Charles T. Brown
Founder & CEO, Equitable Cities
Adjunct Professor, Rutgers University
LinkedIn | Twitter
Arrested mobility. Charles T. Brown, the Founder & CEO of Equitable Cities and Professor of Planning & Public Policy at Rutgers University, joined the podcast to talk about the connection between mobility and equity. He discussed the concept of arrested mobility and how the movement of marginalized communities is overly policed. Charles also shared how planners and planning departments should understand how their work intersects with other issues and policies.
Host: Ben Kittelson
2021 National Bike Summit Keynote: Arrested Mobility – Exploring Impacts of Over-policing on BIPOC
Where Do We Go From Here? Breaking Down Barriers to Bicycling in the U.S.
9 Reasons to Eliminate Jaywalking Laws Now
Profile: Charles Brown – Fighting for Social Justice and Street Equality
How Can We Do Better? Limits on Black Mobility in Transportation
Ben Kittelson 00:00
Should be recording. Hey ya’ll, coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida. This is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittleson, consultant at Raftelis, and Gov Love co host. We have a great episode for today we’re going to be talking mobility and equity. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. Gov Love is brought to you by Granicus with upticks in post vaccine travel right around the corner, it’s time to address short term rentals in your community. If you don’t have a short term rental regulation, or enforcement program in place, you could be missing out on tourism related tax revenue and risking damage to your community’s character. Granicus host compliance helps you with everything from address identification to ordinance reviews and compliance monitoring. If you’d like to learn more about short term rental regulation, and Granicus host compliance, go to granicus.com to schedule a free consultation. That’s granicus.com for more information.
Charles T. Brown 01:09
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Ben Kittelson 01:34
Now let me introduce today’s guest. Charles T. Brown is the Founder and Managing principal of equitable cities LLC, an urban planning policy research and multimedia firm working at the intersection of transportation health and equity. He serves as an adjunct professor at the Edward J. Blaustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. And previously he served as a senior researcher with alum- with the Alan M Voorhees’s Transportation Center at Rutgers and as city planner at the city of Orlando, Florida. If- you can follow Charles on twitter at CTBrown1911. If as you listen to this, you want to you want to get more thoughts and learn about us work. With that, thank you or welcome to Gov Love Charles, thank you so much for joining us.
Charles T. Brown 02:17
Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s really a pleasure and an honor to spend this time with you. So thank you for the invitation.
Ben Kittelson 02:25
Awesome. So we have a tradition on Gov Love to do a lightning round of more fun questions to get to know our, let our listeners get to know our guests. So my first question for you, what was the first album that you bought?
Charles T. Brown 02:37
Oh, man, what a great question. No one is ever asked me that question early on in an interview. You take me back to, with that question, I think 1999. I was in basic training in Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the US Army. And the first album I bought was a CD by Little Wayne. The block is hot. So Little Wayne’s album. The block is hot. 1999 November 99. I bought it for my birthday.
Ben Kittelson 03:09
That’s awesome. That’s a great first,
Charles T. Brown 03:11
Hey, you know what? The block is still hot. So it’s still relevant.
Ben Kittelson 03:17
Oh, that’s early Little Wayne too. That’s before the Carter series right?
Charles T. Brown 03:21
Before the Carter series, yes. When he was truly Little Wayne.
Ben Kittelson 03:26
That’s great. Alright, my next lightning round question for you, have you watched a show or movie recently that you’d recommend our listeners?
Charles T. Brown 03:33
So when we talk about like recommending shows, I don’t usually recommend more recent shows, there is a show that I always recommend and to be candid I even ask it as a question when I’m interviewing people for job postings. And that question usually is, have you seen The Wire by David Simon? The wire is by far the greatest television series or show I’ve ever seen in my life. So The Wire is what I usually recommend.
Ben Kittelson 04:10
Awesome. Yeah, I’m due for like a rewatch of The Wire. I haven’t seen it in a long time. So it’s time.
Charles T. Brown 04:15
We got to do it together, man. So we can talk about it.
Ben Kittelson 04:19
That’ll be it. We’ll start a new podcast that’ll just be recapping The Wire.
Charles T. Brown 04:22
Ben Kittelson 04:25
Alright, the next question, is there a book about I don’t know transportation planning that you give us a gift or you recommend to the folks
Charles T. Brown 04:33
This may surprise you, but I don’t usually give books about specifically about transportation or planning to people. What I give people books on has to do with power and knowledge of power and how power works and influence our system. So when it comes to books, my favorite author is Robert Greene. Greene ending in an E. And so I give, the first book I give to people is the 48 Laws of Power. I think it’s imperative that we all understand how power work, how power works to influence decisions locally, nationally, and even on a global scale. So anything that Robert Greene writes, I give as a gift, the latest one is The Laws of Human Nature, so understanding how we are wired, as individuals, and as a collective, I think will go a long ways in helping people to understand transportation and planning as a whole.
