Disrupting the Status Quo: Breaking Nervousness in the Public Sector

Disrupting the Status Quo: Breaking Nervousness in the Public Sector

As an ambitious and high-performing professional, "wait your turn", "keep your head down and do your work" were the normative phrases. I sometimes had to "code switch" just to fit in.

My vociferous nature and ambitions, I believe, have prevented me from progressing and succeeding in my career. Seeing how my black peers have had difficult experiences navigating the "system", I have set out on my own journey to figure out why. I just may have the answer.

This coronavirus pandemic and increased racial tensions have brought to the light the racial, social and economic gaps that have been discussed, but never taken seriously. The longstanding inequities include health disparities, lack of high quality education and violence. The highest amount of COVID deaths are from people of colour in cities. As Helene Gayle, the CEO of Chicago Community Trust stated in a recent webinar, "if the general population catches a cold, communities of colour catch pneumonia".

Navigating the public sector for the majority of my career has been challenging. From academic interests in regional governance and affordable housing to spatial mismatch and reverse commuting in transit, my career has spanned years in multiple jurisdictions in planning and policy but never really focused on my true love of applying social equity to those areas. There has been a nervousness that has led to policy inaction and/or status quo decision making that must end. I set out to make the case for a disruption.

Disrupt or Interrupt?

In the public sector space, where change is rather slow and methodical, I am in agreement with Dr. Amante-Jackson in that there needs to be a disruption. The housing and transit industries have already seen it with AirBnb (although pretty much dead in the water now), and with micromobility. With health and social inequities being exacerbated due to the Coronavirus pandemic, a disruption is literally inevitable.

Should policy makers and public sector managers disrupt inequity or should they want to interrupt it? That was the question Dr. Damisa Amante-Jackson posed in a recent Hello Monday podcast.

Interrupting, as Dr. Amante-Jackson states, is about advocacy to consider policies and practices, naming things, but not necessarily going to shift the policies to create and industry standard and to hold people accountable. For disruption to be successful, the required mindset change is for people to be successful in giving feedback and being able to have those difficult conversations. It is naming the elephants in the room. Disruption is an end to inequity.

Nervousness in Government

In order to disrupt the public sector, the elephant in the room is nervousness that Susan T. Gooden spoke of in her book Race and Social Equity, A Nervous Area of Government. From those aforementioned policies and procedures to delivering on diversity and inclusion by not just "checking the boxes", public servants and managers, need to have those deep uncomfortable conversations. This does not mean being reactionary but by doing the deep work, asking the questions and acting on it.

Gooden explained this nervousness in government as it pertains to the conceptualization of racial and social equity is grounded in the application of organizational justice. The issues involving organizational justice involve some person or group benefitting or harmed in a manner that is unfair.

My experiences from a human resources context have concentrated on equality, not equity. Such as recruitment, onboarding, compensation, and attrition. Gooden suggests that understanding the nervousness of government involves an approach that is more systemic instead of that of organizational justice. It prioritizes lived experiences of the public it serves, which is a theme I've mentioned in my previous blog posts time and again. She referred to this as public justice and is defined as the larger organizational value where social equity resides. Where public justice is value oriented, social equity is more concerned with the delivery of public services.

Throughout Gooden's book, she provides examples related to the American experience of structural and institutional racism to the nervousness in government, our Canadian experiences, although more muted, are just as relatable.

