(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 377: A New Public Engagement in Durham

April 7, 2022

This week we’re featuring a 1 to 1 conversation produced in partnership with Railvolution between Aidil Ortiz, Principal at Aidilisms and Mary Kate Morookian, a transit planner at Kimley Horn. Aidil and Mary Kate discuss the Durham Transit Plan and how they approached public engagement while centering the community in the process.

Listen to this show at Streetsblog USA or in the Libsyn Hosting Archive.

Find a full unedited transcript below:

Mary Kate Morookian (1m 33s):
Hi, my name is Mary Kate Morookian. I’m a transit planner at Kimley Horn. My office is based in Raleigh, but wherever a national firm with the national transit practice. And I’m here today to talk about the Durham transit plan, which we were hired by the Durham chapel hill Carboro MBO to update.

Aidil Ortiz (1m 54s):
Hey, and my name is Aidil Ortiz founder owner of idealisms a consultancy that focuses on connection, culture and equity based in Durham. And my work is around leading the equitable community engagement related to the Durham transit plan. I have the honor of working with Kimley-Horn to do that. And so, you know, we’ve been doing this whole thing remotely during a pandemic, and we have to come fast or sitting in my kitchen with my really annoying pandemic puppy that is so excited to have company over. So you may hear puppy paws in the background. So in full transparency, do not let that distract you, but I wanted to dig in a little and learn more about, you know, your experience in the area, Mary, Kate, and the region.

Mary Kate Morookian (2m 43s):
Yeah, I guess we’ve never really gotten into that. I moved around quite a bit growing up, but I spent high school and college in North Carolina did some planning work when I graduated, but then moved to New York for grad school and studied transit. I stayed for a few years and worked for public agencies in New York and New Jersey and New York city department of transportation, New Jersey transit, where I fell in love with buses and all things operations, and then got married, had a baby and moved back to North Carolina where my parents were and worked for go triangle and go Durham, local and regional service providers in the Raleigh Durham chapel hill area, and then started my work with Kimley-Horn and their transit practice, which brought me to the Durham transit plan, which brought me to this lovely lady.

Mary Kate Morookian (3m 44s):
Aidil yeah.

Aidil Ortiz (3m 46s):
Oh, that’s so interesting. I didn’t realize he’d been in North Carolina that long. That’s pretty cool. Yeah. I mean, I’ve been living in North Carolina for 34 years in this particular region, 20 of them specifically in Durham. And you know, it’s interesting because even though the majority of my professional experience has been in social justice work, doing community advocacy campaigns to get directly impacted people into, you know, the offices of their elected officials or do immediate work, you know, buried in all of that advocacy work was actually like the very beginnings of my transit oriented work, which was about 15 or so years ago, I’m working on a project in my neighborhood around the Austin avenue in C 55 road, which is run by the MTV and it was going to be redesigned and widened and it was going to demolish our local grocery store.

Aidil Ortiz (4m 42s):
So my original foray into transit was around that to make sure that we could preserve more content, a community sensitive design, and we ended up getting federal protection for the grocery stores. Yes, Dominican grocery store, I’m Dominican shout outs. And so we got federal protection for the grocery store. We got bike lanes, we got a preemptive road diet by way of adding, talking to the outer lanes. And so that kind of morphed into sitting on the bicycle and pedestrian advisory commission and just being interested mostly in the intersection of public health and the built environment, and now have been for the last three years independent and doing community consulting around engagement for these kinds of large scale texts and did infrastructure projects.

Aidil Ortiz (5m 47s):
And so that’s landed me here to you in my kitchen.

Mary Kate Morookian (5m 56s):
Well, I’m so glad that we are here in your kitchen. Let’s give the listeners of the podcast a little context, I guess I don’t want you to start. How would you describe just this region, the triangle region as we call it Durham Raleigh chapel hill, especially for people that are interested in transit or mobility development, affordable housing, that kind of thing.

Aidil Ortiz (6m 23s):
Yeah. I mean, so the time was home to some of the most powerful organizations within research, education, technology, government, and culture within the state. So Raleigh is our state Capitol. Durham has been a hub for lots and lots of prosperity in business throughout the years in the history of North Carolina overall. And what these things mean is that we have a really diverse population in the area and we’re growing, you know, lots of people are coming to this area from places that have probably more transit resources than we do at the current moment. But we also face quite a lot of disparities in how people experience this region. There’s not as much transit as I think folks who service these large companies need, but the backbone services like transit are struggling quite frankly, to keep up with staffing, especially as we all experienced collectively a pandemic.

Aidil Ortiz (7m 14s):
And if we want to expand transit and make it the system, right, we’re just, we’re going to need to make some changes. And so for us, we don’t have rail currently, unless you’re talking about Amtrak, it’s mostly bus. And, but we do have a really extensive throughout the region. I say a really extensive trail system. So lots of open space in this area. A lot of people sometimes refer to the research triangle park as a large park of sorts because there’s so much open space out there, always room for improvement. But do you have any thoughts about the region and how you would typify it through your professional experience?

