How Can Nerds Signal Intersectionality?

Transport Oakland consistently self-identifies as “a bunch of transportation nerds”. We use the word “nerd” across our communications, and at our very first victory party, Mayor-Elect Schaaf proclaimed to our cheering volunteers that “the nerds [had] won.” Why are we drawn to this word, and what does it say about us that we may not intend?

Why words matter

Most of the negative stigma around “nerd” reaches back to high school, so for those of us with that experience, seeing it used as a positive can be thrilling: We’re taking it back! Partially we’re using this term to enjoy some winking self-deprecation, but mostly we’re using it for self-promotion. Positioning ourselves as nerds suggests that by our nature as detail-oriented obsessives, our participation is therefore essential. But we’re also implying that policy is capable of having absolute truths, or that better outcomes can be achieved through intellect alone. If we’re as smart as we think we are, we must acknowledge that neither of these implications is true.

We also have to ask ourselves, who gets to be a nerd? Transport Oakland’s claim is driven by the majority of our board and volunteers that are formally educated in city or transportation planning. UC Berkeley’s Masters of City Planning program (of which I’m an alum) costs over $24,000 a year in fees, excluding Bay Area rent, the cost of living, or the loss of regular income for those two years. This figure also doesn’t consider the time spent volunteering or working low-wage internships that must pad your resume to even get into graduate school. Even with innate talent and a supportive family, the experience of Ahmed Mohamed (“the boy with the clock”) and others illustrate other more insidious barriers to being a nerd.

Rather than celebrating our privileges, we should be asking ourselves: who doesn’t have the time to pour over planning documents, or attend the meetings of multiple public agencies, or monitor staffing implementations? Intentional or not, if we establish barriers like these around Transport Oakland, how can we hope to meet even the most modest equity goals, let alone close the investment gap between historically advantaged and disadvantaged communities?

What we want to signal

The potential consequences of this language choice are clear: We’ll discourage potential volunteers from seeking us out, and we’ll lose allies who see us as patronizing and detached.

Transport Oakland relies on volunteers to interview candidates, recommend endorsements, monitor policy implementation, host events, and much more. Just as employers are beginning to reevaluate the relevance of academic degrees in hiring, we too need to carefully consider what skills are actually essential to this work. You don’t need a masters degree to know what better transit, walking, or biking looks like. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree to be thoughtful, creative, empathetic, or kind. It is our duty to ensure we don’t use language that feeds the imposter syndrome of a potential volunteer who knows and cares about Oakland’s transportation.

Transport Oakland also relies on organizational and political allies for mentoring and collaborative campaigns. We wouldn’t be where we are without our colleagues and friends at TransForm, Bike East Bay, WOBO, the City of Oakland, BART, AC Transit, and several others. Branding ourselves as nerds has signaled our value to these current partners, but who else we can learn from? How can we better signal our value to other potential partners whose values align with ours? We must be clear with ourselves and our potential partners that our privilege doesn’t pick our goals – we want to decide on goals collaboratively, and then apply our range of skills to achieve them.

In these ways, our language has preventing us from thinking about (and appearing to think about) intersectionality. Instead of exalting nerds, how can we embrace all the passions and desires that don’t get affectionately classified as nerdy? No one would say “I’m a nerd about getting my kids to school on time” or “I’m a nerd about feeling safe waiting for the bus,” but those are exactly the challenges that Transport Oakland needs to accept.

Looking forward

It’s still ok that some of us enjoy spreadsheets, analysis, and meetings, but we need to challenge ourselves to see these as the privileges they are, and apply them to bring livability, vitality, sustainability, and equity to nerds and non-nerds in Oakland.

If any of this sounds appealing, we’re looking for volunteers and allies. Help us understand what you feel strongly about, what you’d like to do, or what you’d like to see us do together, and let’s get to work.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons