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Talking Headways Podcast: Latina Leaders in Transit

This week, Angie Rivera-Malpiede, board chair of the Regional Transportation District in Denver, talks with Cindy Chavez, former board chair of the VTA and current Santa Clara County, Calif. supervisor. These Latina leaders chat about getting communities involved in transportation and leadership.

For those of you who prefer to read, there's an edited transcript below the audio player. If you prefer a full, unedited transcript, and can bear with some typos, click here.

Angie Rivera-Malpiede: I think it’s really interesting that people always ask is, you know, how do you bring in your lived experience to a board and how are Latina leaders influencing those conversations and actions at the board level? I’m the only Latino on the RTD board of directors. And the other thing, I’m the only Latino on the senior leadership level. And so it says to me we have a lot of work to do when we represent 22 percent of the transit population, our voice definitely needs to be heard.

But as you know, even in the Latino communities, we’re very, very diverse in our, in our cultures, in our beliefs and how we live our lives. And so I think that transit agencies around the country — and I was just at a board talk for APTA — need to keep talking about equity. And it was like, "How are we going to get people with diverse backgrounds on transit boards?" And one of the big issues is we need to be flexible so that they can be on transit boards. And it reminds me that I did not run for an elected office until my girls were grown because it took so much time and I really wanted to commit to that.

But when you’re working three jobs, it’s really hard to run as an elected official or to be appointed to any board because all you’re doing is trying to make ends meet and get food on the table. But I think what it does is it allows us as transit leaders to really stop and evaluate our work and how we are being inclusive and how we’re reaching out to two different communities. And I think that’s going to be really important, not just this next year, but in these next five years. So it’s a real big issue for me at RTD. What about you?

Cindy Chavez: I so appreciate that we all come to public service at different times in our lives. And, you know, I am a mother of one child and my husband and I really accidentally decided to get into public service. I really was very active in the labor movement and I was active getting really good people elected to office. And my husband and I bought a home in downtown San Jose. And we had just moved in and we were having challenges with a neighbor. And those challenges resulted in a shooting one night where no one was hurt, but my house got shot.

I literally found the bullet from this shooting in our bed the next day. And so that actually got me, like really fired up. And I remember just being like, "OK, you know, I’ve been interviewing all these candidates. I’m really excited that they think they can change the world, but the one person who I know is going to fight tooth and nail is going to be me." And that’s ultimately why I ran for office. And to your point, I think that what is so wonderful about having people of different ages and different backgrounds is that you bring very different perspectives, and I’m sure you’ve done that in your agency, but like right now we’re hiring a lot of young people.

And so we were trying to figure out how to do outreach on this new transportation plan. And it was really, you know, of course the younger folks are very good at social media, but we started to do tele-town halls actually before COVID-19. Way more people tuned in. And then we did, and that was for the more tech savvy. And then we did pop up survey sites along our bus routes and then got on the buses and started interviewing people. And my point there is, is that I think that the more voices we bring, that the better opportunity we have to make the services meaningful for our community.

And that's true, whether it's my voice or others. As a young mom, I had a different perspective than I do now, so all of those perspectives are really valid. And I think that’s why your point about how to do the boards we sit on really reflect the community has to be a priority for each of us, including the boards and commissions that give input.

So one of the other things my colleagues and I have put together is a transportation mentoring network that all of the women leaders here are involved with. We are helping younger women figure out how to move up in their institutions so that they can play more of a leadership role.

And I think that’s the kind of the responsibility we have that, you know, Angie, I’m sure people helped you, and you might have a couple of those folks in mind as you’re thinking about it. I know I had women helping me, even before I knew it. They were mentoring me in spite of my pig headedness and they were helping me be successful. So anyway, those are some of the things that I’d been investing in.

And I guess I’d be curious about, you know, how based on the needs in your community are you thinking about what’s working in terms of outreach models of governance? I’d be just curious because RTD is so ahead of most of us because of your multi-county multi-regional approach. It’s really fabulous.

Angie Rivera-Malpiede: I think that that’s the million-dollar question: How do you get different voices that are at the table and how do you work with people in different areas? I think that we are very, very diverse, just like all transit agencies are. But I think that you hit the nail on the head by going to the bus stops and talking to people there to find out what they think and how transportation is really impacting their daily lives.

Because when I think of that, it’s really all people want to go to their bus stop and have a bus there. They don’t care about anything else. They are busy, they want to pay their fare and they want to get on the bus. I need to get on with what it is they need to get on with. And I do ride the bus all the time and the trains, and I’m always fascinated listening to all the conversations in there because you can learn so much by just listening. And I think that’s been a really big success model for me is listening. And man, you know, some of my constituents have become some of my best friends I’ll call in sick and they tell me for sure, you know, we are accessible by you, you know, all kinds of things in you're right RTD has been a leader.

You know, in 2012, we started the "Workforce Now" initiative, that hires community members to build out our commuter rail lines. And it was unprecedented, and it empowered the community. But not only that, it gave them a livable wage to build out this infrastructure that was going to serve generations because of their work and nobody knew that community better than them. And I think that’s the secret sauce is actually going to the community that you're in and hiring them to do the work as we move forward and giving them the ability to be trained in all of these different facets that will kind of serve them and their families for a very, very long time.

So that’s one thing. Second thing, you know, we have a Civil Rights Division. We are consistently looking at everything. We do have to have an SBE and a DBE component so that we are making sure that our workforce is a very, very diverse. And then the last thing I’m going to say to you is we just had an election and we had eight seats up for election, five brand new board members and three incumbents. And of the five new board members, four of them are in their thirties. They are young and there are, they are psyched. They want to change the world. They have all these amazing ideas.

They are extraordinarily efficient and the world of IT and social media like I am not, and I find it extraordinarily refreshing that they're there, and that we’re going to be working together. But I also think the other equation is us imparting on them our experience of wisdom that they can take and build on for their generation. And I think that that’s really exciting. We do need to go out. We do need to recruit younger folks to come on, but we also need to look at the diversity. We need to get people at the table who struggle so that, you know, it’s not just people who have made it, but the people who are still climbing up that ladder, who can really give you a completely different ground kind of experience that you may not have, or know.

And I, like you, have been an advocate in my community and actually my community was one of the four communities in the State of Colorado that was deemed one of the most dangerous during the summer of violence. We had a lot of gang violence and as a single mom with two little girls, I got very involved. And the reason I did was just because of the way that you did. I wanted to have my finger on the pulse, but more than that, I wanted to a police officers to fill out their reports in my alley so that I have more protection. I mean, I learned that through volunteering, in getting to know people, they listen to you. And so I think that that’s exciting.

And I think all of that transfers into transportation because it is the nucleus of what we’re going to do and how we’re going to be moving forward as a community.

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