Mary Kate Morookian (7m 52s):
Yeah, I’d say that this region definitely, like you said, the transplants coming to the region from all over the country, like you said, a lot of places have a much more developed, mature transit system than we do, but Durham has a really productive and important local bus network. It’s a really productive system for a city this size and then go triangle with the regional best network, connecting suburbs of Raleigh with Durham and chapel hill. It’s, it’s impressive what this region is able to do with the, with the, just the bus service that they have.

Mary Kate Morookian (8m 34s):
So I remember when I started working specifically with the Durham transit plan and at the, around the same time, the orange transit plan and the wake county transit plans, I was still working in the public sector for go triangle, go Durham, those bus, public transit agencies. And it was really exciting. The transit tax was passed or the half cent sales tax that was, you know, totally dedicated towards funding transit improvements within the region. And it was really exciting to work on planning those services. It was new services, it was improvements to existing routes.

Mary Kate Morookian (9m 15s):
Reinvisioning what the system could look like that had existed for a while, was serving people, but was it, was it serving the people that really needed it? Was it getting people to the places that they really needed to be based on how rapidly the region was changing and you know, how the demographic makeup of the region was changing? Everything was changing. I remember a big part of the original transit plan. And just to give you a little context for these transit plans, the half cent sales tax goes to fund these trends and improvements. There has to be an approved, official, formal plan in place that dictates where those funds are going to go.

Mary Kate Morookian (9m 57s):
So there’s a very robust, intentional, thoughtful planning process that goes way ahead of actually implementing these services. And that has to be approved by the designated elected bodies. So there was a plan that was approved. It included light rail, the Durham transit plan initially had. And that plan was in 2012, 12. That’s right. Yeah. So that plan included light rail from Durham to chapel hill that took up a lot of the programmable funds. It was a, it was a huge project, a really good project, but it ended up not moving forward.

Mary Kate Morookian (10m 38s):
It was officially discontinued in 2019. And because that project was not going forward, it had initially been earmarked to receive a lot of the funds and the, in the financial model over the full life of the plan, which was through 2040. So that plan had to be updated to identify new projects that would receive the benefits of that funding. So that’s, when can we Horn was hired to do that plan update. And at that time I was then working at, can we Horn? So I got to work on it. I got to work on a devil on both sides. So that’s been really fun, but I’d say one of the biggest things that I have learned while revisiting this effort is it’s not just an update.

Mary Kate Morookian (11m 28s):
Oh, let’s pick a new project to put in here. It’s, let’s, let’s revisit this, you know, what, what do people need, who is using the transit system now, who would use it if it went here or it was this frequent, or it ran to this time and where are those people? So it’s just been really interesting and fun and challenging to get to revisit a lot of those questions. Yeah. And it’s, it’s gotten it’s, even though I’m a Durham county resident myself, it’s helped me get to know Durham a whole lot better

Aidil Ortiz (12m 9s):
and, you know, during the sort of like outreach for communicating the options this time around, let me know how many sort of holes in people’s knowledge there was. I think that when people think about anything related to a train, they don’t necessarily know the difference between a light rail and a commuter rail, you know, differentiating rail projects was really important this time around and making sure that people understood, we weren’t re proposing the same plan. That was really important to us to keep that trust through really good communication discipline. And what were the options moving forward in terms of what was possible with the constraints?

Aidil Ortiz (12m 53s):
And so helping people understand the devil in the details without overwhelming them was I think a huge goal this time around as we tried to get a sense for where people are now in terms of what they need now that they’ve had one plan and now they need a new one right now. They’re like, I thought we did this. And we’re like, oh, but wait.

Mary Kate Morookian (13m 17s):
Yeah. Right. No, that you’re so you’re so right. I think that’s been a really interesting piece of it is reminding people that we did a transit plan a lot, and that a lot of stuff has already been implemented. A lot of good changes have already happened.

Aidil Ortiz (13m 35s):
Give a great opportunity to come back to people and say, we have promised we haven’t just been sitting on our hands, doing nothing,

Mary Kate Morookian (13m 43s):
Look at this and look at this. So that’s been nice to be able to talk about the improvements that have already happened as part of the Durham transit plan and hear about how’s it going more of this would be good, something different, you know, going back and, and getting to reevaluate those services has been nice too. But yes. Also explaining like, yes, we did this, but this piece is no longer happening and it’s, it’s not going to, it has been a little tough explaining. I know light rail was a cool project, but that’s, it’s really, really not moving forward, but we are going to identify other projects that serve those needs. So that’s also important to communicate that travel needs, these origin destination needs this volume of people.

Mary Kate Morookian (14m 32s):
We know that we need to still move these people, light rail just isn’t the mode. So we’re going to identify other great projects that will satisfy those needs and, you know, help people get on, get on the bus, get on, get on whatever is going to get proposed.

