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PBOT Deputy Director Millicent Williams speaks out on race and transportation

Posted by on June 25th, 2020 at 1:35 pm

Millicent Williams.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

“At this juncture, either we will all be comfortable, or we’ll all be uncomfortable.”
— Millicent Williams, Deputy Director of PBOT

On June 17th, the Portland City Council made Juneteenth (June 19th) an annual “Day of Remembrance” and paid holiday. Portland Bureau of Transportation Deputy Director Millicent Williams was one of a slate of people invited to speak about what the holiday means.

Here’s what she said:

“Good afternoon. My name is Millicent Williams… I work in spaces where I know that my presence voice, access and expertise is unexpected, thought to be undeserved and often considered to be a threat. I’ve worked across the full spectrum of public service and now I work in transportation, a discipline that has for many represented a sense of freedom, but for Black people has been a source of pain.

A Black man, Garrett A Morgan, created the three-position traffic signal. Another Black man, Andrew Beard, invented the automatic railroad car coupler. And another Black man, Benjamin Banneker — a cartographer, mathematician and astronomer — was able to redesign Washington D.C. with its signature circles to solve the problems left by Pierre L’Enfant in his original botched design of the city. 

Even though these Black men were planners, engineers and innovators; whose inventions changed the world as we know it, they were yet not able to ride in a shared coach, hail a car, or get a seat on a train. 

My mother, who grew up in rural North Carolina recently told me of an incident that occurred when she was a young girl walking down a dirt road returning to her family’s home from the general store. As she walked she could hear the roar of a large tractor coming from behind. As the tractor approached she kept inching away from the edge of the road, but the driver kept edging closer — so close that the giant tire of the tractor clipped her shoulder, throwing her to the ground. She remembers the face and laughter of the driver as he drove away. She remembers telling my grandparents about the incident and the anger and fear that my grandfather felt because he knew if he said anything, the outcome for his family would have been disastrous. He remembered and was taught that sometimes, silence meant safety. 

I think about how a Black person was supposed to avert their eyes and step aside when they saw a white person on the sidewalk because silence meant safety. I think about redlining, road conditions, dissection and displacement in cities across America and a resultant forced silence which for some, if you weren’t subject to those things, meant safety.

Today I think about those examples and so many other things as we engage in solutions for communities across the city in managing the right-of-way and building infrastructure. As transportation professionals, it’s time for us to think differently about the industry, what it represents, and how we can influence the future. 

At this juncture, either we will all be comfortable, or we’ll all be uncomfortable.

The Portland Bureau of Transportation realizes that it can and should do more to address the longstanding transportation-related disparities found in the Black community. Under the leadership of our director Chris Warner and in cooperation with the bureau’s Equity Manager Irene Marion and our Transportation Justice Committee, we will be engaging with intention around four areas of emphasis:

  • workforce support and accountability, which includes the recruitment hiring and dev and promotion of Black talent;
  • transportation policy and planning intervention;
  • supporting and empowering Black Portland;
  • and re-imagining the right-of-way using a racial equity framework.

On behalf of the Black girls, boys, men and women of Portland who have suffered pain, loss, violence and dispossession on city streets and sidewalks. On behalf of the little girl who was attacked on the road and who yet persevered to become an educator, author, orator and historian, who taught about the fight for freedom that took place on Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad — which as an editorial note, should be considered one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated interstate transportation systems this world has ever known — and who always taught us to revere the legacy and celebrate the importance of June 19th. I, we, say thank you.

And now, the hard work of change begins.”

Williams’ words came about a week after PBOT Director Chris Warner vowed to make the agency more inclusive and anti-racist.

As we continue to hold racial justice and policing issues front-of-mind, we’ll be watching PBOT closely to make sure their actions match their words.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Roberta RoblesJoseph ESigmaMarkKana O. Recent comment authors
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Let’s be clear; this is a Black woman with wrap sheet for civil corruption and direct ties to homeland security. This is what we get in a local industry known for railroading local activist into oblivion. This is why the Rose Quarter wont stop, we have some diverse contract$ to deliver on. Harriet Tubman would be ashamed at PBOT shenanigans in Albina.

Kana O.
Kana O.

Could you please tell me what this magnificent leader’s Blackness has to do with anything you’ve just said?

If she is guilty of some white collar crime, I really could not care less until we start reliably bringing to justice white men who get away with stealing billions of dollars.

