Confronting Power and Privilege

tamika l. butler
12 min readApr 21, 2020
2019 California Association of Museums Annual Conference Keynote

Last week I wrote a piece called: Not Interested in Your New or Old Normal: This Shouldn’t Be Normal. In that piece I wrote:

“The reality is, I don’t want to get back to normal because just being better than it is now shouldn’t be enough.”

Elizabeth Catlett’s Black Unity from Soul of a Nation

Specifically, I questioned then, and continue to question today, whether the preexisting inequities laid bare by this momentary pandemic are forcing those in power to truly confront the timeless vestiges of colonialism, white supremacy, and racism.

In my gut, the answer to that question is a clear no. But I hope that as this thing continues and we continue to lose lives of people of color — particularly black people — at a disproportionately high rate, that people with power start to think about how they can do things differently.

I especially hope that is the case in the field in which I’m lucky enough to work: transportation. Over the last several weeks, people in the transportation space have been wondering what we can do to contribute as we all try to get through something none of us could have imagined. Whether it’s by closing streets or allowing transit to be free — it seems like everywhere I look in the transportation industry, people just want to help. It’s one of the things I love about this work. People who are in it truly want to serve others. Whenever I think of transportation and the people I know and respect in this field, we care about mobility and freedom — helping people get to the things, places, and people they want to get to with dignity and as their full selves. That means that transportation, like every industry, must use this time to “look at old problems in new ways.” This means being “willing to assess the problem honestly, deeply, and thoughtfully — even when it reveals things in ourselves and in our society that make us profoundly uncomfortable.”

When I think about transportation equity, this ain’t happening yet.

If you look at the social media of those who identify as BIPOC in transportation — or even better, talk to them — right now, it looks very different than the social media of white folks talking about the exact same things. I tend to operate from a place of assuming the best and believing that everyone in this work truly wants to help others. But take any topic in transportation right now and I see BIPOC folks saying, hold up…what about the people most often impacted by inequity, racism and oppression. I see non-BIPOC folks saying we’ll get to that, but we don’t have time for it right now. I see BIPOC folks saying, let’s talk about the way transportation intersects with some other basic human needs; let’s do some rapid surveying and outreach (in healthy social distancing ways) to actually reach out to historically oppressed communities and figure out how transportation is impacting them and what they need. I see non-BIPOC folks applying a savior-minded framework — even if what is being saved and who needs saving is in dispute.

Now I’ll admit this is an oversimplification. All BIPOC people aren’t the same and don’t share the same opinions nor are all non-BIPOC folks the same with the same opinions.

But it doesn’t change that the differences, on average, are striking. The thought seems to be that BIPOC people are making everything about race or just don’t understand what’s happening given how crazy everything is with this pandemic. BIPOC folks are being asked to show empathy for decisionmakers without any empathy being reciprocated. (Just check the personal attacks on people speaking out about transportation equity the last few weeks.) BIPOC folks are on the frontlines of this crisis — and most crises. I’m pretty sure they understand what’s happening. But if we don’t talk to them, ask them, and listen to them until after transportation decisions are already made, then we’re just doing things exactly the way we did them before. We are trying to retrofit equity without having to confront the role our industry plays in maintaining the status quo of racism and oppression.

So what should transportation professionals do to change? I’ve said this a million times: start by listening to women of color. We’re often the most impacted, but also the most ignored. We’re told to calm down and painted with stereotypes because we just don’t know how things work. Start with first considering that we do know how things work, we have ideas, and we’re here to help. We might do things differently than you’re used to, but different isn’t always wrong.

Sharon Roerty welcoming participants to the Salzburg Global Seminar

In October of 2018, one of the people I respect and admire most in this work, Sharon Roerty of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), believed in the power of women of color to have powerful ideas, and was willing to listen to those women, even if it felt different. I was lucky enough to be part of a diverse group of individuals that she and RWJF invited to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar program Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment. During this seminar, people involved in the health professions and people involved in urban planning got together to talk about equity. As a final project, I ended up in an amazing group of talented and diverse individuals from all over the world working to create a framework to help people confront power and privilege for inclusive, equitable, and healthy communities. This group, led by women of color, fought long and hard to get this framework published and continues to support one another as we push others to consider this framework, often at our own professional and personal risk.