Conquering Nervousness in Government

Gooden sets out by listing ten principles in conquering nervousness in government. They are:

  1. Public Administrators have a responsibility to operate in the nervousness of government.
    Examining issues of racial equity, which is one such area in the nervousness of government, public service delivery is fundamental in understanding how public sector institutions systematically provides services in structural ways that influence important outcomes.
  2. The legal history of racial discrimination is an important context that cannot be minimized, but rather offers instructive guidance.
    Zoning regulations and planning policies that are general in nature are perfect examples where practices that may appear race neutral would have important implications.
  3. Initial motivators to begin navigation of nervousness typically include some combination of political, moral, legal, and/or economic triggers.
    Gordon referred to the Seattle Race and Social Justice Network which was politically motivated. I touched upon the need to include social equity within transit service standards which included a mention of King County Metro in a earlier blog post. Legal areas include laws, regulation and court decisions. Economic triggers that would advance racial equity could include cost-benefit analyses or improved organizational dimensions that Dr. Amante-Jackson referred to in disrupting the status quo or. With recent societal shifts triggered by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter, they will definitely wield pressure on organizational structures.
  4. Senior leadership is a critical important factor in realized sustained progress.
    This reminded me of the book Leaders in the Shadows, a book by David Siegel about the diverse leadership styles of several Canadian city managers and Chief Administrative Officers. While the leaders in the book deserve credit, they weren't innovative. They were emblematic of the systems they led, each had opportunities to promote racial and social equity within their municipal organizations. The model of a new leader should be at the forefront of significant organizational change, define its culture, and "establishes clear norms and expectations of racial equity performance and accountability".
  5. At the individual level, public servants  must recognize and eliminate behaviours that impede racial equity progress.
    As Gordon notes, the individual baseline level of nervousness should provide an indicator of how likely or unlikely a public administrator is to independently promote racial equity in the provision of government services at work. Currently the Institute of Public Administration of Canada's Principal of Values nor the Canadian Institute of Planners Code of Professional Conduct do not mention anything to the lines of racial and social equity, which cover public and private sector services. The American Society of Public Administration includes a statement in their Code of Ethics on social equity.
    4. Strengthen social equity. Treat all persons with fairness, justice, and equality and respect individual differences, rights, and freedoms. Promote affirmative action and other initiatives to reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.
    Racial equity progress should not only be from overarching professional bodies, but also the municipalities they represent. Also, there should be strategies in place to place increased emphasis on the role that social identities play in the delivering and administration of public services.
  6. At the organizational level, government agencies should evaluate their socialization boundaries and extend them to accommodate a wider range of racial equity work.
    Employees should have the freedom to venture into the "nervous" area whereby there are cultural redefinition of acceptable boundaries that can easily accommodate racial equity work through a reduction of fear.
  7. There are no perfect solutions; however, solutions that embody a race-conscious approach most directly facilitate structural equity solutions.
    The engagement of solutions designed to facilitate racial equity must directly confront the issue of race. As John Powell mentioned in his 2012 book, and quoted in Gordon's book, "In our effort to get beyond race, we have paid too little attention to how it is constructed and to the work of the structures of the unconscious do in creating racial conditions and meaning. Race is not just an idea that we can choose to engage or not". In essence, policy inaction that does not include racial equity is unacceptable.
  8. Racial equity needs to operate in a context of accountability. Performance goals should be linked to the organization's mission statement, values, organizational structure, and its strategic planning. Government agencies should be invested in analyzing racial-equity dimension, which should include procedural fairness, access, quality and outcomes.
  9. If legal barriers to racial discrimination have been largely eliminated, agency leadership, policies, practices, and innovations form the foundation of essential front line racial equity work.
    There must be an examination of the structural inequities with municipal agencies and concerted efforts to achieve racial equity.
  10. Significant racial equity progress in government can be achieved.
    Through the important work of administrators, it can be a less nervous and more equitable one.

One such example was a post on "Budgeting for Equitable Outcomes" from earlier this week Adam Slade from Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council.

Adam Slade, Metropolitan Planning Council

Slade mentions that significant outcomes must occur to ensure equity is addressed within the budget.

  • Inclusive community engagement
  • Forecasting expected revenues from all levels of government that ensures intergenerational equity
  • Allocated revenues to priorities
  • Development of performance measures.

I would like to thank Carlton Eley who suggested that I read this book. It will be the backbone for my ongoing research during the remainder of the MPA Local Government program. It will focus on race and social equity as it relates to housing, community development and governance.

