Alliance Leader Q&A: Ashwat Narayanan, Executive Director of Our Streets MPLS
Beyond its rebranding from Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition in 2017, Our Streets Minneapolis has been working over the past several years to center equity in its organizational operations and approach to advocacy. Hired as Executive Director in March 2019, Ashwat Narayanan is bringing his background in community organizing and focus on transportation justice to the group’s continued evolution. In our Q&A with the not-so-new leader, we learned about his role in stopping a massive highway expansion in Milwaukee, his opposition to police enforcement as an avenue to safer streets — and his cat’s name.
How did you get interested in transportation issues?
Growing up in a city in South India I saw how much access to transportation could make or break the lives of so many people. In a country that’s developing really quickly, people are getting access to cars and motorcycles and trying to emulate the West as much as we can. I realized that isn’t how we, as communities, need to develop. We have these old cities where, for generations, we had lived close to each other, and all of a sudden, we’re trying to move in a regressive way — building on swamplands and watersheds not meant to have development on them. I started to fully understand the intersection between transportation and the environment when I was designing water treatment systems. That’s when I made the decision to get a higher education and transportation seemed to make the most sense.
How did that translate into your professional work?
I came to the United States in 2009 to study traffic engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While the program was about transportation, all of the coursework was learning how to get cars from point A to point B. We didn’t make the connections to what those transportation decisions do to our communities or air quality or equity, and who’s able to access opportunity. I realized that if I kept doing what I was doing, and started working for a Department of Transportation or a consulting firm, I would be actively creating a worse world for people. That led me to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, where I interned at the State Smart Transportation Initiative that worked with DOTs around the country to make planning and engineering more connected to communities and increase transportation modes other than driving. When I finished grad school I went to 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, where I started as a policy analyst and then became the policy director. In my six years there I was mostly fighting major highway expansions in Wisconsin, using community organizing and legal advocacy. We prevailed in a major lawsuit against Highway 23 and had a successful community organizing effort around the proposed expansion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee.
What brought you to Minnesota?
I married a woman in Minneapolis, so when this position at Our Streets opened up, I applied. I don’t come from a walking and biking background; I really come from a more holistic, land use and transportation background. I think a lot about how streets interact with communities and what transportation decisions mean for what our neighborhoods and cities and homes feel like. And that’s the approach I’m taking, because the two things I really care about are justice and transportation equity and reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector.
What’s a campaign win that you’re particularly proud of?
In 2016, we won a years-long organizing campaign against the expansion of Interstate 94 in Milwaukee. This was a highway that originally had devastated Bronzeville [the historic economic and social heart of Milwaukee’s African-American community] and would have destroyed Black and brown households with the expansion. We worked with many people but specifically WISDOM, a coalition of Black faith leaders who work on intersections of justice and preventing the incarceration of people of color. Sierra Club and my organization and the WISDOM coalition came together to organize through a variety of means, from legal threats to turning out hundreds of people to say this is not the kind of transportation we’re looking for. We lobbied state leaders and in a Republican controlled legislature it was a significant victory to get policymakers to say Milwaukee needs to be looking ahead and not relying on 1960s infrastructure that’s perpetuating inequity and segregation. Not only did we stop that expansion, but we were able to divert some of that money into better transit in Milwaukee and more funding for walking and biking in the state budget.
What excites you most about the work and trajectory of Our Streets?
Our Streets has, over the past couple of years, established itself as an organization that puts transportation justice at the forefront of its work. We’ve walked the talk in changing the nature of our board to be inclusive of people of color, people with disabilities, people who don’t identify as cis-gender. And as we’ve been changing the leadership of the organization we’ve prioritized hiring people of color and have really worked to establish relationships with neighborhoods most affected by or being left out of transportation decision-making. For instance, I’m really proud of our Bicycle Connectors program, which is working with nearly 10 different partners [to use bicycling as a vehicle to connect and empower folks who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and/or people of color who are femme, trans, women, and/or non-binary]. We also have a strong anti-enforcement stance. In the transportation world, a lot of organizations call for police enforcement as an effective strategy to reduce traffic deaths or deal with people blocking bike lanes, but we know only certain groups feel completely safe around police. For many people calling the police is not an option; it puts them in danger or at risk of being deported. So when Vision Zero [an effort within the City of Minneapolis aimed at eliminating traffic deaths] is taking a hard enforcement stance, we’ve been outspoken opponents of that. We feel the best way to get to transportation justice and comfortable and easy walking and biking in the city is better infrastructure and reducing the amount of right of way we give over to cars. We need to be changing transportation policy so community voices are really represented and prioritized in transportation decision-making.
Given its founding as the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, a lot of folks probably still think of Our Streets as a bike advocacy organization but you’re not a big cyclist…
I’ve never owned a car, partially because I feel that using a 3,000-pound hunk of metal to run your personal business is not fair to the world. It’s also really expensive, so not spending $10,000 per year on a car provides more financial independence. I love seeing the city in many different ways: walking, biking, taking public transit or a scooter. Taking the light rail downtown is one of the favorite parts of my day when I have a meeting at City Hall. I feel like I gain additional perspective when I take different modes of transportation and build empathy and connection to different people. In the nonprofit world, a lot of times I’m the only person of color in the room. That’s never the case on the bus. On the bus, you see familiar faces. You blend in.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I really love exploring the urban environment, going to farmers markets or parts of the city I don’t normally go to. I enjoy the art districts and accessing all the trails and nature in the region. And I spend time at home with my wife, Priya, and cat, Harold.
Stay tuned for our next Q&A with HOME Line’s Ivory Taylor!