Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

At the Intersection of Race and Transportation

Honors: Transportation and Race, an interdisciplinary honors seminar course from the School of Engineering’s Dr. Rita Lederle and the School of Education’s Dr. Aura Wharton-Beck, has been a draw for students looking to analyze the implementation of racist policies that have impacted communities of color in the United States from the lens of two different fields of study.

Educational Leadership Professor Dr. Aura Wharton-Beck, left, and Engineering Professor Dr. Rita Lederle stand together at the Rondo Commemorative Plaza in St. Paul. The historic Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul serves as one of many topics within a curriculum created by the two professors exploring the intersection of race and transportation.

In discussing the intersection of race and transportation, the class studied St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, a majority Black community, largely demolished by the construction of Interstate 94 between 1956-68.

Lederle said it’s important to look at what happened to the Rondo community, and similar situations, from multiple perspectives.

“From one standpoint it’s really easy to vilify the engineers,” she said. “For the longest time engineers were not trained to think about people at all. You could just be told to design a highway bridge and you would have zero information about the community it was in. Some decisions are motivated by engineering concerns, but there are multiple stories on all sides of the issue.”

Wharton-Beck echoed this sentiment in talking about the relevance the course has for students. “Dr. Lederle has her engineering lens, I’m bringing the arts and literature into the conversation, along with our passion for equity and social justice, to teach a class on something that’s relevant to both our disciplines,” said Wharton-Beck.

“It is important to look at how, in America, our racist policies continue to affect racial minorities to this day,” said Samantha Nordmark ‘21, a member of ROTC who graduated as a commissioned officer in the Air Force. Nordmark said the honors seminar has given her a new perspective.

“After taking this class I’m going to be able to look at neighborhoods through a different lens,” she said. “I will look at a neighborhood and ask what is the population? What is the demographic? What is the history and how did it become the way it is? What is still oppressing certain groups of people and how can we combat that? The class stimulates so much agency and thinking outside of your own perspective. For me being a white female, I have a lot of privilege but I’m going to use my privilege and my agency to make something happen in the government and be an ally.”

This story is featured in the spring 2022 issue of St. Thomas Engineer.

Next in St. Thomas Engineer