Portrait of a meeting: communities glad to have a voice, on issues large and small


Portrait of a meeting: communities glad to have a voice, on issues large and small

By Melissa Jordan
BART Senior Web Producer

Wind whipped umbrellas inside-out Wednesday night as BART began a series of 17 meetings reaching out to minority, low-income and limited-English-speaking communities – all a part of San Francisco’s diverse Tenderloin neighborhood, where one of the first meetings was held. 

In an eighth-floor hotel conference room, BART meeting organizers worried that weather would affect turnout, as they prepared headsets for translation services, set up welcome signs and helped apologetic hotel staff place buckets to catch a couple of leaks where rain dripped from the ceiling.

The worries faded as each elevator brought up more and more people, who streamed inside and filled up the couple of dozen square tables set around the room.  Some sampled the pineapple, melon, cheese and crackers on the refreshment table, and warmed up with a cup of tea. A facilitator opened the meeting welcoming everyone and laying out the ultimate goal: “We want to reach out to your community.”

The audience was attentive and reserved during the introductory remarks, with just a low rumble audible in waves as translators for tables of Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian speakers shared the information.  But as the conversation moved to specific questions – with a facilitator writing the responses on a long sheet of paper stretching across the wall – the hands shot up, and answers came quickly.

What is the best way for BART to get information to you, when making major decisions on issues such as fare increases and schedule changes?

A translator checked in with her table, heads nodding in the group, and shared that – foremost – they wanted information available in their native language. In addition, they felt that an impersonal bulk mailing might not be effective, in any language.

"It will go to the bottom of a pile of mail and they may not open it at all," the translator said. A better technique, one person suggested, would be working with community organizations so that a phone call or visit might come from a trusted source, a person with whom a relationship is already established.

Or, someone suggested, attend existing community events – not only the well-known major cultural festivals, where BART already is generally represented, but smaller activities in the day-to-day fabric of people’s lives. The Chinatown Renters’ Association meets the last Sunday of each month with hundreds of people, and would welcome a presentation from BART, one man suggested, through the translator for his table. He smiled and made the hand-to-mouth gesture of eating heartily, with the translator explaining that BART visitors would be treated to refreshments there, as well.

The facilitator asked about the setup of Wednesday’s community meeting – was it convenient, was it easy to come, was it working out well?

Through a translator one woman recommended: Try using one large circular or U-shaped table instead, to foster togetherness, a feeling of all being one. The multiple small tables, with one speaker in the front of the room, created division, not harmony.  Her suggestion went on the wall chart.

The facilitator asked how many people used email; a few hands went up. How many were on social networks such as Facebook? Still only a few. One participant, neighborhood resident Aaron Thomas, suggested that BART hold "webinar" or online meetings for community input.

"It’s convenient; you can do it from your home," said Thomas, who found out about the meeting from a mailer.  He was aware the focus of this meeting was outreach to underrepresented groups, however, he said he felt welcomed to participate and that it is important for everyone with a stake in public transportation to get involved in the process.

Pauline Ken, a Cambodian interpreter who had attended another of the BART community meetings in Richmond earlier that day, said participants were appreciative of the opportunity to be heard.
"Public transportation is very important" for limited-English-proficiency speakers and low-income people, she said. "They need it to get around."

Singpheng Siharath, speaking through a Laotian interpreter, said after the meeting that he rides BART frequently and was glad he could attend the meeting.

“It was my first time coming to a meeting like this,” he said. “It was a good experience.”

Asked to name one thing BART could do to serve him better, he offered two: requesting that train announcements, such as upcoming stops, be made in different languages; and that even if announcements must be made in English only, that the announcers speak more slowly.  "They speak so fast," he said. "It is hard to understand."

Nali Phommavong, the Laotian interpreter, said the people at her table were very engaged in the discussion and glad to have a voice. "They are excited about coming to the next meeting," she said. "They want to be involved and they will be there."

Roddrick Lee, BART’s division manager of local government and community relations, acknowledged that some are skeptical of the big meeting push, believing it is solely in response to a recent Federal Transit Administration (FTA)  finding of some deficiencies in BART’s outreach to minorities, low-income populations and limited English speakers under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The community's confidence will be gained as BART creates improved, sustained processes for outreach and public participation, he said.
After this series of 17 meetings, all the feedback will be analyzed and a draft Public Participation Plan will be developed. BART teams will make community visits again – presenting the draft plan and refining outreach efforts based on what was learned from the first round. Then a final plan will be compiled and submitted to the FTA.

Singpheng Siharath plans to be there. And you might even see some U-shaped tables.

Learn more about the outreach efforts and get a full schedule of all the community meetings. While attending a meeting is preferred, if you cannot attend, you can take an online survey to give your thoughts.