Tamika Butler had just completed a successful three-year run as Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) in July 2017 when she sat down for a conversation with our founder, Donna Bojarsky for this dynamic interview. Butler’s candor and courage on many of the major issues facing Los Angeles – especially the impact of race and the city’s legacy of segregation – makes this a thrilling read for everyone who supports Future of Cities: Los Angeles. She has emerged as an exemplary Los Angeles civic leader, with the vision to see how the needs of her constituents for the basic right to transportation access, road safety and healthy recreation intersected with broader issues of poverty and discrimination against communities of color.
Butler now serves as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a non-profit organization that addresses social and racial equity, and wellness, by building parks and gardens in park-poor communities across greater Los Angeles. She has a diverse background in law, community organizing, communications, and nonprofit leadership. Prior to leading LACBC, Tamika Butler was the Director of Social Change Strategies at Liberty Hill Foundation, and worked at Young Invincibles as the California Director. She transitioned to policy work after litigating for three years as a public interest employment lawyer at Legal Aid at Work (previously Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center).
Tamika Butler received her J.D. in 2009 from Stanford Law School, and in 2006 received her B.A. in Psychology and B.S. in Sociology at Creighton University in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska.
Donna Bojarsky: When did you know you were going to do change agent work -- like not a doctor, or a lawyer, or a television producer -- but to work at making things better for as many people as possible?
Tamika Butler: I feel like growing up I was raised with a lot of strong black women in my life, and very much raised that if someone's not speaking up, you should be the person who speaks up. I think I was always that kid. I also got good grades, so my parents told me I had to go to law school or med school.
I don't like blood, so I went to law school. I was one of those people who wrote an entrance essay about wanting to help people and wanting to give back. It's interesting because when you go to a place like Stanford for law school, and there are plenty of job opportunities, and you're from a family where no one's ever had the capacity to make that money, and I'm making more in a summer than my sister is all year as a first grade teacher back in Nebraska where I'm from. I think it's really easy to get seduced into that corporate law world.
But I worked at law firms over the summer to help send money home. I think those summers, I always knew. I think I did well because there was no pressure because I was never going to work there. I think that was the first time I was cognizant of it where my classmates were like, "Oh, I have to do really well on this memo," or, "I have to get a job."
My best friend in law school went to Skadden's New York office as a first-year associate, and I was one of the lucky folks chosen to get a Skadden Fellowship. He's making $160,000 a year. I'm making -- not that. I think it never mattered to me. It was never about the money. It was, "This is what I went to law school to do. This is what I was raised to do." I think that was the first time I had to actually choose. Even then, it didn't really feel like a choice. It just felt like, "Oh, of course. This is what I'm going to do."
Donna Bojarsky: Do you feel like you were destined for a life in this change-making kind of place?
Tamika Butler: I think so. I think just based on who I am and the identities I hold and the way I identify as a gender non-conforming black woman, and I think just my personality. I'm pretty laid back. I'm pretty chill. I like to joke around a lot. I think it allows me to move between different worlds, and I feel like I have some sort of responsibility to do this work. It very much, maybe not destiny, but maybe responsibility is what weighs on me the heaviest to do the work.
Donna Bojarsky: How did you get to the bicycle moment?
Tamika Butler: I think I get to most moments in life from being open and trusting that whatever I'm supposed to be doing, I'll end up doing. I think I work really hard, but I think I'm also the type of person who would rather look back and tell a story about how my path and job from job is connected, than to ever be the person who sat down and said, "I want to be X one day, so here are all the steps I have to take to get there," because that's just not fun for me. I like to have fun.
I was in LA. I moved to LA, largely for a girl who's now my wife. Glad that worked out, because I didn't love LA at first. The person who introduced me to my wife was my good friend Shayla who I knew because we had a scouting fellowship together. When I moved down here, I said, "Hey, I just went to the doctor. The doctor said I'm overweight. It was never like this in the Bay. I walked everywhere. It was a totally different city. I'm in my car all the time now. She says I gotta exercise." Shayla said, "Oh, you should buy a bike and you should bike with me." I thought, "That's ridiculous. I'm too big. Those tires are too small. Who would bike in LA? I barely see anyone biking." She's like, "No, I'll go with you. You should get a bike." So I bought a bike. And then she convinced me to do AIDS life cycle, the 545-mile ride from San Francisco to LA.
Donna Bojarsky: That's quite an introduction.
Tamika Butler: It was. She was like, "I'm going to do it. You can train with me and you don't have to do it." I ended up doing it and she dropped out. We trained together, but I remember during it, riding my bike and being like, "This is crazy. When did I become a person who wears spandex? I'm usually the person in a car being like, 'What is that guy doing?' When did I become that guy? I'm going to do this race because I've raised money for it, and the LGBT centers are important. But then I'm never riding my bike again." Then as soon as I finished it, I started to miss my bike a ton, and I started to miss being on it because I do think there's something really freeing about it.
And what also happened is, I just totally fell in love with LA. You could be in the mountains, in Griffith Park, at the beach, all in one day, and I could do it on my bike. I was like, "Oh, this is why people love LA!" When I could be riding through so many different neighborhoods and actually see the culture, the food, the people, the vibrancy, that was a totally different feeling than being in my car and driving through neighborhoods.
Shayla always says that was her long-term plan. Her side goal was always to get my buy-in. She and my wife knew each other because they went to UCLA Law together. I slowly started to love it, and then Shayla, at one point, said to me, "You should apply for this job." Really, she's the woman who's responsible for everything good in my life. I remember going to the website of the bike coalition, looking at the staff, looking around at some of their work, and I was like, "This will totally mess up my street cred."
Donna Bojarsky: Right.
