John Gardner is the new leader of the Diversity and Transit Equity Department at TriMet. Gardner has previously worked as the director of business services at Worksystems, Inc., the workforce development board for Washington and Multnomah Counties.
This new role will oversee equity and inclusion practices as they relate to fares, community outreach, civil rights and contracting with Disadvantaged Business Enterprise firms and Minority, Women and Emerging Small Businesses.
As 400,000 people are expected to move to the region over the next 20 years, Gardner will look at the expansion of TriMet service and how to equitably serve diverse communities in the area.
The Skanner News spoke with Gardner about his job and the importance of equity in transportation. Here are excerpts of the interview, edited for space and clarity.
The Skanner News: Congratulations on your new role. What kind of changes can people expect to see under your leadership?
John Gardner: Thank you, first, for the congratulations. I'm not quite ready to make a proclamation around changes, but I think continued progress to move forward and grow where there are opportunities.
I think TriMet is already in a really good place as it relates to partnering with communities of color and disadvantaged businesses and our work around Title VI programs.
But first you need to diagnose before you prescribe, so I am still learning the ropes around here and getting a sense of all the places of success and places where we can continue to grow.
TSN: What are the challenges of diversity and equity for Trimet?
JG: What’s exciting about coming in to TriMet is that they literally have a track record of investment in partnership and inclusion.
We all still exist in the Portland metro area, so there is clearly, currently historically a lack of diversity. Still given that TriMet has shown, especially most recently with its partnership and investment in the Orange line, it is more than just a willing partner as it relates to increasing access and equity, it's an investor.
Despite the fact that Portland is still the whitest city in America, you would see TriMet as an incredibly diverse employer and a champion of historically underrepresented firms and populations.
TSN: Does the displacement of the Black community to East Portland affect TriMet's equity work?
JG: I think it affects every agency services in terms of where and how to locate and provide services to the populations and communities that need them.
I don't know if it changes the conversation. It just focuses it. The good news is that we have partners in East County as we have in all of the counties we serve. That becomes one more place where we need to sit down and meet with the residents and the organizations that serve that community to make sure our services are being provided in a way that benefits everybody to the extent possible.
TSN: TriMet has decided to Ban the Box.
JG: That's right. In our history of being a progressive partner and employer, that will no longer be one of the initial considerations for employment.
We want to know about your skills and your desire to work for us as an individual, criminal history notwithstanding. That's another barrier TriMet has removed.
TSN: How will you bring your previous experience to this new work?
JG: There is a lot of overlap with the community-based organizations that are served by the public workforce system and those that partner with the public regional transportation system.
I have a lot of really good relationships and respect for agencies like IRCO, NAYA and the Urban League, Hacienda CDC, Human Solutions and Central City, Washington County STRYVE, OACC. These organizations that have long histories of connection, ideas and expertise to serve communities that are transit dependent and needing support from TriMet.
Every day TriMet moves over 100,000 people to work. Understanding the regional economy and the workforce development challenges that individuals and communities face is going bring that voice to the equity and access conversation.
At the end of the day, transit is the key to opportunity. People need to get to work, people need to get to school, they need to get to training. They need to get to their places of faith and worship, they need to get to their community opportunities, to engage and strengthen those connections. We are that river that runs through it. We are that connecting service.
TSN: John, why do you do what you do?
JG: I feel like I've had a pretty good track record of engaging in opportunities that fundamentally can make a difference in the communities which I have lived. A lot of my professional experience is around creating more opportunities for folks, especially disadvantaged or underrepresented people.
So whether it is education, employment training or transportation, I'm here, hopefully to make a difference. That takes a lot of partnerships and collaboration. I hope when it’s said and done, people will look to the work me, my team and TriMet do is making a difference in our community in a positive way.