As Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has highlighted how the nation’s infrastructure has underserved—or entirely cut off—low-income and minority communities, he’s now turned to Stephanie Jones to make sure his department corrects those wrongs. A veteran of the White House, Capitol Hill, and the National Urban League Policy Institute, Jones is now the DOT’s “chief opportunities officer,” the first such official in the government. Jones spoke to Jason Plautz about her role, and how to change decades of thinking at a federal agency.
You’ve got a unique title. What does your role entail?
My job is to help the secretary make sure that all of the work that the department is doing in connection with opportunities and inclusion permeates through the department, that everyone is thinking along those lines and it’s coordinated well and is sustainable. This is not a one-off; this is not something we do as a separate project. It’s infused into everything we do at the department. I’ve worked in government off and on for years, but I wasn’t aware of how hard it is, especially in a large department, to shift the way things are done. It’s not because people aren’t receptive or that they don’t want to do it; it’s often that they don’t know how. So one of the things we’re doing is integrating this into the expectations of the department.
How does transportation intersect with opportunity?
We haven’t always thought, at least consciously, about the connection between transportation and opportunity. We think about it when we talk about housing or jobs, but we don’t really think about how important transportation is to both connect people to opportunities [and] to improve their own communities. When transportation is done right, it helps to bring jobs to communities, and it helps to revitalize communities when you have transportation options. When I say options, I don’t just mean good transit, good bus service, but also safe passageways to bike, to walk—all the infrastructure in our community that makes a community better.
The DOT’s LadderSTEP program is working with seven cities on infrastructure projects that can impact communities. How can this pilot create a model for future projects?
We started thinking about how can we use the department’s leverage and institutional knowledge and technical assistance to help communities get to the next level where they’re trying to go. Are there projects they’re working on where they need some help—not necessarily financing, but our expertise or just our being at the table to attract other people to the table and give them more clout? Baltimore is a great example. We were right there in West Baltimore, and we didn’t have to start from scratch. If you’ve been there, you see how this community was completely disconnected. It really is a highway to nowhere that plowed through a community.
You’re talking about changing a way of thinking that’s been around for decades, with structures that are literally made of concrete. How do you reverse years of this thinking?
It takes time, and we’re not going to get it all done before we leave. A lot of this is making sure that every decision we make going forward not only ensures our new projects are done the right way, but constantly looking at how to correct past wrongs. A lot of projects have reached the end of their life cycle, and they need to be replaced or they need to be upgraded. So as we’re doing that, let’s not just patch it together, let’s not build another off-ramp or patch the concrete, but can we fix it in a way that will be of great benefit to the residents. I think it’s very revolutionary for a secretary to talk about these kinds of things. … It’s beyond saying, “Mistakes were made.” He’s saying, “We didn’t do things right and here’s how to fix it.”
You’re the only chief opportunities officer in the government. Could other departments use someone with your title?
I think that would be great. It’s an issue that is very cross-cutting; it’s not just at DOT. One thing that’s important about this position and this title is that it’s not the chief diversity officer; it’s not the chief civil rights officer. It’s not segmented into an area that can sometimes get marginalized.
What is the difference between “opportunities” and civil rights or diversity?
When we’re looking at opportunities, we’re looking at an overall improvement of people’s lives. … They work hand in hand, but it is critical for people to understand that civil rights is a component of opportunities, but not the same thing.
Will this carry into the next administration?
I think so; I hope so. I think it will help make any administration more successful, because if you’re serving people and you’re including them and having a positive impact on their communities, it’s to everyone’s benefit.