In today’s San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, women are among every department — from street planners, to department heads, to overseeing bus operations and more.
For this reason, a transportation advocacy group that seeks to advance women in the field of transportation, the Women’s Transportation Seminar, this month is honoring the SFMTA as Employer of the Year at a ceremony. SFMTA will be honored for its commitment to hiring and placing women in leadership roles.
Women, however, haven’t waited to set new transit milestones in San Francisco.
In March, Muni hired its third-ever female cable car grip-person, Amber Jones. And in April, Muni operator Andrae Johnson became the highest-ever local “Roadeo” winning woman, coming in second place.
The San Francisco Examiner spoke with a few of the SFMTA’s women leaders about how they shaped the transit agency San Franciscans depend on every day.
From operator to operations head
Sarita Britt started on Muni’s payroll in 1981. She drove streetcars and light rail vehicles, all while attending college and raising her children.
Earlier this year, the 51 year old retired from one of the SFMTA’s top positions: deputy director of transit management.
That’s the second-highest position running Muni, the transit arm of the SFMTA.
“It was very challenging,” said Britt of when she started in 1981. “The men here had this macho attitude. … This was a man’s agency.”
She attended City College of San Francisco and earned her bachelor’s degree in labor relations at San Francisco State University, all while working for Muni. She recalled receiving help from her colleagues, however.
“They did that at least,” she said.
Britt’s final role was to oversee all of SFMTA’s transit divisions, including its bus and train yards, and the nearly 2,500 Muni operators.
“I worked on the F-line and at West Portal as a metro inspector,” she said. “It helps me deal with them, [to] get the rail cars running and moving.”
She also blazed a trail for those who came after her. Six out of nine division superintendents who report directly to her are women. That’s a far cry from the 1980s, when most of Britt’s bosses were men.
Britt moved to The City from Chicago as a child, and attended Galileo High School. She credits her success in the workplace to her grandfather, who put her to work in his southern barbecue joint at a young age.
After retiring April 8, Britt said she intends to travel and also spend time with her family.
“I have three great-grandkids,” she said. “My heart is my little girl, she is 7 years old, Ja’Skaya.”
Looking back at her time in San Francisco’s transit agency, she said, “Before, I didn’t like how it was the good old boys. But in the last 15 years things really started changing.”
Making the message
Two photos on display in SFMTA Director of Communications Candace Sue’s office showcase her work style perfectly: she calls them “the two Clintons.”
One is of her with President Bill Clinton, a nod to her former professional life at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and the lofty standards to which she said she holds her employees.
The other photo is of Sue with George Clinton, musical legend of Parliament-Funkadelic, a nod to the creativity required in her job every day.
Sue has led SFMTA’s communications department since 2013. From “Muni Forward” to bus-only lanes on Mission Street, helping the public understand these changes is her charge.
“There are projects coming to people’s communities and neighborhoods that would make their transit experience far better,” she said.
One of her proudest accomplishments is her communications initiative Public Outreach and Engagement Team Strategy, or POETS. Taking inspiration from a similar initiative at the Planning Department, it designates specific SFMTA staffers to serve as liaisons with neighborhoods.
“It’s an effort to be really visible” and preserve neighborhood relationships, she said.
Sue was born in San Francisco and raised in the North Bay, an alum of Redwood High School. When she joined the SFTMA, there were just 20 staff members on the communications team. That number has since doubled under her leadership.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve encountered a lot a barriers as a woman, per se,” she said of her professional experience. After a pause, she added the barriers she did encounter were “very early, and formative.”
Sue’s mother was a trailblazer: the first black postmaster in Northern California.
Her mother’s leadership roles, combined with growing up in predominantly white Marin, led Sue to a heightened awareness of identity, she said.
“I was conscious of having to work a lot harder to be recognized for what I brought to the table,” she said. “But I could do just as much as anyone else.”
The public’s point person
Many would agree that riders offer numerous complaints about Muni. That’s all fair to Roberta Boomer, secretary to the SFMTA Board of Directors — she’s known for her no-nonsense style.
“You know, every stop has a constituency,” Boomer said.
It’s an old Muni saying, reflecting San Francisco’s tendency to protest changes to Muni. In her role as secretary to the board, Boomer is the first stop when riders communicate with the SFMTA directors.
Sometimes the board gets “100 emails an hour about a topic,” she said. She tries to give each person a response.
“The job is to hear them,” she said.
On July 1, 1994, the SFMTA separated from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Boomer recalled — because she was there. A former legislative aide for Supervisor Bill Maher in City Hall, Boomer was sought after for her current position back at the birth of SFMTA as an autonomous agency.
“I said, ‘Okay!’” she recalled. “It was kind of like, now what do we do? It was a position that didn’t exist.”
Public meeting laws govern much of what district secretaries do, but Boomer crafted the rules specifically for SFMTA’s board as they were needed.
Boomer arranges staff reports for the Board of Directors, including the background they use to brush up on agenda items they’re about to vote on.
“Essentially the job is setting it up so directors have the material they need in order to make a decision,” she said.
“The board gets criticized often for not asking a lot of questions, which is unfair. The way we approach things at [SF]MTA is we want staff reports that are so complete” they don’t need to ask questions, she said.
Boomer’s SFMTA office is reflective of this: From bike lanes to bus engineering, from employee honorariums to environmental reviews, her file cabinets are stuffed to the brim with years of transit knowledge, organized and assembled at the behest of Boomer.
Born in San Francisco, Boomer traces her family in The City back to 1852 — only two years after San Francisco was officially incorporated.
She’s a Stanford grad. “I knew the Stanford fight song when I was three,” she said.
Having watched the SFMTA change over the years, the plain-spoken board secretary said, “I think there’s tremendous opportunities for women now, and more so as the decades go.”
From advocate to policymaker
Cheryl Brinkman was once like one of many San Franciscans pushing for better transit in The City. As part of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Walk SF, she advocated to city leaders for more access for cyclists and pedestrians.
Now Brinkman herself is a city leader, as vice chairperson of the SFMTA’s Board of Directors.
Brinkman grew up in Los Angeles, but always was in favor of walking over driving, she said. “I moved to San Francisco and said, ‘Oh, that’s where I was supposed to be!’”
Appointed to the board in 2010 by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, Brinkman was also among a number of women who helped start San Francisco’s popular “Sunday Streets” initiative, which closes off vehicle traffic on Sundays to reclaim city streets for walkers in various neighborhoods.
“There’s a cultural expectation that women are easier to get along with,” Brinkman said of her time on the board. “It’s definitely a cultural double standard.”
As an advocate demanding change, Brinkman ran afoul of that expectation.
She thought that same advocacy may preclude her from appointment to the board. “At the time I thought I didn’t have that much of a chance,” Brinkman said of her appointment.
But appointed she was. And along with her fellow board members, she helped usher in new protected bike lanes on Oak and Fell streets, among other bike lanes.
Her approval of projects friendly to cycling and walking supports comes as the SFMTA is rolling out more miles of bike lanes than ever before, and is midway through engineering streets and sidewalks to be as pedestrian-friendly as The City has ever seen.
“The way things trend now and continue to trend is for streets to be more than just for car traffic through our city,” Brinkman said.