Panel Asks: How do We Get More Diversity in Bike Advocacy?

SFBC director Brian Wiedenmeier introduced Janice Li, Renee Rivera, Lateefah Simon and Tamika Butler for a discussion about racial equity in the bike advocacy movement. Photo: Streetsblog.
SFBC director Brian Wiedenmeier introduced Janice Li (who moderated the panel), Renee Rivera, Lateefah Simon, and Tamika Butler for a discussion about equity in the bike advocacy movement. Photo: Streetsblog.

Yesterday evening, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) held a discussion about diversity as part of its “Bike Talks” series at the Sports Basement Grotto on Bryant Street. Janice Li, Advocacy Director for SFBC, moderated a panel comprised of Lateefah Simon, President of the Akonadi Foundation, Tamika Butler, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, and Renee Rivera, Executive Director of Bike East Bay.

The formal discussion about the lack of diversity in the bike advocacy community was preceded by a social with snacks and drinks. “I’ve been very up-front that issues of racial and economic justice are important to me personally, and I am interested in how the SFBC’s work can reflect those values,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, in a conversation with Streetsblog. Wiedenmeier, in several presentations, has stressed his wish that the SFBC broaden efforts to increase the diversity of its membership. “We have a strategic planning process we’ll be kicking off this fall and I think this event is a great way to begin that conversation with our members,” he said.

Mars Re, an advocate who resides in the Tenderloin and works for Education Outside, which promotes science education in under-served schools, also came to the event. “My entire career has been in poverty, the disadvantaged, social justice activism,” she said. “I want to represent people who don’t have a voice who depend on biking and transit.”

Mars Re, Communication Officer for Education Outside. Photo: Streetsblog.
Mars Re, Communication Officer for Education Outside. Photo: Streetsblog.

“Demographics are shifting very quickly; if the diversity of Oakland is one of the defining aspects of the city, we need to put some value on that and our public policies and priorities need to reflect that,” said Robert Prinz, Education Director for Bike East Bay, who also came to listen about how diversity translates in the bike advocacy realm. “That’s something that hasn’t been figured out yet. That’s why discussions like this are important. Because we don’t have the answers.”

After about an hour, the formal panel discussion began. Butler talked about coming from her native Nebraska to the Bay Area to go to law school. She worked for social justice organizations and then landed the job of heading up the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition. She said bike advocacy, for her, is part of a larger mission for social justice. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a bicycle advocate, although I am a person who rides a bike; it’s not my most important identity,” she stressed. “If you told me I could never ride a bike again, I’d be sad, but before I am a person who rides a bike, I am all these other things…I see my work as using a bicycle as a tool for social justice.”

“Many of the folks planning walkable cities often have choices to get in cars or a form of transportation where they control it,” said Simon, President of the Akonadi Foundation, which has the mission of eliminating the structural racism at the heart of inequity. “I had to make sure folks with criminal records…especially young people who can’t drive [can get around]…we gave them bikes to get to and from appointments.”

Simon and Butler highlighted the stark difference between the majority of bike advocates–who want safe bike lanes because they prefer to ride bikes–and the socio-economic strata that social justice advocates normally represent. As Simon explained, the people she works with ride bikes out of an absolute necessity to get to jobs where transit doesn’t run or who work hours when transit is barely available. “You’re trapped where you don’t have mobility and options.”

Lateefah Simon
Lateefah Simon makes a point at SFBC’s diversity talk. Photo: SFBC, Liam Brooks

So how does that translate into more broadly-based advocacy? All the panelists seemed to agree that the first step is getting people on staff from minority communities. Butler stressed that doesn’t mean hiring one person of color to do outreach; it means diversifying everyone in all departments–from the executives to the bookkeeper and the janitor. In other words, to do advocacy in communities of color, members of those communities have to be an integral and ubiquitous part of an organization.

“We’ve been learning a lot from the health promoter model, hiring people from the community, to go into the community, speaking from within to give people tools to learn to ask questions,” said Renee Rivera, Executive Director of Bike East Bay and another of the panelists. “We can’t just go to community meetings.”

Simply going to community meetings as outsiders, explained Butler, leads to blow back. Cycling advocates, she said, will often show up and sell a community on these “great” bike lanes that they want to see installed. But that usually comes concurrently with white people moving into the neighborhood–only once they can’t afford to live anywhere else. That resentment, one could argue, was acutely felt at a recent public meeting over transit lanes in the Mission. Asking for bike or transit lanes can become a symbol of inequity explained Butler. “We have no green space, we have nothing but liquor stores…now you want bike lanes?”

Besides, people of color, the panelists expressed, already know what it’s like to be discriminated against, hated and threatened; getting run off the road by an angry motorist is just one of a dozen ways. “This is a movement where there are so many people who never felt oppressed until they were on two wheels,” said Butler.

Photo: SFBC, Liam Brooks
Photo: SFBC, Liam Brooks
  • Caleb

    Dear SFBC, can you please get back to focusing on infrastructure projects, political pressure to ensure Vision Zero is realized, and other real and tangible progress on the streets that needs to be made for all cyclists? If this is what my dues are being spent on, I may consider directing those funds elsewhere.

