Beyond Equity — A Strategy for Developing Critical Leadership in Transportation

White Paper: A Q&A With Dr. Destiny Thomas

by Farrah Daniel, Better Bike Share Partnership Writer

Dr. Destiny Thomas speaking at a podium Destiny Thomas, founder and CEO of the Thrivance Group

Earlier this week, we shared the white paper created by Dr. Destiny Thomas, Beyond Equity — A Strategy for Developing Critical Leadership in Transportation.

As the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Thrivance Group — an entity that provides a framework for project management, urban planning, organizational development and systems change — the California-based anthropologist planner worked with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the Better Bike Share Partnership (BBSP) to help us design and create the curriculum for an upcoming professional development fellowship that will amplify the work of Black, Brown and Indigenous professionals of color and allies across the transportation sector. 

In that fellowship, participants will co-strategize, learn new skills, and expand their networks to create and implement their vision for equity and social justice within their organizations. 

We previously broke down how Dr. Thomas created the white paper and what it entailed. Now, here’s a Q&A that highlights her process.

A Talk With Dr. Thomas

FD: Can you talk a bit about your approach to the fellowship? As an expert, how did you think through what it would look like?

DT: The Fellowship that was ultimately proposed through this white paper is an amalgamation of values, priorities, and desired outcomes expressed by the Client as well as the people who would most likely be participants in the fellowship itself. It was really important to us to create something that would combine healing/atonement with technical skill-building. I think what we ended up with achieves this aim.

By taking all of these dynamics into consideration and coupling that with my background in human and cultural development we ended up with a fellowship that is culturally grounded, heavy on social justice principles, and unapologetic about centering the people who are typically left out of fellowship opportunities.

FD: What did your research for the white paper and fellowship creation entail?

DT: My research for the white paper was mostly ethnographic but also included a re-reading of some of the texts, articles and studies that taught me the most about decentralized leadership, kinship formation, and anti-racist organizational management. Specifically, this included: one-on-one interviews with field experts, strategy sessions with a diverse set of peers across the sector, participatory observation via social media, ongoing meetings with the project team to ensure fidelity with desired outcomes, and a digital survey that ended up being more of a validation tool because it illustrated the repressive ideals that participants of other engagement activities would speak of.

FD: In the initial digital survey mentioned that white, male executives participated in, can you provide any more detail about that? Was this an anonymous survey?

DT: This was an anonymous survey but participants were given the opportunity to share demographic details about their identities. The respondents to the digital survey were overwhelmingly white men in high ranking positions 

FD: In the answers you received from the National Strategy Sessions (NSS), was there a collective barrier mentioned? Did anything you read give you hope or optimism for the future of this field? What resonated with you?

DT: The “collective barrier” was apparent in the general statistics regarding representation and demographics across the sector. What came out of the NSS was a collective confirmation of that data as well as deeper insight into the ways barriers to equity play out in different spaces and depending on proximity to power.

FD: As a Black woman, what were some barriers you experienced at the start of (or throughout) your profession and how did that inspire your current goals? Are there any resources you wish you had then to help you succeed?

DT: The earliest barrier I encountered was not even being exposed to the field of planning as a potential profession. I thought I’d needed to be an attorney in order to be a change agent in the cause of equity in the built environment. So, naturally, I was the only Black (non-immigrant) person in a lot of professional spaces early on. I simply could not see myself as a long term professional within the sector.

I still struggle with this today. Black women are often relegated to nurturing and charismatic roles (regardless of the profession) so I had to work really hard to not experience a lapse in the development of my skills from a technical standpoint while also meeting the demand for community engagement and creativity that was imposed on me. I wish I had a fellowship like this, a cohort of other Black women to take this journey with, and a field that was more open to my lived experience being a valid perspective.

FD: What did the National Strategy Session (NSS) responders say they want to see change the most?

DT: NSS participants mostly spoke to having a desire to grow themselves within a space that doesn’t penalize vulnerability and without forfeiting their need for healing and emotional support to continue doing the work. Secondarily, participants commonly expressed a desire to experience visibility and gain access to power through the fellowship.

FD: What skills from the fellowship would you want participating planning practitioners to take back into their organizations?

DT: I would want planners to leave the fellowship with a concrete set of skills that align with racially just planning as a value. I’d also want participants to leave with the confidence and network to support movement across disciplines as they evolve in their own professional objectives. 

FD: How would you respond to professionals who fear that change is unlikely or impractical?

DT: My response to professionals who fear change is unlikely or unpractical is they should evaluate the ways they benefit from that false narrative. My advice to the people who have to report to those who think this way is that they should be in community with people who are actively working to upend structural racism and that they should always be looking for a new job.

FD: Do you see people pushing back on affinity spaces? How would you express the value of it?

DT: Surprisingly, people are not pushing back on affinity spaces as much as I’d expected. I’ve heard a few people challenge them, and it’s just really clear to me that some people are just fearful of not being centered in a discussion. We all benefit from affinity spaces because their constructive pathways to collective decision-making and the validity they hold (from a research standpoint) are unmatched in any large group setting.

FD: How did you come to these amazing solutions and recommendations?

DT: These solutions are literal responses to the desired outcomes and needs expressed by the people we engaged through the research. The concepts originate from my own personal remembrance of the ways I’ve managed to build community within the sector, the rituals of bonding and radical wellness that stem from my rearing as a Black woman, and from having a retrospective understanding of the ways systemic racism kept me from growing — even when I didn’t realize that’s what was happening. 

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A huge thank you to Dr. Thomas for all of her hard work throughout the development of this fellowship! We appreciate your thoughtfulness, your courage, and especially, your dedication to the mission of creating equity in the built environment.

Follow her on Twitter, or keep up with her transformative work at Thrivance Group.  

The Better Bike Share Partnership is a JPB Foundation-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to build equitable and replicable bike share systems. Follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram or sign up for our weekly newsletter. Story tip? Write farrah@peopleforbikes.org