The late American politician Shirley Chisholm said, “You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines. . . . You make progress by implementing ideas.”
For nearly 50 years, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) has been implementing effective ideas by leveling the playing field and maximizing participation in the transportation industry for minorities, businesses, and communities of color. And they have accomplished this through advocacy, networking, training, education, and professional development.
“COMTO is many things to many people, but ultimately, it’s about the power of the network,” explains COMTO president and CEO Julie Cunningham. Leading COMTO since 2001, Cunningham draws on a vast array of professional experience — which includes serving on President Obama’s transition team at the U.S. Department of Transportation. “If you’re an individual, our network facilitates opportunities for professionals of every level. If you’re a small business, COMTO connects you with transportation projects across the country. Whether you’re a person of color or not — COMTO members are not all people of color — COMTO uses the power of our network to bring unparalleled benefits to individuals, major corporations, public agencies, and small businesses.”
Founded in 1971 on the campus of Howard University, COMTO was created “to address the inequities of a rapidly expanding industry within which its minority workers, upon whose shoulders the industry was built, were not allowed the same access to employment, promotion, and contract opportunities.” True to its founding vision, COMTO has since expanded its mandate.
Boasting 39 chapters across the country, COMTO includes individuals, organizations, transportation agencies, nonprofits, and historically underutilized businesses (HUBs) as members. In addition, COMTO represents the entire transportation industry, providing multimodal reach into virtually every transportation sector. But COMTO functions effectively on a number of critical levels. Cunningham explains.
“On a local level, chapters are our grassroots connection to our members, businesses, and agencies. Chapters are also critical in our considerable outreach to the next generation of transportation professionals in terms of education. Collectively, we award approximately $300,000 each year in scholarships to students pursuing transportation studies. And we’re actively reaching out to more senior professionals to have them mentor our young people. But we also function on a national level.
“We are routinely invited to engage in the national discourse on transportation. We have a seat at the transportation table, no matter who else is sitting at the table, from DOTs (departments of transportation) to the White House. We don’t have to ask for the agenda; we help set it. We are a 501(c)3 organization, so we do not lobby. However, we advocate strongly on behalf of our membership, and especially small businesses.”
Robert Prince agrees. And he would know. A vice president with AECOM, Prince serves as COMTO's national chair. Raising awareness about COMTO and the issues it represents, Prince holds a deep connection to COMTO and its principles.
“For me, COMTO broadened my perspective. I started working for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) in 1976, driving a bus. [Prince rose through the ranks to become the first African American general manager of the MBTA.] There weren’t very many minorities at the MBTA back then, so we used to get together and call it the 'Am I Crazy' meeting. But we would swap information. COMTO was just coming of age at the time, and it reached the MBTA. So we joined.