Letter From The Executive Director | Sept 2020

September 17, 2020

By: Jeff Allen

The brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25, along with many others, has prompted a new and long-overdue level of public reckoning about our nation’s institutional racism. 

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been a growing focus for Forth over the past several years, and we’ve recently collected and organized some of that work and key lessons learned on our website. I’ve also been thinking a lot about how my understanding of the issues and the work that needs to be done has changed, and about how far we have yet to go. I thought it might be helpful to some of our partners to share a bit more about this process.

Forth’s mission is to accelerate the use of smart transportation to move people and goods in a more efficient, cleaner, and equitable way. Forth is not simply an environmental organization, or an economic development organization, or an antiracist organization. We are an organization that seeks to use the transformative power of smart transportation to advance all three of these causes. For me, the fact that we are pursuing these goals simultaneously is both the most exciting, and most challenging, aspect of our work.   

All of our work around DEI has been firmly grounded in this mission. However, as we keep digging, we keep peeling back layers of institutional racism and uncovering new aspects of this work. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that the work is profoundly challenging. I’m an older white male. I can be aware that I swim in systems of unconscious bias, white privilege, and systemic racism that it’s hard for me to even see – but I can’t ever know what it is really like to live as a person of color in this country. We can’t examine and dismantle institutional and structural racism without explicitly talking about race. These are hard conversations most of us are not used to having, especially in work settings. This work takes a lot of courage, trust, and vulnerability.

Back around 2015, when Forth really began this work, I would have said we were working to make sure clean electric transportation was accessible to and benefitted traditionally underserved communities. That work began when we sought an electric vehicle (EV) rebate in the Oregon Legislature. While we had some bipartisan support, we were defeated in part by a perception that electric cars were “toys for the rich.” We regrouped, consulted with equity-centered organizations, and redesigned the program to include a double rebate and eligibility for used EV rebates for income-qualifying buyers, successfully securing a rebate in 2017. During this time, we also developed demonstration projects that centered equity, such as one of the nation’s first electric carsharing projects in a low-income community of color. We also began developing more inclusive education materials, such as “EV101” fliers in nine different languages. 

By 2017, I would have added that we were also starting to recognize and undertake some of the work internally that we needed to do in order to build authentic partnerships and be a stronger ally in this work. That included our first formal board-adopted DEI statement in 2017; putting all of our leadership team members through extensive DEI training; taking more deliberate action to recruit a more diverse pool of staff and board members; and many other steps. It also included developing an annual report and plan to increase transparency and hold ourselves accountable.

By 2019, I would have said we were more explicitly recognizing how transportation investments and planning in the United States have long reinforced patterns of racial inequality and exclusion. Urban renewal and highway projects destroyed many historically Black and community of color neighborhoods; redlining policies reduced the ability of people of color to move freely, buy homes, and build wealth; and gentrification has pushed communities of color towards outlying areas with fewer transportation options. This history is part of why we need to explicitly lead with race when we talk about equity, and not fall back on terms like “low and moderate-income” that may be more comfortable for white folks like me but obscure reality.

Today, I would say we are grappling with how Forth can best advance our mission in a way that is actively anti-racist. We know we have a responsibility to speak up, to lean in, to help our partners understand why this work is critical, and to proactively seek out ways to use clean transportation technologies to disrupt racism and inequality in transportation systems. 

My point is this: I don’t know what this work will look like for me, or for Forth, in the years ahead. I definitely don’t know what it should look like for you, or for your organization. But I do know it’s critically important that we keep trying things, failing, inviting feedback, and learning together. At Forth, we’re in this for the long haul.

This blog post is part of a quarterly series of letters written by the Executive Director, Senior Leadership Team, and Executive Committee. These blogs cover the state of the organization, industry, and current events relevant to smart transportation.

Letter From The Executive Director | Sept 2020
The brutal killing of George Floyd on May 25, along with many others, has prompted a new and long-overdue level of public reckoning about our nation’s institutional racism.  Diversity, equity,...