Select Page

Part 2 of 3

Interview by Gary Gunderson

Phillip Summers began working in community development in 2001, teaching health and physical education in Belize. He holds a Master of Public Health from UNC-Chapel Hill. Phillip is interested in social justice, racial reconciliation, and active living by design. He has more than 30 co-authored publications from community-based participatory research with immigrant farmworkers and construction workers.  While doing community engaged research public transportation captured his imagination and passion for creating systems that enable health. He lives with his family in Winston Salem, NC, and worked as a bus driver for the public transportation system.

Gary Gunderson: This is Gary Gunderson. I’m interviewing Phillip Summers, who is a dear colleague from Wake Forest Medical Center. He’s been a researcher in public health science research career, a remarkable research career really focusing on people who, whether they’re farm workers or people in tough neighborhoods in Winston-Salem or people who basically live in our blind spot.

The name of Phillip’s blog is Blind Spot and it’s perfectly named. He opens our eyes to what we could see if we knew where to look and knew why we should care. And we’re going to do two podcasts, both of which actually are based on Phillip’s most remarkable past year in which he followed the thread of his intellectual curiosity out of his research job and out the door across the sidewalk and not on to a bus, but in the driver’s seat of a bus.

He’s worked as a bus driver in Winston-Salem, a small town in the mid-South but you can see a lot from that seat. In the first podcast we’re going to talk about what Phillip’s seen from the bus driver’s seat, including the lives of other people who drive the buses and those who ride the buses. What do we need to see through your eyes about that?

In the second podcast we’re going to flip in a different direction and ask the question, so what? So, I’m not planning on driving a bus, I ride a bus sometimes, more likely Amtrak than a local bus. But what would be your counsel for those of us who are not going to replicate your life but need to gain from what you’ve done with your life to help us see the implications for our life and work from what you’ve learned in this past year? So, we’ll do that in two chunks and go from there. So, let’s just start basic, what the heck were you thinking? How did you end up behind the wheel of a bus?

Phillip Summers: Well, in an academic setting you do spend a lot of time thinking about community-level interventions. And as I was thinking about social determinants of health, I realized that there was a high yield, high impact on expanding transit service. This came through two or three years of policy advocacy around expanding public transportation locally. So, public transportation was a timely issue in Winston-Salem because we were going through redesigning of our routes, we had the opportunity to get greater funding because we had a major thoroughfare close and the state was going to give us extra funding.

A lot of the stakeholders that we engaged with asked the school of medicine to work on public transit policy. So, in those two years, I learned a lot about what it meant from an academic perspective but I also saw some of the harsh realities, or I would say I was grieved by how hard it was to work with the transit authority. The American Public Health Association came up with an interesting guide that talked about how public health professionals can work with transit planners and people in transit because it has such real implications on the daily life of people in your community.

And it just captured my imagination and I said, “What if I had more transportation expertise, and what if I understood better from the lived experience of a bus driver how to recommend intervention, how to make salient critiques about policy change?” That could really be grounded in reality. So, that’s what I endeavored to do is to try to learn firsthand.

Gunderson: So, normal bus drivers don’t talk like that. A sentence like you just said is why they say, “Oh, you’re a specialist in busology.”

Summers: I do love that story.

Gunderson: Tell me about entering literally the family of bus drivers. That’s got to be a tough, tough ground.

Summers: Well, you mentioned that busology, and I love that story. A classmate picked up early on as I was a little bit of an egg-head in training. He said, “Philip, you’re a busologist. You know all things about buses.” And what was so funny about that is how do you take this public health, or systems level approach, down to the micro level of now you have to drive these routes? And I certainly had caught a lot of funny looks.

And then a lot of passengers would come onto the bus and take a double take and say, “Oh, you’re not our normal driver or you don’t fit the mold.” And unfortunately, when we have so much, I’m going to use the word structural vulnerability but that might not be right. It might just be blatant segregation, but we have a very racialized transit authority, both in the composition of who the drivers are, the minorities, and in the ridership also, people of minority.

And so, it was jarring as someone who is well-educated to be the minority in that work culture. So, I learned a lot about how to work in a context as a minority.

