A member of the State of Oregon’s bicycling and pedestrian advisory committee says the body has a diversity and inclusion problem.
André Lightsey-Walker (bottom right in photo above), a volunteer member of the governor-appointed Oregon Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (OBPAC), spoke out about the issue at the end of the group’s meeting Tuesday.
“This may be a subject matter that’s not super easy for people, but it’s important to me,” Lightsey-Walker said as he addressed the online meeting, with nothing but white-presenting eyes peering back at him. He made it clear his comments were directed at the system and not individual members of the committee. “I’m addressing a system of recurring underrepresentation and the continual exclusion absence of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] communities in decision making bodies across the state of Oregon.”
A chief concern of Lightsey-Walker (a transportation planner at Metro who worked for two years as program and policy manager at nonprofit The Street Trust) is that OBPAC (like many advisory committees) purports to hold the well-being of lower-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color as their top priority — yet the people who make decisions about them are overwhelmingly white. Not only that, but the negative impacts of traffic crashes and many systemic transportation issues, fall disproportionately on BIPOC Oregonians.
“Nothing about us, without us,” Lightsey-Walker explained in his remarks. “If we’re thinking about ourselves as a body who is committed to making Oregon a safer place to walk and bike, I think it would be important for us to have members of that community be foundational and participating in those conversations.”
Lightsey-Walker ended with questions for the committee:
“Is this a place committed to welcoming and elevating the voices of BIPOC communities? What will OBPAC be doing to actively engage BIPOC participation? And what is OBPACs commitment to not only creating but maintaining a diverse committee?”
He then made it clear does not want to continue as a member of the committee unless significant progress is made.
Co-chair Mavis Hartz said diversity and inclusion is a subject OBPAC has, “Wrestled with a lot,” but that the work to make progress on it has been left undone. “André is right, we are kind of dropping the ball,” Hartz said. She added that an ODOT staffer started an initiative to improve the committee’s diversity, but never followed through. Now, Hartz said, “I personally I don’t know how we’re going to shift from from what we know, to making [more diversity] actually a functioning thing.”
“We need to continue on this subject because it has been why one of our past chairs stepped down — she didn’t feel like she was being heard,” Hartz acknowledged.
Hartz was referring to former OBPAC Chair Hau Hagedorn, a daughter of immigrants from Vietnam who stepped down from her role with similar misgivings as Lightsey-Walker. “When you are asked to sit on a committee but not given the agency to decide who should represent the committee or asked to participate in meaningful decision-making processes, is that tokenism or representation?” Hagedorn shared with BikePortland today. “There’s a fine line.”
Another OBPAC member pointed out that the committee just added two more members (both of whom are white), “But we’re not increasing the diversity of the committee.”
Then ODOT Bicycle and Program Manager Jessica Horning spoke up to say she wants more flexibility around how members are added. She pointed out that OBPAC was formed via Oregon statute and their are specific requirements about the size of the committee (eight members), where they must live, and which interest groups they must represent. “I would love to have a conversation about how we meet those requirements and find ways to expand representation,” Horning said. “Do we actually need to work with an elected official to propose statutory changes… to make good on those commitments?”
OBPAC Co-chair Emma Newman also acknowledged the problem and urged fellow members to take ownership of Lightsey-Walker’s questions, “So that we’re walking the walk and talking the talk.”
There was talk about difficulties recruiting BIPOC people to the committee, despite efforts to do so. The conversation reminded me of the interview with Will Cortez on our podcast back in December. I asked Cortez, a member of many advisory committees and one of the founders of BikePOC PNW, about the ongoing problem of transportation advisory committees being too white.
Cortez said many Black and other people of color simply don’t have more energy to expend in spaces like advisory committees. “We’re trying to take care of ourselves. We’re trying not to expend energy where it’s like beating our heads against the wall,” he said. He also pointed out that many committees are too “extractive” and not mutually beneficial to volunteers who serve on them. Paying for attendance would be a welcome step forward, he said.
ODOT’s OBPAC isn’t the only committee struggling with this issue. The Portland Bureau of Transportation recently completed a detailed evaluation of its three modal committees, and their lack of diversity was one of the chief reasons for doing so.
Ligthsey-Walker knows he’s up against something much larger than just this one ODOT committee. At the end of his comments yesterday he reiterated that he’s just trying to call out the larger system to stop it from perpetuating itself. “We can’t let [the system] continue to reinforce itself. And maybe it will. Maybe it will prevail.”
Even though committee Co-chair Hartz said she was “unsure how to proceed,” she sounded sincere in wanting to make progress. “If this is a recurring issue, then we need to figure out the root… At this point I really think we need an action plan, not another presentation.”
Another discussion about this issue is on the agenda for OBPAC’s next meeting.