DUE TO STRONG support from transit riders and workers, the Massachusetts Legislature recently took a huge step forward to ensure racial equity and environmental justice in the Commonwealth’s largest transit authority — and now Gov. Charlie Baker has an opportunity to listen to communities of color and do the right thing.
For months, riders and workers alike have been calling for the new MBTA Board to include both a worker representative and rider from the environmental justice, or EJ, communities that depend on transit the most. The Legislature listened, ensuring that the seven-member board has two dedicated spots to represent the knowledge and interests of the people closest to the heart of the system.
Now, the governor must appoint members who truly represent the interests of workers and riders from EJ communities. The new rules for board appointments give workers the say over who sits on the board — and we know that any of three excellent candidates listed by Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Steve Tolman will provide a holistic representation to workers on the MBTA’s governing body.
In addition to the worker seat, appointing a rider from an EJ community will strengthen the voice of everyday riders, and help the MBTA center racial justice, economic justice, and equity in all their decisions. Grassroots organizations have already provided Gov. Charlie Baker with the names of qualified candidates for this seat, and one of these nominees should be appointed.
Environmental justice communities are those populations largely composed of people of color, low-income people, and people whose first language is not English. People in EJ communities tend to rely most on public transit — which was evident during the pandemic, when ridership remained highest on the Blue Line serving East Boston and Revere, and bus routes serving neighborhoods and municipalities like Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Chelsea.
EJ communities also face disproportionate levels of pollution from traffic, industry, and other sources, and elevated risks from climate change threats like extreme heat and flooding. An EJ rider on the MBTA board can help ensure these communities get the service they need, as well as work to forward transit policies that will mitigate and minimize pollution by reducing emissions.
Of the communities’ nominees, Khalida Smalls is a lifelong Boston resident and MBTA rider with decades of experience working to improve the lives of working families and environmental justice communities. Khalida has served in multiple leadership roles at the EJ community organization Alternatives for Community and Environment, including leading the T Riders Union, and has also served as coordinator of the Green Justice Coalition, a coalition of EJ groups.
The groups’ second nominee, Rafael Mares, is executive director of The Neighborhood Developers, a housing nonprofit that works in Chelsea, Revere, and Everett to promote economic diversity, opportunity, and quality of life in these communities. In his previous work at the Conservation Law Foundation, Rafael focused on transit policy, public transit financing, state transportation funding, and the equity and environmental impacts of transportation. He has also served on the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee and the executive committee of Transportation for Massachusetts.
For too long, EJ communities have had to speak from the margins. If our Commonwealth is serious about addressing racial injustice and other systemic oppressions, we must have EJ community members in decision-making roles. The new MBTA board sets policy with broad and deep impacts on EJ communities, so the new EJ rider seat must be filled with a person who truly represents these communities, and can bring their concerns, analysis, and expertise to bear on MBTA decision-making.
Following the leadership of EJ organizations, dozens of other transportation advocacy groups have co-signed a letter to Baker urging the appointment of one of these two highly qualified candidates to the new MBTA Board. All that remains is for the governor to listen to EJ groups and appoint a true representative of our communities.
Rep. Adrian Madaro of Boston represents the 1st Suffolk District in Massachusetts and was one of the lead sponsors of a bill to codify protections for environmental justice communities, which was eventually included in the major climate law passed by the state this year. Karen Chen is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. María Belén Power is the associate executive director of GreenRoots and serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.