When Wynfred Russell first learned about the Bottineau Transitway project, he saw an opportunity for his community. The transitway not only promised more transit options, he realized, but also potential new development and employment opportunities for people living along the Bottineau Corridor. Yet there were not any people who represented his community sitting at the decision-making table for this significant project.
Wynfred, a Liberian immigrant, is the executive director of African Career, Education and Resource, Inc. (ACER), a nonprofit organization working to end the disparities in resources, health and information facing people of African descent in Minnesota. He began talking with his board of directors, and together they decided to launch the Making Transit Meaningful project to raise awareness of decisions being made about the Bottineau Transitway and to mobilize African immigrants, African Americans, and other communities of color to become active voices on transit issues that impact their everyday lives. ACER soon began partnering with the city of Brooklyn Park to host a series of community forums that engage leaders in the community, enabling them to begin to look at transit in a more comprehensive way. For Wynfred, this is important because transit serves as a vital connection to quality health, employment opportunities, business development, education and affordable housing.
ACER’s efforts are already yielding results. Mshale, an African immigrant newspaper, covered ACER’s most recent forum, a mobile guided tour of the Bottineau Transitway, the Cedar Avenue transitway and the Hiawatha LRT. Although only around 30 people attended the event, Mshale’s article about the tour has been read more than 10,000 times. Wynfred says this shows that people are going back to their networks and sharing what they learned, and he hopes that subsequent events will stimulate the same amount of reaction.
Here’s a video ACER produced about the bus tour:
Although early in the project, ACER already sees that people are starting to understand the implications of this transit project. Prior to the tour, the Bottineau Transitway was just an abstract idea for much of the community. But the tour provided an opportunity for people to see the potential for what the Bottineau transitway could look like. As a result, residents began to understand the need to be involved in both the planning and implementation processes so that development does not happen to them, but with their input and involvement.
ACER was one of 10 community groups to be granted funding from the Corridors of Opportunity Outreach and Engagement grants. These grants are made to organizations working along emerging transitways to involve underrepresented and marginalized communities in participation, decision-making and leadership around transit corridor planning. For ACER, the Corridors of Opportunity initiative has made a difference in allowing the community to see itself as being a part of the transit planning process like never before. In addition, this initiative has given people a chance to see how policy decisions ultimately affect their lives. By being at the table, they will be able to play a role in the creation and implementation of those decisions, and to capitalize on employment and development opportunities that will emerge as a result of this project.
ACER’s model of community engagement in transitway development can serve as a model for the rest of the Twin Cities region. Historically, communities of color, immigrant communities and low- income communities in the region have been left out of policy and land-use decisions. As a result, they often miss out on economic opportunities that the rest of region enjoys in terms of employment opportunities, affordable housing, health care and employment. However, when these communities are brought to the decision-making table, they are given an opportunity to voice the needs and wishes of their community, which is a critical first step in reducing these disparities.
Here’s to ACER for the good work you are doing in engaging underrepresented communities in the development of our region’s transitways!