Ben Kittelson 05:32
Interesting, yeah, cause that, the power dynamic obviously impacts all sorts of public policy and, and stuff there. All right, my last lightning round question for you, where do you go for inspiration?
Charles T. Brown 05:45
Oh, that’s, that’s a good question. I go to my childhood, I think back to when the world’s problems were not front and center, when I was free to think and to believe that I could be a superhero. So I look back at my childhood photos. And if you ever see me give a keynote presentation, I usually have in that presentation, a photo of myself when I was young. And in addition to that, I have three beautiful children now. Christian, Camden and Layla. They are my inspiration, along with their mother. So ensuring that, you know, I put a smile on their face, I’m inspired every time I see that. So those are two things, or two places I visit, you know, either in my head or, you know, these direct moments, these intimate moments with them. They give me inspiration.
Ben Kittelson 06:54
Awesome. That’s great. And then but before we started recording, you mentioned that I saw your Twitter handle the CTBrown1911. And you mentioned that that that year has some significance. I’m just curious, what is what’s the significance of that of that year and in your Twitter handle?
Charles T. Brown 07:10
Yeah, so the year 1911, I’m a proud member of Kappa, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Incorporated, which is one of the oldest black fraternities in in the world. So I’m a proud and active member of that. And it was founded in 1911. And it’s really about brotherhood, it’s about service. It’s about achievement. And I continue to actively participate in my local chapter here in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And again, it’s about in service to to others, I mean, it is special because of that brotherhood, and the ability that one has to interact with like minded individuals, while at the same time being challenged to be your best self. And so I believe in accountability, I believe in having something much bigger, larger than yourself. And so, Kappa represents that along with a number of things in my life.
Ben Kittelson 08:26
Alright, and I always like to ask folks like, their career path into their, their current position. And, you know, obviously, a lot of our guests, you know, work in local government. And kind of one of the themes is that there’s not a single way to get in into this field. But for you, I’m interested in kind of your path to your role. And then, and then we can kind of talk about maybe how you ended up focusing your research and your work on on the specific area that you do. But I guess for you, what was kind of your path here to your current role?
Charles T. Brown 08:55
Yeah, so I think like all paths, if we’re honest, and we, you know, are introspective, my path, my path is a result of my childhood. I come from a town of less than 500 people in rural Mississippi, like many places, it, it was facing, you know, job loss, crime, just a lack of abilities for the youth to be active, to really become their best selves. And I wanted to understand at a systematic level, what was preventing people from from becoming their best selves. And that sort of led me to planning because of the role in the influence that planning in transportation related decisions, the way they play out in society. I didn’t, I wasn’t exposed to urban planning directly as a kid, but I went to School for drafting and design and architecture. And that’s where, or when I discovered urban planning. And since that time, it has just been something that I’ve always wanted to focus on. Because when you do planning right, you center people in the experiences of those people, and you try to really see how you can make lives better for everyone, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, their gender, their sexual orientation, or their income. And so working in planning gives me the ability to do just that, to make sure that we’re designing cities, neighborhoods, transit systems, you know, the world around what people need, and what marginalized people need most.
Ben Kittelson 10:58
I think you mentioned earlier that you were you’re an army veteran. And is there anything about that experience that kind of informs your work now? Or? Or your interest in urban planning or?
Charles T. Brown 11:10
Yeah, so when you look at my career, and you’re having me look at right now with these questions. The common theme, man is service, you know, service to others. And even if we bring religion into it, you know, I’m unapologetically Christian. And it’s, it has always been about service to mankind, love for thy neighbor. And so for me, this is the way I’m living out those principles of loving thy neighbor, you know, when I really think about it, and so I believe that I’m put here in service of all, and so whether it’s planning, whether it’s the military, whether it’s Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, whether it’s Equitable City, this is why we center the need to focus on people and be in service of people. And I just chose planning and transportation as the domain or the sector to make that a reality.
Ben Kittelson 12:17
I bet that echoes for a lot of our listeners like that, that this is the way they serve this is and working in local government as a way to give back to, you know, a cause bigger than yourself.
Charles T. Brown 12:29
There is no, no greater joy I can receive than seeing a smile or putting a smile on someone else’s face. And in many ways, that may be selfish, to even think that way. But I really do like seeing other people happy in playing just a small part in that.
Ben Kittelson 12:59
So let’s kind of shift gears a little bit to to your current work. So can you tell us a little bit about the work you do at Equitable Cities? Like, I don’t know if you have some examples of projects that you could share, or just kind of the the work that you’re focused on through that?
