Riding with Monroe O’Bryant: ArtPrize winner and The Rapid driver

As we navigate through our daily routines, we encounter countless individuals whose labor ensures the smooth operation of essential services in our cities, and the workers behind our public transportation system, The Rapid, are no exception.

Tommy AllenThe Rapid driver Monroe O'Bryant practices driver etiquette, exchanging waves with fellow drivers on the street.

In this month's Voices for Transit story, we shine a spotlight on one such member of The Rapid, whose journey from a chance encounter on a bus photoshoot has evolved into a profound commitment to service and helping folks make their connection. Monroe O’Bryant's story embodies the dedication and humanity inherent in public transportation, serving as a testament to the resilience and camaraderie of workers everywhere.

Tommy AllenMonroe O'Bryant is happy to provide information to riders on The Rapid.

Monroe's narrative serves as a tribute to the labor force that keeps our cities moving. Publisher Tommy Allen joins Monroe on the Silver Line, capturing images of his route and delving deeper into the life of this Brooklyn transplant. Through this narrative, we aim to humanize the individuals who ensure The Rapid fulfills its promise to the community.

Tommy AllenMonroe O'Bryant practices driver etiquette, exchanging waves with fellow drivers on the street.

Tommy Allen (TA): Are you a Grand Rapidian by birth, or did you move here?

Monroe O’Bryant (MOB): I am originally from Brooklyn, New York, and moved to Grand Rapids in 1998.  (I might be a) Grand Rapidian now, but Brooklyn will forever be in my bloodline. 

Tommy AllenIn the shadow of yesterday's cars, the Silverline represents the future in bus rapid transit.

TA: When did you start driving for The Rapid? 

MOB: 2016.

Tommy AllenEven while on break at the 60th Street Park 'n' Ride, driver Monroe O'Bryant helps riders connect with The Rapid.
TA: What made you want to become a driver for The Rapid?

MOB: I was a freelance photographer working with Side Car Studios on the "GR Forward Together" video.  One of our locations for the shoot was on The Rapid bus, where I met Terry, a driver but also a cool dude! I never thought before that moment that I would be considering driving a bus, but in 2015, there I was considering it. After submitting my application, I went through extensive training and was hired.

Tommy AllenEach day brings surprises for Monroe O'Bryant, making his job at The Rapid unpredictable and unique.

TA: Being a bus driver at The Rapid puts you in personal contact with many folks. Have there been moments where you've had a customer in need and were able to provide assistance?

MOB: Driving a bus exposes me to people from different cultures and backgrounds, which can help improve one’s communication and bus management skills. As a priority, I offer excellent customer service and always encourage positive perspectives to ensure a rider has a great day. While there may be good days and bad days, it's important to maintain a positive attitude. If I see a passenger running towards the bus or far from their stop, I show compassion and pick them up. They are always grateful. (Writer’s note: Allen witnessed this firsthand as he rode on Monroe’s route before our interview.) 

Additionally, I understand that mistakes can happen with customers, but our mission is to ensure they reach their destination on time.  

Tommy AllenMonroe O'Bryant appreciates the art on his route, like this piece by Alynn Guerra of Red Hydrant Press.

TA: Has there been a moment on the bus when you looked around the city while driving and noticed something new or attractive to you?

MOB: I enjoy the city's landscapes, murals, and train cars covered with graffiti. One of my favorite views is from Crescent Park (301 Bostwick Ave. NE), which one can see from the Silver Line bus.

Tommy Allen The Silverline bus passes by one of Monroe O'Bryant's favorite spots, Crescent Park.

TA: Your observations about the artful graffiti on train cars sound like your Brooklyn side is coming through. Besides being a driver, are there any hobbies or interests that you pursue in your free time?

MOB: In 2015, I became ArtPrize's 2D Juried Award winner. At the Grand Rapids Art Museum, my series “Realistic Neglects” showed thousands of viewers thought-provoking images created by my friends and me. The images were based on nine murders in Grand Rapids in 2012 and 2013, a period when human trafficking and other crimes occurring within the Black community were not relevant to many as they should have been at the time. The series made people cry, created awareness, and encouraged humans to do more in their community.  

Even while on break at the 60th Street Park 'n' Ride, Monroe O'Bryant helps riders connect with The Rapid.

TA: With that significant win, I would say that art is more than a hobby. Do you have any side gigs or additional pursuits outside of your work with The Rapid?

MOB: I’m an award-winning freelance photographer and resident curator at the Four Star Theatre (1944 S. Division Ave.). Both are community-based projects where I create an opportunity for open dialogue between cultures. I have skills in this department. Sometimes, you might catch me downtown doing street photography as well. 

TA: Do you volunteer in the community? If so, is there an activity that you participate in that you’d like to share?

MOB: My son and I volunteer to make T-shirts at the Celebration of the Arts every year.

TA: What do you love most about giving back to your community?

MOB: The representation of my culture and how it helps inspire one to get involved. 

TA: As someone who drives for The Rapid, do you have any closing words of wisdom that will help ease folks’s fears about public transportation? Is there a topic that comes to your front of mind as a common concern?

MOB: The routes and making one's connections can cause some folks a bit of stress, but, as a driver, I work to help ease these fears. I’d like to say to folks that there is nothing to fear, as our drivers will inform the passengers of proper connections to relieve the pressure of navigating the many cities we serve.

Photos by Tommy Allen

Voices for Transit is a series that explores public transportation in Greater Grand Rapids by exploring the issues that diverse communities face, lifting up the voices of residents, employers and stakeholders.
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