Aidil Ortiz (14m 49s):
And this around like some things are different in Durham in terms of expectations for engagement. I know that when your original Durham transit plan was passed much like other large-scale plans are standards for engagement and what that looked like. It was just a different time. And boy, did we pick a cool time to start reinvisioning engagement at a time when, you know, I think everyone’s kind of like back to square one, trying to understand how to connect and message appropriately, especially to people who would be most directly impacted by these kinds of systems and who most rely on them. You know, and that those populations we’ve always called them, which I, as an engagement strategist, I hate this term hard to reach populations because to me, all you’re doing is confessing, but you have no investment or actual relationships with this population before are relatively easy to find.

Aidil Ortiz (15m 43s):
We make sure that they are corralled in very specific places. And if you’re just uncomfortable going there say that there’s a difference, but at any anyhow, that’s my personal some speech on that. But in Durham, there was a equitable community engagement blueprint that was brought about probably like a year before the pandemic got started roughly a little less than a year. And it became sort of this framework of practices that they wanted, things like the transit plan, like our comprehensive plan, et cetera, to start abiding by. And so we’ve got some, some new tweaks to the way we do engagement that I think are pretty interesting as we move forward in reaching out to the community about what they want to see in their future transit projects and their transit mix.

Aidil Ortiz (16m 34s):
And that’s been really fun.

Mary Kate Morookian (16m 36s):
You said something that I think is really important, and it’s one of the things that I think makes your work specific to you, ideals work, and Aidil this particular skillset really, really valuable. And that’s how you take the focus of engagement and make it very clear who we are trying to reach with this engagement. You know, it’s something that I’ve learned from this process and working closely with you is the traditional post, a survey online, hold a public workshop, go set up a table at the transit center.

Mary Kate Morookian (17m 19s):
You can do that and you’ll, you’ll get some responses, but you are not necessarily going to hear from the people that you are trying to hear from. You are going to maybe have some missed opportunities to talk with the folks that actually are using these services every day. So we, we have a program within the transit plan, the ambassador engagement program, right. And I think that has been a game changer for how we have been approaching outreach with this plan. Can you talk a bit about the engagement ambassador program, just what it is and just how, I mean, incredible.

Aidil Ortiz (17m 58s):
We were lucky because, you know, the comp plan had been underway almost like lockstep with the transit plan and they went ahead and made some early investments in the recruitment of an engagement. What we referred to was like this cohort of residents that have direct and primary and trusted relationships with local folks who often do not show up in traditional ways inside of these kinds of processes. Right. So we’ve seen the numbers right. Then when we do the stuff traditionally or in transit specifically like white, white, and wealthy to talk about cars and buses and trains and planes and all of that, you know, they love it and it’s okay, but they love it.

Mary Kate Morookian (18m 44s):
That’s okay to be a white, wealthy man for listening. We don’t,

Aidil Ortiz (18m 53s):
You know, Durham is still what we refer to when a lot of literature is a majority minority city, which, you know, I hate to anyway, but we’re, we’re a community that has a lot of diversity, a lot of people of color. And we do definitely also have our fair share of people who are living with fewer resources, financial resources. And I think it’s important for us to attend to very mindfully and put a prioritization to communicating with that audience first, because it does take more time. It does take a little more effort to dig into those communities to make sure that they have enough time with all the competing tensions and interests in their life to actually respond to what we need to know.

Aidil Ortiz (19m 42s):
Right. And so, and we also have to offer them the respect of contextualizing, why them taking their time on this information actually helps anything going on because there’s also a lot of like data for the sake of data collection of in these communities. A history of research institutions is going in and serving the crap out of local residents. And it’s for nothing except, you know, some graduate students grade. And that is also really frustrating because we’re competing against all that history. So the engagement ambassadors is a cohort of residents that already have trust and relationships with people that we want to talk to. Low-income people, people who are formerly justice involved, or currently justice involved, people who are immigrants, people who don’t necessarily speak English, young people, the elderly people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQ I a all these different things.

Aidil Ortiz (20m 33s):
We wanted to make sure we had inroads into those populations. So we made a priority list of people that we wanted to include as engagement, ambassadors and engagement ambassadors are people who we spend more time drilling down and training in terms of the context of this plan, why this plan matters, the questions that we’re looking for. They got a chance to give feedback on the questions themselves. And so, so a little bit of the design, and also they helped us get the word out. Once the survey was designed and they were compensated with a stipend for participating in this because they have assets and they have skills and may need to be in some way, shape or form. There needs to be a gesture towards supporting the value of that.

