By Nailah Pope-Harden
I’ve been reflecting on why transportation justice is so important to me. I came to ClimatePlan, after years of organizing around various environmental justice issues. Early in my organizing career, I learned the difference between environmentalism and environmental justice the hard way. Once, I sat through a meeting where people named trees by their scientific names but asked me for a nickname because ‘Nailah’ was too difficult. I heard predominantly white communities advocate to preserve land for birds but were silent about waste treatment centers sited next to me and my BIPOC neighbors. What always floored me was these two different worlds were often separated by a road.
For me, fighting for environmental justice meant I needed to take on traditional environmentalism and structural racism. So I took my passion and frustration, bottled it up, and started organizing. One of the first campaigns I was involved with was restoring bus service in South Sacramento. A few months into this campaign, Oscar Grant was killed by BART Police in Oakland, California. He was 22; I was 21. The Fruitvale BART Station was within walking distance of where I had just moved from in Oakland. This experience was a core memory in my advocacy, I was advocating for more public transit while seeing my equal killed using public transit. It created this lasting memory and a deep desire to see my people get to where they need to go.
The more and more I do this work, the more I come to understand how complicit our roads are in the murdering of Black and Brown bodies. It’s maddening. How often do we have to hear about routine traffic stops, jaywalking, or how simply running or walking in a neighborhood can lead to death? For far too many BIPOC people, concrete and asphalt are the last thing they will see in their lifetimes.
If it’s not the enforcement and preservation of our roads, it’s the construction of them that displace low-income communities and communities of color disproportionately. Our roads are complicit in the taking of land, stifling generational wealth, and dividing communities. If not the construction of our roads, it’s the pollution from cars on the roads and the lack of policies to protect and monitor air quality in low-income communities and communities of color. Again, our roads, our lack of intentionality, and our negligence in building proper infrastructure are all complicit in the murdering of Black and Brown bodies. Every misplaced crosswalk, stop sign, or traffic signal can be used as a tool for death. Where a road is built can grant or deny access to various opportunities for generations of families.
Now, I’m not saying roads themselves are the problem. I’m saying roads, like any other resource, can be used as tools for oppression. It is not that I don’t see value in highways, streets, and roads; I just want streets and roads that connect us. I want neighborhoods that are accessible. I want options and versatility in how I move through a city. I want bike paths, sidewalks, public transportation options. I want shade trees and clean air. I want pathways in my neighborhood that leads to park and outdoor spaces. I want to get to my destination in the most peaceful, healthy way possible, and I want that for EVERYONE.
As a new Board Member of America Walks and California Walks, I hope to use my lived experience and professional expertise to help more people get to where they want to go. In the meantime, As I say to anyone and everyone leaving my house, get home safe and text me when you get there.
In her role at ClimatePlan, she is responsible for expanding the network presence, cultivating new members, and ensuring the mission and vision of the organization are being carried out. She comes to this position with years of community organizing and coalitions building experience that spans neighborhood, regional, state, and national social justice campaigns. The through-line in Nailah’s personal and professional life is always ensuring her son has a healthy, safe, loving environment and future. She does this by building community everywhere she goes, learning from those around her, and being open to (transformative) change. Nailah is located in Sacramento.