While equity, inclusion, and gender have begun to come into focus even more, there are groups that have been working to help minorities advance their professional careers in the public transit industry for some time.
Two such groups include the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), which was incepted nearly 50 years ago to ensure opportunities and maximum participation in the transportation industry for minority individuals, veterans, people with disabilities, and certified MWDBE businesses, and the somewhat newer Latinos In Transit (LIT) — a group of public and private transportation professionals who have formed to promote the advancement and development of Latinos and other minorities in transportation.
METRO’s Managing Editor Alex Roman got a chance to speak to COMTO’s President/CEO Brad Mims and LIT’s President Alva Carrasco about diversity in the industry and the work their respective groups are doing to educate and perpetuate their members’ careers.
Brad Mims President/CEO, COMTO
Pre-pandemic, how does COMTO work with its membership in general?
Our 33 local chapters are the lifeline of COMTO and it is where members primarily engage with the organization by taking part in local activities with other transportation professionals from their respective communities. Our chapters design programming such as networking events, fundraisers, professional development, training, and community outreach.
On a national level, COMTO provides members a chance to network with their peers from around the nation, and as of March 2020, around the world thanks to the addition of our first international chapter in Toronto. Members have access to a directory of their peers where they can reach out to one another for career advice, business, and job opportunities.
We also invite members to join one of COMTO’s many transportation-related committees, where they can participate in transit-related advocacy, workforce/pipeline development, and innovation for transportation of the future alongside members from across the country. COMTO National also has an online career center where members can access job postings from around the nation. We also host several webinars monthly, which provide valuable information regarding career development and industry trends.
The highlight of our year is the National Meeting and Training Conference, which convenes each year in a different city and draws up to 1,000 participants. COMTO’s annual meeting and conference attracts professionals from all modes of transportation to exchange ideas and learn about emerging issues in the industry. We also have other events based here in Washington, D.C., which provides members the opportunity to engage with the organization and their colleagues from around the globe: Celebrating Women Who Move the Nation, View from the Hill, and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Transportation Braintrust along with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
How is the association helping its members during the pandemic? How have you been able to keep engaging members to help encourage networking, etc.?
While many of our events both nationally and locally have been cancelled due to COVID-19, we have moved our programming online. Local chapters continue to have general chapter meetings, webinars, and one-on-one discussions with industry leaders. We even have several chapters who have held virtual scholarship banquets to provide a forum to award local college students scholarships to help fund their education.
The national office also ramped up its online offerings with webinars, which address topics of interest to our members, especially during this time. A few examples include: Productivity and Connectivity Business Tools During COVID-19; Thriving in the New Virtual Workplace; and COVID-19 Tax Implications. We also held a Town Hall on Race to allow our members to express their concerns and share their experiences in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are many small businesses that are part of COMTO’s membership…how are they fairing during these times, and what do you think the long-term impact of the pandemic will be on these small firms?
Many of our small businesses are managing to keep afloat and, in some cases, thrive during the pandemic. We have made sure to focus on our small business owners during this time with our content and programming. Webinars we have held focusing on small businesses include the Small Business Toolbox series hosted by our Historically Underutilized Business Sub-Committee and PPP and EIDL Guidance for DBEs.
The long-term impact may be positive as this experience has caused those businesses to pivot in the way they run their business or in the services they provide. COVID-19 has exposed, for many of us, gaps in the way we do business and has forced us to address those areas and provide solutions. If these businesses manage to keep afloat, they will come out on the other side a stronger entity and will be prepared should any other shifts in our economy occur.
Can you discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion in the industry?
Our industry should reflect the world around us and the people that we serve. America’s demographics are shifting and those organizations who choose to uphold the status quo risk being left behind. We need the knowledge and expertise of everyone — women, people of color, people with disabilities, veterans — to move us into the future.
What do you feel are some of the challenges facing the industry in terms of broadening both diversity and inclusion?
Some of the challenges we face in transportation are confronting bias, cross-cultural communication, diversity program implementation, and finding diverse talent. On the small business side, we serve as a voice for historically underutilized businesses and continue encourage partnerships to help these companies grow and thrive.
Alva Carrasco, President, LIT
How and why was LIT started?
Latinos In Transit officially became a nonprofit organization in 2016, however, there was a group of transit colleagues that for many years had been thinking about starting a group that would encourage Latinos to help support and advocate for one another. At that point, we were not even talking about starting a group at a national level. I was working at LA Metro at the time, where there were a handful of Latinos in managerial positions, but none of us really knew many others working in our industry. During this time, I met Milo Victoria, who worked at Metro at the time and who later became the inaugural president of the board for Latinos In Transit. We would have discussions about how there weren’t many Latinos in the transit industry. Most of us left Metro and eventually moved on to other agencies, but we continued to have those same conversations when we met at up at conferences and trade shows. Our group grew organically over time.