Tamika Butler: At the time, I was at Liberty Hill, overseeing their LGBT and Boys and Men of Color where I had been a public interest lawyer, a civil rights attorney. I was just like, "All of my friends say things like, 'Bike lanes are the first signs of gentrification.'"
Donna Bojarsky: There's a quote from our launch event where one of our speakers said, “Look, jobs are important right now. I hate to tell everybody. Bike lanes and farmers markets give you a Danish village, not economic opportunity."
Tamika Butler: Right.
Donna Bojarsky: Then they publish it in the LA Times, and he was so horrified that he said it. But it was an important point to make because that discussion is real, and it's a little bit the same with the LA River which has been, but needs to. When you looked at it, you saw the Danish village model.
Tamika Butler: Right, and I think it's what you just said: the has been, but needs to. I had a friend in San Francisco who I had worked with at a public health organization, Young Invincibles, and we were all about getting millennials signed up for the Affordable Care Act, and she was my policy director there. She reached out to me and she said, "Hey, I heard LA is hiring an ED for their bike coalition. We just hired an ED, and he's amazing. He's a superstar. He comes super pedigreed, but he's still a straight white guy. I'm not holding that against him because I'm excited that we hired him, but ... "
She's from a public health background, she's like, "What this space is missing is someone who gets the intersections. Why aren't we talking about public health? Why aren't we talking about environmental justice, not just environmentalism? Why aren't we talking about economic development and displacement and gentrification? There need to be more people who get that and who take some of these roles."
Guilt works really effectively on me. Like I said, I'm really driven by responsibility. She's like, "It's your responsibility to at least apply." I applied, and I got the job and I was shocked that they hired me. When they called to make me the offer, I was like, "This is Tamika Butler. Is this the right ... ?" It was great.
Donna Bojarsky: I'm not the white guy.
Tamika Butler: But people were ready for me. I just remember not really fully understanding the bike world as an outsider. I'm like, "I love riding my bike. I ride my bike everywhere." I've never identified as a cyclist, but I ride my bike. But then to figure out there's this whole section of the Internet where they were waiting to see who would get the job.
Donna Bojarsky: You became a cult hero.
Tamika Butler: Well, I wasn't a hero at first. At first, I think from the traditional bike advocates, it was, "Who is this person? We found pictures of her online. We've searched her social media. She appears to ride a bike, so there's something, but why is she doing this work?" They were watching. Then, I think from a lot of folks of color, from a lot of folks who are more socially-justice inclined, there was this assumption that if I was someone that the bike coalition could hire, I must not be down.
Donna Bojarsky: You were selling out.
Tamika Butler: I must be a sellout. There must be something about me. I must not care about those issues. There was a lot of instant pressure from both sides. I'd say in my initial meetings, no one was particularly happy with the bike coalition. The hardcore bike folks were like, "You guys haven't been doing enough, and who are you?" The social justice folks were like, "Why should we care about bikes? Why is this not a special interest? Our folks have been riding bikes forever, and the bike coalition's never reached out to us before. Why do you care now?" There was just a lot of pressure from both sides. Scrutiny is the right word. It was a lot.
Donna Bojarsky: That's so interesting. My issue with bikes, and it's not that interesting so we won't go into it too much, I always felt like either we should become the ideal Amsterdam or forget it, because the in-between is so dangerous.
Tamika Butler: I think part of the issue is I don't know that there's a way to get to a better model without going through the middle.
Donna Bojarsky: Yeah.
Tamika Butler: I think that's what's tough. Then, I think there is this middle in any social movement. Whether you're talking about transportation, civil rights, whatever it is, there's this period where you have the status quo and something is viewed as better than the other. Then you have this period where it's like, "Wait, can't we all just get along?" That's uncomfortable because someone has to give up some sort of power.
Donna Bojarsky: Right.
Tamika Butler: Then, at some point, you would hope that it gets better, but it's such a long process to get there. You need the political will. You need the right leaders on the advocacy side. You need people who are opposed to get a little bit of buy-in. I think the bike movement right now is in this really interesting time of which way are we going to go? They were folks who were outsiders and now that there are some seats at the table for us, do we now change our tactics? Are we still outsiders? Are we not outsiders? I think we are in this uncomfortable middle, and I don't think that we get to the other side of that without going through it.
Donna Bojarsky: I guess you have to get the buy-in. So like with Vision Zero, how do we have people in tougher neighborhoods be able to ride their bike and not get killed? Was there a lot of pushback when you started pushing for those neighborhoods to be included?
Tamika Butler: Yeah, well there were a ton of people doing the work before me, but I think there's something about a Stanford Law degree that allows people who wouldn't otherwise pay attention, to pay attention to me. People often like to tell me it’s because I have had that privilege that I'm able to be really laid back. The example I always give is my sister. If you touch my sister's hair, she'll cuss you out. Don't touch her hair.
Donna Bojarsky: Most of my African-American friends have the same thing.
Tamika Butler: Right. Right. That's not wrong. That's not wrong at all. But, if you touch my hair, I'm probably going to make a joke to make you feel awkward. You won't touch my hair again, so we'll still get to the same outcome, but I'll do it a little differently. I always say to folks I don't think it's wrong that my sister cusses people out. I actually think that's 100% okay in the same way that I think the civil rights movement needed Malcolm X saying, "At any means necessary," and Martin Luther King saying, "Let's have a peaceful demonstration." You've got to have both, right? I think because I'm on one side of that, or at least I'm perceived to be on one side of that, it gets me into some of those rooms, some of those tables. I think I'm aware that I have some privilege there, even though there's been folks trying to broader the conversation.
I do think Vision Zero is an area that brings you back to like, "Could we ever be an Amsterdam kind of place?" When Vision Zero first started, I just kept hearing, "This is something that we've brought over from Scandinavia." One of my best friends from law school who's black, she works at the Hague. She's been at the Hague for years, and I had all these conversations with her about like, "What is it like to be black in the Netherlands?"