Enough is Enough

I'VE HAD ENOUGH!!!

Enough with the systemic racism. Enough for the violence against blacks and other people of colour, regardless of gender and ability. Enough with the constructs that tell us to "wait our turn". Enough with the fact that we have to "code switch" to conform to others' insecurities just to get ahead. Enough with the "angry black woman" prejudices when they have to speak their mind. It is enough it took a pandemic for socio-demographic data to be collected, albeit in select jurisdictions, to determine how people of colour will have been disproportionately affected. I'm tired of it all!

My post has been nearly a week in the making. The events of recent days from Amy Cooper's antics in Central Park in Manhattan, to the MURDER of George Floyd in Minneapolis to the continuing protests prompted me to write this blog post. Ottawa resident Kevin Bourne and Toronto Star reporter Shree Paradkar provided me with the push to write this post today.

While my post will be flanked by those with greater penmanship than myself who have written in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Globe and Mail, and the Los Angeles Times, to name a few, I could not stay silent on this issue any longer.

Originally, I hastily wrote a Facebook post with random observations - although biased with my own confirmations - on the Jane 35 bus after from my run along a closed Lakeshore Boulevard in Toronto.

Passengers on the Jane bus, who were predominantly people of colour like me, were insecurely negotiating their right to space and comfort. Many came from or going to work or grocery shopping. Some had their faces covered while others did not. Even with my earbuds on, it was difficult not to overhear tensions rising. There was constant paranoia between passenger who thought they were too close. There was some choice words even directed at the bus driver. At times, I thought a fight would break out. 

To put this in context, the Jane Street corridor between Bloor and Dundas Streets going northbound starts with the tony Baby Point neighbourhood. North of the railroad tracks lies several kilometres of low to middle income neighbourhoods - Woolner, Mount Dennis, Tretheway, Chalkfarm and Jane and Finch. These neighbourhoods are lined with strip plazas full of local businesses that are struggling to survive, cheque-cashing stores and liquor stores. These, along with public housing and aging infrastructure, are the forgotten densities that Jay Pitter speaks of when she discussed confronting distance between desire and disparity.

Democratization of public space is only part of the issue. I spoke about this in last summer's Spacing post on perceived accessibility based on my lived experiences. Other occurrences over the years included:

  • Being called a "Paki" because of my brown skin.
  • Having personally experienced theft from another black male.
  • Being treated differently by a De La Salle High School vice-principal when I and a white student both skipped school.
  • Hiding my Trinidadian culture from women I dated because their families couldn't accept me for who I am.

It is the institutions and their constructs that have brought us to this point. I raised the issue of a lack of racial equity in planning circles well over a year and a half ago. For this reason, it partially prompted me not to renew my Canadian planning designation.

Reading the vitriolic responses from insecure whites to Shree Pardkar's Toronto Star article in response to the social distancing shitshow at Trinity Bellwoods Park from last weekend was shameful and disgusting.

Anti-black racism still exists. Housing discrimination exists. Spatial mismatch and lack of coordination by Greater Toronto Area transit agencies, which is a topic I raised 16 years ago, continues to exist. The lack of attention towards addressing racial and social inequities in transit service continues to exist. Pay gaps, lack of promotions in the civil service, and lack of diversity on non-profit boards continue to exist. It is the brutal unchecked police violence against black men and women that continues to exist. With all of these situations, there becomes the instilled fear, paranoia, impatience and unrest on both sides of the border. We cannot stand by and watch moment like these pass us by with inaction.

Audrey Smith. Andrew Loku. George Floyd. Tamir Rice. Rodney King. Amadou Diallo. Say their names!

I will end with the final paragraph in Kevin Bourne's post:

For those who consider themselves allies, allyship means not only saying something on social media; it means saying something at the office, at church or in the community. Real change won’t come until allyship goes beyond social media and permeates our neighbourhoods, workplaces, and businesses. Until then it’s business as usual.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!

