Abdullahi Abdulle is a Transportation Equity Planning Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Abdullahi’s connection to his community has been an important thread through his equity work, and we spoke to Abdullahi about how his superpowers of connection and courage show up daily in his work in public service.
How did you come to Transportation Equity Work?
“When I was doing traditional transportation planning work, programming and design, I felt like there was something missing. I was concerned about who had access to these transportation services, and who didn’t. Being a member of the community, and having the experience of trying to navigate the transportation system as an immigrant, made me want to advocate for a specialized role in public works focused on transportation equity. I remember how difficult it was, especially in the first couple of years that I was still new to the country, to get from point A to point B. My colleagues and I in transportation shared experiences of being from the communities that we were serving, and saw a need. All of these pieces led me to where I am today as the Transportation Equity Planning Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.”
What does it mean to you to be connected to your community?
“I think about this story when I am thinking about my role in government:
I had a neighbor who shared with me that she was working two jobs so that she could pay rent, buy food, and save enough money to put two of her kids through college. I think about how working two shifts does not really leave a lot of time for my neighbor to comment on all of these different transportation plans and programs that government agencies ask people to comment on. There are many people in the community that cannot be there, even if they wanted to. When those community members can’t be there, their lived experiences are excluded from the decision making process. Our role in government is to mitigate that exclusion. One way to do that is by making sure that we have representation for people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and lived experiences. So that, some people with decision-making power at the table share some of those lived experiences, even when we cannot bring everyone to the table.
My lived and shared experience with the community is a source of foundational knowledge, and a reminder to fight for equitable outcomes for my fellow community members who often are not invited to the decision-making table. When I look around, I sometimes see spaces where I’m the only person that has my background. To me, my connection to the community is not only something that grounds me, but is also a constant reminder of what is at stake, and how loud I need to be in these spaces, because staying silent is not really an option.”
Are there moments in your work where you have to lead with courage?
“I feel like the moment is always requiring that I need to be more courageous and share with sincerity what my thoughts are. What that really means is for me to get comfortable with that discomfort, and being comfortable having conversations with people that do not agree with me and sometimes don’t see the value of what I’m saying. It’s not feasible for us to only talk about the weather; we have to talk about the substantial issues. Issues like transportation, housing, and equity that make people think, ‘what is my role here?’. It’s important to me that I try my best everyday to lead with both my heart and my mind so we can have those brave conversations.
Sometimes leading with courage means that I say something that is very uncomfortable about institutions or systems that we like. We have something in our industry that we often call ‘proven practice’. It is an understanding that there are proven methods of practice for how we do our work. But ‘proven practice’ is only proven practice for the people that have many blind spots and gaps in their knowledge and grounding with communities, and to question that takes a lot of risk and requires a lot of courageous conversations.”
What are some projects that you are most proud of in your work?
“I’m really most proud of a project in Minneapolis that repurposed a highway into a car-free pedestrian and bicycle connection from this high density, mostly immigrant community to downtown Minneapolis. The community advocated for that project for so many years and they were able to get it. approved and also name it to honor one of the community’s core members, Samatar Crossing. If we look, I’m hoping we find stories like that. Not necessarily what the actual outcome looks like, or even the car-free nature of it, but projects that show communities and their countless hours of advocacy led to something meaningful and concrete. I’m hoping that there will be more outcomes like this that we can celebrate soon.”