Community Empowerment Activist (CEA) Isabel Tayag writes in this week’s blog on the issue of Transit Justice. Through her work with the South of Market Community Action Network, she details her experience in advocacy and organizing for collective benefit, especially those most vulnerable.
This past year I was honored to work on a Transit Justice Campaign with the South of Market Community Action Network, SOMCAN. My journey started by collecting and reading postcards from residents and Muni riders about why they opposed fare increases for Muni rides yet again. Counting, reading, and coding these postcards was tedious to say the least. Nonetheless I learned so much from the words and stories on those 1000+ cards I read.
People in this city are struggling— adults worry about how they are going to put food on the table, pay bills, and keep a roof over their family’s head. Their children are cognizant of these struggles as well. For those fortunate enough not to be concerned about the ever rising Muni fare increases, their responses expressed solidarity with those who’s daily lives are impacted, with those who sneak on to Muni without paying because they need the last six dollars in their pocket to buy dinner after a long shift. I found myself inspired to work on the transit campaign because of everything I read on those post cards.
After collecting data, our campaign began organizing amongst community members and leaders. We held a rally on Market Street demanding free Muni and no fare increases—one of my favorite moments of the campaign. I helped run community meetings in SOMA and the Excelsior district where we planned our next steps. Then we began attending the SFTMA Board of Director meetings. I still remember my first public comment, I was shaking but I pushed through my little speech. In fact that moment really solidified my dream of becoming a lawyer—there is power in words and there is power in speaking up for those who don’t have the privilege to be able to attend a SFTMA Board meeting at the top of the Uber building at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. As I continued to attend those meetings I became more and more frustrated with the process; I felt our words and demands were going in one ear and out the other.
At one point, their proposed budget seemed to actually give in a bit— they adopted free Muni for youth, for those experiencing homelessness, and chose not to increase the $3.00 cash fare. I was happy and felt like we had gotten a small victory. Then my mentors at SOMCAN reminded me that they were simply placating us, throwing us a bone rather than actually creating a budget that reflected what we were asking for. In response to our demands for no fare increases across all payment options, the board continued with the same old “how will we pay for it?”, a response eerily similar to what our politicians in Washington say to us about universal healthcare, college debt relief, and reoccurring stimulus checks during this pandemic. Yet no one asks how we will fund the military, prisons and jails, or the trillions of dollars that were piped into the stock market at the begging of shelter in place orders.
What I’ve learned from my work on the campaign and throughout this pandemic is that politics is all about priorities. If we, low-income and working class riders, were a priority for the SFMTA Board then they easily could have designed a budget that reflected our needs rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those who depend on public transportation the most. During the last online board meeting which lasted 4 hours, I was completely heartbroken as the board unanimously passed a budget that raised fares once again. The months of hard work SOMCAN had put seemed to be for nothing, but with reflection I realized our work had meant something. Our outspoken opposition was an important step towards true transit justice. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors supported our campaign to freeze fair increases with a 10-1 vote, we brought more public attention to the budget process, and we made our voices and presence known to the SFMTA Board of Directors. I hope that this campaign continues as I truly believe San Francisco has the capacity for free Muni for all residents as transit is a human right!