We can’t rely on the gas tax anymore

Ok I wasn't the only one that said it. Overnight, global markets tanked in reaction to falling gas prices, which affected the North American exchanges and prompted a briefly halt to trading moments after the markets opened this morning.

It is now time to revisit this need to rely on oil.

In 2009, as a green planner, I read Jeff Rubin's book Why Your World is About to Get Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. In 2012, he wrote a second book, The End of Growth. While it has been a while since I read both books, his wild predictions were interesting. He wrote them during a time when global gas prices were astronomical.

People will not just abandon their cars en masse, but they will use them less and less. If I have to drive to work, I might not be able to afford to use my car anywhere else when the cost of filling the tank is going to run north of $100. And for some 10 million Americans or so, the cost of driving will rise so high that they really will have to get off the road. As people start to park their cars for longer and longer periods, they will increasingly want to get on the subway or LRT. And when they do, the legacy of North America’s past transportation choices will come back to haunt the continent.

Excerpt from Why Your World is About to Get Smaller

The opposite has happened!

Senior governments saw an opportunity to close the gap on already decreasing transit funding by introducing gas taxes. The Canadian and American governments pegged the dollar to the price of oil. Now that peak oil has come and gone, it is time to rethink how public transit is funded.

Over the course of the last year, there have been several shocks to the oil markets - 2 times in a month alone gas prices have been below $1 a litre. Psychologically, drivers will naturally line up at gas stations to take advantage of these low prices. Many will abandon transit in the short term. But change must occur.

Road pricing, when proposed, has literally been deemed political suicide. While for over a decade, London has had cordon pricing in their downtown core. New York City has proposed one for Manhattan, but now New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that the Trump government is holding it back based on technicalities with FHA funding.

The Federal Highway Administration can derail congestion pricing because federal law prohibits the installation of tolls on roads built with federal money — and some of the streets inside the toll cordon, Manhattan south of 61st Street, minus the FDR Drive or West Side Highway, are part of the National Highway System.

Streetsblog February 11, 2020

Late last year, the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario published a report "Ontario's Downward Trend for Fuel Tax Revenue: Will Road Pricing Fill The Gap?" In the report, the points emanated from their analysis:

  1. The growth of fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles will rise.
  2. Behavioural and technological shifts will result in decreasing gas tax revenues even though congestion will remain constant.
  3. The Province should implement dynamic pricing and parking levies, especially in larger municipalities.

In 2015, the Canadian Urban Transit Association put out an Alternative Funding Report, but did not insofar, make any recommendations on the best way to fund transit.

It's not the first time these were proposed. Metrolinx, in 2013, released its investment strategy, years after their first Regional Transportation Plan - The Big Move. There were public consultations throughout the region to garner support for their proposal. Seeing waning support especially in the GTA suburbs, the Liberals kiboshed the plan and the results of the public consultation were scrapped from their website.

In 2018, when Toronto mayor John Tory proposed tolling the Gardiner Expressway to fund transit, GTA politicians cried wolf. The Provincial Liberals panicked and nixed the idea. They lost the election.

Just like this Streetsblog article proposes, it is time for Canadian transit agencies a wage an aggressive campaign and take advantage of the falling gas prices. This has to include, parking levies and congestion pricing as the RCCAO proposes. Also it is time for a carefully administered and equitable regional sales tax, like in California's cities, to fund major transit projects, purchase more buses and to fund operations.

While Jeff Rubin was partially right with his predictions, we both told you so.

The State of Transit Leadership: The Need to Address Social Equity

In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.

Albert Einstein

Shout out to an old colleague Mikel Oglesby who previous was Sunline Transit's CEO and where I attended my one and only State of Transit address several years ago.