I invite all transportation professionals wondering how to think about equity — and those trying to ignore equity — to think about this framework, integrate it into your work, and make yourself realize that the time to do what’s right, just, and equitable is always right now. That’s why this framework, written over a year ago, is still perfectly apt today. When health and urban planning professionals from all over the world got together in 2018, we never could have imagined the moment we find ourselves in today. But we certainly imagined a moment where we’d be told that equity was too hard, or that it was the wrong time. That’s why our focus went deeper to power and privilege. I invite you to read our statement on why and how to interrogate power and analyze privilege as you do your work.

This is a call to action. It’s aligned with the calls of action by others in the mobility justice space (like here, here, here and here). Are you going to answer the call or keep saying that equity in transportation is work for another day and for someone else — often BIPOC people?

You can read the framework, with full citations, here, but I’ve also included it below to make things easier.

According to the World Health Organization, inclusive, healthy and just communities are places that continually create and improve the physical and social environment to enable all people to be mutually supportive in all functions of life and to develop their maximum potential. It is suggested that only 16% of health outcomes are determined by the quality and availability of health care; and the social and economic determinants of health, including where people live play a more significant role.

This goes beyond the quality of physical structures in the urban environment or the space inside a home. It is about understanding neighborhood conditions and the availability and quality of other determinants of health, such as employment, healthy food, childcare, schools, transport and recreation space. We know geographic disparities in health, which often fall along lines of ethnicity and socioeconomic status, are growing and can exist even between people living in adjacent neighbourhoods. Health professionals and urban development practitioners therefore have an important role to play to ensure the practices and processes governing the design and development of our urban environment are inclusive and equitable for all and ultimately contribute to improved population health.

A call to action: interrogate power and analyze privilege to create and sustain healthy communities

The scale of current and potential inequalities in the urban environment demands a revolution of purpose and accountability. The challenges we face in building and sustaining healthy and equitable communities demand new forms of thinking, problem solving, governance, and decision making. Most importantly, it requires that we learn the skills of interrogating power and analyzing privilege.

Whether resources do, or do not, flow to communities is a direct product of both individual and institutional power. Power is defined as the ability to direct laws, policies, and investment that shape people’s lives. Privilege is the accumulation of benefits of special rights. Both power and privilege have been extracted and hoarded, consciously or not, by certain groups at the expense of others based on social categorizations including, but not limited to, class, ethnicity, religion, physical ability, and gender.

We call on health professionals, planners, public servants, developers, financiers, and engineers — in fact, all practitioners working at the intersection of health and the built environment — to shift their normal course of business towards adopting practices that recognize privilege and cede power. This requires pushing against conscious and unconscious practices and the societal beliefs and norms that marginalize, exclude and perpetuate inequity. We charge this community of practitioners to dismantle the structures, systems and practices that reinforce inequity. Even with best intentions, data-driven interventions, and evidence-based improvements, we will inadvertently perpetuate inequities and widen disparities if we are not conscious of our own power and the power structures within which we work.

We know that power and privilege can be complex and sometimes overwhelming concepts, but we can and must engage with them. We have proposed steps below for health professionals, policy makers and urban development practitioners and other stakeholders to begin the journey. We make this call to action to fundamentally shift the way we plan, build, program, advocate, and legislate our communities to ensure the health and quality of life for all. While it may seem a daunting task to connect this aspirational call to on-the-ground practice, we urge that this not be a reason for inaction since “professional silence in the face of social injustice is wrong.”

Steps for examining power and privilege in support of healthy and inclusive communities

1. Create and/or seek out “Brave Spaces” to explore the role of power in your work

Confronting power and its role in our work begins by creating “Brave Spaces”. Brave spaces are intentional environments and settings that facilitate the courageous, uncomfortable, and honest exploration of social categorizations such as physical ability, race, ethnicity, class, and gender identity and the privilege or marginalization that is extended to individuals based on these categorizations.