What really helped take us from the grassroots level to the national stage occurred during Flora Castillo’s tenure as the chair of APTA (2012-2013). She was the first Latina, and I believe, the second woman to ever be named chair of APTA. During her tenure, we were invited to meet with her and some other industry veterans. She really liked the idea and indicated that she had the same thoughts that we really needed to find a way to advocate for Latinos in the transit industry. So with the help of Flora and Terry Solis, we were able to secure seed money to get LIT started as a non-profit and held our first board meeting at the 2016 APTA Annual held in Los Angeles. We had a great turnout, nominated all our officers, and have really been unstoppable ever since.
Can you discuss a bit about LIT’s growth?
As I said, Milo was nominated president, I was named vice president, and Aurora Jackson, who serves as GM for the Lane Transit District, was named treasurer. We were so excited with so many ideas on how to move LIT forward and to figure out what we were going to do next. I took it upon myself to start growing LIT’s membership and putting the word out. I believe the first thing I did was create Facebook and LinkedIn pages and began developing a database with people who were interested in what we were doing. I recall establishing a goal in that first year to get 100 members on our LinkedIn page, but it took a bit to walk our board members and others who were interested to setup profiles and really learn how to interface on the site. Overall, though, we started from the bottom, but were able to build a good base that first year and have continued that growth.
What are some of the things LIT does to help its membership?
When we started the group, we launched what has now become an annual survey to ask members what kind of resources they would like us to provide. The results have been consistent every year, and the three areas they are most interested in are networking, educational/training, and mentorship opportunities. All three of these things can really help open more doors for our members to grow and help them become more marketable, so they can eventually climb the ladder all the way up to C-Suite.
I know LIT has had a lot of mixers over the years, which has continued even during COVID-19 with what you are calling ‘Café Con LIT,’ which covers the networking portion. How is LIT providing mentorship and education to its members?
Well, last fall, we had our first Leadership Summit, which brought together about 100 participants for a one-day summit in Newport Beach. What we decided to do was instead of having multiple tracks like you would find at most conferences, we scheduled panels throughout the day that participants could go to one at a time that best suited them so they wouldn’t miss something they wanted to attend. The speakers on the program included many Latinos from around the industry, but we were also able to bring in non-Latinos and supporters like John B. Catoe (retired from WMATA). We were also honored to have Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano, which really boosted our cache. The panels themselves dug into some of the things that are important for professionals to continue to climb the ladder in this industry. Our attendees included students, and those in supervisory to mid-level management positions and people who essentially served as second in command at their agencies. It was our first attempt to provide all these resources and people that are behind what Latinos In Transit is trying to advocate for and, overall, it was very well-received.
One of LIT’s biggest champions has been Nuria Fernandez, who is currently serving as chair of APTA. When she came onboard, she included LIT in APTA’s Diversity and Inclusion Council to ensure that we were part of the discussions revolving around equity and diversity. COMTO and WTS, who are both nationally recognized around the country, were already part of these discussions, but now Latinos In Transit is at the table as well, which helps us sort of make our mark as an organization.
Since 2016, we have held an annual membership meeting and hold receptions throughout the year where we provide our members an opportunity to network and meet our partners and sponsors. We have been fortunate to get a lot of support from transit agencies over the last couple of years, but now we are gaining the support of business members from our industry. They want to partner with LIT and sponsor events. The amount of support we have received out of the gate has been wonderful. I’m very proud to have launched a scholarship fund last year through a partnership with MV Transportation, where we have committed to providing funds to the APTF Scholarship Program over a span of three years to reward a Latino or Latina pursuing a career in transportation.
In addition, we formed a subcommittee to work on our business plan, which includes membership outreach and the forming of a mentorship program. Also in the works is the LIT leadership academy, which at this point because of COVID-19 may be held virtually. The goal of the academy is to educate and motivate our members to put their name in the hat when opportunities pop up. One of the biggest things that comes out of communicating these kinds of development opportunities is that it lets the industry know there is a group of transit professionals who are trained, ready, and willing to fill their open positions. I think a lot of agencies do not really live out of their comfort zone, so to speak, so they tend to hire someone internally because it is easier. We want to get the message out that agencies can find somebody ideal for their job openings, while also adding diversity to their organization in the process, which is a win-win.
What do you feel are some of the issues holding back transit from being more diverse?
Well, we know that Latinos and other minorities really make up a lot of our bus operator workforce, especially in our urban cities, but transit is not really on the radar for many minorities looking to take on a professional career. And, those minorities that are already in the industry do not necessarily continue to climb the ladder. I think for many minorities, who like me sort of fell into transit, we get to a certain level of our careers where we become satisfied and do not want to necessarily take on any more risk. Going from a protected job classification to an ‘at-will’ position can be intimidating for people of color. There is an intimidation factor associated with moving up the ladder. ‘What if I am not good enough?’ That was certainly a factor for me when I got into transit, but fortunately, I had a mentor who encouraged me to continue going to school and keep growing my professional career. That encouragement is something many people need to help build the confidence to continue advancing in their careers and finding an opportunity that can open the door for them to do so.