Charles T. Brown 13:12
Oh, yeah, man, we’re very busy at Equitable Cities. As you stated, for those who may have missed it, Equitable Cities, LLC. It’s an urban planning, policy research and multimedia firm that I started. And my work at Equitable City centers, or is at the intersection of transportation, health and equity in equity. And so some of my current projects right now in the health domain, I’m working with the CDC, and the National Association of chronic disease directors on an initiative called BRIC as an acronym, BRIC. BRIC is about building resilient, inclusive communities. And through that work, Equitable Cities is serving as a health equity and a racial equity technical assistance provider, where we’re working with 23 states around the country to increase physical activity throughout their respective states improve access to food security, or nutrition security. And lastly, to increase social connectedness. As you can imagine, due to the recent pandemic, the civil and social unrest in this country, the fact that from the planning perspective, we are segregated residentially by race, so it’s about increasing that you know, social connectedness and ensuring that people have an opportunity to be more physically active. And then lastly, making sure that we’re healthy through our pursuit of nutrition security, so I’m proud of that work. I’m also working with the Southern California Association of Governments. The acronym for that is SCAG, SCAG. They’re the largest metropolitan planning organization in the US. And it’s been great to work with them to develop on a regional planning level, one of the country’s first racial equity action plans for regional planning government. It’s just been dynamic to work with SCAG staff and leadership there. They’re truly passionate about ensuring that everyone has access, equitable and inclusive access, to their transportation systems. And then to conclude, two other projects of which I’m proud of are, my partnership with Kaboom, I’m serving as a consultant to Kaboom which Kaboom is devoted to ending play space in equity, play-play-play space inequity throughout the US. And I’m serving as their measurement and evaluation consultant, as well as assisting them with or in their pursuits to secure funding to ensure that all places across the US have access to play spaces. And then lastly, I’m working with NUMA does an acronym for New Urban Mobility Alliance, out of DC, I’m a senior adviser to them. And WRI which is the World Resources Institute. I’m helping them center the importance of equity and racial equity in their electric school bus initiative. And I don’t know if you are aware, but there are initiatives across the US currently to electrify every school bus in America. And so I want to make sure, we want to make sure that that process is one that is equitable, and as inclusive as possible. So those four projects, and I have so many others, are really the four that I’m most excited about at the moment.
Ben Kittelson 17:27
For, and I don’t know if it’d be easiest to pick one of them and to dive in on this. But I mean, some of those are such broad, like ideas, and then equity is, can obviously look a lot of different ways. And there’s a lot of different factors that that need an equity focus or lens, how do you approach it when you know, you’re you’re brought in to Southern California Planning Association, to kind of bring equity to some of their work? What is the kind of the I don’t know the the way you focus in on on tangible things that they can do, and they can change?
Charles T. Brown 18:01
Yeah, so just to clarify, it’s this Southern California Association of Governments,
Ben Kittelson 18:08
I knew I was gonna get the acronym wrong.
Charles T. Brown 18:11
It’s okay. They’re good people they wouldn’t mind. You ask how you mind rephrasing the question for me?
Ben Kittelson 18:19
Yeah, I guess I’m like, planning, planning is such a broad topic already. And then equity and how you apply equity can be can look very different place to place or issue to issue. So like, how do you focus in on the kind of like, here are the tangible things that, you know, the Southern California Alliance of governments can do to to make progress on this? Or if, or if there’s another example that is kind of like, these are the these are the things that this looks like when it’s kind of on the ground?
Charles T. Brown 18:44
Right? Well, first and foremost, you just don’t simply approach these projects with a sort of aggregated definition of equity. I think while that is productive, what you really want to do is allow the current conditions to help you determine which area of equity that most needs your attention. For instance, in working with SCAG, they were particular about equity being both a part of their process in terms of how they make decisions, how they engage community, how they go about structuring subcommittees, how they do their listening tours, how they distribute their funding, etc. So equity is a process and then they look at it in terms of their outcomes as well. How equitable are their outcomes? Are they still seeing the disparities and inequities that have resulted historically from some of the past decisions that they’ve made and does putting in place performance measures, to ensure that you’re meeting your targets around increasing access, distributing funds, and the Fair in meaningful involvement of residents in the state of, in their region in California is one way to ensure that you’re doing this in an equitable fashion. In addition to that, you know, when you disaggregate the term equity, they have a specific focus on racial equity. And they have a focus on racial equity, because the current conditions show that historically, as well as in contemporary times, race was a factor, when they look at the disparities and the inequities that exist within that region. Therefore, racial equity became a focus, you also see inequities or disparities across the various modalities. So whether a person is walking, biking, taking public transit or driving, so then modal equity becomes a focus. And then when you look at other indicators, you start to see the need to focus on gender equity, you may see the need to prioritize things spatially or geographically, which will be spatial or geographical equity. And so those are the ways in which we approach those projects, not the blindly we’re, we use data to drive the decision making, because you often hear me say, without data, all you have is an opinion. And so we try to bring data to the table, not just opinions.
