LISTEN: Regan Patterson on transportation justice

LISTEN: Regan Patterson on transportation justice

"You're starting to see this explicit link being made between state-sanctioned violence and transportation equity."

Dr. Regan Patterson joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss her research and advocacy for transportation reparations and justice.


Patterson, a Transportation Equity Research Fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and current Agents of Change fellow, also talks about her love of math from an early age, institutional barriers for young Black girls going into STEM careers, and how she came to incorporate environmental justice into her engineering research.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Patterson, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Now I am joined by Regan Patterson. Regan, how are you doing today.

Regan Patterson

Doing well, thanks. How are you,

Brian Bienkowski

I am excellent and where are you today, where are you coming at us from.

Regan Patterson

I am in Washington DC.

Brian Bienkowski

Awesome Washington DC, a far away from Northern Michigan where I am. It is great to talk to you. And I want to start, as I usually do way back at the beginning, and I happen to know that you were pretty good at math. From a young age. And, but, yet, yet, since then you've kind of mentioned that you know institutional barriers to STEM education for underrepresented students that's science technology engineering and math. So I'm kind of curious, what if any of these barriers looked like for you as a young black girl like selling at math.

Regan Patterson

Yeah, so there's always, we're not always but we often hear of like that time that I found out that I was black, or that your identity was something other. And so for me it actually my story kind of focuses around STEM interestingly, and so in fourth grade. I was, I had recently moved to Ohio, and in fourth grade. They realized that I was really good at math and so my mom was hoping for me to be bumped up a math level so even though I was in fourth grade go into the fifth grade math class. However, the school pushed back on that. And so, I didn't understand why, but came to learn it was because I was a little black girl. And so I was not supposed to be good at math and so my mom actually went to the school to advocate on behalf of me her daughter, and to put me into that higher math class and so that was experience at a young age was very eye opening. And so that was something to see how institutionally, the discouragement of black and other underrepresented students in the STEM fields. And so we see this in stories of tracking more broadly, my brother, even was tracked and I remember coming home, that my family lives in San Diego, it's I was visiting home and I found my brother's high school schedule, and so you know they like, do that in advance, what's your plan schedule and I noticed they have placed him in math classes that would not even allow him to get to an AP math class, and I will say my brother is smarter than me, and I was just like, This doesn't make sense to the black man, he was a varsity athlete and so it was like on that level, it made sense and so I completely changed the schedule, and luckily, it did change but again having to advocate for my own brother and I see this again and again with students that I tutor and work with being tracked for instance into social justice academies, or social science academies over engineering academies or other science related academies in high schools. And so, just these familiar stories of being trapped or being discouraged from pursuing STEM interests.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and basically just perpetuating or instigating stereotypes which is, which is really ugly. I am curious, as a young, as a young man I was really into books and words and math gave me a really hard time that's why I'm a journalist, but that manifested in wanting to read, I would read about baseball and I would read these books and that's kind of how my interest grew I'm wondering when you're that young and you're into math. It's so foreign to me, how did that manifest outside of school, or was it just kind of strictly at school that you were focused on this.

Regan Patterson

Oh my interest, though, I was definitely a big nerd, and so funny enough, my grandmother is a retired teacher, an English teacher in fact, and so she would sit me down and so you can't watch TV until you read this book, but then also when it came to video game, my favorite video game growing up was actually Math Blaster. And so I would sit for hours and hours at my grandmother's house actually playing Math Blaster, and so that is how I think I really developed my love of math. Yeah. Kids today I don't think anyone's like oh yeah that really cool math game, but for me it really was my, my grandma just instilling the importance of education, and then also just like a love for math that was kind of amplified because of this math class are pretty okay,

Brian Bienkowski

that's, that's really cool. I bet there are exams, I don't know of them but I know there's all kinds of work in in the AI space, and in video games using them as tools of education, and it's, it's pretty cool to think that, you know even a couple of decades, whatever it is that you were, you were doing that to it probably looks a lot different now than math. Math Wester. Yes, I'm like, I'm not that old, but that definitely does age be a little bit. Well, and the leaps and bounds that video games have taken you know, so realistic looking so skipping ahead a few steps here. Up to you. You went to UCLA for engineering and you've mentioned that to organizations and I want to say their name so the center for excellence and excellence in engineering and diversity in the National Society of Black Engineers. They played a pivotal pivotable pivotal role in both support and mentorship and wonder if you could talk about that how they helped you succeed and what these organizations provided beyond what classes and kind of the traditional academic advisors offered.

Regan Patterson

Yeah, though, I owe so much to seed and as seeds so thankful that you asked this question. And so, Steve really provided a sense of belonging. And so, freshman year, before even the start of freshman year seed actually brings students to campus. A week before classes start to get introduced to courses and to build community. And so, you come in to this large campus, UCLA, this large UC school already with a sense of community and academic support and that only continues to grow throughout your academic career at UCLA, receive academically your tutoring services a dedicated workspace and professional development. However, you also have the tri org, which consists of Nesby as you mentioned the National Society of Black Engineers, so less the Society of Latino engineers and scientists and then aces the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. And so you're introduced to these groups, which really become both academic support, and just personal support networks. And so that's really the formal structure but then you have so much more and like they really are people that have your like they have your back, they're in your corner and they're really helping you navigate and so for me, for instance, after my sophomore year I wanted to. I came in, UCLA, as a civil environments engineering major. But after starting to take operative classes I was like this is not what I want to do. And I was freaking out like shaving stain engineering but being able to go to the seat, offices, and the seat staff and really talk through this and then I ended up being a chemical engineering major. Also providing letters of recommendation, encouraging me to apply to be student speaker and so I was the first black woman to be engineering students commencement speaker, and then also encouraging me to apply to UC Berkeley for graduate schools so actually I was not even considering Berkeley which is funny enough, and then that happens to be where I went, and so it's just, just having that, knowing that there was a community, always there to support me through, like personal decisions academic decisions professional decisions really lifetime relationships I still communicate with them now. And so, just, again, that sense of belonging and community.

Brian Bienkowski

So I'm both surprised and not surprised when I hear things like what you just sandwiched in there that you were the first black woman to give a commencement speech was it for the School of Engineering is that right, that's still, you know, hearing those things still kind of blows my mind, but it shouldn't. And I'm wondering if you tell me about that how what was that experience like and were you really nervous.

Regan Patterson

Oh my goodness, I was so nervous, and so I was not even considering being commencement speaker, and then, again, going into the seat, offices, talking to Sherry who is still there. And she was like Regan. How about you apply to be speaker, really. And she was like yeah do it and so I, I was like okay, and so my message was really inspired by the story of my great grandmother. And so having the courage to migrate to the north, to give her family better opportunities, including my grandmother, who actually again I mentioned she is a retired English teacher, she actually taught my great grandmother, how to read and write. And so, just that the courage to do for others and so that is something that was the theme of my speech, but just very nervous and again seed helped me in this process. And when I was elected, I was excited, but also again, nervous, I surprised me when I say I'm actually very terrified of public speaking. I'm very terrified. And so, but I did have some comfort in the message that I really wanted to share again inspired by my family. That is just a very relatable message of a good doing for others,

Brian Bienkowski

it does seem that the things that make us both very excited and very nervous, are usually the ones where we get done and there's a real sense of fulfillment. When, when you feel both of those in advance, so you ultimately stuck with engineering but in the meantime it sounded like you did some work with low income first generation pre college students and did some tutoring, and I'm wonder if you could talk about those experiences and why you felt it was important to in addition to everything else had going on, kind of pay it forward to these younger students.

Regan Patterson

Yeah so, during my time in undergrad. Through seed Nesby in our tribe org. We did a lot of community outreach programming. And so bringing students from elementary school through high school to campus to gauge activities to help demystify stem, and encourage students to pursue STEM in college. And so this really exposed me to the importance of service and being in service to our communities, whether that's exposing students to academic or professional opportunities or just supporting students in their own academic journeys and so services like tutoring and mentoring. And so this was really instilled in those undergraduate experiences and so been continuing them throughout graduate school. Being involved with Upward Bound at Smash, which are two programs that specifically target, low income first generation underrepresented students. And so, for me, is again being in service to community and so while I'm here. Again, there's a lot around making sure that you have. You create opportunities and bring people along with you. Also though it's really just about support and so a lot of these programs are about supporting students who are specifically interested in engineering, however some students may not choose engineering some students may choose another science field, or choose a field completely out of science but it's making sure that they know, again, they're supported and so to get through these math courses these science courses but also to encourage, to pursue any interest that they have in academia. And so, yeah so throughout graduate school programs like Project touchdown at St Paul's at church or. I also created the black engineering workshop series to bring students to campus and so it was just this dedication to creating that space and that support for students.

Brian Bienkowski

If I could go back to my undergraduate career, engaging in the kind of communities, micro communities that you're talking about would be the one thing I would change I went to Michigan State University, which is another big large public school, public state school, and it felt like it was just a sea of people and 500 person classrooms and I think to have that support on the micro level, whether it's because you all have a shared interest or a shared background or whatever it is I think that's so important. Did you ever think that maybe you wanted to do something more education wise, instead of engineering.

