March is Women’s History Month, and women at the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) are making history. MTI Trustee April Rai, President & CEO of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), is a trailblazing leader in the industry and a life-long advocate of public transportation. Through her personal and professional experiences April has garnered a nuanced understanding of the intersections of equity, diversity, and transportation. She uses her expertise to champion for those who frequently go unheard and who often face additional barriers, including minority individuals, veterans, and people with disabilities. Read on to learn how April continues to make history and shape the future of transportation.
You have more than fifteen years of experience in the transportation industry, but how did you first become involved and interested in transportation?
Public transportation has been a large part of my life from my earliest memories. I grew up in Southeast San Diego, California, in a low income, BIPOC neighborhood, along the light rail system we called “the Trolley.” In our household, with one car that seemed to constantly need repairs, we relied on public transportation to move, to explore, to live. Later, I went on to work at the University of Maryland, School of Nursing, supporting the Dean of the School on advocacy initiatives. In this role, I served as Project Manager for the Maryland Action Coalition, which was established in 2010 as one of 50 state-based coalitions designated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action. The coalition’s work centered on three important areas: building healthier communities, improving access to care, and improving health equity. The intersection between transportation, thriving communities and health equity were clear and greatly influenced my decision to focus my career on transportation equity.
What drives your interest in the field today, and what do you hope to achieve as President and CEO of COMTO?
The ability to do work that even in a small way positively contributes to society really inspires me. Transportation in its ideal form has the ability to connect individuals of all backgrounds to opportunities, experiences, and essential services. This mobility independence is critical. As President & CEO of The Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), I hope to continue a 52-year legacy of promoting full access and maximum participation in transportation for all. I hope to inspire youth to choose a career in the transportation industry, directly connect as many qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds as possible to leadership opportunities and drive support for small businesses to get their fair share of contracting opportunities.
COMTO was founded in 1971 to advance minorities in the transportation industry. Today, it has 37 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. Has being involved with COMTO changed your perspective of the industry at all? What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry over the years when it comes to diversity and equity?
Being involved with COMTO has served to broaden my perspective of the industry and strengthen my understanding of what is needed to achieve true equity in transportation. Over the years, we have seen a heightened focus on diversity and equity in all things. This is a welcomed, special opportunity to address long-standing barriers. For organizations and agencies who have addressed equity with intention, I’ve observed that these initiatives start from the top—leadership led. The approach is data informed—decisions based on broad feedback from stakeholders at all levels—and are embedded throughout the planning and decision-making business processes, making it sustainable, not flash-in-the-pan work. There is a refreshing appreciation for the unique perspectives and innovations that come from diverse teams. It may not hurt that diverse project and management teams consistently outperform and exceed financial goals! We have a long way to go but we are absolutely moving in the right direction.
And, do you have any advice for sparking interest in transportation in youth and those who might be considering the field?
It is so important to showcase the possibilities. There is a saying “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Paid internship and apprenticeship programs serve as an effective safe space for exploration. These provide real world opportunities to see what a career in transportation can offer. We also need to let young people know how valuable their perspectives are. And we need to consider some of the obstacles or challenges they face. Getting to an internship or special program opportunity may present a financial challenge. It may be hard to imagine, but a $5-$8 round-trip fare may present a challenge for an economically disadvantaged participant. Others may face a language barrier or need accommodations related to a disability. Let’s meet them where they are and make adjustments to strengthen the transportation workforce pipeline with youth who represent the communities we serve.