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‘Citizens Academies’ for Transit Riders Teach Self-Advocacy

Courses offered by advocacy groups can help public transit riders, enthusiasts, and community stakeholders understand their local transportation systems and power structures.

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

12:01 AM EDT on June 21, 2023

Here’s one way to do transit activism. But there are other ways, too. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

On a Wednesday night in Baltimore, transit rider Alex Smith-Burden makes a case for the addition of a rapid transit line to connect more neighborhoods to the city’s light rail. He sits across from Aunt Em, a staunch opponent to the project who’s come with a picket sign: NO LIGHT RAIL/NO COMPROMISE!

Aunt Em is immovable. Smith-Burden explains that transit expansion creates access to jobs and suggests ways the project might be completed with minimal disruption. But she’s still not having it. The project would change the “personality” of her neighborhood, Em said. In three minutes, time is up and the simulation is over.

“That was a lot like talking to my brother,” Smith-Burden laughs. “It was good practice.”

Alex Smith-Burden talks to “Aunt Em” about transit. Photo: Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza

The exercise was part of Transportation 101, a seven-week course in transportation and advocacy facilitated by the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, an organization that advocates for the improvement and expansion of transit in the Baltimore region. Smith-Burden is taking Transportation 101 to learn ways of persuading transit opponents to see the benefits and possibilities. Aunt Em is played by an actress from a local theater company. Her directive: don’t back down.

On the same night, in Richmond, 19 students graduated from Mobility University, a course facilitated by transit advocacy group RVA Rapid Transit. Across five weeks, bus riders learned how to push for improvements to the local public transit system. For instance: more stops, new lines, increased safety measures, or simply a place to sit down and wait for the bus. The group’s executive director, Faith Walker, heard about the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance program, and decided to start her own.

Think of Transportation 101 and Mobility University as citizens academies for public transit riders, enthusiasts, and community stakeholders. Students graduate with well-rounded knowledge of the workings of local transportation systems and power structures, and many exit hungry and equipped to influence transportation decisions in their area.

The formats are similar: A cohort of about 20 to 30 people meet once per week for a few hours in the evening, gathering for a catered meal before class to break bread and get to know their classmates. Students get a lesson in the history of public transportation in the area, they learn the names of board members, city council members, and other decision-makers, they’re presented with data that describes ridership, demographics, frequency, and the like. Sessions are led by local subject matter experts or other riders with a personal experience to share.

For homework one week, students in Baltimore are sent on a scavenger hunt, tasked with snapping photos of transit stops in response to prompts like, “Look 360 degrees around you. Are there useful or interesting places to go nearby? Is it safe, convenient, and inviting to walk to them?” In Richmond, students learn the value of first-hand accounts and personal storytelling as a means of persuasion. They practice writing and delivering public comments and learn how to attend board meetings and contact representatives.

“Don’t assume you can do it all,” said Walker at RVA Rapid Transit. “Ask people to teach those sessions. It made the program so much stronger.” She recruited the organization’s own board members — a lobbyist gave a lesson in power mapping, and the leader of a Richmond-area pedestrian and bike organization taught a session in organizing.

Advocacy groups are using these programs to grow their bases, expand their influence, and equip riders to be movers and shakers themselves. As Walker described it during a recent RVA Rapid Transit event: “We’re trying to multiply ourselves.”

Eric Norton, the CMTA’s director of programs and policy, notes how much the program has helped them build a supporter base. “If you’re testifying at a bill hearing or publicly commenting, it’s one thing for experts to go up and cite a report and say, ‘This is why you need to invest in such-and-such and reduce greenhouse gasses,’” Norton said. “But if we’re followed by a rider who’s telling their personal story about being left behind at a bus stop or not being able to get to a job or getting fired, that adds a layer of emotion that’s more compelling than the data alone.”

These programs are graduating advocates with independent agendas too. Danielle Sweeney, who now works as an organizer for CMTA, is one of them. After she finished with Transportation 101’s first cohort in 2017, she went on to blog about Baltimore’s transit issues and started a Facebook group where members discussed local transit matters. Her classmate Brian Seel, who is a software engineer, said he brought his idea for a real-time bus tracking program to a community hackathon, and they built it.

This year’s graduates have their own ideas. Smith-Burden plans to use his new knowledge and connections to make a short documentary about the Highway to Nowhere, a failed freeway project in Baltimore that blew through a vibrant neighborhood. His classmate, Jo’Elie Louis wants to work on accessibility projects, like adding visual cues on buses.

RVA Rapid Transit’s program is still in its infancy, but students are already coming out with action plans. Some are volunteering with the organization for events or jockeying to join the city’s citizen transit advisory group. Yari Gibson plans to volunteer with bike and pedestrian organizations to cut down on car dependency in Richmond.

When Sweeney took the course in 2017, she wanted to get a bill drafted and passed, but learned that her skills as a writer could be more readily applied. Now as an organizer for CMTA, she helps students develop their action plans and projects into something achievable.

“Teach students to work in their sphere of influence,” she said “If they’re not working in a space that they have some impact on, they might be spinning their wheels,” she said. “But we want them to be successful.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter and bus rider in Richmond. Her work is archived here.

The post ‘Citizens Academies’ for Transit Riders Teach Self-Advocacy appeared first on Streetsblog USA.

The post ‘Citizens Academies’ for Transit Riders Teach Self-Advocacy appeared first on Streetsblog California.

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