  • murphstahoe

    Short sighted.

    Political pressure comes from membership numbers.

    And a lot of the projects that struggle are in diverse neighborhoods, where there is little organization from the cycling viewpoint, so a few voices for car centric infrastructure dominate, and we don’t get the lanes we want. And even if you are a white hipster you still sometimes need to ride safely across those areas.

  • RichLL

    Maybe but what useful service is performed by this piece of pretentious doggerel from Tamika Butler?

    “She said bike advocacy, for her, is part of a larger mission for social justice. “I wouldn’t describe myself as a bicycle advocate, although I am a person who rides a bike; it’s not my most important identity,” she stressed. “If you told me I could never ride a bike again, I’d be sad, but before I am a person who rides a bike, I am all these other things…I see my work as using a bicycle as a tool for social justice.”

    How are precious self-absorbed platitudes like that and maudlin expressions of political correctness going to get new build?

    In fact this is the exact same problem that Lisa Feldstein’s short and ill-fated BART candidacy had – she didn’t want to talk about operations or safety or budgets or engineering. She just wanted to drone on about “social justice” and pander to minorities while sitting pretty in her $3 million home in oh-so-white Cole Valley.

    The challenge for SFBC is to be relevant to people who aren’t white or Asian, without appearing to be patronizing them. And historically white liberals have struggled with that.

    Black Cyclists Matter, perhaps?

  • Jame

    The problem is most bike coalitions want your “cyclist” identity to be first. And this in itself can be exclusionary. A bunch of people ride bikes don’t consider themselves to be cyclists. Or identify as part of this cycling community even though they are daily riders.

    Bike coalitions need to figure out to transition from targeting cyclists to targeting bike users.

  • p_chazz

    Every left wing organization sooner or later gets into a bout of navel gazing introspection over how it can be more politically correct than thou. That’s because there is cadre of members who care not for the mission of the group, only for taking it over to advance their SJW agenda. Act UP SF is a prime example. It was created to expedite the release of AIDS drugs and devolved into a dysfunctional, Trotskyist organization.

  • p_chazz

    But you have to keep the numbers focused on the organization’s mission. What happens is that organizations get hijacked by SJWs who want to change the group’s focus to so-called social and economic justice issues.

  • murphstahoe

    Not worried one bit

  • murphstahoe

    Left Wing?

    They’re just freaking bikes lady!

  • RichLL

    It’s the fact that people like you aren’t worrying that is the worrying part. You are oblivious to the threat that chazz is describing.

  • RichLL

    Tell it to Tamika. Your movement is being hijacked by these “justice” warriors who, ultimately, do not share your values or goals at all.

    But yeah, since terms like “left-wing”, “socialist” and “communist” are all verboten these days, everyone is “progressive” and a “social justice warrior”.

    Like who doesn’t like progress and justice, huh?

  • murphstahoe

    Why do you care? Wouldn’t it be in your best interest for the bike coalition to collapse? Or would be upset that you’d have to find a new “debate club”

  • RichLL

    Murphy, so your big point is that you moved from Noe Valley (70% white) to Sonoma County (87% white) and you wish to reserve the right to lecture us on diversity?

    You know, the very thing you made a conscious decision to move away from?

    You are the very last person to be in a position to claim the moral high ground here, not that that has ever stopped you.

  • murphstahoe

    Wow, and all this time I thought I was moving away from high rents.

  • Prinzrob

    Hear hear! It’s not about distracting bike organizations from their core goals, but understanding where those goals and needs intersect with those of other organizations and individuals, thereby creating a larger coalition of supporters with more effective advocacy and bargaining power, and better representation of the communities they serve. Of course people who don’t want to see bike advocates succeed would rather they remain an insular and isolated community.

  • Jame

    One of the biggest reasons there is no bike infrastructure, and that biking isn’t considered “transportation” is because the industry, and our society only has 2 versions of biking: kids toy, adult toy (for racing / triathlon / mid-life crisis gift).

    Transportation and economic opportunity are linked. Environmental justice and bicycling are linked (intentionally and unintentionally). Looking at these “intersectional” issues broadens the potential number or advocates, allies and impact.

  • mx

    But it’s not that simple. Part of the idea here is the bike advocacy should serve to advocate for a broad coalition of bike users, instead of just the people who are typically most active in the organization. People who don’t wear spandex need bike infrastructure too; bike lanes that serve neighborhoods like the Tenderloin are important. It’s not about changing the group’s focus, but rather hearing from a broader range of voices than “the usual suspects,” especially people who depend on cycling rather than choose it as a lifestyle.

    Ride down Market St. often enough and you’ll run into people riding $1,000 bikes carrying $400 bags. You’ll also see a guy riding a beat-up BMX bike, maybe popping the occasional wheelie. What does that guy think about bike infrastructure in SF and what does he want from the city? Which one is more likely to be active in SFBC efforts?

    And by all means, if you see the SFBC transformed into a group that doesn’t do any bike advocacy anymore, you can tell me you told me so.

  • RichLL

    Mostly white areas typically have high housing costs. The cheaper areas are usually “majority minority”. If you really wanted cheaper housing you would not have consciously chosen an area that is 87% white.