Donna Bojarsky: Yeah, because there's nobody black. Quebec is even worse.
Tamika Butler: I spent a lot of time in Quebec.
Donna Bojarsky: Did you ever see another black person?
Tamika Butler: I did not. My wife is Canadian, so we spend a lot of time in Quebec. But my friend would always say, "You know, what's so interesting here is that everyone likes to look at the United States and be like, 'We don't have those problems. There's another police shooting. We're not doing that.' But it's a pretty homogenous society."
Donna Bojarsky: It's a lot easier.
Tamika Butler: It's a lot easier to put together a biking utopia, absent of discussing any other issues, when we all identify the same way.
Donna Bojarsky: Right, and also obviously doing anything while black is different than doing something while not black.
Tamika Butler: Right. Anything is harder while black. Playing in the park as a kid is harder while black. We see all of these examples. I just think how do we get our folks who are our city leaders, who are planning our cities, how do we get them to think in this similar way, and especially in cities where I think more than any other population except indigenous native folks. Black folks are disappearing. We are getting put in prison. And getting killed.
Donna Bojarsky: Or they're going to Valencia.
Tamika Butler: Yeah. Well, in any event, we're getting displaced.
Donna Bojarsky: Yeah.
Tamika Butler: The first time I flew out of the Oakland Airport, I literally called my friend who was born and raised in Oakland, and I was like, "What the hell? You didn't tell me this is where all the black people live. All this time, I've been in Palo Alto, I've been in San Francisco, I've been in San Jose. They're all in Oakland." I promptly moved my ass to Oakland. It was just like such a different thing.
I think here in LA, I can still walk into meetings and look around and be like, "Oh yeah, I'm the only black person," which is not different than getting on a flight back to Omaha where I'm from, and being like, "Yep, I'm the only black person on this flight."
Donna Bojarsky: It's true. One of my best friends for decades who I did a lot of political stuff with, I'd ask him if he wanted to go to an event and he's like, "I can't be in another room with all white people tonight." He's like, "You do it all the time, but I can't." He's also had the thing of being asked where the drinks are as though he were the waiter. It's true. It's ironic because we're a very liberal city. It's funny. I guess we're more of a tolerant city, but there are still issues.
Tamika Butler: Yeah.
Donna Bojarsky: What do you think of LA now?
Tamika Butler: I feel like I'm in love with LA. I really wanted to buy a house and my wife was like, "I thought you wanted to leave LA?" I'm like, "No, I'm all in.”
Donna Bojarsky: How do you think the different communities in Los Angeles get out of our silos? For instance, with the African-American community, were you successful in bringing all classes of African-Americans into the bike movement as a social justice movement?
Tamika Butler: First, the silo question -- I remember my wife saying when I was still in my hate of LA, "Well where do you want to live if you don't want to live in LA? You left the Bay." I never saw myself living in San Francisco long-term. I loved the city, but I wanted to raise my kids in a city where they saw black people at every societal level. I think black folks in Los Angeles are also really interesting. This is the place where OJ Simpson said, "I'm not black. I'm just OJ." This is a place where I think, if I could think of who could be the next black mayor, the person who I know would win is Magic Johnson, right?
Donna Bojarsky: In a heartbeat. But you know black philanthropy is low here?
Tamika Butler: Well, I think that people are coming out. I do think that the bike coalition, it was amazing to see the number of black professionals who were like, "We have a black ED now?" Like, "Sure, I'll be more involved. What do you need? How can I help?" But then, that's also the piece that you always really struggle with. How much are you really building if it's attached to people? I think that's the hardest part about being a black leader, or any leader. Are you bringing people in and establishing something where you're changing a culture, or are people just attached to you as a person?
Donna Bojarsky: Right.
Tamika Butler: If you're a person who wants to do something like, I don't know, where it's all about you and your personal brand, that's great, but I don't ever want to run for office. I just want to be behind the scenes, working in community. It's not just do you bring people in, but are you cultivating those future leaders? Giving them the experience and getting people to really believe in something? That's the part that ... I don't know if you can tell until it's been a little bit and you see what happens.
Donna Bojarsky: The Jewish community here is also a very low proportional Jewish-giving city. All of philanthropy in LA, our volunteerism numbers are low, our philanthropy numbers are low, given our wealth. Our problem is not wealthy people. There are plenty of them. The problem is that the wealth doesn't translate into a need to do anything. Do you think that's a part of it?
I have a friend, Ben Sherwood is the head of Disney ABC Television, and we grew up together. He was saying, "When I lived in New York, I was sort of taxed to be a good citizen. It was just like a social tax. If I did or didn't like it, that's what you do, and I don't mind that." By the way, in Judaism, there are seven, eight layers of charity. The highest level of charity is an anonymous donor to an anonymous recipient. The lowest level of charity is you have the poor person standing next to you, with the person who's giving the money with the big check, and you take a picture of it and you put it in the paper.
Tamika Butler: Well, I feel like that's one of the things I'm most interested in reading about in the report, like what's the history of this city? It's so interesting to me that no matter what culture or community you're a part of, you're kind of like, "What is different in LA that our people are not as tied to giving?" Something I've always felt just generally is, when I was in the Midwest, I needed the other black folks. I needed the other gay folks. We really needed each other, and we knew what we were up against because everyone in the Midwest is friendly, but you know-
Donna Bojarsky: Well, they're definitely friendlier on the outside.
