ODOT’s new Climate Office director was leader of Seattle bike nonprofit

Suzanne Carlson is the new director of ODOT’s Climate Office.

Hopefully Suzanne Carlson hasn’t forgotten her roots.

The newly-hired director of the Oregon Department of Transportation Climate Office got her start in the transportation world in the 1990s by starting Bike Works, a Seattle-based nonprofit that runs a community bike shop and teaches young people how to refurbish used bikes (similar to Portland’s Community Cycling Center).

Carlson will lead an effort to make Oregon’s transportation system less harmful to the environment. Or, according to the official job description, Carlson will, “… integrate climate considerations throughout Agency decisions, pursue climate actions that reduce pollution and adapt the transportation system to climate and extreme weather.”

Given the fact that cars and trucks make up 40% of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions (the largest of any sector), and that “extreme weather” has never been harder to ignore, Carlson has her work cut out.

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After living in Seattle (one source said she participated in Critical Mass back in the day, but I haven’t been able to confirm that), Carlson went on to hold several positions that should make her a solid leader at ODOT: She was director of environmental affairs for Chicago Public Schools; pedestrian program manager for the Chicago Department of Transportation; transportation and sustainability program manager at Innovate Memphis; and most recently was director of the Multimodal Division of the Tennessee Department of Transportation (where she developed the state’s Active Transportation Plan).

ODOT’s Climate Office was established via executive order in 2020 by Governor Kate Brown. In October of that year, Pietz said the state was “headed in the complete wrong direction” on climate change efforts. A new ODOT Climate Action Plan, due out later this month, should give us a clearer picture of where things stand.

Carlson takes on this position in a very interesting time. As the nation’s largest wildfire rages in Oregon, activists’ finger-pointing at ODOT has reached a fever pitch and the agency faces major headwinds (in large part from climate activists) on the I-5 Rose Quarter project, which is the state’s top priority project.

Carlson takes over Tuesday (July 27th) for former Climate Office Director Amanda Pietz, who was named Policy, Data & Analysis Division administrator back in April.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Adam
Adam
1 year ago

If this were a position of any real consequence then the most obvious thing she could do would be to advise ODOT to halt all further freeway expansions and redirect significant portions of ODOT funds towards expanding transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. ODOT would listen and then put her in the lead to actually make it all happen.

However I bet that very soon you’ll see her out there justifying the line, “Yes, The Climate, but also other priorities, and also more capacity will actually reduce the overall carbon footprint because fewer cars will be idling in traffic, and the Rose Quarter is part of our strategy to reduce carbon emissions. Also EVs and self driving cars! Can’t wait!”

After that most of us will quietly forget she exists and in a few more years she’ll move on to her next gig, likely outside of Oregon.

mh
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam

She probably will, after some period of settling in, advise ODOT of exactly that. And ODOT will ignore that advice.

Roberta Robles
Roberta Robles
1 year ago

I don’t trust ODOT, and more and more I don’t trust white women who use their critical mass chops to convert their activism into top dollar bureaucracy jobs. She’s not the first import to take Oregon tax dollars and spin it into a lucrative career. Whatever happened to Lea at PBOT? So much hope. So much let down. We have women of color here in Oregon getting ignored and dismissed. I hope the state pers benefits are worth it.

buildwithjoe
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

This is a good question Roberta. We should look for patterns of NGO transit workers who move to/from Government work on transit.

Some of you might feel that street design can cause pedestrian deaths like Fallon Smart. Some of you might feel it’s just the driver fault.

To move to/from government and NGO work you have to be loyal. Leah Treat was very loyal. She’s now Leah Riley and working in San Francisco for a contractor Nelson Nygaard who helps government implement urbanist designs.

“I don’t know there is anything anybody could have done to have prevented that fatality except for the driver,” said Leah Treat, director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

https://www.oregonlive.com/commuting/2016/09/teens_death_illustrates_portla.html

Sara X
Sara X
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

Roberta, your comments are straight up racist.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

In the nonprofit world, it’s known as the “Nonprofit Industrial Complex.” Once an organization has hired their first part-time employee, it’s a long slow downward-spiral of chasing grants, mission creep, completely neglecting the core mission, hiring a new director at a high cost to “get leadership” and take the organization in a new direction, them jumping ship to a government job (or getting elected), and so on. Nonprofits are really low-cost discount extensions of government, a necessary evil during lean times (more-or-less always), one of two faces of the same coin.

