Alexia Underwood is a senior editor at AJ+. Her work has also appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, Guernica, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and VICE.
Locals and officials teamed up in support of inclusivity on BART.
The San Francisco Bay Area’s Rapid Transit System, BART, just rolled out a new poster campaign focused on inclusivity. Its theme is “The Bay Area Rides Together.” One poster features a bunch of hands reaching up; another shows a diverse selection of passengers over the words: “On this train, everyone is welcome.”
But there’s a backstory, and it speaks to how grassroots efforts to create change can make waves, even in major municipal transport systems like BART.
On November 10, 2016, Ivet Lolham, an Iranian-born U.S. citizen, was speaking Assyrian on the phone during a BART ride when another passenger verbally harassed her. A woman accused Lolham of being an “ugly pig” and a “Middle Eastern terrorist” who will “probably get deported.” When another passenger attempted to step in to mediate, the woman told the passenger to “shut the fuck up.” Lolham posted a video of the encounter to Facebook, where it went viral.
Her story is not especially anomalous. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 1,094 similar incidents across the country in the month after the presidential election. A recent study from California State University San Bernardino’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism indicates that in many major urban areas, hate crimes jumped by 13 percent last year. But incidents like this one on BART—which carries 433,000 riders each weekday—struck a chord.
Residents took action. Back in December, an anonymous author installed a series of unofficial posters that had been designed to look like official BART announcements. “Racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia are prohibited on the BART system at all times,” the no-holds-barred signs proclaimed. “Get your shit together.”
Then, in January, four Bay Area locals started a crowdfunded poster campaign to teach riders how to respond to Islamophobic and xenophobic incidents on public transit. Hanako Asakura, who lives in Albany, across the bay from San Francisco, heard about a Muslim student who was harassed on BART in a similar way. Asakura’s husband was teaching at a university in San Francisco, and some of his international students had expressed that they didn’t feel welcome any longer and were afraid of being deported. She wondered if an etiquette campaign could help riders throughout the metro system. She emailed a few friends about her idea, who in turn reached out to others.
Asakura’s timing was particularly good. Her neighbors Alene Pearson, Kathleen Wilson, and their friend Lea Grundy had just participated in a local demonstration to support inclusivity in Oakland, but had left feeling bereft. Wilson received the email from Asakura shortly after. “We walked away frustrated, saying, people are here, but what does it really do? And what can we really do? I looked at this email and thought, here’s something we can do,” Wilson says.
“As a city planner and as someone who works in transportation, I feel like … we pay a lot for public transit, and public transit should be safe for everybody. This issue really resonated with me,” Pearson says. The four women started meeting at 7 a.m. on Wednesdays at a coffee shop in Albany to discuss a possible course of action for BART.
Asakura reached out to Marie-Shirine Yener (who goes by Maeril), a French illustrator who had made a widely shared comic strip instructing bystanders on what do when they witnessed Islamophobic harassment. The simple illustrations suggest engaging the person being targeted in conversation, or escorting that person to a safer place. Maeril agreed to let Asakura use the comic strip for public transit posters.
The group set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to print 35 poster-sized versions of the comic strip. In about a month, 71 people—from states including Alabama, California, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Ohio—had pitched in to donate a total of $2,700. Then the group set its sights on installing the posters on trains.
Grundy spoke to the BART Board in early January. After explaining why they wanted to buy ad space for the posters, she advocated for the mass public transit system to do something bigger. “We told them we wanted a more widespread campaign,” she says.
The BART Board president Rebecca Saltzman said she had been thinking along the same lines. The same day Lea spoke to the board, Saltzman put out her own proposal for a wider inclusivity campaign on the rapid transit system.
Saltzman was very supportive of their poster campaign, Grundy says, and even went so far as to circulate the crowdfunding campaign page to her friends and ask people to donate.
Pearson thinks that their citizen-run campaign had an effect on the BART board. She says BART thanked them for sharing the research that Asakura had done on similar campaigns in other cities. “I hope we helped expedite their project,” Pearson says.
While BART encourages passengers to use the emergency phones in trains and report incidents to BART police, the system’s new campaign aims to stop these incidents before they escalate. “I wanted to make it very clear that people are welcome on BART, and anybody can ride, but we need to be respectful of each other,” Saltzman tells me.
In late January, the organization tweeted: “All races, colors, religions, genders, ages, disabled, veterans, orientations, sexes and those of foreign national origin are welcome on BART.” With more than 8,000 likes and 3,380 retweets, BART officials say it’s one of their most popular social media posts to date.
For their part, the group behind the crowdfunded posters feel like they helped give people a positive way to combat xenophobic harassment. “It’s a stressful situation to find yourself in and you might freeze,” says Wilson. “That was the appeal of the cartoon: the idea of going up to the person being attacked, engaging them in conversation. It turned the tables.”
Grundy says she heard from friends in Cincinnati and Philadelphia who wanted to try similar campaigns, and asked that she send resources and materials their way. “I think we all reinforced each other. In this situation, those small actions that we take are part of a larger resistance,” she says.
And for Asakura, who was harassed and called names when she was a child for being Japanese, the motivation is also personal. Her neighbors are Muslim, and she doesn’t want their child to go through the same thing. “I wanted to defend this kid,” she said. “This can’t still be happening.”