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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Spotlight: Carla Mays

Carla Mays recently participated in an all-Black pilot cohort for our new program, Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out. In this interview, Carla shares her experience.

This interview has been edited and shortened for readability


Hi Carla! Nice to meet you. Can you tell us about yourself and your work?

Yes, I developed Smart Cohort with David Capelli, and we foster trans-pacific dialogue on how transportation infrastructure is designed, governed, financed, and built for a more equitable and disaster-resilient world. We do a lot of work with equity research, municipalities, and with public sector folks. This includes a lot of original research and field study, as well as a lot of convenings in the U.S. and around the world. We’re dealing with a lot of rooted inequities in the way things are done in transportation and housing.

We look at this work as the urban kibbutz, much like when Israel was founded; using the urban kibbutz to survive, and understanding that in a modern sense with housing and transportation. We use a lot of the Jewish tenets of community — being able to be self-sufficient in the economic workforce and economic development.

Can you tell me about the Dismantling Racism From the Inside Out Va’ad / cohort you’re in with The IOWA Project?

It’s a Black cohort of Jews of Color, really dealing with how to navigate being Jewish in a community where we may not be accepted. What is it to deal with and navigate some of the inequalities, and be able to really look at and acknowledge what’s happened? How is it to be in different spaces? How can we be fully present, and understand Jewish text around the inequalities and things we’ve experienced? How do we deal with that?

It’s great to be in such good company. This community is filled with people like me—they’ve gone to graduate school, they’re in circumstances where they’re trying to advocate for others. Some folks in the cohort are social workers, they’re teachers. I’m more on the urban planning and policy side. We’re doing this work and a lot of times we’re in community where it’s challenging on a lot of different fronts. We’re Black and we’re Jewish. There are times where multiple identities are going on at once. It’s just wonderful to be in a space where we can tell the things we’ve been afraid to talk about, or that we don’t have an opportunity to address.

You’re naming community here. Are there ways this community has been able to support you so far?

Yes. I would say the first part is just hearing folks at the same level—we’re all professionals in what we do, and it’s good to be able to be honest with what we’re challenged with every day. And to hear other people and then to be heard, and for them to understand.

We’ve all had different kinds of Jewish experiences, and that’s welcomed too. I grew up in Los Angeles. My earlier life was very Jewish. When I was born, there was a little certificate that I came home from the hospital with, and it was pink and had a Star of David, had my baby name and everything. And that was something that I belonged to—this is me. When I moved to San Francisco, it was different. In Los Angeles, I always grew up as a Jew of Color, but we didn’t call it that—we were just Jewish. I saw other Black people, and other Latinos. Even Mayor Garcetti is Jewish—he’s a Mexican Jew. It wasn’t something that was unique, that’s just how it is in LA.

But in the Bay area, it is. Anytime I would be needing something or wanting to do something, it was like I was trying to be something. I remember when I was at one organization, they said, Tell us your Jewish story. And, Oh, that’s nice, so you’re really trying to be one of us. Every time I needed something, it was like, Oh, you’re taking something that’s not for you. And I’ve gotten that a lot; when I started my organization, as I tried to get grants, when I tried to get a job, or when I tried to contribute in any way.

We tried like hell in the early bits of Smart Cohort to work with various organizations, and it just wasn’t seen as Jewish enough, and that had to do with me being Black. I was talking about things that weren't traditionally Black. So we ended up becoming much more secular, not because I didn’t want it to go that way, but because the community was not accepting. I began to do the work differently; it wasn’t that we didn’t still have Jewish tenets and that we weren’t deep in it, we just had to go a different route.

So this group—other people have experienced that. There’s lived experience in that. They’ve experienced this, and they’ve tried to navigate it. There are a lot of folks in the group like I said, that are teachers, social workers, others, that have tried to advocate and gotten Why are you doing this? Why are you in this position? You’re not really Jewish. You’re not really a Jew. And this is coming from within the community. We’re challenged with that in our work. We’re challenged with it in our faith.

How has the cohort, so far, impacted your work?

It validated all of it. Everything I’m sharing with you came out of the cohort. There were a lot of people of color who were overly trying to be Jewish. They understood Torah like the back of their hand. They went full throttle. They made sure you couldn’t see any cracks in the veneer. There wasn’t a validation of you just being you, and that these struggles exist. It was more, Yeah they exist, and you just need to be a better Jew. You need to do these things and you need to try harder, or You need to go through the tortures of the damn, and whatever is going on is to be expected, and these other folks are gonna come along when they come along. Or it’s a situation where people just kind of gripe and are upset about it.

In our cohort, it's like, no, Let’s talk about what’s going on for you. We do a lot of journaling. We do a lot of reading that’s relevant for what we’re going through. And then being able to use text and other things to be able to find faith, and find strength to be able to deal with the circumstances.


What’s sitting with you right now?