Ben Kittelson 21:34
I like that, that’s a good phrase to live by, without data that you just have an opinion. So on that front, did, did the groups you end up working with often already have that data to kind of focus their their work or their equity choices around? Or is that something that, you know, they need to develop? Or if you know, if I’m a city manager in some town, and I want to start doing equity, like and focusing on on equity, like you’re talking about, like, what, what kind of data would I need to start collecting or need to need to find in order to like, make the decisions that you that you’re, that you’re that you’re referencing?
Charles T. Brown 22:12
Again, it goes back to which which form of equity, you would want to focus on, I’ll tell you, and this is not the case, in SCAG. But many governments have not collected racial data, or demographic data beyond income. And thus, it becomes more difficult to see the disparities across race. And that’s unfortunate, because race is such an important variable when you’re looking at these disparities. And so whereas SCAG may have been well prepared to disaggregate it, it’s data across racial and ethnic lines, many other places may not be as well versed. And so what we need from organizations, institutions, at all levels of government, as well as in the, in both sectors, public and private, and nonprofit, I should say all three, we should ensure that we’re collecting data on race, and ethnicity, gender, and income, so that we can then disaggregate this level, this data to see what inequities and what disparities exist within our regions. And it’s not difficult, you can go to the US Census to get a lot of this information or you can gain it from additional secondary sources.
Ben Kittelson 23:48
One of the things that that I’ve enjoyed with following your work and and you on Twitter is kind of you referencing arrested mobility and kind of and it was a term I wasn’t very familiar with, so can you, what is the rest of mobility? What’s kind of like caught up in that phrase, and then and in that, that you’re trying to, like, raise awareness around?
Charles T. Brown 24:08
I’m really impressed man, you’ve done your homework here. Yeah, this is this is really great. Arrested mobility is a phrase that I coined, it is the assertion that black people and of course, other minorities, as well, but my focus with arrested mobility, initially it was on black people. And so, arrested mobility is the assertion that black people have been historically and presently denied by legal and illegal authority, the inalienable right to move, to be moved, or to simply exist in public space. And I state that, unfortunately, this leads or results in adverse social, political, economic and health effects that are widespread and intergenerational. But they’re also preventable. And that’s what I want people to understand. And so people usually say, Well, how have they been denied, you know, by this legal and this illegal authority, the right to move, to be moved by mode, etc. And I say, Well, they’ve been over policed. And there are three ways in which they’ve been over policed. Unfortunately, people just haven’t seen the two ways that I’m about to mention, as being in concert with traditional forms of policing. And so I state over policing, the way that I see it is evident via three distinct forms. The first one is the more traditional one, the one we know to be law enforcement. And I state law enforcement not only at the municipal level, but at the the state, the county, you know, the federal level. Then it happens through Policy and Planning, which I assign as a joint p together to give three. And so you asked what was one of my reasons for entering this space, it’s because I seen the ways in which my people and other people had been policed by Policy and Planning. And then the third piece is polity polity. Or in simplest form, the self deputization of white citizens the quote unquote Karens throughout this country. And so when you see this over policing through the lens of law enforcement, policy/planning, and then the self deputization of white citizens, what you see is a trifecta working to prevent and restrict the movement of black people, whether they’re walking, whether they’re biking, whether they’re driving, whether they’re taking public or private transit, whether they’re hopping the ride via rideshare, or even using a micro mobility device, such as an E scooter. And I don’t just say that, remember, I stated without data, all you have is an opinion. And so in my presentations on arrested mobility, I come with plenty, plenty of data to present these findings.
Ben Kittelson 27:40
So if, I don’t know if if I work for a city or even like a region or something, and I wanted to make an impact on arrested mobility, I think there’s been most of the focus around equity has been on the law enforcement piece. And, you know, what can you do around responding to calls or responding to or enforcing, you know, local ordinances and laws to make that response, more equity, equitable? And obviously, that’s, that’s it’s own conversation. But for your other two pieces that you highlight around, these are also policing minorities, and especially African Americans, like what are some things that cities can can start to do to to, to change those, bend the curve on those, make those spaces more equal too?
Charles T. Brown 28:20
Yes, great question. So let’s take for instance, planning, one of the first things that we can do as planners is take a look at racialized zoning and land use practices. See it’s, it’s not just by chance that we are racially segregated residentially speaking, there are as is covered in the book, The Color of Law, facts to demonstrate why we live where we live, as different racial and ethnic groups. So I think revisiting and analyzing zoning and land use policies will help us to eliminate arrested mobility, I think too, taking a look at policies on the book that criminalize cycling, for instance, yes, it is my opinion that if you can afford an helmet, we all should wear a helmet. And if you cannot afford one, we should all be willing to purchase an helmet for someone. And I bring that up because there are a helmet laws. There are laws on the books that say one must have a front in a rear tail light on their bicycles. There are laws estate people should and shouldn’t bicycle on sidewalks. But these laws exist without taking into consideration, one, that there are many people who cannot afford a helmet. Two, the fact that we allow bicycles to be sold, even though they do not, do not adhere to the law as they are sold. For instance, if I go out tomorrow and buy a car from a dealership, that car, say for the tag in the registration comes fully equipped with everything I need to make it legal. And yet a bicycle can be sold with a front light and a real light that doesn’t meet the legal requirements in most states. And so should we enforce these things? Yes. But should we criminalize people for not having these things and use it then as a pretext to assault, to imprison people? Absolutely not. And so I think we can work to decriminalize cycling. Same thing being said, as it relates to jaywalking. We should decriminalize jaywalking, because at this stage, it is debatable whether we should enforce jaywalking criminally. And I’ve stated along with my wonderful colleague, Andy Smith, who I wrote the foreword to her book right away, that there are at least nine reasons to eliminate jaywalking laws right now. And this was published in Bloomberg city lab, and hundreds of 1000s of people have read that. And there are now movements across this, across the US to decriminalize jaywalking, the state of Virginia was the first to do it, Kansas City, Missouri is a city that has done it. And there are other places like California and Texas, who are pursuing it as well. And so those are some some examples that people can take right now on a policy and a planning level, to unarrest the mobility of black people in this country.
Ben Kittelson 32:22
It’s interesting, because like those, I would say, probably for most people, the at face value, some of those things seem like kind of common sense, right? Oh, you want to have a helmet, It’s safer on a bike, It’s Yeah, you don’t want folks across in mid block because they might get hit by a car.
Charles T. Brown 32:35
Yeah, but you, you know, common sense isn’t all that common.
Ben Kittelson 32:40
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, I think you make the point in the city lab piece that like folks are as likely to get hit by a car in an intersection as they are midblock. So it’s really not saving anyone, it’s actually and to me, those regulations, if you kind of look a little deeper, it’s it’s more about our society being more car centric, and car culture center, centric, and prioritizing cars rather than, you know, making things safer for other modes. But that’s interesting that like that, and then there’s the secondary effect of like, if you’re actually enforcing these rules, it has a, you know, an unequitable result, on like how, who is actually like, arrested and cited for these things versus like, maybe the actual, you know, population that’s that’s doing all of these, you know, bicycling and jaywalking and stuff.
Charles T. Brown 33:32
And, and I would even say it’s deeper than that. When it comes to jaywalking, when it comes to cycling on a sidewalk, we must first have in place, safe and inclusive infrastructure, before we start to penalize people, for making a decision that they think preserves their lives. And we must not forget that the vast majority of the people that design these systems, and the people that enforce these systems are also people who are more likely to be persons with automobiles, not people who don’t have a car who depend on transit, or who buike to and from their jobs every day, the vast majority of people designing and enforcing are auto centric, and thus their biased to the automobile. And thus, they’re blind to the fact that we are criminalizing people for not having an environment that is conducive to adhering to the law. And because we don’t have that pedestrian eye view, or that bicycle eye view that these individuals have, we we don’t understand, which is why I am a street level researcher. I walk the streets, I bike the streets all over this country because I want to understand what the needs are on the ground before I advocate for penalizing people for their behaviors. It’s disingenuous of me to expect ideal behavior from you and I don’t place you in an ideal environment.
Ben Kittelson 35:27
Yeah, that’s well said. And, you know, cities have control over that environment, they can make it ideal or, or, or choose not to.
Charles T. Brown 35:33
Right. And so then it goes back to the question of equity. Why talk about equity? Because there are inequities and these inequities result in disparities in who is being hit by cars, who lack access to these safe and inclusive infrastructure investments, where disinvestment happens, when you look at it through that lens, you really start to see what pains our community, and what pains our marginalized communities most. And unfortunately, those that are marginalized tend to be black, brown, and low income individuals, no matter where you are in the country.
Ben Kittelson 36:15
Now, another piece of this, that I noticed in places that I’ve worked that the community groups, and then the activists that talk about, you know, alternative forms of transportation, making things more walkable, making things, you know, adding bike lanes, making things more friendly for bicyclists don’t tend to represent those groups, those marginalized groups either and even though those marginalized groups might might actually bike at a more frequent rate or more actively, what, I don’t know what’s what are your kind of your, your thoughts on that? And like how cities can maybe do a better job of saying, yes, the bike club in the city wants a bike lane here, but actually, the users of people that bike most often and need that form of transportation exist in a completely different part of the city and the infrastructure is better used over here?
Charles T. Brown 36:59
Yes, well, I must say, I do appreciate those groups that advocate for bicycle lanes. I think their heart is in the right place. I think what cities need to do first and foremost is diversify their city staff to better reflect the communities in which they serve. I think they also need to do a better job through their procurement processes, in hiring firms that are also more reflective of the communities they’re trying to engage with. And then I would take a look at the advocacy groups because I was always taught by my, my lovely mom from Mississippi that if you’re looking for a problem, you see the makings of that problem every morning, when you look in the mirror. And what she’s saying is, as Michael Jackson said, you got to deal with the man in the mirror first. And I think the cities need to deal with themselves firms. That’s my point there, man or woman I should say. And so then, in looking at the advocacy groups, they mean well, they really, really do, but they too need to also diversify. And they need to understand that the problems that exists in many of these racialized minority communities and low income communities are much bigger than cycling. And is not that these individuals don’t want bike lanes, because my research has shown that black and brown communities also want bike lanes, it’s just that they also want jobs. And they want to see what’s the connection between you talking to me about bicycle lanes, and how that may result in me getting a job. They also want, you know, healthy quality food. So please make the connection for me then how riding your bike gets me healthy quality foods. And then lastly, as an example, they don’t want, you know, crime to continue to accelerate in their communities. So tell me how then walking more and biking more is going to decrease crime in my community. Unfortunately, many of the consultants that are hired, many of those who are working within the cities don’t understand, don’t understand that intersectionality in terms of how all of these things are linked, they’re just not well versed at articulating that connection, and then empathizing with the community in a way that leads to productive outcomes for that community. And so what you then find is community engagement processes that become chaotic because those professionals came to talk about bicycling and the community wanted to know about jobs. And because they are not well versed to articulate the connection between cycling and job access, potentially, chaos is a result. And that’s unfortunate. But that’s indicative of the fact that too often planners are not well versed in intersectionality, in the need to understand beyond your silo, how other things are connected. And that’s what I appreciate most about being a street level researcher. Because your face, literally face to face with these issues, not only in your engagement with the residents, but as you walk around and see how these things are connected, it helps expand your world. And once you see, you can’t unsee and so that’s why I do this work. Because at the heart of this all I’m here to serve the people.
Ben Kittelson 41:01
Was that, I’m curious, is that was that something you noticed when you were a city planner was that you kind of got you know, I don’t know, if the right word is pigeon holed or kind of told to focus on a very specific piece without being able to see kind of the bigger picture or do some of that kind of intersectionality that, that you’re able to do from from from this role?
Charles T. Brown 41:20
Yeah. And it really hit me when I got to Rutgers, and I started mentoring other planners, of all race, you know, ethnicities and nationalities, they would come to me and I would meet many of these students in graduate school, and they’re studying a multitude of topics in planning, whether it’s housing, community economic development, you know, transportation. And you could just see, you know, going back to my kid example earlier, you know, how free they are, how excited they are to take on the world. And then they graduate, commencement starts, and then commencement is, you now have to focus on this topic, you have to focus, you are now siloed, right, you’re siloed, you’re going to do site plan review, or you’re going to do zoning. And oh, by the way, you’re not going to talk to housing, you’re not going to talk to community development, that’s a different department. And so I would meet them many years later and that glow, that spirit, that beautiful spirit that came in the planning was no longer and I would have questions, and I would say what’s going on, and they would share with me like, this isn’t what I thought it would be. I thought I was going to be able to help people instead I’m processing paperwork. And so that’s when I realized that there was a disconnect between school, schools for people, and then what they did in their everyday jobs, I’ve never allowed my job to corner me into a space of being siloed for the sake of institutional and organizational efficiency or effectiveness. I am an employee or I was but I’m also a citizen, and as a citizen, it’s imperative that I understand the needs of all of my neighbors. And I break down silos to ensure that I’m solving problems. Because if I’m not solving problems, why am I getting up every day and doing this work? And so some people may consider that to be a revolutionary spirit. I think it is, I think I’m okay with being labeled that because I’m doing it in service of people. And I’m really truly about breaking down barriers. And I understand that comes with consequences, but I think is worth it if I’m saving lives.
Ben Kittelson 44:10
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Charles T. Brown 44:53
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Ben Kittelson 45:36
So I know, this is kind of theoretical. But if you were like in charge of, you know, the planning department of the city, how would you break down some of those silos for, you know, staff to like, so they so they didn’t, so they felt like they could more connected to that bigger picture more connected to that, you know, the school version of planning versus. I’m just curious, like, like, for maybe our listeners that are, you know, in a city or in a leadership level, where they could, they see the same thing, what could they do to maybe like, expand that horizon and break down some of those silos within their organization.