Tamika Butler: Right, and they're honest about what their politics are that are different. Like I remember moving to California and being like, "People are arguing over who composts better, or who ... "
I think the thing that's in the sauce is in the South, on the East Coast, in the Midwest, there are just more people willing to stand up and be like, "I disagree, and I'm more conservative in this way." I think as someone from the Midwest, the election didn't surprise me because I know those people. I know Trump supporters. My parents' home is surrounded by people who have their Trump/Pence flags up. I saw it coming.
In California, we like to say we're leaders, so we want to lead on policy or, "As California goes, the rest of the country will go." But I think there are a ton of folks who when they're thinking about making investments, are like, "But we're better off, so let me give it here." Or, there are so many folks who are transplants here and think, "This is way better than growing up in Nebraska. I'm going to send money back there because I know how hard it is there to be a trans kid, and here there's tons of community." Meanwhile, if you talk to trans people here, they're like, "We're dying every day. Why isn't anybody helping us?"
That's what it is. I think there's a little bit of this feeling of like, "We're such leaders, we're so far ahead," and so it's not translating into some of the giving. It's not translating into some of the same kind of movements you see other places. But then you see things like our women's march being huge. Like leadership from Black Lives Matter being out of California. There's clearly something there, but it's really hard to translate into something you can see and touch and feel.
And also, I think we're sometimes lazy because without having to necessarily go too far in your particular part of the city, you can find a lot of what you want.
Donna Bojarsky: The tough thing is that in order to be a world-class city, you have to have world-class ambitions. People live in New York, which is really hard to live in but the ambitions and the results are world-class. Los Angeles has always been a little bit torn about whether or not it should be a world-class city.
Okay, who do you look up to in the city?
Tamika Butler: I'm rarely at a loss for words, but that's a place where I really struggle. Obviously, there are a lot of people I admire, but I do also feel like we are a little bit missing centralized leadership here. Like, we have all these different council members who have their own little fiefdoms. Someone first described LA to me as a place where no one can say "yes", but a lot of people can say "no".
Donna Bojarsky: That’s true.
Tamika Butler: A lot of people can stop something from happening, but it's very hard to get any one person to push something through. I think that's part of what makes it hard for me to think of someone, because it takes so many different parts of different people.
Donna Bojarsky: Well, you've got to like Jerry Brown.
Tamika Butler: Jerry Brown goes hard. I do like Jerry Brown. I got this award and they asked, "Who's your hero? Who do you look to in the legal world?" I said, "Matlock," and everyone was surprised that the queer person of color said "Matlock". The reason I picked Matlock is I was like, "Look, I grew up watching that show with my grandmother, and Matlock was a guy who didn't care. He was going to wear the same suit every day. He was going to be kind of dopey. No one took him seriously because he was the old dopey guy who wore the same suit every day. But he would then totally blow you away and he wasn't what was expected." I think those are probably the people I'm drawn to. Folks who aren't the most polished. Who don't fit the part of politician, or leader, but who are really, really pushing.
Donna Bojarsky: How do we get ideas to meet resources better in this city? Because one of the biggest problems is ideas do not meet resources.
Tamika Butler: Right.
Donna Bojarsky: A lot of the work I've done in my life has been about how to get people to walk in other people's shoes. The point is not to agree. One of my biggest lessons with Tom Bradley was with the Farrakhan issue. In the end Tom Bradley had to represent the voice of his people that time. To the Jews, I would say, "He's been with you a million times, so much that half of his own people think he's a sellout." This one was incredibly important to him. They're a community, and they called the question, and that's where he went.
You don't have to ever agree with his decision, but you have to understand why he came to that and respect it. I say this as a Jew. We expect people to understand how crazy we are because of the Holocaust, which is true. But then you have to also understand what has happened in history to others that has made their people crazy.
Tamika Butler: I feel like we have to get our leaders to have a little bit more of it. I think that's a big part of it. One of the people who I do admire is Dr. Robert Ross at the California Endowment. I think one of the things I've always really liked about him is, one, he's at a philanthropic place, and he's a doctor. He has many options of what he can do.
Donna Bojarsky: He's African-American, and he's had experience.
Tamika Butler: Right. He's making a specific choice to be there. I remember one of the first times I really saw him speak, he was talking about how he was going to take some time off from the Foundation to actually go around and talk to people, and not work, and not respond to emails, but like actually hear about how the impact they were making was impacting the community. He doesn't have to. He's not up for re-election. No one's taking his job. No one's telling him it's important. I think sometimes we have a government system where it doesn't pay to be that person. To take any risks. Because you're in a system where there's a lot of people who can say no, but not so many people who can say yes, I think a lot of our elected officials have to play it safe, and then try to get re-election. Try to get re-election. They do those engagements when it's around something, but how can we connect folks who have marginalized voices and often aren't speaking up if the people with the power don't feel like there's any incentive for them to actually connect to those folks?
Donna Bojarsky: There have to be civic leaders and philanthropists too.
Tamika Butler: Agreed.
Donna Bojarsky: Elected officials is one, but if you don't have the people with the resources to do both advocacy and/or money, then it's harder-
Tamika Butler: Well, I think that's why the healthcare fight here in California was so powerful. Being in an organization at the forefront of that when it was happening, it wasn't just elected officials. It wasn't just the Endowment. It wasn't just advocacy groups. That was this thing where everyone was like, "Okay, this might not be the perfect single-payer system we want, but Obamacare is going to happen, so all these foundations are throwing money in. All of the statewide elected officials are like, 'Let's figure this out. What are we doing in California? How are we getting healthcare for undocumented folks? How are we doing this?'"
It was one of those moments where you actually saw people come together and say, "There's this national thing happening, which is kind of the backbone of why we're doing this. But we're going to do it better, and we're going to do it more, and we're going to bring all the voices to the table." That's where you would go to meetings and there would be those different sectors in the room, and people were actually like, "But how is this going to impact people on the ground?" We also have to talk to people, and when we're enrolling people in healthcare, we're putting money into groups who are doing community organizing, and getting people to talk to us. We're doing all of these things.