There’s so much. I’m very taken with it. It’s really something to be part of this cohort. I get a lot out of the whole project, and so much connection. We have the wisdom, and being able to really look at the course materials by the facilitation team. Yehudah and Jessica—the two of them together; the masculine, the feminine, and being able to balance that. What I’m getting more out of this is self-care, and the balance of care framework. It’s so different. It’s different when you’re able to talk about what is and then look at how you’ve reacted to it. I look at my own behavior—it’s enabled me to be better with myself. It really is a radical thing to not have to be on, even when you’re trying to get spiritual guidance or be in Jewish settings where you’re trying to get some peace. You still have to be fighting to try to be in that space, which is something that we address a lot in the program. You have a right to be Jewish and be in community. You have a right to this. And then understanding how you come to it, and understanding what it is like to be a racialized person, and what that entails even in the care of yourself and how you act and how you act towards others.

It’s been really deep, on a level that I didn’t expect. It’s like no other. I’m one of the people that has taken a lot of Jewish programs. This took it to another level. We’re in there dealing with things that I am personally dealing with. It’s beautiful to go through that and understand their practice, and understand how I can come to it, and that I don’t have to be perfect, and that I can be just where I am. And a lot of people are in different places with their relationship to Judaism. It gives a framework for people who are novices all the way to people who are deeply engaged with Torah and scripture.

What has this space meant for you?

I personally do the learnings, do the journaling, do the practices, and participate when we get together. I use the space as a part of resting and healing. It’s a very Western idea that we’re going to get together and there’s got to be some kind of resolution. There’s a lot of wisdom to soak up and it’s kind of radical for a Black person just to be with other Black people. It’s the first time I come to a space where I don’t have to be something. I don’t have to be smart. I don’t have to be proving something. I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. I’m there, and I’m happy about that.

As a Black Jewish person, you can’t even go to shul—folks are already thinking, Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish enough? You can’t just go there, entering a time of rest and contemplation. That’s not what this space has been. To be able to just listen in this cohort; I like listening to Yehudah and Jessica, and then I can really absorb what’s being offered. And that’s new. This program is not like other racial justice programs. You’re getting a chance to be just you. And just work on how this spiritually enhances you, and how do we move forward as a people? That’s a different thing.

How have you seen this show up in your day-to-day life?

I’ve been a lot gentler on myself. I don’t need to do so much. I can actually be there a little bit more and I can listen a little bit better. Because normally you’re trying to think of things, constantly. And then really understanding what are the things that I’ve been doing to deal with overcoming that, and how do I pass that on and do that to other people. Dismantling racism and dismantling these things requires you to stop doing it. Everybody contributes in their own way, right? When we’re talking, it calls it out. And when we’re going through these exercises, it calls it out. And then you see, oh, That’s how this is showing up for me. It’s an ah-ha!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I just hope it continues. I get kind of sad thinking that we only have a few more sessions to go. So I’m hoping this is something that can continue because it’s been an amazing experience. It’s been so revolutionary in the way Yehudah and Jessica have been bringing this together. I really want to continue this, and I want others to know. I’m happy for all of these online programs because there hasn’t really been anything in the Bay area or the West Coast. I’ve been going to more JOC stuff online during the pandemic than I ever participated in before, and I’m just so grateful for it to be online. That is one thing that’s come out of this pandemic, is getting to know people across demographics and across geographies. So I’ve just been really excited to meet people because here in San Francisco, it’s been really devoid of it. And especially at this level; it’s not strictly the old DEI way of dealing with it. I’m hoping that whoever is funding the project will continue to fund this work, and really get behind Yehudah and Jessica with this and that we'll see this program grow and grow. I look forward to participating in more of this kind of programming, because it’s so needed.

It’s programs like this that help us to be able to stay in the community and be able to survive the community. It has been very, very rewarding. It has been so helpful and I’m so grateful for it.


Carla Mays has 12 years of experience serving as senior advisor to many US and international leaders in public and private sector agencies and companies on designing equitable digital and disaster strategy, planning, research and analysis in times of crisis, recovery and for closing digital and transportation divides.

She has been leading pracademic longitudinal smart cities and transportation equity field research in Singapore, Hawaiian Islands, United States, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria with #SmartCohort, and presenting research and workshops to international audiences on digital and transportation equity in public sector integration.

Coordinated with North American public administrators and community leaders to implement and address applicable laws, codes and regulations related to digitization, extreme weather and climate at the intersections of engineering, planning, governance, digital transformation, finance, and social equity in disaster mitigation and resilience, including establishing procedural guidelines, preparing correspondence and reports; implementing accurate record keeping and digital systems for logistics, shelter and care during San Diego Firestorms, 2017 North San Francisco Bay Firestorm, Hurricanes (Irma, Maria, and Douglas), and COVID-19 Pandemic.

Mays is an alum of the BA/Master of Public Administration (MPA) from San Francisco State University, specialization Urban Management (2006), did Post-Graduate work in Emergency Management from California State University, Long Beach (2007) and is a Graduate of Executive Business Program, University of California, Berkeley at the Walter Haas School of Business (2014). She is currently in the San Jose State University Mineta Transportation Institute - InterCity & High Speed Rail Program (2022). Noted Fellowships: Urban Land Institute - San Francisco, San Francisco Resiliency CORO Fellow - COVID-19, Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) Fellow.


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