And Harriet Tubman wouldn’t give a tinker’s dam about the Rose Quarter project. She’d be elated by all we’ve overcome, saddened by the cost of progress, humbled by the work yet ahead, and unspeakably proud to have a sister speaking and acting so forcefully to make change at the helm of an institution that has historically dedicated itself to upholding white comfort at the expense of our people.

Please engage with something in the article above instead of using conspiracy theories to slander a leader who is trying to speak for people who haven’t been heard and is trying to take us all in an uncharted direction.

Roberta Robles
Roberta Robles

I will speak on outcomes. Right now she has none because shes from out of town, has a documented history of corruption and not grounded in local politics. She has corruption issues in her past and shes from homeland security. Which to me says shes ok with bending the rules at PBOT and ODOT. I for one am not listening to anything until we get a complete reversal on the auxiliary lane. Right now shes just a paid spokesperson with no real local wins. No I will not relent, I want results and accountability from our Black leaders not a mob pack mentality. My people have been under genocidal policies for centuries. I’m a little sensitive to new “out of town Black leader promotong the same freeway propaganda.” I’ve done my homework. I’m waiting for a real progressive Black leader to come forward with an equitable solution at RQ for everybody.

Kana O.
Kana O.

You act like leadership at PBOT has ever stood up in opposition (or could) to the prevailing direction set by electeds—her history of bending the rules doesn’t sound like such a liability in this instance. You act like because she is newly head of such an organization, she is complicit and responsible for the things already in motion when she has succinctly outlined the ways her presence at its head is felt to be unexpected, undeserved, and threatening—she is a discontinuity. You ignore her history and accomplishments in Portland—the fact that for years she has overseen PBOT’s capital projects. You act like there aren’t other progressive black leaders doing great things in Portland connected to this issue and others (powerful women I can think of off the top—Joy Elise Davis, Rukiyah Adams, Winta Yohannes, Lisa Bates, Irene Marion, Nichole Watson, Charlene McGee).

You have a pet issue and it sounds like your litmus test for whether someone is worth their salt is whether they take the same position on it as you. I would love if Ms. Williams broke PBOT’s mold as rubber stamp and spoke to the ways Rose Quarter and freeway investments impact and threaten our communities—in fact, I’ve been in the room where she has publicly addressed some of that—but it is also an unprecedented and risky thing for a Black woman to do. And there are other and bigger fish to fry that are not worth jeopardizing for what would be largely a symbolic act. And from what I’ve heard from several folks close to the project and advocacy is that due to ODOT’s top to bottom mismanagement of project framing/scoping, number crunching, and outreach, the project is very much off-balance and existentially threatened.

FWIW, I think Rose Quarter is a disgusting misuse of public resources—yet another example of upholding white comfort and convenience above so many other people’s well-being and priorities. Those of you agitating against it, please continue because it appears to be working. Let’s not waste energy picking nits about a newly ascendant Black leader’s freeway bonafides, especially when that leader has on multiple occasions publicly expressed reservations and understanding of historical impacts. Her being in that position is something to celebrate alone. That she’s also committed to using her power to daylight and excise institutional racism is pretty freakin cool.

David Binnig

I understand the frustration with PBOT’s acquiescence on the Rose Quarter project, but I will say that in what I’ve seen of Millicent Williams she’s impressed me as smart, insightful, and willing to clearly voice her views, and this speech seems like a good message, effectively conveyed.

Roberta Robles
Roberta Robles
Joseph E
Joseph E

It’s unfair to characterize a single violation of tax laws as a “wrap sheet”. Source: https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2016/12/portland_transportation_bureau.html

Could you please explain what you mean about “ties to homeland security” and why this is relevant to the I-5 widening project (which I oppose, for the record)?


Has she been convicted of civil corruption? That sounds serious.

What constitutes a “direct tie” to homeland security?


Agreed. “Citation needed,” as they say.

Joseph E
Joseph E

Apparently this is what that accusation is about. It doesn’t sound like serious corruption, though it was a violation of tax laws:

“The Portland Transportation Bureau’s pick to oversee its construction projects has a felony conviction for lying on tax documents tied to a federal corruption investigation that sent a Beltway councilman to prison.

“Prosecutors said Millicent Williams directed $110,000 from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit she ran toward an inaugural ball at the request of the councilman, then signed tax forms that misrepresented the money’s purpose. Though she pleaded guilty in 2013 and served 15 months of probation, documents show, she was not accused of personally benefiting from the misdirection of funds.”