Regan Patterson

I don't think it's an instead of but it's an addition to it. So, how can I continue to merge these two interests. And so, and so yes always just making sure to dedicate time to this, because for me it's about making sure that no matter what career we choose, we always make sure to do the work that gives back to community. And so, yeah, not, not an or but who am i

Brian Bienkowski

right. So before we get into some of the work that you're doing now. I'm wondering what is a moment or event or decision up to this point that has shaped your identity.

Regan Patterson

Um, I will say, I don't think - I will -It's an it's an extended moment but I will honestly say that graduates who really shaped my identity and being what I will say is a very unapologetic version of myself, which really shapes the work that I do now in graduate school. One, it is a very taxing experience. I will say. And so, being able to navigate that and remain confident in your abilities while navigating. Graduate school is a test, and it is a lesson that on the other side has caused me to now move in a way where I don't allow others to really question my abilities and capabilities. And so before graduate school, it's, it's, you kind of respect these different like hierarchy. Oh, you're the teacher, you must know more than me. And so in graduate school you bring this Oh, with that Professor Student Relationship Oh, you must know more than me, but graduate school is was really a lesson in particularly experiences of being challenged as a black woman, my knowledge, whether it's microaggressions, or whether it was explicit questioning of did I know information, or if it was whether oh you're interested in these things. Would you rather go out of engineering. Because you seem to care about communities of color. And so just questioning my being and belonging and engineering. Throughout graduate school has really now shaped me since I was able to successfully get through. And again, be the first black woman to get a PhD in Environmental Engineering. And so now as you know I made it through that, and I'm not going to allow anyone to question me as a black woman in engineering, and so that really kind of guides my work now where I ask what I ask and I, and I kind of hold stances that I articulated and willing to share. Again, unapologetically

Brian Bienkowski

how wild is just to think that first question I asked you was people questioning your, your abilities and math and whether you should move up, and then fast forward to the highest very highest levels of education. And that same institutional racism, really persisted, which I think speaks by but I'm glad you came out the other side. And it's a nice segue to talk to your talk about your work now and a little bit about your dissertation work. So now you're focusing a lot on transportation environmental injustice, air pollution, can you talk a little bit about your dissertation research on diesel pollution controls in California and how it highlighted this link between historical racial discrimination and our current transportation policy.

Regan Patterson

Yeah, so the lab that I was in focuses on engine control, and my interest going into graduate school is really focused on environmental justice so it was about, how can I kind of pair these two things to craft my dissertation, and so for my work, I ended up looking at the impact of transportation policies, including diesel engine controls on environmental justice outcomes. And so, for instance, looking at East Oakland, and the impact of the accelerated adoption of these emission control technologies which reduce diesel emissions on exposures in East Oakland neighborhoods, the flatlands, as compared to the Oakland Hills. And so in doing this work from an engineering standpoint, you get emission reductions from these control technologies, and we're happy because emission reductions will benefit everybody. But by focusing really intentionally with a justice lens, it requires us to also ask place these questions, so why are all the trucks going through particular communities in this case, the flatland in the first place. Why are all the highways near predominantly black and brown neighborhood for another study I did, why are poor communities, predominantly black and brown communities. And so getting to the why. So while my research did look did show emissions reductions. This research started to kind of started to illuminate for me coming from this like technical engineering background and not having that historical knowledge. So, it was through this research that I started to ask those again play space and be exposed to this place based reasons and discriminatory policies that lead to the environmental injustices that I was in studying.

Brian Bienkowski

And so what does that look like practically so you come in with you mentioned chemical engineering so that's a, as you said kind of this very specific kind of, you know, lab work or whatever that looks like. Does it does it include kind of an interdisciplinary approach where you're inviting in social scientists, and maybe anthropologists or what does that look like that tried to broaden your perspective so the research is more all encompassing.

Regan Patterson

Yeah, well for my dissertation, it was air quality modeling so modeling the impacts of these policies such as again controls or another project freeway route routing on exposures and so that is the technical methodology. And so within this work, I have opportunities to engage with social science literature to inform like discussions, but it wasn't explicitly incorporated into the work. And so, that is, that is why I for graduate school, I then kind of got on projects outside of my dissertation, That kind of allowed me or expose me to social scientists, urban planners, environmental scientists. And so that was more of the interdisciplinary experiences. And then later going to do a postdoc at the University of Michigan to again do a deeper dive of these historical policies, but within the engineering. Dissertation itself, it was informed by other disciplines, but not explicitly in collaboration with outside disciplines.