Aidil Ortiz (21m 15s):
So they were not contrast subcontractors, but we stipended them. We offered like a gift card for their time with the program. And so that was roughly about 40 people throughout Durham. And how

Mary Kate Morookian (21m 27s):
Did you recruit them? Aidil

Aidil Ortiz (21m 30s):
So this whole 20 years in Durham that I had mostly within the nonprofit sector has been all very community driven. So I’ve been hanging out at the local public schools and hiring youngsters for some nonprofit work and partnering with other folks and involved in culture and in placemaking and running my own community events and setting up the, you know, whether it’s like a tree planting or community cleanups and you babysit enough people’s kids. And I think that combination of everything, of like I to have my own authentic relationships and I have leveraged those relationships and said, what do you think about this? Would you be willing to help your neighbors have this conversation and collect this data so that our data can be more reflective of the Durham we know and love?

Mary Kate Morookian (22m 13s):
And do you have X, I mean, you very pointedly asked, well, do you know people that are,

Aidil Ortiz (22m 20s):
Oh yeah, you are not our target audience. You can be surveyed, but you should not be, be engaged in ambassador. And so, yeah, we did ask people whether they had, I think it was like 10 or more contacts, you know? And so there were people who were like formerly homeless and in the recovery community and they are continuing to work in that community, continue to go back to the shelter that they felt helped them get back on their feet. And they promise to do outreach in that way. And we just loved that. We loved that people wanted to use their own relationships, their own name, their own reputation to get that out there. And so we’ve been doing that for several rounds of engagement now, and I think the data speaks for itself and just the opposite of what it looked like before we did this, you know, like literally the opposite.

Aidil Ortiz (23m 6s):
So now over 70% of the respondents are people of color or people who are low income. And I think that’s pretty

Mary Kate Morookian (23m 13s):
Huge. That’s

Aidil Ortiz (23m 15s):
Huge. And that’s more reflective of who uses the local public transit.

Mary Kate Morookian (23m 19s):
I was just going to say, to have a demographically representative survey result, I’ve never in my career experienced that that was insane. And also during a pandemic, we had two rounds of outreach. And just to provide a little bit more context Kimley-Horn is the, what we’d say the prime consultant for this transit plan. And Aidil is working with us as a partner leading the outreach. So she’s in everything she’s helping develop the materials design, easy to understand graphics and language and the engagement ambassador piece, which in my opinion, is the most important piece of our outreach effort.

Aidil Ortiz (24m 8s):
It’s the ultimate product we believe. Yes,

Mary Kate Morookian (24m 12s):
We want it to be believed. And you want the people to feel like, like you said, survey fatigue and also asking questions just to ask them and check a box it’s not helpful. And it also makes people feel like their time was wasted and you know, what, what did my answer really provide? And being able to say these are the folks that ride the services today. These are the folks that we got to take the survey through the engagement ambassador program. Here’s what we said. And because of that, here’s what we’re going to propose as a project,

Aidil Ortiz (24m 48s):
A nice little chain of law disappears,

Mary Kate Morookian (24m 52s):
And it’s validating, it’s validating as a professional. I, it must be, it must be better to see that. I imagine as a survey respondent to say, okay, I said this, they heard me and now there’s this project on the street.

Aidil Ortiz (25m 9s):
Yeah. And I mean, I think that one of the other things that was cool is that y’all, if a pandemic out here, right, and people were often hurting at this time, you know, for money, for social interaction. Exactly. And I think that we got it right. In terms of giving folks an opportunity and excuse to go knock on their neighbor’s doors. Like I love the engagement ambassadors that have been living in our public housing communities. I mean, they killed it. They rocked out knocking on those doors, sitting on that chair on their front porch and anybody who would walk by, Hey, come up here, gotta talk to you about something. And they were real leaders, serious leaders in.

Aidil Ortiz (25m 50s):
And when we look at like the counts and that’s really important because our public housing communities, obviously we want folks to feel like what they need shows up in this plan.

Mary Kate Morookian (25m 59s):
I will never forget. So we had, like I said, we had two rounds of engagement that involved the engagement ambassadors, the first round, I want to say, I don’t remember the exact number of responses, but it was under a thousand or right. Or it was definitely under a thousand. And then w but it was still a huge chunk of the responses were from directly from engagement ambassador recruited from those events. And then the second round, it was over 2000 responses during a pandemic, you told me people were taking these surveys to their outdoor Zumba classes, like, and the, like the public, the public works department, like the parks and rec department sponsored Zoomba classes.

Aidil Ortiz (26m 41s):
First round also happened during the colder months. And our second round happened during warmer months. So there was an opportunity to go to the soccer games, to the outdoors.

Mary Kate Morookian (26m 49s):
It wasn’t like scary or COVID was like, everybody was like, really not doing it.

Aidil Ortiz (26m 56s):
We’re getting like their first round of vaccinations during the second round. So there were some big networking for us.

Mary Kate Morookian (27m 4s):
We did, but the ratio of engagement ambassadors was still so impressive. It was over half, over half of the responses were directly from engagement ambassadors, bringing in these, I remember coming to your house to pick up the paper, surveys, boxes,

Aidil Ortiz (27m 20s):
And boxes of

Mary Kate Morookian (27m 21s):
Paper surveys. I was thrilled and also afraid, oh, these are a Lot of surveys to input, but Aidil has a great big front porch. And it was filled with paper surveys.

