Beyond Equity — A Strategy for Developing Critical Leadership in Transportation

Metro’s Office of Equity and Race

by Kiran Herbert, Local Programs Writer and Content Manager

A candid conversation with KeAndra Cylear Dodds and Naomi Iwasaki, key players in Los Angeles’ efforts to achieve transportation justice.

KeAndra Cylear Dodds and Naomi Iwasaki of Metro’s Office of Equity and Race.

 

In 2018, Metro—the agency that plans, operates, and coordinates funding for most of the transportation system in Los Angeles County—developed an Equity Platform to guide the implementation of equity throughout the organization. Recognizing, however, that the initiative needed someone dedicated to leading the work full-time, the Office of Equity and Race (OER) was launched in 2020. KeAndra Cylear Dodds was hired on as executive officer and was later joined in 2021 by Senior Director Naomi Iwasaki, Principal Transportation Planner Caro Vera, and Manager Jessica Medina.

The small but mighty team of four oversees equity work across an 11,000-person agency, creating tools, programs, and internal groups to increase “equity fluency” amongst different stakeholders, from engineers to development managers to bus drivers. Although “equity work” has become commonplace, the office remains a rarity in transportation agencies. We interviewed Cylear Dodds and Iwasaki to learn more about the workings of Metro’s OER, major challenges the department has faced, and recommendations for others looking to replicate its work. 

Cylear Dodds is a former housing attorney who went from suing the government to working with it to advance equitable housing, transportation, and community development policy. Throughout her career, she’s worked within the public and non-profit sectors focusing on equitable community planning and creating better outcomes for historically marginalized communities. Iwasaki grew up in Los Angeles and holds a master’s in urban planning, having realized at a young age that you can’t get ahead in life if you don’t have good transportation. Her career has spanned the public and private sectors, helping her develop a holistic understanding of the planning field. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

The term ‘equity’ gets thrown around a lot. How do you define equity in the context of your organization?

KeAndra Cylear Dodds: Equity is when one’s outcomes in life are not predetermined by their identity. But for Metro, we also define equity as a process to address disparities and improve everyone’s outcomes in life. So we’re working to remove disparities experienced by different populations that dictate things like health, housing, and jobs access, but we’re also—and this is critical—helping people understand that the process matters. Who you engage, how you engage them, what you’re actually doing to help them—it matters so much. 

There are different ways of thinking about it but the end goal is that we want everyone to have access to all the things that they need in life to thrive. The way we have to get there is by first acknowledging and identifying how people’s access and ability to achieve certain outcomes are different, and then figuring out what we can do to eliminate the barriers or the problems that make them different in order to create that outcome that we seek for everyone.

 

How does OER interface with other Metro departments? What’s an average day like?

Cylear Dodds: There’s no average day. Every day is different and interesting.

Naomi Iwasaki: As an office, we’re still so young, especially in Metro years—we work with folks who’ve been here for 25, 35, 40 years—so our role is still being socialized, in terms of being known and understood, throughout the agency. We’re here to develop equity tools to apply to different projects, programs, and decision-making processes, helping staff understand that definition of equity and how it specifically applies to Metro’s work. 

We try to find ways to work with staff both on the agency-wide staff training on Zoom, as well as individual team conversations and one-on-one conversations about “equity means this” or “I understand what a marginalized group is, but what does that have to do with replacing the windows on the different trains we have?”

It’s diving into the nuanced scopes of different teams, which have probably never been challenged from an equity perspective. It’s all about trying to think about it from the end-user perspective and recognizing that end users all have different barriers and challenges set forth by the inequitable conditions of our society. It’s about reorienting who this work is for and then talking that through with different departments regarding what they can do in their decisions, goals, the data they collect, and the ways that they engage.

 

What do the day-to-day operations look like? 

Iwasaki: We’re currently implementing a recently Board-approved Community Based Organization Partnering Strategy, and we often do trainings and live discussions. We also incorporate an equity assessment into every single report that staff author and bring to the Metro board, which involves a lot of one-on-one advising and counseling. It’s a lot of meetings and a lot of creating materials, and then explaining those materials—and then explaining them again. 

