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T-Talks offer an alternative approach to community engagement

Article written by Rachel Fitctenbuam, Mass Mobility

Building on over ten years of youth-led work supporting Mattapan’s residents in accessing exercise and joy through biking, the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition (MFFC) expanded its transportation efforts over the past year by co-hosting a series of community-oriented conversations on a range of transportation issues. Focused on those who live in the Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Hyde Park areas of Boston as well as those who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color (BIPOC), the “T-Talks” explored how transportation relates to pressing issues like racism, climate change, displacement, and health. The T-Talks were the idea of MFFC’s Executive Director, Shavel’le Olivier. Eleven years ago, as a youth participant in MFFC’s programming, Olivier was one of the founders of MFFC’s annual bike event. Over the years, she became increasingly interested in transportation advocacy, and as she got more involved in the transportation advocacy scene in Boston, she noticed a disconnect. On the one hand, the City of Boston, MassDOT, and professional transportation advocates were telling her they were having a hard time engaging community members in Mattapan, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Hyde Park. Yet Olivier was hearing a lot about transportation from her neighbors and from the community members participating in MFFC’s programming, who frequently brought up questions and concerns about traffic, climate change, and displacement. Olivier was uncomfortable watching decision-makers make decisions when the people affected were not in the room, and so she decided to try her own hand at community engagement around transportation issues. In October, MFFC collaborated with Powerful Pathways and the Outdoors Urban Association to launch the T-Talks. Olivier and the other organizers structured the T-Talks around the issues community members were asking about and thinking about. They made sure to feature presenters who came from the community or had a shared lived experience, and who could clearly explain how the concepts they were talking about related to community members’ lives. The goal was to provide the information community members were looking for, and by doing so educate them about the importance of transportation, street changes, and the connection to their own lives so when they entered formal government community meetings, they would feel empowered, informed, and confident to speak. “Transportation is a public health issue and intersects a lot with other social determinants of health. In my perspective, it’s not as easy to solve because it costs a lot of money, and there’s a lot of terminology that can be confusing as well as policy changes that need to be made,” Olivier explains. The T-Talks have been even more successful than Olivier originally expected, some with over 90 attendees. “We did what we intended to do. We created a space for communities of color and BIPOC individuals to talk about these issues together, and we’ve shown what community engagement can look like,” she says. The final webinar of this season aired June 23, and they are planning another series starting in the fall. Visit MFFC's website for recordings, slides, and materials.

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