I’m in that industry, in the thick of it now, and quite frankly I’m jealous of Suzanne Carlson and others who get such good opportunities for career advancement.

soren
1 year ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

“Nonprofits are really low-cost discount extensions of government”
…that are used by local governments to avoid providing essential services to poor and working class people.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 year ago
Reply to  soren

True enough. Nonprofits are also used by state and national governments for the same purposes (NGO is the international term – Non-Governmental Organization). On the other hand, there are many poor and working-class people who simply don’t trust any sort of government but are willing to receive services from nonprofits such as churches, hospitals, social service providers, YMCA, United Way, etc. And finally there’s the biggest commercial nonprofit in the USA, Underwriters Laboratory, who test all sorts of electrical equipment for safety – UL Listed.

Of course there’s also personal foundations, 501c4 nonprofits – PACS, and 501c9 nonprofits – government pension funds like PERS.

Raylena
Raylena
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

Jonathan,
Would you allow this post if Roberta said “….and more I don’t trust women of color….” ?
I am gobsmacked you would allow this to be posted.

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago

What’s the context here? Is there any indication that an as-or-more qualified women of color was ignored or passed up for this position?

The comment seems like just an ad-hominin attack against something. I don’t know, with the random jab at PERS, maybe Roberta just doesn’t like public employees?

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago

The context is Roberta is a woman of color and Carlson is white.

What does Carlson’s skin color have to do with the story?

And please note, she isn’t saying Carlson got the job over anyone.

It’s hard to tell what Roberta’s ad-hominin attack is saying to be honest. It feels like Roberta thinks Carlsons white skin is relevant, or else why mention it?

Her comment is said in a general sense, not in a specific one.

Uh, regardless of anything else, Roberta’s comment is a personal attack on Carlson that at least seems firmly based in her skin color. It wasn’t said in a general sense at all.

Also, I give a bit longer leash to comments given that this is a high-profile position with a major public agency.

Which of course doesn’t apply to criticisms of Hardesty.

I have no idea if you’ll choose to publish this post or not, but if you really want to help the bike community, allowing pointless, alienating language because it is critical of white people isn’t the way. I promise you, that behavior doesn’t turn off just white people from the scene.

There are plenty of actual, nuanced critiques of our governmental system and propensity for systemic racism to make without low-value, low-effort ad-hominin attacks. It just takes a small tent movement and makes it even smaller.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

You are right that this situation is different from the one with Hardesty. With Hardesty, people were criticizing her performance. Here, someone is being criticized because of their race and gender.

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago

You should direct your concerns about Roberta’s language to Roberta herself. I’m here to decide if something should be published or not… Not to defend or analyze what people say.

By moderating every single comment, you are implicitly giving your blessing to Roberta’s comment.

You and I see Roberta’s comment differently. That’s OK. We can disagree.

Sure we can

FWIW you are comparing this to the Hardesty situation. I’ll remind you that Hardesty is a Black woman, and those criticisms I deleted were from white people. That’s the opposite of what’s happening here.

Yep, that was the point I was making. In the absence of any real standards, your moderating comes down to “how does Johnathan feel about this comment”. You deleted criticisms of Hardesty because of her skin color and because you assumed that the commenters were white (how did you verify that?), not based on whether or not the comments themselves were problematic. You understand that a race/gender based system of comment moderation is going to cause you issues forever right? Maybe you could make a matrix of acceptable criticism? For example, can a Black man critique a white women? Or is that sexist?

The easiest thing for you to do is not allow low-value, low-effort comments that are based on race or gender. If someone wants to take the time to write up a critique of ODOTs hiring practices, that’s great. A well researched comment or piece would do a great job of moving the conversation around racism within the government and/or transportation sector forward. Knowing what I know about Oregon and ODOT, there is probably a lot of damning information that could come to light.

Defending what is at best a rant and at worst a ad-hominin attack because of the background of speaker and the background of person being spoken about isn’t moving the conversation forward.

Again, no idea if you’ll publish this, but I hope you take it to heart.

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago

I’m explaining my moderation decisions about a comment.

Right, it’s a comment that many people find problematic. By allowing it to be posted, you are defending it as not-problematic.

That’s a very important distinction that I don’t think you’re allowing yourself to understand because you are so focused on me and my decisions.