Charles T. Brown 46:10
So one way, and I think the federal government, and some of the regional governments sort of have it correct too is, you would do rotations, you know, rotational assignments, where, yes, you are hired. First of all, we don’t just hire you to be a thing. Like the military, we train everyone for leadership. And thus, it’s imperative that you not only know your job, but I need you to know the job of the person next to you as well. And, of course, in the military, that comes from a place of if you’re in combat, and your partner goes down, it behooves you to know how to work the radio to communicate, right. So you can’t just say we only have one person who knows how to operate the radio, now in those situations it’s, to paint you know a bleak picture here, it’s a life or death scenario. I think we can learn a lot from the military in sort of approaching our work that way at the city level, the decisions that we’re making, for someone is a life and death decision. Therefore, I need my planners, my engineers, I need people to be well versed in a multitude of areas. And so I would hire people that have the ability to learn across the various areas of planning. And then I would do rotational assignments, probably every year, you would go into a different area. So that’s one way I would do it. Another way I would do it is ensure that my people go to conferences, and they travel because one of the downsides to working at the city level is that your knowledge or your ability to obtain knowledge is stifled due to the city not investing in your professional development. When I went from working within a city to working at a university, I realized very quickly how much I did not know because I wasn’t being exposed to it on a national level. And some of it is due to the fact that depending on where you live in this country, many cities and states are insecure. And what I mean by that is, let’s just say hypothetically, no one, please don’t, don’t hold this against me. But let’s just say let’s choose a state. Let’s say you work in Ohio, you work in the city of Cleveland, you may consider it to be insulting to say we should look to the city of Detroit, to see how we can do our bike share system. Or if you’re in the state of California, no let’s say if you’re in the state of Oregon, you better not say less look to Seattle for inspiration, or let’s look to California for inspiration. Or you happen to be in Mississippi, you better not mentioned Alabama, or Louisiana as a model. But what if by chance, the best approach to transportation planning is in Alabama, and you live in Mississippi. Because of those insecurities at a leadership level, we’re preventing people from gaining access to best practices and knowledges, and knowledge I mean. Therefore they’re limited in terms of solutions to these problems, because they are restricted to gaining access beyond their region. And so that sort of micro level knowledge is not going to serve these macro level problems. There’s a disconnect. And so I would ensure that they’re getting the best information possible and to expand that even more broadly, I would host webinars with leaders from around the world. And I need to put a fine point on that statement. Another issue, my friend, is that when it comes to planning, and policy work, my question is, why don’t we always look to these Eurocentric models of western best practice? Aren’t they doing great things elsewhere throughout the world? But when it comes to planning, usually what’s best practice in the US, save for BRT, bus rapid transit is usually coming from someplace in Europe. We have to question that, because there’s a reason then why these Eurocentric approaches to planning and policy seems to disconnect from the cultural realities of a significant portion of our communities.
Ben Kittelson 51:35
Yeah, and just to piggyback on that, like, almost like a corollary of the, like, we don’t even look at what’s going on in Alabama, for Mississippi thing is the well, you know, that example is from Portland that would never work here. And like people just kind of dismissing some of those best practices, because they are in a place that is different or are not, you know, in the state. I know. I know, I’ve experienced that in my career that like, you know, a, an example of a project or program or best practice comes from a place where, you know, the leadership or elected feel it’s so different, it’s not worth even even giving it a try. That that’s it, those are those are good tips, I think for folks in cities.
Charles T. Brown 52:26
Let me give people a finer point of that really quickly. One example of that would be Vision Zero. And so Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities, and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. Where did Vision Zero originate? In Sweden, in the 1990s, and we say, it has proven successful across Europe. That doesn’t mean, given our racialized approach to planning and policy in America, that is going to be effective here. Why? Because Originally, it came with the E of enforcement. And when you look at enforcement, and the distrust in the historic and present day relationship between law enforcement in black and brown communities in this country, one should have known right away, when they introduced Vision Zero in this country, that they had to take a critical look at their recommendation around enforcement, as it would have related to black and brown people in this country. But we were slow to react to that E and unfortunately, we now see what impact it has had on black and brown communities. And instead of proactively being upfront of this, now we’re reacting to the need to remove the E or redefine what is meant by the E of enforcement in Vision Zero efforts, which I am a fan of, but not to the detriment of our people.
Ben Kittelson 54:20
So maybe for folks that aren’t aware of the different acronym, the E in enforcement in the original vision of Vision Zero or the original, I don’t know, idea of Vision Zero, is that’s around enforcing, you know, slower traffic and like, you know, or something like or I guess, for those that may be less familiar with that I guess.
Charles T. Brown 54:42
Yeah, so the E was about, you know, enforcement you have enforcement, you have engineering, you have education. So enforcement is a critical part of ensuring, ensuring that people are not killed on our roadways. The issue wasn’t with the sheer mention of enforcement, but how enforcement happens. And so for people who who are not a tune as to, what is it what is and what has taken place between law enforcement and people of color, they blindly approach enforcement as if it’s going to be done in a fair and a just way. And so they, like most people would without this knowledge would say, Yes, we need to enforce traffic safety, on streets to ensure that people are safer. But when you understand the relationship between law enforcement and black and brown people, you pause first and say, well, we need to tell people how they should do this. Before we just simply say, enforcement is an E. And I’m not saying that it was just simply done that way. But I’m saying that that’s what can happen when you don’t have a real critical and candid conversation about the importance of culture and history in these Eurocentric models of planning that we deem as best practices.