It was one of those things where, "We don't want Obamacare to fail, so we're going all in." We see those moments so rarely, and especially if you're looking at something like this article's talking about, more localism. That was still a federal issue that then the State took on. But what are those issues at the local level? People are really split about the Olympics, but is that going to be an opportunity where you bring all those different people together and start actually talking? What are those moments in time where something's coming whether or not you like it, so people feel there's enough to actually talk to other people.
Donna Bojarsky: But you're saying the anti-voices, the marginalized communities, they feel they're just going to get screwed.
Tamika Butler: I've stayed very much on the outside of it because for us at the bike coalition, it wasn't something that was our core issue. I think our partners who do affordable housing, our partners who do homeless advocacy are really worried about some of the displacement. Our partners who work on police reform are really worried about the increased police state during things like the Olympics. Then, once all the things that happen when you look at a city like Rio, or really any city, what are all the things that happen to the most vulnerable populations when you're trying to clean up your image and be a welcoming city?
Then again when I think on the other side, I have a ton of friends who are transportation advocates that are like, "We're not a world-class city. We don't have a world-class transportation system. If this is something that's going to be the shot in the arm to start having some conversations about how we're world-class transportation city when we're bringing all these people here, let's embrace it. Let's do it."
Donna Bojarsky: Let's go.
Tamika Butler: It is one of those things where some people may be against it, some people may be for it. But if we're going to get the Olympics, it is interesting to think about how this could be an opportunity to really dig in and make changes.
Donna Bojarsky: How do we best need to make change, then?
Tamika Butler: I think what we don't do is truly try to engage people. Back to our point about philanthropy -- you might say, "What's going to make the most effective volunteers? And the answer is that the volunteers come back if they understand the theory of change and the root causes. But at the end of the day, we don't have the capacity to teach that, and we don't have the funding, so we're going to have them sit in this line and serve food and hope they come back, hope they feel that our work touched their lives. “ Part of it is we have this box check system like, "Did you engage? Did you have a community meeting? Was it in the middle of the day? Were there no translators? Was there no food? Was there no babysitting? But did we have a community meeting? Check."
I also think there's this idea that community members need to understand how government works. I do think that advocacy and non-profits should be learning that. But there also has to be a little bit of a shift. We have gotta meet folks where they are, and instead of making them work to understand our language, we have to figure out how to talk about our work in ways that are relevant to those folks. We have to figure out how to tell the story differently and how to frame it differently, and engage people differently. I think that's what we're working against. We keep doing things how it's always been done.
Donna Bojarsky: I think you once said, that the people responsible for planning cities don't look like the people living in the cities. It that a core belief of yours?
Tamika Butler: Yes. I think we have systems of oppression and power set up and for folks to keep their power, they feel they have to keep some people out. We have a system that requires someone to be "the other", and I think we have a lot of folks who want to do the right thing, and who say, "But I'm not racist," or, "I'm not keeping anybody out." But we're afraid to challenge and confront the systems that have been longstanding.
I do think if we want to plan cities or a park or an Olympics or whatever, if we want to plan something for people who are living there to enjoy them, then we have to both engage those people, and we have to do the internal work in our organizations and our systems and our government to make sure it's reflective of the people who we say we want to engage, or who we say live in our area. It's just like you said earlier. Sure, have a table of 250 people, but if it's not reflective of LA, then why does it matter, and how are you really making sure that different groups are represented?
There's a progression. You want everybody. You want the voices who aren't at the table to be represented. Even if you don't have the most diverse group. If you're going to be an all-white organization, are you still doing the training and the landscape analysis to understand the voices that aren't represented at the table, and at least doing your civic responsibility to bring those voices into the room, and then I think you get to the point where you actually want those voices in the room. Maybe an intermediary step is you have some representatives for those voices. Who are the organizations you trust in South LA or Watts, and do you have their leaders in the room? But still, you want to eventually get to that point where those actual folks who are impacted are in the room. Like I said earlier, I am patient. I know that's not going to happen overnight, but we have to at least be moving in that direction, and we all have to agree that that's where we're trying to go.
Donna Bojarsky: Ok, I just have two more questions. How does one sell this to millennials? What gets millennials to move into action?
Tamika Butler: Well, I think a lot of folks who aren't in the millennial generation struggle with understanding millennials. I'm in a lot of ED groups where I'm the youngest person in the room, oftentimes the only millennial in the room, and the number one thing that comes up is, "How do we get our millennial staff engaged? This came up a lot in the Bay. People are always asking, “how do we get millennials on our boards?” As someone who's working on a legal organization, and has been on the board of legal organizations with partners who are not in my generation, they give. They give, they write checks, they show up, they get their friends to write checks and show up for galas, and they also get their law firm to help on a case. When you talk to millennials, they're like, "I'll help on the case. I'll use my people, my skills that I have, but I don't know if I can give money." Or, "I can connect you with other people or I can give you my time"
Donna Bojarsky: Older generations can afford a thousand-dollar suit, and they can go to a $300 dinner.
Tamika Butler: Right. Right. I think something that's really tough for me as a millennial, that I think other generations don't understand, is it's not that millennials aren't engaged. We are just literally the first generation that is going to be worse off than our parents' generation. The American dream is no longer a house with 2.5 kids and a white picket fence. It's all about our student debt. It's all about-
Donna Bojarsky: Trying to find someplace to live in any city where you would possibly afford.
Tamika Butler: Exactly, and then once you find a place that you can afford, are you a gentrifier? Are you a displacer? If you're at all civically engaged, I think this is something young people are thinking about and especially people of color. I want to live in Leimert Park. I want to live around other black folks, but I have to realize that with my level of privilege, and my income, my education, and my white wife, we're gentrifiers. We're pushing people out. I'm sure brown people face this in Highland Park, in Boyle Heights.