Aidil Ortiz (27m 37s):
We’re dropping them off in like Manila envelopes. I’m sure people thought I was up to something nefarious at that time. My neighbors were like, what is going on? But yes,

Mary Kate Morookian (27m 54s):

Aidil Ortiz (27m 55s):
So in terms of thinking about like the whole project and what you’ve heard via engagement, like what were any kind of light bulbs that struck you from the data? I’ve got my thoughts. I’m, talking to people.

Mary Kate Morookian (28m 13s):
I think some of the biggest things that we heard, we really, we knew, you know, people want the existing system to work better for them. The people that are using the go Durham go triangle system, they know their routes. They know the connections ins and outs. They make it work for them. People want the existing system, torso, frequency later service, and they just want to make sure that they can, it’s not, it’s not crazy asks. I want to be able to pick up my kid from daycare.

Mary Kate Morookian (28m 54s):
I want to be able to get to that job, keep my job. I want to be able to apply to this job. So I need to get on the bus earlier, stay later. It’s not hard stuff. Or, or I don’t want to sit on the bus for two hours anymore. I need a more direct connection. Right?

Aidil Ortiz (29m 12s):
Yeah. I’ve heard that. I heard that loud and clear. I also heard that the actual conditions of the bus stops are ridiculous at this current moment. And there are some other data that can we Horn put together about the status of ADA compliance for all of us stops and where we have fallen short and Durham. And, and that number really broke my heart. I already had a little bit of a window into that because I had had that a lot. I heard that a lot in the data, but also around that same time, I had another client that was doing a sidewalk assessment and wanted feedback from residents around sidewalk assessments. So they could make sure that there’s an equity component there.

Aidil Ortiz (29m 52s):
And let me tell you, putting up signs at all of the transfer stops, you get a good window into that. So I think that that actual time on the ground combined with what I heard on my survey, I actually, there were a few bus stops that actually left me in tears because every time I’d stop to put up a sign about the sidewalk assessment survey that was going on at the same time as the transit plan engagement, I tried to put myself in the shoes of like a mom with groceries and smoke and a stroller or a person who had a mobility device. I just could not believe that this was the status of some of our most highly frequented bus stops. It was scary, actually.

Mary Kate Morookian (30m 35s):
That’s a good, that’s a really good point. Not all of the data we collected was ridership data or, you know, things really, what kind of improvements do you want to see? A lot of it was what, what are the bus stops look like? How many miles of sidewalk are there currently? And there are other efforts going on kind of in tandem with the Durham transit plan. There’s the, there’s the better, best as better bus study. That’s looking at bus stop improvements in Durham, but yeah, you’re right. A lot of folks they don’t want, they don’t want anything crazy. They want a nice bus stop that has a shelter and a trash can and a bench and a paved pan so that they can safely exit the bus via a ramp.

Mary Kate Morookian (31m 19s):
They want to safely push their kids to the bus stop. They want to safely board the bus. Yeah. And then the bus improvements that and good crosswalks. They want to be able to just feel safe in a well lit well marked area. And so just keeping that in mind, you know, it’s, it’s a planners, I think inclination or, or first, first desire to have something special. Like you think this is special. Like this is going to get people excited, but yeah, there are big shiny projects that make people excited, but people are also excited about being able to get home from work on time.

Mary Kate Morookian (31m 59s):
And they’re, they’re excited about having 15 minutes service and they’re excited about having a reliable transit system. So that that’s also been a really important to keep in mind and something that I really learned more about through this process.

Aidil Ortiz (32m 16s):
I think the kindest way I can put it when I look at all the data and all the competing priorities for the money is that people don’t care how they get what they need at the dosage that they need it. Right. They don’t care. So they’re not, they’re kind of agnostic about how we deliver it as long as we deliver it. So, you know, when we think about commuter rail or train or commuter rail or bus people, we’re not like it has to be, this has to be done on a train. They were like, no, no, it just has to get done the 15 minute service, as often as we can get it, the extension on hours, how often we can get it, the increased number of routes, specific routes that need to be developed.

Aidil Ortiz (33m 2s):
Like as long as we achieve it, they’re like, you don’t care how you do it, as long as you do it and cover the cost. Like let’s get across that finish line. So there weren’t any, in my opinion, I didn’t see, at least from the population that I work to focus on, there didn’t seem like this huge rally cry that said, yeah, commuter rail. I think they just want the outcome.

Mary Kate Morookian (33m 25s):
They want to be able to get where they need to go in a reasonable amount of time. So if it’s commuter rail awesome, great. But we want to know, can we get to this place? Can I get there within a reasonable amount of time? Will it be affordable? And I think, I think you’re right. I think it’s also people you talk about paying for it. Folks are ready and willing and want to talk about trade-offs. I remember one of our initial outreach planning sessions that we had, I really liked the way you talked about the budget for the transit plan and communicating it to the engagement ambassadors and communicating it through our surveys, household budgeting.

