and she’s still a mentor. Now, whenever I get the chance, I try to reach out and support queer students and students of color interested in planning, climate, and transportation. When I first entered the transportation space, queer women and women of color were the ones who helped me find my way. Years later, I try to do the same.
Two weeks ago, a young Black woman reached out via email. She stumbled upon something I wrote and wanted advice on post-graduation plans. Her long-term goal was a career in fighting climate change through transportation work. We got on the phone, and she eventually asked that same question I asked those many years ago.
“Where are all the Black women in climate and transportation work?”
As the former executive director of the Los Angeles Bike Coalition, I was constantly in transportation meetings where people in positions of power didn’t look like me. The lack of Black women in transportation was glaringly stark.
I have a personal philosophy: Trust Black women and follow Black women. We will make it through, and we will make sure to bring others along with us. The more I got to know the regional and urban planning space, the more I realized there were plenty of us. Sure, not always in top leadership positions—but always leading the way. There was Harriet Tubman navigating the underground railroad in the 19th century. Then, Rosa Parks standing up against injustice by sitting down. Today, it is the Black mom getting her kids to school on the subway before she goes to her job where she cares for other people or the Black woman leading a transit agency.
We are here. We have been here. Leading the way. Understanding the way that mobility and justice intersect with fighting racism in every facet of life as we work toward collective liberation.
So why does it feel like we’re not here? Why do so many Black women wonder if the transportation sector is right for them and if their career will advance? Because planning has a whiteness problem: 80 percent of city and regional planners are white. About half are men.
When we show up at work, we are Black women. When we ride our bikes, we are Black women. When we take transit, we are Black women. When we fight climate change, we are Black women.
Black women in this space are often hired to celebration and fanfare and asked to help with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in addition to our other duties. Doing our job means doing transportation work—but also pointing out the ways our organization can improve to serve all people. That often creates conflict and defensiveness among colleagues with women of color being labeled as “problems” or “bad culture fits.” The emotional and mental burden of navigating these white spaces is severe. We must code switch, fight the climate crisis, plan transportation projects, and know that any expression of opinion or emotion may result in being labeled as “aggressive” or “angry.”
When we speak up and explain the way that racism not only impacts transportation outcomes, but also our employment outcomes, we are dismissed and gaslit. We have colleagues tell us they are our allies, but “not everything is about race.” White people may have the luxury of separating their work and personal lives and keeping race out of work. Black women do not have that choice.
When we show up at work, we are Black women. When we ride our bikes, we are Black women. When we take transit, we are Black women. When we fight climate change, we are Black women. What a privilege it is to be able to keep your identity at home.
Over the last year, I have witnessed many Black women contemplate leaving their organizations—burnt out from white fragility, racism, and anti-Blackness. When police kill another Black person or when Black History Month rolls around, our organizations will tweet out their support of Black lives. Yet the day-to-day experience for Black women is one full of stress and misogynoir. Moya Bailey created the term to describe “the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women.”
Why does all of this matter? Because Black women continue to contemplate leaving the transportation space and to wonder if this is the work for them. But we need Black women. Not just because of my personal philosophy—but because we understand intersectionality. One of us (Kimberlé Crenshaw) even coined the term.
We know that transportation is a through line between many of the issues plaguing our country that must be faced and fought urgently—like housing unaffordability, economic mobility, and access to quality healthcare and education. Beyond that, when it comes to understanding the urgency of climate change, we need Black people. We are disproportionately impacted by lack of transportation access and services. We are disproportionately impacted by environmental racism and climate change. We are also more likely to care: Black people are more likely to be concerned and less likely to be dismissive about climate change than white people, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Black people are also more likely to be willing than white people to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action. So, when we leave—or are pushed out—everyone loses. We care and are here to create change. You need us.
We are not only needed one month a year, yet everyone wants to make it clear that they have a Black friend during February. This Black History Month, can you do more than hopping on social media and sharing love for that famous Black person that virtue signals your wokeness? If you care about transportation—if you care about combating the climate crisis—then care about Black women. The Black women you work with. The Black women doing the work.
If you have to ask where all the Black women in transportation are, it means you are not seeing us, not that we are not here.
See us. Support us. Trust Black women. Follow Black women. We will make it through, and we will make sure to bring others along with us.