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Local organizer shifts focus to transit equity

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Local organizer shifts focus to transit equity
Hakim Cunningham is the new social justice policy coordinator at Transportation for Massachusetts. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

A statewide coalition focused on transportation policy has brought a Boston organizer and activist on board to help sharpen the group’s focus on transportation priorities of community-based organizations.

Hakim Cunningham, a Dorchester native who cut his organizing teeth as an economic justice and jobs advocate, has taken on the newly-created role of social justice policy coordinator at Transportation for Massachusetts, a coalition formed in 2010 to advocate for safe, reliable, equitable transportation systems, adequate revenue, and transparency and accountability in transportation decision-making.

“My role is to bring together the communities of color to get a clear understanding of what the transportation fights are and how the current political and economic climate affects them,” said Cunningham. “They need to be at the table to create policies that keep in mind the needs of those affected by transportation who are very low income.”

Historically, many transportation decisions national and local have been made at the expense of less empowered populations.

In the mid- to late 20th century, federal highway policies favored the growth of car-oriented suburbs that welcomed affluent whites and shut out blacks. In the 1960s and 70s, a trend toward pushing highways through cities to ease automobile travel divided and destroyed neighborhoods of color, including in Boston where hundreds of homes and businesses were razed in the path of an eight-lane extension of I-95 that would have torn through Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and the South End. The I-95 project was stopped by grassroots action, but the demolition left a swath of vacant lots and a deep community distrust of government planners still evident today.

For decades, the Fairmount rail line running through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan passed through the black communities in its path without stopping. In recent years, grassroots community activism by groups such as the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition and local community development corporations helped change that. With new stations, followed by reduced fares and increased weekend service, rail access is improving for residents and workers in the Bowdoin/Geneva, Four Corners, Talbot Avenue, Morton Street and Newmarket areas.

And each time the MBTA raises fares or cuts services — as it is contemplating right now to ease a $242 million budget deficit and backlogged repair costs — the impact is likely to be felt most painfully by those whose transportation budgets are tight, whose reliance on it is heavy, and whose political voice may not be the loudest, including senior citizens, low-income workers and teens traveling to school and to jobs.

Cunningham spoke with the Banner recently about his new job and some of the key transportation issues he hopes to tackle.

“My approach is to go out into the neighborhoods and be focused on bringing their voices to the table for any policy discussions and positions we hold inside T4Mass,” he said. “I’m talking to those who haven’t been at the table as much.”

And what are some of the key transportation justice issues?

“I think it boils down to unreasonable fare hikes and fares in relation to wages,” Cunningham said. “For individuals working low-wage jobs, fare increases take another chunk of their money. Also, just paying for transfers, even 50 or 80 cents at a time, it adds up, and can maybe be 30 or 40 dollars a week. That could be a bill, that could be some groceries! Especially if there is more than one person in a family, transportation can be a substantial portion of a household budget.”

Prior to starting the T4Mass job this fall, Cunningham, 39, was an organizer and deputy director with the Boston Workers Alliance, a grassroots group combatting urban joblessness and advocating for social and economic justice. There, he mobilized and coordinated efforts on criminal justice reform, CORI reform and the Boston Residents Job Policy.

“So I’ve done a lot of work around economic development and criminal justice — I got my organizing feet wet there,” he said. “I jumped at the chance to take this grassroots experience and use it at T4Mass.”

Cunningham has also served as citywide coordinator for the Boston Jobs Coalition, addressing issues of concern to minority construction workers. He has had a hand in a number of other organizations and initiatives, including the My Brother’s Keeper Boston advisory committee, the Center for Economic Democracy and Grove Hall Main Streets. Along with fulltime work, he is pursuing a dual degree in Global Business & Entrepreneurship at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

Kristina Egan, T4Mass’s executive director, said the idea of a social justice policy coordinator position arose when the coalition grew rapidly from 17 to 58 members and she could no longer connect readily with every one of them.

“We needed a dedicated staff member who can understand the priorities of grassroots place-based organizations,” she said.

Egan noted that hiring Cunningham immediately brought a new perspective and new connections into T4Mass.

“He’s already brought a tremendous amount of knowledge about community issues, and has really strong relationships in the community,” she said. “Hakim is listening to conversations about gentrification and other issues and making sure we’re talking about them.”

Egan said there are groups she hadn’t had time to meet with, addressing issues of immigrants in Fitchburg and bus riders in New Bedford, for instance — and Cunningham stepped in and connected with them.

“So all of the sudden, I understand, and the rest of our coalition understands through Hakim, what issues are top-of-mind in these organizations,” Egan said.

While his focus is on bringing underserved groups into the transportation conversation, Cunningham keeps one eye on the bigger picture of capacity building and economic development.

On the Web

Transportation for Massachusetts:

Boston Workers Alliance:

In some areas of Massachusetts, residents are limited to certain jobs because their bus route stops at a certain hour.

“Certain regional transit systems might shut down at 5 o’clock, or on weekends,” Cunningham said. “People don’t really think about … the job opportunities that come with or are taken off the table with transportation decisions.”

And this is where experience in workforce development and jobs advocacy dovetails with transportation justice.

“It’s not just looking at how to create better transportation choices,” he explained, “but how we can connect it to racial equity and economic inequalities — so people can use the transportation and also become suppliers and business owners because of it. I feel, and a lot of people I talk with feel, that we always miss the economic inequality piece. We look for social justice, we look for civil rights — but how can we make sure to focus on economically empowering individuals?”

As social justice policy coordinator, Cunningham’s learning curve includes cultivating relationships with a larger set of organizations statewide, and also stepping back from activism a bit.

“I’d say I’ve been doing ‘my job description plus’,” he said, flashing a smile. “But I have to be mindful of the line between advocacy and activism. Finding out what the needs are, reporting to the decision makers and developing policy — I have to stay in that zone, and not try to do other people’s jobs for them. I’m finding that sweet spot.”

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