Mary Kate Morookian (34m 10s):
It’s like everybody has a household budget. If you explain to people. Yeah. We all love shrimp and we all love steak. Can we eat that every night? No, we can have it once a week. So let’s budget for that. Oh, you want to get this new, awesome stove. I’m sitting in ideals, kitchen, looking at her beautiful gilded stove and you want that stove. Okay. Then you might have to wait a few more years to get the nice fridge, by the way, she did get the nice fridge at the same time. So that’s And maybe there’s a chance, but yes, but just communicating that there are trade offs, that there are things that cost more.

Mary Kate Morookian (34m 51s):
If you get them later, versus you can get this now and then wait five years and implement the rest. People, people are smart and people will understand if you are being transparent and sharing, just share what you know, it’s not hard to share what you know, and be ready to listen.

Aidil Ortiz (35m 11s):
There’s a lovely author, Adrian Marie Brown author of emergent strategies. And one of the things that I love in Thompson with her and her team and others who practice this in their community, facilitation work is that, you know, if you trust the people, the people become trustworthy. And this habit, I think of folks to want to play hide and go with more, highly detailed in the weeds kind of stuff. Isn’t helpful. You know, people need to know what the trade-offs are. And I think that because like you just said, right, everyone has to make sacrifices in their household budget. If you want a really nice front porch, maybe you can’t invest in like painting the house that year.

Aidil Ortiz (35m 57s):
Like there’s a bunch of stuff people have to make decisions on. And the transit plan is a different, we have a finite amount of money and different projects, crop cost, different things, and people need to know commuter rail will have costs to other priorities that they have stated if that is how we choose to move forward with the plan. And so I think that that’s the common thing we really strive to be forward about and to let people tell us exactly what they think based on the information. Yep.

Mary Kate Morookian (36m 30s):
That’s a, that’s a good way to put it. So I guess the, the engagement ambassador program was also unique in that it provided folks flexibility. So they didn’t have to show up at a staffed workshop to ask these questions and administer these surveys. Were there any events, or I guess, I don’t know if you call them workshops that were led by engagement ambassadors that you thought you’ll do the best results or

Aidil Ortiz (37m 3s):
No. I mean, people, the

Mary Kate Morookian (37m 5s):
Thing is you helped people learn to use WebEx during

Aidil Ortiz (37m 9s):
Yeah, well, you know, that or zoom or whatever, like I really wanted it to be scrappy and nimble. So it’s like, do you know how to use Google meet? Do you know how to use zoom? Do you know how to use Facebook rooms, whatever, to kind of like get in the pocket with people and have these conversations. We also wanted people to know that like small as all, that’s another Adrian Marie Brown kind of statement from her emergent strategy thing. I think it is typical in our culture to want to like go big or go home when really some of the most nuanced textured and juicy conversations is with like three to five people on a conference call line where you’re going through information together. And that is the freedom that we gave people to choose the format that made sense for them.

Aidil Ortiz (37m 53s):
And people were not doing this for the money. They were getting a stipend, but they weren’t doing it necessarily for the money. The stipend helped during these tough times, I think to have a little extra pocket change. But for the most part, people reached out to their networks and kind of either did there’s this one woman who has a habit of calling the elders in her church community just to make sure they’re okay. And so somebody like touches base with them, especially with COVID when it wasn’t safe to hang out with the elderly population for a year of getting them sick. And she was like, oh, well, I’ll just call it the next time I call all of them. And she literally had one-on-one conversations with every single elderly member of her congregation or that was in her Rolodex. And she already had a habit of doing that.

Aidil Ortiz (38m 35s):
She just this into her practice. And that was really the point that we’re asking people and deputizing them in a way, right. Like authorizing them to fold this into their practice. But we selected people that had a practice of connecting with their neighbors and would have done this, whether we existed or not would have connected with people, whether we existed or not. We were just asking them to be specific with some of their time so that we could yield back this data. And we ultimately just wanted to compensate them for the pleasure of being added to their normal way in practice of being with community.

Mary Kate Morookian (39m 11s):
Yeah. And let them know, Hey, we value your time and thank you so much because what you’re doing is helping. Yeah. So I guess overall,

Aidil Ortiz (39m 24s):
I can see your face.

Mary Kate Morookian (39m 27s):
How has it been to work with, can we Horn the city, the county?

