Grammy-Winner Speech Thomas Shares Essential Leadership Qualities at APTA Rail Conference


Leaders must be brave, advised Speech Thomas, keynote speaker for the Opening General Session of APTA’s Rail Conference. They must be resilient, and they must be bold. In the transportation industry, those qualities ­are essential.

APTA President and CEO, Paul P. Skoutelas highlighted industry resilience as he welcomed attendees to the conference. Since the uncertainty of 2020, he said, “national ridership has reached 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and for some systems, it’s up as high as 150 percent.”

Congress has authorized $40 billion in 2024 public transportation funding, “after a highly effective advocacy campaign” combining agency efforts and voices.

And as for persistent safety, labor, and project delivery challenges, Skoutelas shared his confidence in the industry’s ability to innovate solutions. “You are the professionals who make good things happen… and we hope to inspire you to turn your innovative ideas into new success stories.”

APTA Chair Michele Wong Krause commented on some bold industry moves she has observed, including alternative fuels, commuter rail expansions to regional service, technology investments increasing safety and efficiency, and greater rail station accessibility.

She cited a study on transit’s “hidden economic value” to cities, calculated in millions. “That added value comes in the form of more jobs per square mile, higher wages in city centers, and greater commercial and business activity and tax revenues,” she said. Transit is advancing positive social change, too. “In fact, most of the top 20 transit-friendly cities are also among the top cities for social mobility.”

Host India Birdsong Terry, GM/CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, was pleased with how visitors saw her city, agency, and staff. She said, “They appreciated the intentionality of the RTA team … showing up every day, come hell or high water, to make sure that people have efficient options for mobility.”

Then, Speech Thomas was introduced, and led the audience through an unusual session, packed with hip hop, movement, and call-and-response phrases. He shared stories and lessons from his entrepreneur parents, who started two enduring businesses—a food stand and a newspaper, more than 40 years ago—and memories of his late grandmother, who inspired his ground-breaking and Grammy-winning rap single “Tennessee” in 1992.

“My mission was to make music that uplifted people,” Thomas said. Although most rap lyrics of that time were about violence and death, “I needed to make music that was a celebration of what we are all witnessing here, which is life. And to be honest, that was bold in the rap game.” Successful, too.

View a video of the Opening General Session here. View more images from the conference here.

STV sponsored the session.