Well, the whole contention is about you and your decisions when it comes to deleting/allowing content. This whole conversation is about you and the choices about what content you allow to be posted on your website. I hope you understand that.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

Could you please expand on why it’s ok for a woman of color to express racist ideas on your forum, but (presumably) not others?

Three commenters have flagged this as not just edgy, but squarely offensive (and you can add my name to the list making that 4). That’s 40% of the people who have posted so far, including you and someone who posted before Roberta did.

As it happens, I share Roberta’s mistrust of activists who take jobs like this. But the fact that the activist in question is a woman or is (apparently) white or exists in any position on 20 other dimensions of human variability has no bearing on the matter. And it should not.

soren
1 year ago

“And unlike you and some other commenters, I do think race matters here… especially on the issue of climate since people of color are impacted far more than white people, statistically-speaking.”

It matters greatly and as a white person I agree with Roberta that white people are unlikely to prioritize the dismantling of environmental racism. ODOT is a 1950s org in so many terrible ways.

Watts
Watts
1 year ago

If someone opined that they “didn’t trust women of color who used her advocacy background to advance herself into a top dollar bureaucratic position” I’m willing to bet you’d instantly identify both the racism and the sexism. Yet somehow in this case you’ve missed both.

It is also far from clear to me which sub-populations of Oregonians will suffer the most from climate change, so I can’t accept your assertion without at least a little reasoning. If being from the most impacted group were somehow (against all reason) part of the hiring criteria, then we’d probably want to give the job to an indebted farmer from southeast Oregon.

VS
VS
1 year ago

Jonathan, I read this note, went back and re-read Roberta’s post and I see your point that it’s a ‘general’ comment. Your post caused me to consider the words more carefully than at first read, and reinterpret. So thanks!

Saying “more and more I don’t trust white women who use their” power to get plum jobs (paraphrased). She then expresses disappointment at the performance of a different person, in a different role. It’s not an attack on Carlson directly, but a concern about a gender and race group on a specific career trajectory.

She also notes that there are women of color who are “ignored and dismissed”. It is hard to argue that this is not true.

Taken together her words are an argument about racial disparity that has underperforming people in good jobs while others are not given a chance, based on race. I read the post to also be implying that a group of people aren’t doing enough to hire and help women of color.

If you were to take down this post it seems that you would be taking down a post making an accusation of disparate treatment that is consistent with lots of widely available data.

Part of me bristles when racial disparity is raised in situations like this. But I wonder then, when is the right time to make this argument?

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

Perhaps she was the most qualified of the applicants.

cmh89
cmh89
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta Robles

I don’t trust white women who use their critical mass chops to convert their activism into top dollar bureaucracy jobs.

Uh… did she do that? From my reading of the article, it seems like someone JM talked to said she participated in critical mass. Is that on her resume or something?

buildwithjoe
1 year ago

I see a pattern here. Rex Burkholder is often given credit for Founding Portland’s bike non profit (BTA/StreetTrust) Rex also fast tracked the CRC freeway after being elected to Metro Council. LUFO was made to fast track the BLUE/RED max line creation. Rex “amends the 1998 Land Use Final Order (LUFO) … adopts the LUFO for the Columbia River Crossing” https://www.oregonmetro.gov/sites/default/files/2014/04/25/08122011_Metro_Council_resolution_adopting_CRC_LUFO_unsigned.pdf

Mike Quigley
Mike Quigley
1 year ago

Largely a public relations job. But, I give her credit for making it work for her, if she does. In today’s America, follow the lead of the Big Boys.

Mark smith
Mark smith
1 year ago

Would a man be questioned in an article as such “I hope HE doesn’t forget his bicycle roots”?

I doubt it.

Let’s try and not eat our own once in a while.

Granpa
Granpa
1 year ago

I am as cynical as anyone on this forum but rather than welcoming Carlson with dismissal as window dressing And a eulogy, I hope she succeeds in changing the culture and priorities of ODOT One has to have hope

Paul
Paul
1 year ago

It’s pretty weird that when a bike activist takes a job at ODOT the reaction in the comments is “she must be a sell out” instead of “hopefully she can do some good there.” I don’t get it. How else are we supposed to improve ODOT?

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul

If you look at the Climate Office’s website you’ll quickly realize (well at least I did) that it’s an internal “feel good” department that though may teach about climate affairs to ODOT staff, but in reality will have no say in the actual projects.
We need bike advocates in the top leadership and engineering positions.
I wish Suzanne all the best and hope I’m wrong, but I’ve seen this kind of stuff in government all too often.