The case for Black History Month…

By Nadine Lacombe, General Counsel

I am the RTA’s General Counsel and the first woman of African descent to hold this position (something that truthfully I‘d never considered until now).  When I was first approached about writing this piece, I wasn’t sure what to say. I mean, yes, I’m Black and it’s Black History Month.  And yes, I work in transit alongside lots of other dedicated African-American professionals – on our Board of Directors, within the executive staff and at all tiers of the region’s four agencies.  But I wasn’t sure I had anything to say that would be appropriate to a workplace blog.

How could I be uplifting without trivializing history?  And does the world really need another feel-good post about Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman or Garrett Morgan (the guy who invented the stoplight)?  Not that these aren’t supremely inspiring, important history makers.  Their courage, and that of so many others like them, is unparalleled and deserves to be lauded again and again.  But when we reduce Black History Month to the same awesome laundry list of Black heroes, have we done all of the ”ordinary” folks who built this country a disservice?  So why celebrate Black History Month at all?

My private thoughts (not so private now) are that I’m Black and celebrate my ancestry every day.  Our history is far too vast to be relegated to a single month of the year.  And most importantly, celebrating Black History Month doesn’t get us off the hook, collectively, for the hard work that continues to be essential to reach racial equity.  Black History Month sometimes feels like it has become a really lame apology for injustices that persist despite the passage of time and all of the wonderful accomplishments it celebrates.  And now, especially now, with divisions so palpable in our country, the thought of having to reiterate, again and again what our heritage has meant to the history of America sometimes seems like adding insult to injury.  Last, it does so very little to move the needle on racism.  But is that the point of Black History Month?

Black History Month originated as Negro History Week in the early 1900s by Harvard trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, in conjunction with an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by people of African descent.  The timing was selected to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  The weeklong commemoration became a movement that eventually led to a nationally recognized month.  It was first officially designated by a U.S. President in 1976, with Gerald Ford calling it an “opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”  So there it is.  The point is to remember, celebrate and honor.  Even a cynic (all lawyers are cynics at heart; even if we weren’t born that way) like me can find something beautiful and worthwhile in that.

I am fortunate to work in an environment that is rich with diversity throughout the organization.  Three of the eight members of the RTA’s senior executive staff are women of color and 75% are women.  The RTA’s Director of Human Resources, Julia Patterson, is an African-American woman.  I am an immigrant and a woman of color, who speaks English as a second language.  I serve not only as General Counsel but also as the RTA’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Officer.  It is our responsibility and honor to look out for the interests of others.  When problems arise, we don’t overreact, but we do act. We reverse the course of injustices (whether well-intended or not) that might otherwise go unnoticed by others.  Our presence in these roles still matters.

So I want to take this opportunity to celebrate and honor African-Americans that have dedicated their careers to transit.  The CTA’s President, Dorval Carter, is an African-American attorney.  The Chairman of CTA’s Board of Directors, Terry Peterson, and the most recent U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, are also Black.  The RTA Board of Directors approves the region’s multibillion dollar budget and four of its members are African-American.  In addition to being members of our Board, Directors Anthony Anderson, Michael Lewis, Christopher Melvin and J.D. Ross have excelled in careers in finance, higher education, banking and accounting and each serves our community by personally supporting philanthropic and artistic endeavors.  Their diverse perspectives matter in how services are delivered in the region.

I could go on and on about the many leaders in our industry, but these are just a few who directly impact the daily lives of millions of local residents.  How many children ride the ‘L’ or the bus to school every day and have no idea that decisions are made on their behalf, in part, by African-Americans?  Maybe knowing these stories would inspire some to see a career in transportation in their own futures.  Honoring these ‘ordinary’ heroes is why Black History Month still matters.  It is a celebration of progress and invention; of art and culture; of family and migration; of survival and dogged perseverance.  Yes, some of these things were borne out of suffering, but they are all positive and worthy of tribute, each and every year.

As the RTA’s chief legal counsel, Nadine provides advice regarding regulatory compliance and statutory powers and requirements, oversees litigation, contracting, the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program and coordinates the drafting and adoption of ordinances and resolutions by the RTA Board. She has over 20 years of legal experience. Most recently, she served as General Counsel of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, the agency overseeing all of the State’s administrative functions. Additionally, Nadine was an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney for ten years and later held positions with the Illinois Department of Transportation, the law firms of Sidley Austin, LLP, Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, LLP, as Global Director of Diversity, and as a municipal finance attorney with Chapman and Cutler, LLP. 

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