Donna Bojarsky: Interesting. And how do you think we engage millennials who aren’t engaged around civic issues?
Tamika Butler: Well, I really think for millennials, it's about how can we use the resources we have, and how are folks who are trying to engage us a little bit more compassionate about what we do have to offer. There are still millennials with great wealth who come from great families, who could still be-
Donna Bojarsky: Well, I also think there's inherited millennial wealth.
Tamika Butler: Right, right. Some people could be giving more, so how do you tap those folks? But for the young professionals who are good progressives and want to do the right thing, and will show up and give their time, what are the other models of engagement that we're looking at?
Donna Bojarsky: What are you seeing that works?
Tamika Butler: Well, can we all give a check to the ACLU? Maybe not. But (after Trump’s first executive order for the Muslim travel ban) how many millennials with legal training showed up with at the airport at a moments notice and said, "I'm going to do this." How many millennials will show up on a Saturday if ACLU hosts a clinic about being an observer at a protest? I think it's about knowing what they have to give.
Donna Bojarsky: So you are in this new position, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust. And obviously parks are key. Everyone knows the obvious thing, which is that parks are good for people, for communities, for their health, but what are we missing about the real importance of parks and why we really need to have more equity with them?
Tamika Butler: You know, our organization was started because there used to be a policy from Parks and Rec that parks couldn’t be built if there was less than 5 acres of land and what that resulted in is communities that were a little higher density – often low income communities, communities of color, weren’t getting green space. And so what folks really have to understand is that the statistics are there. Life expectancy is longer for folks who have access to a park and green space. Air quality is better. We also build community gardens, giving access to fresh, healthy food in your community. I think we all know what the stats say and we all know that parks are good and that having more parks is good, but folks can’t forget that there is a history of denying parks to certain people. At the national level, the Park Service started by taking land away from native folks here in this country and then making it space that those with power and privilege could use for their leisure. So there is this history of racism in parks and open space. So when you look at something like life expectancy that everyone would agree that everyone deserves to live the fullest, vibrant, longest life they can, we can’t forget the root causes and how we got there and we have to be able to talk about that.
Donna Bojarsky: So more than just environmentalists who believe in parks, do you believe we have a public responsibility toward creating a more equitable and healthier and dynamic society?
Tamika Butler: I really do. There is a connection between my work in transportation my work in parks. It’s the same thing. There are these historical policies and historical systems put in place and we just can’t say that it’s inadvertent segregation or inadvertent lack of access to public transportation or green spaces and parks. There were policies put into place to intentionally have these results. So if we’re going to fix the problem, we’re going to have to address those things head on.
Donna Bojarsky: What do you look forward to in your new job?
Tamika Butler: I'm excited to be continuing in a similar type of work, because it's really still community-building. When I talk about city planning, I try to think about it more as community planning -- I think it's about bringing people together and uplifting voices that aren't there. It was hard to leave right as Measure M passed, as it's this really fun, exciting time for transportation. But I am landing in a place where Measure A [for LA County Parks] passed, and there's going to be so much that's happening.
Donna Bojarsky: Many people in Los Angeles take our parks for granted and don’t see the park system as a defining issue. Are you finding parks to be a place where social justice issues live?
Tamika Butler: Yes. How do we develop green space? What does that look like? Just like people think bike lanes are the first sign of gentrification, I've heard a lot of people saying, "As soon as a park comes into a neighborhood, that's when things really change."
Donna Bojarsky: Remember, it's parks that started as playgrounds, that were part of the progressive movement.
Tamika Butler: Right. I think you can trace some stuff back in transportation that's like, this is a civil rights issue. For me, I think it's expanding my personal toolbox and how I understand how cities and communities and people are engaged. I think it's also a place where I will be able to continue to talk about intersectionality, and talk just more directly about race and class.
Donna Bojarsky: Has it traditionally been? Are you bringing more of a focus on civil rights and justice into the movement more than there was before?
Tamika Butler: I think the Neighborhood Land Trust has always been more of a social justice organization than the bike coalition was when I first came on board. But I think that there is still room to go. I think they're one of the leaders in the parks and open space specific world. I think they're one of the leaders in equity work, and I'm not unique in bringing that to them. But of course I like to think there's some more we can do.
Donna Bojarsky: So to talk a little bit about leadership, so Shawn actually noticed in the park equity summit in 2017, one of the values-generated discussions was that the people who are least-served by the system must lead the development of park equity strategies. How can a city insure that marginalized communities are equipped with enough support to insure their leadership and/or how do we lift up grassroots leaders to be able to do that effectively?
Tamika Butler: First we have to make things accessible. There’s always this feeling that those community members, those grassroots leaders; they have to figure out how the folks in power are working. They have to meet those folks where they are. But are you having community meetings at times that work? Are you translating materials before you have the meeting? Is the notice about the meeting even put up? And then I think the other thing is: Are you able as an agency person or an elected official, are you able to talk about all the issues impacting folks in the community? So we have monthly community meetings at our parks and we were having a community meeting and our residents wanted to talk about homelessness. They wanted to talk about gang violence and gun violence in the community. They wanted to talk about the busy street and how they could cross the street when there’s so much traffic and actually get to the park. And so if we really want the folks most impacted to be able to have a say and to be able to effect changes, we first have to make that accessible and we have to be willing to not just say, “Oh, well I’m with Parks & Rec.” or “Oh, I’m with our planning department. I’m with transportation. I’m with this. I’m with that.” We have to realize that for the folks in the community, they live multi-issue lives and that’s what they are going to bring to the space.