Gunderson: Did they let you in? What do they need to see? I’m just wondering a little bit about the personal world. What I’m really asking is I guess the credibility of your presence, were you actually part of the bus driver community?

Summers: Well, yes and no. It’s now January, I stopped driving in December. And even just today a driver was at my house asking for help and we conference-called in with another driver. And so, it felt really rewarding to make some of those connections and feel like, “Hey Phillip, you have something to offer and we want to ask your help.” So, that would be the yes part. And then the no part would be, I never felt that comfortable. I mean, there was cultural things that would keep you at arm’s length.

And I guess back to the yes side, they were just so pleased to have someone show up and do the shifts. I think what’s so demanding about transit is you have a schedule and you’re obligated to keep it and there’s no, “Oh, I’m sick.” Somebody has to be behind the wheel of that bus. And so, they were happy that I was well and that my word is my word.

Gunderson: How many hours did you drive?

Summers: Well, on some long weeks it would be as many as 55 hours a week. And the schedule is extreme because we start as early as 5:30 in the morning and we run till about 12:30 at night. Because as a driver, you have to get the bus ready, you have to get it in service. So, if a stated service starts at 6:00 AM and stops at midnight, you have some work on the tail ends of that. So, it is a very demanding industry to work in.

Gunderson: How much do you get paid?

Summers: As a first year driver, I was making $15.20 an hour, I think. Over the course of the year I made about $26,000 take home pay.

Gunderson: How much does a bus weight?

Summers: Oh, wow. I should know that.

Gunderson: I’m just thinking, but I mean they’re really big and the streets are not big and you’re not that big.

Summers: It was daunting. I mean, I often found myself praying a lot about, “Oh, I don’t want to hit anyone or I don’t want to cause evil with this bus.” So, that would be the scary side. And then the funny side would be, sometimes I’d be driving around town and maybe make a hard right turn in a narrow space and look up and then I would have a friend cheering for me. I mean, that only happened on one or two times. But a bus can be very interactive. I was enamored with the public nature of public transit.

I mean, you get to interact with people. It really was refreshing. After having spent a lot of time in an office setting where I would maybe interact with a few close colleagues to being right there as a public service out in front, never knowing who you’re going to meet or what they would say.

And so, I learned a lot about myself, learned a lot about how to keep my head in a situation that can be trying. I mean, because certainly passengers can come on disgruntled, and I think they have every right to be because our service, is it once an hour predominantly? We have a very old bus stock so it can be less than reliable. I think every human faces pressures to get to places on time. Everyone values their mobility, but if you don’t have the autonomy over your own mobility, like via a car and you’re beholden to a transit authority that I would say is underappreciated in the form of old buses and the lack of service, you are getting ground up under the wheels of a system that really doesn’t care about your mobility.

Gunderson: It keeps you poor instead of helps you out.

Summers: One of the stories that someone said was, as we were talking about a route, he said, “Yeah, riding the bus is like having a part-time job that doesn’t pay.” And I thought, “That’s so poetic.” You’re spending six or seven or eight hours a week just in transit that you’re not compensated for that time. Now, on the plus side, transit advocates will say, “Well, you can read a book and you can use that time well.”

And I do think that’s true, but I think to the extent that we can expand service, and increase frequencies, and make it reduce people’s time in transit, it would be that much more valuable in a community where we suffer from issues with economic mobility. And economic mobility is this idea of people who are poor get trapped in poverty. And I think that transit is one of those systems that really does constrain their opportunities.

Gunderson: In Winston-Salem, I mean, the statistics are that if you’re born poor in Winston, you’re overwhelmingly likely to die poor. And you met a lot of people who were somewhere in that life. They’re generally not kids, but when you see a bus go by now a route you’ve driven, who do you think of and wondering, “I wonder what’s going on in their life now?” Tell me a little bit about the faces and lives of people who you’ve met.

Summers: Well, this is also a microcosm of things that are playing out on a global scale. You can read and understand that a lot of people, there’s a gulf between people who are in the intellectual economy and people who are in the service industry. And so, the service industry people will ride the bus for two or three hours a time. I had a passenger tell me, he worked across town, he said, “They don’t even realize it takes me two-and-a-half hours to get there and they put me on the schedule for three hours.” I sometimes spend more time getting to work than I’m working and it doesn’t often make sense.”