Aidil Ortiz (39m 32s):
Yeah. Well, I’ll say Kimley-Horn specifically has been like a lot more laid back and chill than I think some of the engineers I’ve run across in my day. And so that was a very pleasant surprise because you know, the

Mary Kate Morookian (39m 47s):

Aidil Ortiz (39m 49s):
But engineers as well, you know, I just appreciate that. Y’all have been, I think really open-minded about what it means to communicate this, to lay people who don’t have as much of a transit background as y’all do, obviously. And I feel like I’ve been really respected and the opinions that I’ve gotten a chance to bring to the table about how to share this in a way that allows for community to have a more clear and on the up and up kind of conversation about this, especially because everyone involved quite frankly, was going to have to figure out, right. The communication problem of like differentiating this from what we had already done. And we needed to break away from that old story and explain that this was actually a different process and not rehashing a very sticky wound that people can still feel in Durham, quite frankly, around that much working put into a project.

Aidil Ortiz (40m 41s):
And it not panning out, no matter what your opinion was of the project. I think it’s sad to see anyone go through that much effort and then it not. And we had spent a lot of money. Yeah. Yeah. So just to get to that point and then it didn’t work. So, no, I think that’s been a lot of fun. And in general, I feel like the outreach team and the technical teams has all have also been pretty open. I mean, it’s not been without its hiccups sometimes as, as is the case though, like I’m a bilingual person and whenever you’re trying to translate something, there’s not a linear conversation. It takes some, it’s some trial and error. It takes some doing,

Mary Kate Morookian (41m 21s):
You know, making it more of a conversation. It takes more time, but it definitely, it definitely makes the process more, more valuable, more fruitful. And I, yeah. I mean, when you’re dealing with a large group,

Aidil Ortiz (41m 35s):
It’s no more, too much for their own good, like I’m a public health junkie and people sometimes they’ll be like deal, but you know, you’re a little in the weeds, you know? And so I know I have to come up for air differently and y’all got a chance to hear me say that. So y’all be, it sounds like we don’t know what that means.

Mary Kate Morookian (41m 56s):
No, and that’s, that’s so good. I think that’s been my favorite thing about working with you Aidil is that you don’t pull punches there. And I liked that. I liked that there have been because you make it obvious that, you know, it’s, we have a good communication framework set up, we have a good communication set up, but we also, that also leaves room for, you know, checking, checking each other as professionals working through this. But also I feel like, you know, making it a friendly process has really helped and interacting as people here. I know people

Aidil Ortiz (42m 37s):
I’ve read our old transit plan or not our alternative plan. I read our old chapter on transportation within the comprehensive plan of Durham and people were not actually mentioned in that entire chapter, just the inanimate objects we’re trying to move. Isn’t that wild. So this has been really different. And so question for you is how has this process made you think differently about being a planner and like working in community?

Mary Kate Morookian (43m 5s):
The Durham transit plan is, has been a career changing and perception changing project for me, for sure. Really asking the question, who are we planning this for? And where are they, how do I talk to them? Putting in the extra time, the extra work to make that happen? That’s, that’s been huge for me. I, I always enjoyed public outreach and engagement activities were really, that was my favorite part of the planning process. It still is, but now it’s, it’s been, I’ve go back and I refer to the survey results again and again and again, because we, you know, we work to identify who are the important groups that we are going to track and make sure that we heard enough from persons of color transit riders, people that say they ride every day, how are we going to make sure that’s a different level of accountability, a different level of accountability.

Mary Kate Morookian (44m 9s):
And to then say, before you go out and do the work, say we are going to find these people we’re going to hear from these people. And then we’re going to put what they say into practice saying that, and then having to do it and report on it, report the number of responses that has been really great. And it’s, it’s made a really good product. And I think that we are it’s, it’s made our work just more intentional and really it’s a good, I feel good about the plan. And not that I haven’t felt good about other plans, but I feel more personally connected to the people that we’re planning for.

Mary Kate Morookian (44m 56s):
And it’s, I live in Durham and we’re, we’re planning for Durham. I truly believe that doing engagement in this way. You know, we spend a lot of time on data analysis, identifying the needs, and then asking people that actually use the system. Are these also the needs that you feel and are these the needs that you feel need to be addressed in this order? It’s been nice to have that kind of community check that community validation that I can really feel confident is accurate because of the number of responses we got and the demographically representative responses that we got. And then I’d say another aha moment for me was like I said earlier, it’s not always going to be the shiny project.

Mary Kate Morookian (45m 42s):
Sometimes it’s going to be, we are committed to increasing frequency or having later service. It’s those projects that get the people that you are planning for most excited. Yeah.

Aidil Ortiz (45m 55s):
So what are the next steps on this dag-gone thing?

Mary Kate Morookian (46m 2s):
So, like I said, we had two rounds of outreach. We summarized the second round presented those. You can actually see those on the website. Now, the Durham transit plan website, the next steps are finalizing the preferred scenario. Right now we are testing the financial model. So we are at the nerdiest stage, I’d say of the Durham transit plan. We’re just making sure that through the life of the plan, which is through 2040 all projects, capital operating projects that are being proposed are realistic. Can we actually afford these over the life of the plan based on the revenue projections from the transit sales tax.

