33-year-old Aaron Brown is one of the hardest working transportation reform activists in Oregon. For the past four years he’s been one of the relentless, three-headed monsters from the Portland-base nonprofit No More Freeways (along with Chris Smith and Joe Cortright) in a battle against the the Oregon Department of Transportation’s I-5 Rose Quarter project.
“ODOT doesn’t have to be terrible… I want a State Department of Transportation that’s funding high passenger rail up and down the Willamette Valley, that’s funding buses from Eugene to Bend to Baker City… They’re just too road-focused and it will require systemic cleaning house.”
In this episode of the BikePortland Podcast, Aaron and I talk about his approach to fighting freeways, a style he refers to has “benevolent antagonism” (although he also admitted that when it comes to ODOT, he can “be a jerk sometimes on the internet”). We also talked about the status of the three lawsuits No More Freeways has brought against the I-5 project and which of the four institutions — between ODOT, the Oregon Transportation Commission, the Governor’s office, and the Legislature — are his biggest hurdle and biggest hope. In one exchange, I asked Aaron to respond to sharp criticism from Estelle Love Lavespere, a Black woman whose family was displaced by the construction of I-5. Lavespere is on ODOT’s Historic Albina Advisory Board. At a meeting last April, she objected to “paternalistic” comments made by Aaron and other white No More Freeways activists.
I think you’ll appreciate how this conversation illuminates the nuances, methods, and complexities of effective community organizing and transportation activism — as well as the honesty and thoughtfulness Aaron brings to his work.
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Well-said. This is what I’ve seen as well: ODOT trying to assemble and elevate just the right coalition of black old guard who will agree with the project as is; be satisfied with the construction jobs going to minority contractors; shout down anyone who appears to be trying to slow the process (e.g. NMF, Sunrise, even AVT), and; neutralize other black community members who might have different feelings about the history of the area, ODOT’s culpability, what restoration and recompense might look like, and the climate—giving any electeds on the fence hemming and hawing about equity and climate and restorative justice the perfect Portland performative face-saving “concession”(You get a cap! Yooou get a cap!) to sign off on, so they can appear both reasonable and like the demands of the moment have been met.
ODOT is shrewd, if nothing else.
Thank you Aaron for speaking up in ODOT’s manufactured space, for following up with the community member who expressed frustration with NMF presence to understand where they were coming from, and for altering your approach to engaging black community members in this project to turn down the interpersonal conflict orchestrated by ODOT and focus on common causes and a common nemesis.
I’m excited to see you moving into podcasts! I need to step up and become a paid subscriber.
Is there a transcript? I can scan one much faster than spending 47 minutes listening…
Not yet Mark. I had to leave town today and didn’t have time to share the transcript. Will have it posted by Monday.
Enjoyed this interview. I listened to it while doing some neighborhood errands by bike yesterday. I look forward to listening to more Bikeportland by bike.
Aaron’s work is an inspiration and a wealth of knowledge for other folks interested in making Portland transportation a better place. He, as are all the younger transportation advocates, are in it for the long haul because as Aaron likes to repeat 40% of our carbon emissions come from transportation and that has got to change.