As a kid who resided in Lawrence Heights in social housing and in a co-op , transit was a8 way of life. My parents never owned a car. Nevertheless, I was enamoured by the whole experience. The bus drivers on the Ranee 109 or Lawrence 52 were my friends, even though I never knew their names.

I looked forward to every TTC map release and would ask the collector manning the booth for a copy. Sometimes multiple times if there weren't any copies. I always viewed the TTC as an organization I wanted to work for.

I never viewed public transit as a status symbol and always played down the terms choice rider or captive rider.

Transit, to me was about a career with ties to community building and social equity. So when I saw TTC's recent campaign wrapped in messaging, it was the wrong tone to send to their customers.

Image via Sean Marshall

John Lorinc's Spacing article "Just Who is the Face of the TTC These Days?" highlighted the leadership vacuum that exists. There is clearly a stark difference between Andy Byford, who recently resigned as New York City's Transit President after a two-year stint, and the current TTC CEO Rick Leary. Case in point, as Lorinc mentions, Leary was incognito after the second subway derailment this year. In addition, .

Transit providers should treat all individuals with dignity and respect, one of the key points noted in a 2018 APTA leadership presentation on social responsibility. There is also strategic and technical leadership. For example, while transit service standards have evolved over time, including King County where they include social equity measures, Canadian transit agencies do not incorporate them service standards.

It was a mere 3 years ago that the TTC was awarded the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) Outstanding Public Transportation System. Oh have times changed.

The state of transit leadership thus far in 2020 is bleak at best. Andy Byford was a prime example of one who went out of his way to be publicly present and defend transit during some their trying times. The City and region is devoid of leadership and willingness to take risks.

It can only get better from here.

Eliminate single family zoning to accommodate affordable housing

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Cities need more of these triplex housing complexes

During my brief time as a Policy Planner with the City of Brampton, one of my responsibilities was to update the housing section of the Official Plan. As I was doing so, I came across a few things. One was the "estate housing" category, and the other was separation distances for group homes. I will only discuss the former. As I learned, Brampton intended to attract and, for a lack of a better term, segregate executives in the northeastern part of Brampton. These would be similar to a Bridle Path or Kingsway in Toronto's tony neighbourhoods. As someone who took issue to this, I sought to eliminate this category from the housing section. Since housing planning and policy was new to me, outside of building typologies, I was indirectly in favour of eliminating single family zoning.

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Community Strategic Planning for Lawrence Heights

I will be applying for re-entry into the Masters of Public Administration program at Western University for the 2020 academic year. While I would be entitled to change my interest, I wanted to come up with a new topic that reflects my passion of strategic planning with the purpose of relationship and community building.

So why would I want to be discussing this now? Whether I would be accepted or not, it is a topic worth discussing.

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City Leaders Must Think Futuristically

As technology increasingly plays a role in our daily lives, and at a rapid pace, an unknown future of the effects of automated intelligence, automated and connected vehicles and algorithms will become prevalent. Governments of all levels are tied to reacting to crises and issues Cities are not prepared for the future. How can the public gain trust in a government every 4 years with Councils' terms of priorities that are politically driven?

Most thinking is in the medium term. Official Plans, Transportation Master Plans Leadership teams are caught in a never ending loop of addressing long term risks with uncompromising short term solutions and tactical responses. These drain organizational resources and make disruption an inevitability.

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Community Building in a Post-Trust World

Image Courtesy of New Jersey Health Initiative

While there are leaders within the community with whom they trust whether they are part of neighbourhood associations or from diverse leadership groups, most of the time they lack the resources or knowledge to improve their areas. Similarly, those community leaders have the institutional or local knowledge to provide to input. They lean heavily on politicians, who then turn to staff to build those bridges. They are the gatekeepers and intermediaries between a city's vision and mission and the community's interests. Having the leadership and trust between these parties is necessary. Servant and thought leadership approaches intersect in order to bring transformational change to a community. What they have in common is centered around building trust.

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