Donna Bojarsky: My thesis has always been: I believe in leadership but I believe in being able to find leadership in traditional places and untraditional places, you know, there are leaders in every corner of Los Angeles, some of them just didn’t have the obvious traditional path to get there. So what do existing leaders have to do make this a more inclusive city of people who feel that not only their resources but also their talents should allow them a seat at the table?
Tamika Butler: So I think one of the things you said being willing to look at leadership in non-traditional places and I think being able to look at leadership and be creative about who you see as a leader. Because we can get the folks to come from the non-traditional places and they can still be looking around and saying, “Hmmm, I don’t see anyone who looks like me. I don’t see anyone who looks like the kind of leader that I typically see.” So it’s both, getting to that non-traditional place, but then being to be willing to know that it’s not always going to be the same type of person with the same type of resume or the same type of skills. And it’s really about trusting the community because often it’s not just about going out and finding the leader and helping cultivate the leader. Sometimes it is providing that support to folks who have never had someone say, “I believe in you. I know you can do this,” and helping them grow. But other times it’s realizing that you don’t have to help build that leader because they are already there. So it’s just about trusting the community to show you what’s already there and what’s already working.
Donna Bojarsky: If you had a magic wand, or in the modern context, a billion dollars -- what would you change?
Tamika Butler: I think it would be a magic wand more than a billion dollars, and I think the one thing I would wish for is that we explicitly talk about race. I've traveled a lot, and I feel like in LA, race feels very taboo. We talk about income, but I think it runs deeper.
Donna Bojarsky: You mean the general fear that you're coming in, you're going to price us out, and we're not going to be able to live here in Highland Park anymore?
Tamika Butler: Even if you're not talking about housing. If you're talking about education, some people say, "Don't use race. Use income." I think there are ways in which poverty and public health and all of these things interact and are important. In the best world, when we're making policy, we would have this matrix of all these different things, and we would consider all of them. But if you took everything out, and you just controlled for, "What is the thing that intersects life expectancy, intersects infant mortality rate, environmental harm, asthma," all of these different things, it's race. Even in a place where we think we're all good liberals, we're still afraid to talk about race. I'm sure lawyers would say, "Because of lawsuits," and other people would say, "Because it's a hard topic like religion, and if you make it about race, people won't want to talk about it." But if it was a magic wand, we would explicitly talk about race. We would explicitly talk about white supremacy, and we would explicitly talk about systems.
Donna Bojarsky: When you say "white supremacy", do you mean white privilege or white supremacists?
Tamika Butler: I don't mean white supremacists, but I think white supremacy is still around, and I think that's what makes it hard because people are like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I'm not in the KKK. I'm not a Nazi." But I think white supremacy is what got Trump elected, and I think white supremacy is the belief that in order for other people to advance, white people believe they have to give up that supremacy, that power.
Donna Bojarsky: That's a zero sum gain.
Tamika Butler: Right, so you don't want to lose it. I think the reason why when you look at the data from the election, and you see that overwhelmingly white women supported Trump, because they may be women but the still have some supremacy from being white, and it scares them to lose it.
Donna Bojarsky: You mean this in LA too, not just the nation?
Tamika Butler: Absolutely. I was not a person who was shocked because I lived in an LA bubble, because my LA bubble is still full of white supremacy.
Donna Bojarsky: You live in about as liberal an LA bubble as it gets.
Tamika Butler: Right, but I'm still a person who has been pulled over by the cops, and has had my wife, who's white, pulled out of the car and asked if she's okay and if she intends to be with me. That happened in downtown LA, after I picked her up at work at 7th and Fig, a block away, right at the heart of our liberal city. For me, if we can't talk about those things without clutching our pearls and being like, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I'm not a racist," or, "Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, I don't oppress people," then we're never going to get to the root of many of our issues that I think really come to race.
John Stodder: There was a webinar that you were a part of called The Color of Law: Forgotten History of how Government Segregated America, arguing that segregation didn’t just happen but that it was actually planned and legislated and has been and is enforced. In today’s LA, these patterns obviously persist because it’s not that easy to change land forms that were decided under an old regime and with a different philosophy, but they continue to have a decisive impact on the two issues you’re most engaged with in recent years, transportation, and now parks. Do you have a vision for how Los Angeles can emerge from this straitjacket of planned inequality?
Tamika Butler: I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I think that we first have to name it. And I think that’s part of what’s tough that because we are so concerned with hurting folks’ feelings, and that’s part of what we talked about on that particular webinar, the author of the book, the book I really like, kept saying, “We can’t focus on whose fault this was. We just need to move forward.” And my pushback to him was well, that’s really centering whiteness. You’re saying as folks of color, we can’t feel pain and we can’t feel sorrow when we go outside and look around our communities and see what this intentional planning has resulted in and how it’s not just impacted us, but will impact our families for generations. You’re literally writing a book that says I, as a black person, won’t be able to amass as much wealth over the lifetime for myself or for my future generations, because there are policies about home ownership, because there are policies about using parks to get around some of the integration attempts. And so, if you are first going to tell me that, you also can’t tell me that I can’t feel sorrow about that because it will make white people feel upset and then they won’t help me. I think that we first have to be able to name that. We have to be able to let the communities and populations that are impacted by this and who continue to feel the ramifications of it, we have to let them feel that. We have to let them have emotion about that, have healing about that, have anger about that. And then I do think we have to figure out how to come together and work together. And I think you’ll find that a lot more folks who are impacted, a lot more folks of color, a lot more low-income folks, would be willing to come to that table and participate in the solution process if they're not being told what they can and can’t say. If they’re able to be honest and be their full selves and show up fully in those conversations, then I think that’s what important to do.