And so, there’s a big gulf between who is riding and what their lives are like and then who is driving. I don’t know that that answered your question. I think the quick answer to when I see the bus now, I look to see who the driver is and just wonder how they’re doing and if I still know them because primarily I’m worried about transit riders. I left being a bus driver very concerned about the well-being of bus drivers. They work very long hours. They often don’t have time to eat nutritiously or get good rest. And so, that was very eye-opening to realize how much occupational strain they’re under.

Gunderson: I mean, they’re public servants.

Summers: They are. I was a bus rider before I became a driver and I often wondered why are the drivers sorely? Why are they not very gregarious? Maybe I’m over the top, just kind of a Labrador Retriever and love to see people. But I realized that when you work 10 hours straight, your ability to have the poise or outgoing personality is just drained by the simple desire to want to catch a break.

I think things like privatization of bus systems… I mean, privatization is a big global word about how governmental services are outsourced to contain costs. Certainly we fall under that category here in Winston-Salem. We have a service contract for our buses, I think makes it even harder to engage with policymakers who are really very removed from the inner workings of the bus to make the type change that would improve the life of drivers and then in turn riders.

So, there’s really, I think the bigger foci needs to be the ridership base because they can collectively have more political clout to make demands about how service should be run.

Gunderson: So, tell me about, how much opportunity did you have as a bus driver actually to talk with people to carry on a conversation? I’m just thinking you’re careening around the city streets of Winston-Salem up and down around corners and hills and were you able to actually have conversation? Did you come to know people that you actually talked with?

Summers: Absolutely. Now granted, I’m not a typical driver, I went in with a research question, so I had a little more incentive to try to get some of their stories and I know how to do open-ended interviews. So I’d ask a lot of leading questions and I’d always be very happy with how much it tumbled out. I was doing it from my own curiosity and my own interest.

I also learned that the drivers know a lot of their passengers, the ones who are, we’ll just say a typical driver because they’re along familiar lines. I mean, they get dependent passes where some of their own family can ride for free. I think one of the things that shocked me, related to this point of getting to know people is, think about how many times you get in your car in a day. You get in your car, in and out of your car two or three times a day. Well, if you’re transit-dependent and you’re getting off and on maybe the same bus two or three times a day, so you have a lot of interaction with the drivers. And as the drivers stay on the same routes, they really start to look out for people and care for people. So, I do think it’s such an important social fabric, a way for communities to get together.

There were some buses that were in the eastern part of our city that had higher ridership where it was a joy to hear people interact with each other. So, not only did I make the effort to get to know people, I would also eavesdrop as they were interacting and talking about football or asking about their neighbors. It was really a rich public space.

Gunderson: So, two questions. Did you ever pull up at a bus stop and look at someone standing there and feel fear? And the second question, did you ever let anybody off your bus and be afraid for them?

Summers: Yes to both those. Those are really good questions, Gary. I’ll answer the second one first. Luckily it was a warmer spring night, but it was the end. So, it was 11:30, I’m going to make one more half run and then I’m going to take the bus back to the depot at midnight. And there’s a woman asking a bunch of questions. There was two different buses close by. You could tell she was trying to decide which one to get on.

She finally comes over to my bus and gets on and confides in me, “You look nice and there was fewer people on your bus and so I thought I could trust you. I need your guidance on where I should get off to sleep for the night. I’m new to town and I’m scared about sleeping out tonight. I don’t know where a safe place would be. Would you be willing to give me a pointer?”

I’m gobsmacked at that point because I didn’t know exactly what to tell her, but I’m driving out and thinking through it with her and eventually find a church to let her off at thinking, “This might be a large enough campus and it might be safe enough.” But it definitely left a mark on me, very concerned about her well-being because she was a female that, and frankly reminded me of my aunt.

I think as researchers, oftentimes we see numbers and sometimes they have a hard time seeing faces. So, they became a lot of faces where it wasn’t abstract. It was like, “Oh, what about that lady, how did her night end up?” There are other sadder stories that I’m not going to go into where I did, in hindsight, find out it didn’t end up well for young ladies, and the police were involved. And so, those were the scary things.