Brave spaces are created and maintained by a transparent commitment to practices that allow difference and celebrate new forms of action and strategy. You create brave spaces when you:

Speak your truth and listen deeply to the truth that others speak

Learn the truth about historical trauma and accept its impact on yourself and those you serve

Understand and honor your own experience and the experiences of others in equal measure

Bring your vulnerability to the table and create the space for others to be vulnerable

Invite yourself to make mistakes and be generous with the mistakes of others

Acknowledge the limits of expertise — an expert frame can shut down learning

Hold yourself and others accountable to practices that affirm diversity and inclusion

2. Understand the role that power plays in your current work

Within the brave space created above, consider as an urban developer, policy maker or health professional, a program, policy initiative, or other effort that you are working on to improve the physical, social and economic conditions of communities and ask the following:

What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

What decisions, policies, and practices have historically contributed to the problem? What is the root cause of the problem?

What is the formal and informal, the visible and invisible, decision-making or governance structure shaping the problem?

What would it look like if the problem is solved?

Who consistently benefits from the problem not being solved?

Who consistently suffers from the problem not being solved?

Are the people most affected by this problem represented in the decision-making process?

In seeking data, what sources of data are considered legitimate, and by whom? Are there credible sources that are being suppressed or dismissed because the power structure has deemed them unreliable?

3. Analyze and Challenge Privilege

Privilege is the accumulation of benefits of special rights, often over time, to a certain group. Think about your work and your role in your community of practice and ask:

What are the areas of life in which you hold privilege?

Despite your work to change outcomes, what remains the same?

Despite changes in the wider professional or sociopolitical context, what remains the same?

What are the cycles, actions, and processes we repeat regardless of the outcome?

Does a new protocol or procedure worsen or help existing disparities?

Privilege often shows itself when the status quo is challenged. When such a challenge is presented, and conflict ensues, ask yourself:

Who or what is blamed for the conflict in the narrative describing the challenge?

Who or what is sacrificed to resolve the conflict?

Are there any patterns that you can observe?

If the problem was “resolved”, did the group or process return to the norm or status quo?

Who or what restores things to what they were before the conflict?

Talking about race, power, and privilege and normalizing it is difficult for many people. The fear of getting it wrong or being called a racist is crippling for many. But we can’t operate from a place of fear with the ultimate goal of simply not being called a racist. People who aren’t racist do racist things all the time. We always must remember that being anti-racist is different than not being racist. Doing racial justice, mobility justice, and transportation equity work isn’t easy. It also is not always understood or respected. That doesn’t mean it’s not work that we all should be doing. The next time there is an idea, project, problem, or program you are considering. Remember this framework. Pull it out and run that idea, project, problem, or program — and yourself — through these questions. Reflect deeply on them, even if it makes you profoundly uncomfortable. We all have a role to play in confronting power and privilege. We shouldn’t need a global pandemic to help us realize that. But it’s here, so take this framework constructed by a global community — led by women of color — to start doing things differently and deeply integrate power, privilege and equity into your work.

The Salzburg De-Fence Crew

The following people were involved in writing the “Confronting Power and Privilege for Inclusive, Equitable, and Healthy Communities Call to Action and I thank them for their vision perseverance, and bravery in writing and publishing this piece: Ascala Sisk, Deputy Director, Center for Community Investment, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; Odetta MacLeish-White, Managing Director, TransFormation Alliance; Vedette Gavin, Principle, Verge Impact Partners; Tamika Butler, Director, Equity and Inclusion and Director of CA Planning, Toole Design; Liz Ogbu, Founder + Principal, Studio O; Veronica O. Davis, P.E., Managing Partner, Nspiregreen LLC; Nupur Chaudhury, Program Officer, New York State Health Foundation, Urbanist in Residence, University of Orange; Sharon Roerty, Senior Program Officer, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Hanaa Hamdi, Director of Health Impact Investment Strategies and Partnerships, New Jersey Community Capital; Kelly Worden, Director, Health Research, U.S. Green Building Council; Noxolo Kabane, Deputy Director, Western Cape Department of Human Settlements; Shelly Poticha, Managing Director, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Hedzer Pathuis, Strategic Project Manager, City of Utrecht.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the all sixty-five fellows who participated in Salzburg Global Seminar Session 595: Building Healthy, Equitable Communities: The Role of Inclusive Urban Development and Investment, whose vast and varied experience helped to shape our call to action. We’d also like to thank the Salzburg Global Seminar and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for creating the space to make connections and cultivate bold ideas.



tamika l. butler

tamika is a land use, equity, & social and racial justice advocate. She's an Urban Planning PhD student at UCLA & the Principal at tamika l. butler consulting