The Point: Chair Harnik talks about leading the way in transportation and how women can excel

Women’s History Month is both a national and local event. While our nation recognizes women like Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony nationally, it is equally important to salute area women. For Women’s History Month, RCTC will feature two local female leaders whose impact extends far beyond southern California. These women are paving the way for more equitable transportation and nurturing the next generation of leaders.

First, we feature Riverside County Transportation Commission Chair Jan Harnik. A Commissioner for more than 10 years, Harnik also is the Palm Desert Mayor Pro Tem. Keep reading to learn her perspective on public service, leadership roles, purpose, and staying connected.

1 – Serving as Chair of RCTC and an officer of SCAG, it is obvious that transportation is a high priority for you.  What sparks that interest and are there other related issues, such as protecting the environment, that are a part of what you want to achieve in your leadership role?

When I first began my public service, transportation was not of great interest to me.  Then, the more I learned, the more interesting it became.  Transportation drives land use and when implemented well, creates the quality of life our community members desire. Our ability to access employment, education, and recreation easily and efficiently has a direct impact on our environment, economy, and equity, today and for generations to come. Viewing our transportation and urban planning as projects for people – not cars – helps put vision and goals in perspective.

2 – What are the benefits of having women in leadership roles in the transportation industry?

Gender balance in every industry is critical.  Fortunately, some of my greatest mentors are women and I have watched and learned from thoughtful, impressive women. There is no question that our experiences color our reasoning and views. Bringing myriad views, processes and life experiences to any problem-solving event brings about well-evaluated, well-reasoned, and well-vetted solutions.

3 – What challenges do women still face in our industry and what must be done to overcome these?

The fact that we are surprised when we find that a woman is the leader in a transportation-related organization says everything! A genuine and deep culture shift must occur. Many gender biases are deeply ingrained in our culture. Young girls are not often encouraged to study subjects that will build a foundation and interest to pursue engineering, environmental studies and professions, land and urban planning, etc., and that’s just at the beginning of their academic careers and a great place to start. One of the most important things women can do is simply to support each other – our daughters, our sisters, our friends. There is room for us all, whatever we want to achieve, wherever we want to go, and there is plenty of room at the top.

4 – What sense of purpose guides you in your daily life?

Today is the most important day and I am driven to leave our Earth better than I entered it. My husband and I have five children and the decisions we all make will impact their lives, their children’s lives, and on and on.  We have a tremendous responsibility and every decision we make each day, no matter how small, no matter how difficult, will have an effect, like a pebble in a pond.

5 – With so many roles on the local and regional levels, how do you stay connected with your staff, friends, and family?

It’s not always easy. COVID has added another layer of difficulty and COVID has added clarity. I have wonderful people in my life who teach me, hold me up, and give me strength.  I see their value and that is a gift. I am motivated to keep my connections strong. When I think of someone, I reach out in some way to connect with them.  It may only be a text, a card, a quick note, but I want that person to know that they are important to me. Those early lessons we learned about showing appreciation, saying thank you, you’re welcome, and I love you, all with sincerity, are fundamental ways to stay connected.