I think you asked, “Was I ever scared?” Yes. I guess you want a little vignette on that. I’d be glad to give it. So again, I had to get off the night runs because I am totally a morning person. And so, I did both these stories from when I was on nights and I did not do a good job of driving around the streets at night. So, it was at midnight, I’m on a route in eastern part of the town. I come up to this stop that’s out in front of this assisted-living place. There’s a man, older, African-American gentleman, but he’s only in his hospital gown. He has some bags and he’s very agitated and he says, “I’m getting out of this place. I need to get out of here. I need to go to the hospital.”

And I’m thinking, “Oh Lord, what do I say? How do I handle this?” Because the first thing he says is, “I don’t have bus fare.” And so, I used that as I think through my options as, “Well, because you don’t have fare. Because I’m getting ready to close, I can’t really take you someplace where you could connect to ultimately get to your destination. So, if it was maybe an hour sooner and you could take my bus downtown and then take a bus across town. This is an important health disparity, most of the concentrated poverty is on one side of town and all the health resources are on other sides. So you’re going to have to transfer. So what I’m telling you is it’s midnight, there’s no more transfers, the buses are about to stop.”

And here’s this gentleman in a very vulnerable position and he’s telling me he’s a veteran, and I’m thinking, I’m a little intimidated because I want to get it right. I want to get it right for him. I want to get it right for me. And I say, “Well, because you don’t have the fare and because I think you probably are safer here going back and making amends in your assisted-living.”

In hindsight you could say he was trying to spring out of his assisted-living place at midnight. I said, “Why don’t you stay here and you don’t have the fare and I’m just going to suggest that you stay.” And that’s ended up what happening in a process that later and everyone’s like, “Duh, of course you did the right thing. He should’ve stayed there.” But in the moment it’s just a little scary because you think, “This guy is asking to go to a hospital, maybe that’s really what should happen.”

And maybe as you’re listening, you’re like, “Well duh, call the ambulance.” But when you’re in mobility, you want to help people get where they’re going. And so, you’re always trying to figure out, did I help that person?

Gunderson: So, you’re not a social worker, but you’re socially smart and intuitive. We’ve talked on and off throughout the year, I’ve been so struck by your eyes that see through a filter of compassion for other people that many people would look at and it wouldn’t remind them of their aunt. They would just see a strange person who’s not at all like them and very different.

First of all, I want to start to move toward the next podcast, about the so what part, but I’m really, really struck. I feel like I have to open a little bit of space. You came into this partly as a researcher but also as a person with compassion. Your compassion is formed from faith.

So, I’m curious a little bit. A lot of people who listen to these podcasts are like that. We have professional jobs and a set of credentials and a day’s work that we’re supposed to do, that’s professional. But we’re also people of faith, and I’m curious a little bit. Speak out of that side of how you’ve perhaps been changed.

Summers: Well, blindspot.city is my blog and the header there was, trying to follow the call to love my neighbor as myself. I did not just wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to become a bus driver because it would be cool.” It more was after almost 10 years of riding, and being around the bus, and having befriend people, my eyes were just open to what their needs were.

It was through the coalition building and through the academic work, I have a master’s in public health. It’s actually in public health leadership, so we would study things like servant leadership. What does it really mean to take the lower seat to try to serve a population? So, those were some ideals that I think I was trying to follow as I was driving a bus. I think what I learned from that is that you can be incredibly rich, the learning about yourself, the learning about your community.

I fall back to this language of faith of like, if you really are following what you feel is a calling, you’ll be met with opportunity and presence and joy and peace. I sang with a bunch of people on the bus, I would pray with people on the bus. I got to know people and see them. And I think really what we all want are open hearts and open eyes. And so, when I was right at that intersection of using all my skills as a public health thinker and doing that service, it was really incredibly rewarding.

Gunderson: I actually think that’s a good place to stop and shift to the next podcast, which is, so what? What are those of us listening to your story with enormous credibility, you speak out of intellectual credibility, and a faith credibility, and a human compassion that’s very, very compelling and invitational. Next podcast, I want to talk about what you would have us carry from this experience. What do you want in my life because of what you’ve done in your life and talk about that?

Summers: Well, certainly I need to make sure I thank you for this space to talk about it. I think because it was so rewarding, it feels like there’s so many stories to tell. So thank you for creating the time.