Ben Kittelson 56:17
Is there a similar equity lens that needs to be added to the engineering piece of the Vision Zero? Like I imagine just, you know, that some of the, you know, that due to like our history of segregation, some of the areas that where you need to make a ton of improvement around safety for pedestrians and bicyclists have not been invested in, you know, on an engineering perspective with, you know, streets that that would make those activities safer. Is that, or is there other things that are that are part of that, adding equity to that engineer?
Charles T. Brown 56:47
Let’s not stop in engineering, let’s go to architecture as well. You know, like, literally like, you know, let’s not stop at architecture, let’s go to technology. You know, we have, for instance, I’m really big into autonomous vehicles. There’s been studies to show, there has been recent documentaries to show that the technology was having a challenge of identifying black skin. Like, if you just don’t know this, you say these things as best practices, but they have real consequences on racialized minority groups. Architecture, when you think about historic preservation, I grew up in a small town in rural Mississippi. And I’ll say this, love the town, love the people in it, but it has a pass that one would expect of a rural town in Mississippi. And one example of that is we have a local library, which used to be the jail house, or the jail, in that jail is where black and brown people were hung, mostly black people. Where that noose was in that jail, you can still see that marking in the building that is now a library. But that library has received numerous awards as being a model for adaptive reuse. But think about the children of those former slaves in an area. And then those people who were hung in that library, who go there to learn and see the marking on the wood where the noose was. That’s akin to the statues that architects and many others have put in public plazas across America, and have deemed them equitable and inclusive public spaces. Just think about that. And so yes, it’s present in all things that we do. But you won’t see it, if you’re not aware of it, but once you become aware of it, you can’t unsee it. And one last example of that would be street names. Why is every MLK Boulevard that you know of probably not the most desirable neighborhood or area. I’ve even seen streets named division Street, which literally cut off the black and the white parts of the city and the street is named division Street. So just kind of think about that, and those were decisions that were made to have real consequences. And that may continue to traumatize marginalized people. So we have to clean this up. And I’m just one of the many, many voices here who are willing to put themselves on the line to have a meaningful conversation about how we can all move forward together because I love my neighbor, regardless of their race or ethnicity or income.
Ben Kittelson 1:00:19
Well said, awesome. Well, and we’re kind of approaching the end of our time together. But I wanted to make sure to ask you, what’s kind of next, what’s what’s kind of whatever research you’re working on that we should keep an eye out for? Or what’s something that you want to share that we should the listeners should check out?
Charles T. Brown 1:00:35
Well, really quickly. I’m working on, I have a podcast that’s going to be released this fall, currently in production for 11 episodes, thematic narrative based episodes of arrested mobility, the podcast, where I really go in depth into some of these issues. We’ll be talking about decriminalizing mobility, we’ll touch on racist zoning practices, etc. I also currently have a book club, the arrested mobility virtual book club where the audience can sign up, I will share that information to you and you can share that with them. Right now, we have over 250 professionals from around the US signed up. So those are two things that I’m really looking forward to, to working on here in the fall.
Ben Kittelson 1:01:33
Very cool. Yeah, we’ll add a link to the book club on our on the Notes for this episode. And then, whenever the podcast comes out, well, we’ll we’ll be sure to share that from from Gov Love as well. Awesome. So we have a traditional last question on the pod, on Gov Love, and it’s usually the hardest one for our guests. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as the exit music for this episode?
Charles T. Brown 1:01:56
Oh, that’s a good question. If I Ruled the World by NAS, NAS, if I ruled the world, but because I’m a DJ, I’ll quickly then mix it with, to close us out, Entrepreneur by Jay Z and Forelle.
Ben Kittelson 1:02:16
Awesome, I don’t I don’t know if we’ve got the skills to do but the mixing but we’ll get those.
Charles T. Brown 1:02:21
Then if I ruled the world by NAS. Because if I ruled the world, I would really free all my sons. Ensure that we love each other, you know, unapologetically unconditionally. So if I ruled the world.
Ben Kittelson 1:02:41
Thank you, Charles. This has been great. I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your expertise. I feel like there’s we could have talked for hours. So we’ll have to have you come back sometime and talk more. So I really appreciate you taking the time.
Charles T. Brown 1:02:53
Anytime. Thank you. Thank you for your service to to all of us. And please stay in touch and should you ever need anything from me, let me know, okay?
Ben Kittelson 1:03:04
Will do. And for our listeners, Gov Love is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders, you can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove, over on twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast. You can support Gov Love by joining ELGL. Membership is just $50 for an individual or $25 for students. You can also sign up your whole organization. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. If you have already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague on this podcast and help us spread the word the Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. Thanks for listening this has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.