Local organizer shifts focus to transit equity

Sandra Larson | 12/22/2015, 10:15 a.m.
Hakim Cunningham, a Dorchester native who cut his organizing teeth as an economic justice and jobs advocate, has taken on ...
Hakim Cunningham is the new social justice policy coordinator at Transportation for Massachusetts. Photo by Sandra Larson

Prior to starting the T4Mass job this fall, Cunningham, 39, was an organizer and deputy director with the Boston Workers Alliance, a grassroots group combatting urban joblessness and advocating for social and economic justice. There, he mobilized and coordinated efforts on criminal justice reform, CORI reform and the Boston Residents Job Policy.

“So I’ve done a lot of work around economic development and criminal justice — I got my organizing feet wet there,” he said. “I jumped at the chance to take this grassroots experience and use it at T4Mass.”

Cunningham has also served as citywide coordinator for the Boston Jobs Coalition, addressing issues of concern to minority construction workers. He has had a hand in a number of other organizations and initiatives, including the My Brother’s Keeper Boston advisory committee, the Center for Economic Democracy and Grove Hall Main Streets. Along with fulltime work, he is pursuing a dual degree in Global Business & Entrepreneurship at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.

Kristina Egan, T4Mass’s executive director, said the idea of a social justice policy coordinator position arose when the coalition grew rapidly from 17 to 58 members and she could no longer connect readily with every one of them.

“We needed a dedicated staff member who can understand the priorities of grassroots place-based organizations,” she said.

Egan noted that hiring Cunningham immediately brought a new perspective and new connections into T4Mass.

“He’s already brought a tremendous amount of knowledge about community issues, and has really strong relationships in the community,” she said. “Hakim is listening to conversations about gentrification and other issues and making sure we’re talking about them.”

Egan said there are groups she hadn’t had time to meet with, addressing issues of immigrants in Fitchburg and bus riders in New Bedford, for instance — and Cunningham stepped in and connected with them.

“So all of the sudden, I understand, and the rest of our coalition understands through Hakim, what issues are top-of-mind in these organizations,” Egan said.

While his focus is on bringing underserved groups into the transportation conversation, Cunningham keeps one eye on the bigger picture of capacity building and economic development.

On the Web

Transportation for Massachusetts: www.t4ma.org

Boston Workers Alliance: www.bostonworkersalliance.org

In some areas of Massachusetts, residents are limited to certain jobs because their bus route stops at a certain hour.

“Certain regional transit systems might shut down at 5 o’clock, or on weekends,” Cunningham said. “People don’t really think about ... the job opportunities that come with or are taken off the table with transportation decisions.”

And this is where experience in workforce development and jobs advocacy dovetails with transportation justice.

“It’s not just looking at how to create better transportation choices,” he explained, “but how we can connect it to racial equity and economic inequalities — so people can use the transportation and also become suppliers and business owners because of it. I feel, and a lot of people I talk with feel, that we always miss the economic inequality piece. We look for social justice, we look for civil rights — but how can we make sure to focus on economically empowering individuals?”

As social justice policy coordinator, Cunningham’s learning curve includes cultivating relationships with a larger set of organizations statewide, and also stepping back from activism a bit.

“I’d say I’ve been doing ‘my job description plus’,” he said, flashing a smile. “But I have to be mindful of the line between advocacy and activism. Finding out what the needs are, reporting to the decision makers and developing policy — I have to stay in that zone, and not try to do other people’s jobs for them. I’m finding that sweet spot.”