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Why Young People of Color Must Be At the Forefront of the Mobility Justice Movement

"We don't just want our young people to be the peer-to-peer educators; we want them to be key stakeholders in building safe and sustainable and equitable transportation systems throughout our all of our cities," said Jacob Smith, executive director of the National Organizations For Youth Safety.

12:01 AM EDT on August 22, 2023

Photo: William Fortunato, Pexels, CC

Whether they're successfully suing their governments for transportation policies that cause climate change or leading the movement against extrajudicial police killings on our roads, U.S. youth — and particularly youth of color — are some of the most impactful advocates in the fight to build an equitable transportation systems. And now, an exciting new conference is bringing them together in one room.

On September 16th, the National Youth Transportation Equity Convening in Memphis, Tenn. will invite young people across the country from ages 15 to 29 to enjoy a full day of free star-studded panels, performances, and opportunities to build partnerships with other youth leaders organizing for safer communities.

We sat down with host organization National Organizations for Youth Safety's executive director, Jacob Smith — who himself became a teen activist for road safety after surviving a head-on collision in 2014 — to get a sense of what attendees can expect, and talk about why empowering BIPOC youth should be a top priority even for those who won't make it to Bluff City this year.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kea Wilson: In broad terms, what is the National Youth Transportation Equity Convening, and where did you all get the idea for this incredibly exciting event?

Jacob Smith: Well, the National Youth Transportation Equity Convening really is just that: a convening, where we hope to amplify the voices and experiences of youth, with a particular focus on Black, indigenous, people of color, and young folks who represent marginalized communities. Engaging young people in mobility, safety and transportation equity is critical to the social determinants of health, but also to building vibrant and friendly cities that are safe and accessible for everyone.

This convening really came about through a group of young people in Memphis that we were working with last year around creating safe spaces for LGBTQ and queer identities. And through that work, we also started to discuss some of the inequities that LGBTQ youth face on their journey to and from school. A lot of the young people started to recognize and express that there are all these conversations happening around transportation equity and the safe system approach and building cities that are great for all road users, but the conversation oftentimes leaves out young people and their lived experiences that are impacted through the transportation system.

Wilson: What do those lived experiences look like? What kind of common stories have you heard from the youth leaders at the center of this event?

Smith: Some of the experiences that these folks are facing are lack of housing, or lack of affordable housing, especially for LGBTQ youth. Some are having to travel 30 miles just to get to their jobs, and having to do that via multiple modes of transportation like having to carpool or walk multiple miles next to a highway that prevents them from feeling safe on their journey. [A lot of] young people don't have reliable transportation and safe transportation to get from point A to point B ...And I think another big one are the experiences of disabled youth. We have some young people who are going to be at the convening speaking about disability justice and recognizing that we have to center that in our conversation about transportation equity.

Wilson: Why is it important not just to listen to the lived experiences of youth of color in the transportation realm, but actually let them lead?

Smith: Young people can really reimagine what our cities could look like. They're not the folks who spent years in engineering school; they're not the folks who have gotten degrees in nonprofit management or transportation safety. And so it really allows them to be a clean slate, and it's our role to uplift not just their lived experiences, but also their imagination of what cities and towns could be. And I think the beauty of working with BIPOC communities is that they recognize the historical inequities, but they also have this bright imagination of what could be.

Wilson: Tell me a little bit about how you found your presenters. They sound really amazing.

Smith: We live in a world where young people are not always at the forefront, so it was it was a challenge to recruit young people from across the country to be speakers. But we did get some awesome folks ...

We'll be hearing from Safe Kids Worldwide around safety within diverse communities. We'll be hearing from Hop Skip Drive, which provides alternative transportation options. We'll be hearing from the National Youth Bike Council, which is an incredible national youth organization that harnesses the power of young people to address bicycling and the power of bicycling in communities. And we'll have the Memphis Youth Action Board sharing their commitment to addressing housing insecurity and transportation equity, and the Fines and Fees Justice Center discussing, how do we really address the issue around fines and fees that affect young people within transportation and traffic enforcement?

So, yes, tons of different topics! It's going to be jam-packed with panel discussions with an open Youth Forum for young people to express their views and their opinions regarding the transportation system in America. But my favorite part about the session is that we really are trying to make it as lively as possible. We'll have a DJ performing throughout the session, and the Memphis Youth Arts Initiative is doing an incredible performance to highlight what young people love to do, which that is to create spaces that are inclusive and safe for themselves and others.

Wilson: What do you hope Convening attendees will leave with? What do you hope that they'll do after the event?

Smith: Our hope is that young people will have the opportunity to connect with organizations or create their own around transportation equity. It's really about finding at least one topic that connects to their vision of a world where we can center justice and equity and transportation, and then working with those and other partner organizations to continue their work as youth leaders. This isn't the end; we're actually going to be hosting quarterly social hours for young people across the country for them to continue to build relationships for us to offer funding and resources for them to build projects in their community. We really just want this to be the beginning of a relationship, to continue to build connections that support young people as they embark on this journey of transportation equity.

Wilson: To close us out, why now? Why is today the day we need to get BIPOC youth not just involved in the conversation about transportation equity, but in true movement-leading roles?

Smith: I think the statistics show that, altogether, children of color are more likely to bike or walk than than any other race, but their injury and fatality rates are higher than those of any other race. And so we really want this to be a convening where folks recognize that the data is out there, but also that lived experiences need to be at the forefront, and that young people can be a part of the decision making process. We don't just want our young people to be the peer-to-peer educators; we want them to be key stakeholders in building safe and sustainable and equitable transportation systems throughout our all of our cities. And so this convening is for folks who want to learn a little bit more about how that's done. And for young people, it's about empowering them to know that they're not alone in this journey.

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