Donna Bojarsky: The Olympics are coming, so what from your perspective is the lead up going to mean for different sectors. What do you hope it accomplishes beyond great sportsmanship and USA gold medals? A lot of sectors are lining up to play a role in the run up. What can they do to make the Olympics as useful as they can be to all of us in Los Angeles?
Tamika Butler: I’m a huge sports fan. It’s one of the reasons I love LA. I’m really excited for the Olympics and what they are going to bring for sports. I’ve heard from our partners that they are nervous about the Olympics due to the sheer magnitude of it and what it has meant in other places for homeless populations or for low-income people who are already struggling around affordable housing. What it means for the criminalization of black and brown folks, immigrant folks. I think like many things because LA is just so big, any of those issues are magnified when you look at a city like LA. I think there’s also going to be tremendous opportunity, especially for parks and green space folks to really have a vibrant dialogue about what it means to have a community with green space, what it means to be active and what it means to be outside. I just hope that those multiple conversations don’t happen in silos, but that we’re able to take those on together and that the folks who are going to be most impacted in many of the communities really have an authentic voice at the table.
Donna Bojarsky: Sports bring people together but I wonder whether you had anything to say about the NFL protest.
Tamika Butler: I’m a Nebraska kid and football is definitely our state sport. I think the NFL has had a lot of problems and been problematic even before this, but I do think that what is happening now is what happens to so many black and brown people whether or not they are football players or whether or not they are working in an office job. As long as they are playing, as long as they are on the field, as long as they are in the office doing exactly what the folks in power tell them to do – often white folks – they are fine, but the second they decide to speak up or speak out, people want them to get back in line. It’s been happening since slavery and it’s happening now.
Donna Bojarsky: Where are you on the gentrification battle? I really struggle with it and can see many different sides. My father was born in Boyle Heights, so I very much understand that issues arise when neighborhoods change. His beloved Brooklyn Avenue is now Cesar Chavez Avenue, which is fine because everything changes.
Tamika Butler: Right. I think gentrification is a complicated issue. For me, I'm keenly aware that there are some older black folks who I'm in coalition with and they're like, "We know the gentrifiers in South LA. They have gray houses with those modern numbers on the front, and like orange and turquoise doors," and I have a gray house with modern numbers on the front and a turquoise door. But I just wanted to live with my people. I wanted my kids to grow up and see other black folks. I think for me, it's how do we get beyond that to what people are really concerned about. Are they concerned that my bike lane is the first sign of gentrification, or are they concerned that my city government is investing in a bike lane when they don't have grocery stores, when none of their street lights work. If we can't ever get past the gentrification displacement conversation then we're always going to be on the surface level of gentrification conversation.
Donna Bojarsky: I agree. When I look at the Leimert Park area and the people who were complaining, I know that there is a legitimate thing to talk about -- the rents are going to go up too high and you're going to get pushed out of where you live. That is for sure. I also can imagine if I were African-American, I would want to live in African-American area ... if you have to live the whole work day with white people, and take crap from white people all day, when you go home, it's more relaxing. Look, I live in a city with 500,000 Jews. I don't have to ever feel like the other here. But still, for Jews, if no Jew marries another Jew, then there's not going to be Judaism that lives on, and from my perspective, that would be a drag. But the liberal position is to say there shouldn't be any of that, and everything should be blind, so it's got that complication as well.
Tamika Butler: And I think that's why, back to this race piece, I think that a lot of folks say, "We need to get to a point where we don't even see it, where we are a racially blind society." I think its just something that naturally happens. But when we say, "We're all people, and we should all come together." it is also important to discuss the real historical injustices that make it so that people may want to have their own space that they create, and that is their own, instead of space that someone has segregated them to and says they have to be at.
Donna Bojarsky: That was the extreme version of it.
Tamika Butler: But I also think when you look at transportation systems historically, the reason there's this expression, "the other side of the tracks," is because freeways went through black and brown neighborhoods. They are often segregated and isolated.
Donna Bojarsky: By design.
Tamika Butler: Right. When I lived in the Bay, Bayview was this far off place from the rest of the city with no real, reliable public transportation.
Donna Bojarsky: No one can afford anything there.
Tamika Butler: It's totally different, right? But who's now moving there? Who's going there? How do you figure out where the line is between separation or segregation, and folks choosing and creating their communities in the way they see fit. But you can't have that conversation if you can't talk about race openly. That's why, for me, that's what it all goes back to.
Donna Bojarsky: Well, it was harder for Bradley because that was a different day. Obama kind of tried, and then he was like, "Aw, screw them."
Tamika Butler: Right? He really tried, and people were also like, "Brother, don't do that. Don't do that. We want you to win. Let other people talk about it."
Donna Bojarsky: That's how he got elected. If he had been Maxine Waters, he would not have been elected. Although, she's having fun.
Tamika Butler: I read her New York Times article this weekend, she is a hoot.
Donna Bojarsky: I'll tell you my favorite Maxine Waters story. It was in the '84 Democratic Convention, and Maxine is a real woman. I like clothes. She likes clothes. Jesse Jackson is screaming, and they're trying to keep him from speaking at the convention. All this shit's going on and she sees me walking into the Convention Center. She goes, "Donna, Donna, you've gotta come with me." I go, "Okay." Then her aides are like, "No, Jesse Jackson's calling. You've got to go." She takes me around the corner. There's one of these crappy looking stores on the outside, but if you go in the back, it was like the back room at Loehman's. She sitting here. She's showing me suits, and she's showing me jewelry, and I'm like, "Don't you have somewhere to go?" I've always loved that about her. She's this fighter, but man, she liked a good outfit, too.
Tamika Butler: I really feel like no one tells her what to do.
Donna Bojarsky: All right. I could talk to you forever, but I’ll let you go. But I do want to stay engaged with you with what we're doing, and what you bring to it.
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