Brian Bienkowski

So we're at this time in our country, as we talk right now there's a infrastructure bills kind of on the table with the new Biden administration, COVID has put this real dent in in in transportation subways and buses people are scared. Electrifying vehicles is all over the place so I'm wondering from your perspective, what are some transportation changes whether cultural or policy oriented that you'd like to see push us toward environmental justice.

Regan Patterson

Yeah. Oh. Um, I'd like to see a few changes but they're all under this umbrella of transportation reparations. And for me, what that means is fair free police, free public transit, that is accessible. And that also means freeway tear down projects. And so, current, the current climate and infrastructure model that you just mentioned is this focus on electric vehicles. And so from my perspective, though, this continual infrastructure planning around single occupancy cars relies on the same roadway infrastructure. It's just upgraded to be electrified. And to me, this does not get this does not really enable transportation equity. For instance, there was an article recently about North Houston, which is. And due to these auto dependent transportation systems that continue to rely on this roadway infrastructure, you continue to see the displacement so in northeast and they want to expand the freeway, which we typically think of transports highway construction historically displacing people but it continues today. And so our focus continues to be on. Oh, now we've just go from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, you still rely again on the same roadway infrastructure, which will perpetuate transportation inequities, and so how do we create a model that instead shifts to public transit. Specifically, they are free, and police free public transit, because of the racial implications of fares and as well as policing on public transit.

Brian Bienkowski

If the answer is no, that's fine, but I have to ask so I, I'm from the city but now I live in a very rural area. And I'm wondering so it's just a lot different when I think about where I live, I live right 75 ends as far north as you can go up to Canada, and grew up inside, you know by 75 in Detroit, so kind of seeing that the span of it in this state, and I'm wondering if, if you are colleagues research you've you've seen has thought about kind of rural, transportation, and ways we can have equity on the rural level where maybe public transit and subways just aren't things are possible.

Regan Patterson

Yes. And so, expanding accessibility for rural communities is definitely a part of this conversation and I definitely appreciate you highlighting that with this question. And so one thing that is in conversation is that, Oh, what if it doesn't make sense to build public transit infrastructure in rural communities. And so then the question is, okay, so how can we expand things like shuttle services, because people still need to get to essential services such as hospitals, grocery stores, employment centers. And so, what would that look like car dependency content. Car dependency and the continual or perpetuation of our dependency contributes to so many inequities along race, class and gender lines and so how do we therefore make it so that communities in rural areas. Also, do not have to rely on a car, especially because already has not been sufficient in providing transportation access for rural communities. So again, what would vample services look like, what would the shuttle services look like, and other innovative solutions that do not rely on highlights.

Brian Bienkowski

And of course last year in the wake of police, murders, for lack of a better word, there was, we saw Black Lives Matter and other movements, kind of have a renewed importance in our society that's maintained and in a lot of these organizations have been drawing parallels between that movement and economic justice, and climate justice, and I'm wondering if you see that, spreading into transportation equity and transportation justice.

Regan Patterson

Yes, or instance so I love this question because this actually guides, a lot of my current interest in work and so with this summer, you really are starting to see this explicit link being made between state sanctioned violence, and transportation equity. And this is really because, as you mentioned, with policing and violence transportation is the most common police initiated contact, and due to over policing of black communities and black bodies, black folks are disproportionately killed by police, and so they're the people that we know such as Oscar Grant, who was featured his story was part of the movie Fruitvale Station, as well as folks like Colin, Fernando Castillo, Sandra Bland, but there's many who don't know, and so with the calls for divestment and abolition, as well as community investments, part of those calls for community as part of the community investments are calls for free and accessible transit, you have the movement for black lives, breathe act, you have Congress and when Ayana Presley's freedom to move act. So again, linking divestment to free and accessible transit. Additionally, you have the movement for black lives call for climate reparations. And so, black communities are hit first and worst. And so in an interview Stacey Abrams recently even mentioned that transportation is tied to folks this ability to evacuate and return to their cities. And so when you have these underfunded and divested public transit systems, things that stats, such as black people being more, more unlikely to own cars is really impacts these climate in justices. And then lastly something that also really excites me is the movement for black lives, red, black and green New Deal, which is connecting the struggle for black liberation and climate justice, and so trying to create a black vision for climate justice and equitable transportation systems are a critical part of that.