We try to create spaces for staff to have conversations as a group but also with each other, all without having to apply specific work deliverables. We manage a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion — JEDI — book club, where we read two books a year. This year, we read “So You Wanna Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. 

We also have a more focused cohort of Equity Liaisons, which represent all of the departments. We meet with them twice a month and we read articles and have deep-dive conversations into equity. They’re also our windows into different departments and how they operate, and when we develop tools and trainings they’re our first audience. We take their feedback very seriously before we disseminate anything to the larger staff. 

These two spaces we manage—the JEDI Book Club and the Equity Liaisons—are important for Metro staff to ask questions and process equity concepts, both outside of and related to their work at Metro. While tools and training are necessary to implementing equity at public agencies, it is just as critical to provide safe spaces for people to learn together and connect their experiences with others’ and with larger institutional systems. 

 

How have you applied this work to bike share?

Cylear Dodds: Our bike share program has been around for a while and we’ve had some lessons learned—and some equity issues—that have been identified. We’re always trying to think about how we can do better. Part of it is just rethinking how we move forward and expand access to different communities that haven’t had an opportunity to participate within the program, and who really could benefit and need better access.

It’s also thinking about what comes with adding bike share. What are other needs that we really need to think about and how are the benefits specific to the needs? So not just putting in bike share but also safety infrastructure. In many of the communities that could benefit from having more bike access, there’s also a lack of safe bike infrastructure. How do we coordinate the two? We’re having these conversations and there will be more to come.

 

What are some of the biggest challenges you face while doing this work?

Cylear Dodds: This is really new for some folks. Many people have not had to think about equity or question what sort of benefits a project or a decision provides for a specific marginalized community. To consider not just how things benefit all people, but how different people experience whatever we’re doing or how it might cause burdens.

It’s about helping people understand that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to addressing equity and that the outcomes and process might always be different. That can be hard for some people to understand when they want to be told what to do or are looking to check a box. Equity isn’t something you can easily prescribe and that’s one of the more challenging aspects of this work, especially when we’re dealing with more technical staff that are used to a formula, or having a very clear system or set of steps.

Iwasaki: It’s challenging when something is not new but has gotten a lot of rapid attention the past few years. There’s this need for equity to demonstrate its value to skeptics or to show wins, even for proponents. At the same time, we have to be intentional and thoughtful because that’s part of equity as well. That can sometimes cause tension. This work doesn’t always have an easy-to-understand KPI [Key Performance Indicator] but it’s still really critical, so we’re always trying to find that balance between demonstrating value and playing the long game. 

People are also at very different phases in their equity journey, which is lifelong. Understanding equity is a lot like understanding transportation planning, where a lot of people have some experience with it from a very personal perspective and they equate that personal lived experience with being an expert on the subject matter as a whole. 

The challenge is acknowledging that people’s lived experiences are extremely valid and important for the overall narrative, but then helping them see that they’re all part of systems that have created inequities—we’re all part of a transportation system that works better for some than others. To increase equity fluency, we have to find ways to draw a direct line between people’s personal experiences and those larger structural conditions.

 

What advice would you give to other transportation departments that are considering opening a similar office?

Cylear Dodds: It’s important to think through what you actually want to accomplish. There’s a lot that has to go into thoughtful change that truly leads to equitable outcomes and if an agency is not willing to put in the resources and create a team to do this work, then you’re not going to see a real impact. I would recommend having dedicated staff who can really put in the work to understand where the agency is and what the agency needs—whether it’s tools, training, and/or new processes or policies—and giving them the time to really think through those things and how they can best work with staff.

It’s also really important to have buy-in both from leadership, whether it’s the CEO or the board, but also—and this takes more time, especially at a big agency—from staff. They’re the ones doing the work and it’s about putting in the time to figure out how to get them to understand what equity is, why your agency is doing this work, and the important impact it can have on the communities we serve.

 

Have questions for Metro’s Office of Equity and Race? Email equityandrace@metro.net.


The Better Bike Share Partnership is funded by The JPB Foundation as a collaboration between the City of 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. Got a question or a story idea? Email kiran@peopleforbikes.org.