Aug. 31, 2022
As a lifelong translator of systems, Naomi Doerner is leading the way for communities to take charge of their mobility. In 2016, she co-founded the Untokening, a national collective of leaders of color working to advance mobility justice and equity. Soon after, she made history as Seattle's — and the country's — first-ever transportation equity manager, signaling a broader shift in transportation planning.
"Mobility justice, as a term, is now being applied and used as a rubric for making decisions, ensuring that the communities at the center of injustice are at the center of creating justice," she says.
Whether with the Untokening or in her current position as principal and director of equity, diversity, and inclusion for Nelson\Nygaard, Doerner is making inroads for people of color worldwide to advocate for mobility justice in their cities. On a recent episode of APA's podcast series "People Behind the Plans," she joined host Courtney Kashima to discuss her childhood navigating Chicago's transit system, what mobility justice looks like in practice, and what planners can do right now to spark change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
KASHIMA: How did you first get into this work?
DOERNER: I don't think I had a choice. We took public transit everywhere when I was young. I always saw transportation through the eyes of someone who lived at an intersection: being American but also the daughter of an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. I grew up in Chicago in a mostly immigrant, low-income community. We eventually moved into more of a middle-class area and I realized that these communities were really different.
We took public transit everywhere when I was young. In fact, I lost my first doll on the bus. I'll never forget getting off the bus and realizing that my Cabbage Patch Kid was on there. My mom was sad, too, because she had worked really hard to buy me that. But all that is to say, I think I grew up being a translator navigating the transportation system. I remember asking, why did it take so long to get places sometimes?
Ultimately, this led me to grad school. I was very interested in continuing to explore the question of "why" around transit disparities through public policy. So, rather than going the technical planning route, I went the more public policy route so I could continue to be that navigator, but in a different way.
KASHIMA: Your work centers on mobility justice. How do you define that term?
DOERNER: Mobility justice is the ability to choose and say, "This is how I want to move, and I can do that freely in every single sense of the word," without having one's choice determined for them. Mobility justice for my mother would have meant that she could choose how she was going to get around. She wouldn't have had to worry about being delayed and losing her job or waiting outside in the cold for too long.
To this day, we have communities that, because of historical decisions, are in a place where they don't have the ability to make these choices for themselves because all of the options are not available to them. So, mobility could be using transit, driving vehicle, walking or cycling. But mobility justice to me is less about modality: it is really about the self and the ability to choose how you get around.
KASHIMA: How did your role as Seattle's transportation equity manager come about?
DOERNER: Community advocacy. While Seattle did fund the position, the community was already doing that advocacy for years. My role was to navigate this discussion about how Seattle spent its resources and then bring in community voices to help us understand the experiences of people who were not experiencing equitable transportation. These community members would then help us really define what that could look like for them and the communities they represented.
Initially, the city was really thinking about transportation equity from an affordability lens. Like many cities, Seattle is experiencing high growth and lower-income households are being pushed out. But what we learned was that affordability, while it was a big component of inequity, wasn't the only thing. There were many other barriers to transportation accessibility for groups, including children and seniors.
KASHIMA: Tell us about the nonprofit you helped start.
DOERNER: The Untokening is a multicultural collective of leaders of color who come together to share their own experiences working in transportation and help communities they identify with achieve mobility justice. In 2017, we published our Principles of Mobility Justice. We've learned about people in Mexico City, Colombia, and South Africa who are now adapting them for their use.
It's also a space where we talk about our identities. Folks come from a variety of professional and advocacy backgrounds, but the thing that we all have in common is that we hold identities and experiences that have been politically and historically marginalized. It's very healing to be able to come to gatherings and talk about not just experiences, but strategies, and not be looked at strangely.
KASHIMA: What does mobility justice look like in practice?
DOERNER: I think the ideal is that mobility justice isn't just a sliver or slice of a project or a small community engagement budget that tokenizes a community, but rather it's the untokening of a process. It's developing a community plan that says, "This is how we see not only transportation systems, but how public space and everything else in our community ought to be."
While this isn't happening on a large scale, there seems to be a lot of movement in that direction. We're starting to see larger allocations and engagement processes that consider the voices of community. We're actually seeing projects that require a racial equity framework. Mobility justice is being spoken of as part of a framework at the federal level for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which is pretty incredible.
KASHIMA: What are some quote-unquote easy things we could do now to advance mobility justice?
DOERNER: Can't we just hire people from communities that we're working in? I know that we have hiring processes, but all that is policy, and it can be changed. We created the current processes and the policies, so we should be the ones to change them.