Brian Bienkowski

Just because I'm always thinking about bicycles, I have to mention that bicycling to communities of color are more likely to get tickets on their bike this these are stats and I believe it's black girls do ride bikes is an organization that's doing work on this but there's all kinds of work being done on the cycling side of things to which I'm kind of selfishly very interested in because I'm a big cyclist. So, you're obviously here at eight and to change because it's on some level you value. Communication and Outreach and getting your research and your thoughts and ideas to communities that may not see them in academic journals so I'm wondering what role kind of community outreach and communication has played in your research so far and moving forward, what role you want it to play.

Regan Patterson

Yeah so, during graduate school, it was my community engagement that really informed the questions that I asked in my dissertation, because I really want my work to be something that could translate into on the ground actions or something that or research that is usable by grassroots organizers. And so through graduate school, it was my outside work and so internships or community engaged work that would inform my academic work. And so now, having the opportunity where I currently am the transportation equity research fellow at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. It is how can my work, reach, reach a wide audience and so making sure that my work is understandable, or relatable for someone who randomly picks it up to policymakers to academics and so making sure that this that the work is, is legible to a wide audience, and can contribute to transportation equity. And then in the future I'm hoping to continue this policy work to really say how can my research translate into policy through policy analysis, and making sure that in creating these research instruments that it's really informed and led by community and so. So right now, a lot of my work is policy questions that I lead through the cbcf, but making, but in the future, having questions and guiding policy through a community engaged process is something that I'm very interested in doing, it's informed by experiences I had in graduate school but being even more intentional about coming so in the future.

Brian Bienkowski

So from childhood to now you've lived in a bunch of different places for graduate school and so on and so forth. I'm wondering being in DC being in the hornet's nest of policymaking and very important people or people who think they're very important. What is it like, Do you like it there he like working there.

Regan Patterson

I do, I, I have I, it was always my goal to get to DC. And so I'm originally from Maryland, and so it's kind of, I call it my home going. Being here in DC, but I always knew I wanted to engage in policy, I always loved when I would visit for conferences like the hustle and bustle, where people always knew they had to get somewhere, they had to do something. And so kind of immersing myself in this kind of space for a bit and it just to experience it. And so, I really love it. I'm clearly here to push an agenda around transportation equity folks in DC, are all a lot of folks in DC are here to push their various agendas and so just kind of navigating that and see that how that operates and where people have synergies in their work and what kind of collaborations and partnerships across so many different arenas again, you have the policy of the nonprofits. And so, it's a fun, great place, I feel like I thrive in these kinds of spaces of just like, move, move, move, hustle, hustle, hustle, so I'm having a good time.

Brian Bienkowski

I've agreed with pretty much everything you've said in this podcast, up to loving the hustle and bustle. We just, we just split and parted ways, I when I talked to my journalist friends who are in DC, who are working. Again, it's fast paced and writing about policy and then I think about my life in a very rural area, I feel very fortunate, but yeah, everybody thrives under different circumstances. So that's very cool. Regan we have reached the end and I've had so much fun I have one last question for you and that is what is the last book you read for fun.

Regan Patterson

So, the last book I read was The Yellow House. I'm currently reading I'm still here.

Brian Bienkowski

And tell me about The Yellow House.

Regan Patterson

So The Yellow House is a book about a family in New Orleans. And so it's an interracial intergenerational story of a black family and just see the impact of place on the family experience, and the impact of, there's a climate narrative within it an environmental justice narrative within it, because the family was impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Talking about the impact of highways that have, that this children would have to cross to get to school. But yes, just the intergenerational black experience is excellent.

Brian Bienkowski

Well Regan thank you so much for joining me today. This has been a really good time.

Regan Patterson

Thank you so much for having me.

SUBSCRIBE TO EHN'S MUST-READ DAILY NEWSLETTER: ABOVE THE FOLD
From our Newsroom

Peter Dykstra: The other destructive Columbus

The role of past Secretaries of the Interior in ravaging the West.

Electronic waste from just this year will outweigh the Great Wall of China

"It's a call on consumers to return their electronics because without that, the alternative is the need to mine the materials, which is a lot more environmentally damaging."

As masses of plaintiffs pursue Roundup cancer compensation, migrant farmworkers are left out

Hampered by fear and deprived of resources, migrant farmworkers are unlikely to come forward and seek restitution.

WATCH: A global fertility crisis

"Reproduction is a basic human right ... to have that taken away from you from causes that are not within your control is what I'm most concerned about."

Ocean plastic pollution

Too much plastic is ending up in the ocean — and making its way back onto our dinner plates.

Understanding poverty and children’s health before natural disasters strike

Preparing for and building back after natural disasters should not be a one-size-fits all approach.

Above The Fold

Daily & Weekly newsletters all free.