Mary Kate Morookian (46m 44s):
So we’re working through that right now and then finalizing the prioritized preferred scenario. So what projects are we going to spend this money on? What, in what years are they going to be implemented? So we’re, we’re just, we’re really close on that. We’re working with the technical team to get that all wrapped up, but we’re close. We’re close. Yeah. How will we have, I guess, how do you envision us having that feedback loop with the engagement ambassadors? I feel like that’s something you’ve said is really important. Yeah.

Aidil Ortiz (47m 20s):
I mean, at this point, you know, when we have that finals stage of engagement, this isn’t just the stage of like doing that final check. Like, is this what you said? How do you think this meets your needs? So it’s less in the weeds because at this point it’s specifics that we’re talking about and not a whole host of lots and lots of options. I would say that this is also an opportunity for us to save. This is what we did with all of the content that y’all brought in at every step I have shared back, like when our staff here have presented in our city and county about the findings of this, like those beautiful slides that you say, you keep going back and referring to, I go back and refer them to them too.

Aidil Ortiz (48m 3s):
And one of the things I did was share them with engagement ambassadors that had been involved in any part of the process to say, here’s what the data said, y’all bang this out. The box, this percentage of these responses came from y’all. So like definitely like celebrating their input on this. So I’ll be doing the same with this next survey saying, here’s what all of this crunching has yielded by the transit professionals that are trying to then say, here are the specific things we’re going to spend and what, when it’s going to be delivered and you know, all that good stuff. So it’s a good option to hear from, to tell them what we did with the work and for them to say yay or nay. And we’ll how they feel about it before we slide into the voting base, all of the bodies that have to do that.

Mary Kate Morookian (48m 52s):
So now that this is kind of wrapping up, this has been a really incredible process, especially to tackle during COVID. What advice would you give peers in other cities that are either currently tackling or are about to undertake a large region, wide planning process like this?

Aidil Ortiz (49m 15s):
Well, I’m already talking to those other states. I can tell you what I tell them, which is that you have to start first with the people that have been traditionally left out of these processes and build your capacity to support that. So hire people from your own community who have already developed trusting and varied relationships with target populations and demographics that you want to make sure are included in your work set aside the resources to do this. You know, part of how I got into this work quite frankly, was because I was really upset at a process that was going on in my own backyard that yielded very poor out like outreach. Like I think less than a dozen people participated and they were compensated quite a sum for that lackluster set of results.

Aidil Ortiz (50m 3s):
And that is what kicked off the city’s request of a framework for equitable engagement. And so I think that if people want to arrive at the end of these processes and arrive at like their local city council or county commission and not have people coming out with pitchforks upset about not knowing or not liking the plan, not knowing the process that they need, start with the end in mind and consider that by prioritizing and resourcing those populations, to have this conversation and see them as partners in design of the survey or the questions or the process and design of the stipend process, the design of who needs to be included in this and really seeing them as partners in a well, a well of knowledge and skill and expertise and community history.

Aidil Ortiz (50m 55s):
You can ameliorate a lot of folks just with that alone. And I think that there’s this bi-directional learning. People need to have a certain humility. I have learned an immense amount from this partnership. So, you know, it’s not, you know, it’s not a one-way street, it’s a two-way street. And I think that the engineers and urban and transit planners need to feel like they’re not seeing the residents, they hope to plan for as insurgents of the communities in which they serve. And I don’t think that they do that consciously, but I think there is a little bit of an us versus them that I see in lots of different processes playing out in different communities and it doesn’t build Goodwill.

Aidil Ortiz (51m 37s):
So start with those who have been hurt the most by past plans, by past development, in a community, by economic disparities and start there, you know, and start with those folks and say, Hey, who, who has that trust already? And let’s get into a conversation with them and see, and every community has these folks, every community, every community has the folks who I’m talking about and who we are. So lucky. We’re part of our process here in Durham. There is no community that is not rich in that asset. It’s do you value those people and center them in your process and invite them into a conversation?

Aidil Ortiz (52m 19s):
That’s honest.

Mary Kate Morookian (52m 21s):
Wow. That’s awesome. Aidil you should write that down. That’s really good. So, well, I think that wraps it up for us. Thanks for your time. Aidil you’re the best. We’re the best.

Aidil Ortiz (52m 36s):

Mary Kate Morookian (52m 37s):
I’m very pregnant right now. So you can find more about the Durham transit [email protected], just click on the transit plan button, and you can see where we are in the process. Previous materials that have been posted on the website and you can contact me, Mary Kate, Morookian at Mary Kate dot Morookian at Kimley-Horn that’s Kimberly K I M L E Y dash Horn dot com.

Aidil Ortiz (53m 7s):
And you can find me on Instagram or LinkedIn. And so on LinkedIn, you can find me at Aidil or teas and Aidil is spelled a I D I L, or teases O R T I Z on Instagram. It is under my company’s name. Idealisms a I D I L I S M S.

Mary Kate Morookian (53m 31s):
Thank you so much.

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