    But hey, I don’t care if someone feels more comfortable when surrounded with similar colored faces. I just think that people like that shouldn’t be lecturing others on the value and importance of diversity.

  • Caleb

    Yes. Exactly this.

    2014-2015 SFBC accomplishments: pushing uphill important infrastructure projects: 2nd street, Masonic, Cargo Way, Market Street Plan (with private auto turn restrictions), San Jose Ave, list goes on…

    2015-2016 SFBC accomplishments: attempted election coup by foaming SJWs (half-successful, half-thwarted), ham-handed city hall interactions over Vision Zero, more cyclist fatalities, and now pandering to identity politics (“WTF riders”, seriously SFBC?!), apologism for the very same groups causing SFMTA to water down important projects like Mission Street for transit, etc, list goes on…

    Effective advocacy groups need to be about practicality and the real facts on the street, not pandering and virtue-signalling.

  • ubrayj02

    It’s not clear how this results in safer streets and actual social justice.

    This does appear to have increased the number of non-profit jobs available for people who don’t seem to be doing a very good job of advocating for the causes they are hired to champion.

    I stopped all giving and community work with the LA County Bike Coalition after we were sold out by that organization and “social justice” was used an an excuse to stop a bike lane project in an area with a high proportion of low income non-white utility cyclists.

    The LA Bike Coalition has become a jobs act for people dedicated to lip service and not community service. The 2,000+ petition I helped build up has been used to advertise the bike coalition, and not as a tool to effectively organize and advocate for actual, physical, cultural, change in the way the city is planned and operated.

    My neighbors have died, my commute is loud and dangerous and polluted and we’ve lost 7+ years obeying the “process” and listening to non-profits.

    Now we’re being told we’re not “diverse” enough. Well take a look at the streets and tell me we’re not diverse enough. I support meaningful, rapid, change in the way our city streets are designed and the way our culture is oriented towards cyclists. Beyond that, start your own NGO for your social justice causes or you can expect a continued dwindling of your membership and dues.

    Our local non-profits are, for the most part, a bought and paid for subsidiary of the governments and departments they claim to lobby for change. They are constantly fighting for a pay check from government agencies instead of working form the ground up to build up a self-supporting membership and social network of private donors.

    I’ve grown incredibly cynical about this whole “social justice” bent I keep hearing about while I’m watching neighbors die in the streets like stray dogs. We can do better than this.

  • RichLL

    “thereby creating a larger coalition of supporters with more effective advocacy and bargaining power”

    Sure, but if the reaching out is little more than a crude attempt to garner their votes and support, then the local community will see right through that. This should not be a “white man’s burden” re-education program and the problem right now is that SFBC does a good job of talking and a lousy job of listening.

    So SFBC (and other transport advocate groups) show up at meetings to tell the Chinese in ChinaTown they must lose car access from Stockton, tell the Asians in the Sunset they must mess with Taraval. tell Hispanics in the Mission that they must have forced right turns, and then wonder why almost all the staff and board of these organizations are white.

    And when non-white people tell SFBC that bike lanes help gentrify their neighborhood, you don’t tell them they are wrong. Otherwise the manifest destiny of their venture will be more failure.

  • RichLL

    A useful rule of thumb is that as soon as an organization includes the word “justice” in its goals, it ceases to be effective. The word has become meaningless what with social justice, economic justice, racial justice, environmental justice, legal justice, transportation justice, the list never ends.

    What happened to the good old-fashioned words like “liberal” or “socialist”. Or have they all become discredited?

  • C’Mon…the change of leadership at LACBC had nothing to do with what’s been happening (and not happening) in Northeast L.A., the change in City Council leadership did.

  • Prinzrob

    By “effective advocacy” I mean understanding and working to address the needs of anyone who bikes, and coming up with solutions that also benefit many of those who don’t. And even if the SFBC is perceived, wrongly or rightly, as only getting involved for selfish reasons, why would other communities care if their shared goals are still being achieved? At the very least, by engaging these organizations and communities more, the SFBC will have a better understanding of their needs and concerns.

    Not broadening the coalition is what results in what you referred to, which is uninformed outsiders “telling” communities what they need which results in less support and less useful outcomes. The very thing you are complaining about (SFBC becoming more inclusive) is part of what will address the other thing you are complaining about (SFBC patronizing the broader community).

  • “I wouldn’t describe myself as a bicycle advocate, although I am a person who rides a bike; it’s not my most important identity,” she stressed. “If you told me I could never ride a bike again, I’d be sad, but before I am a person who rides a bike, I am all these other things…
    ———–
    I’m guessing that nobody has any issues with this. I’ve heard Janette Sadik-Khan say almost the exact same thing.

    So I’m guessing people have trouble with this, “I see my work as using a bicycle as a tool for social justice.” Is it really a bad and scary thing that someone wants to make sure their bike advocacy is making lives better for bicyclists in traditionally disadvantaged communities beyond just those that bicycle really that controversial?

  • RichLL

    That’s fine as long as SFBC also understands that, in becoming more inclusive, it also has to take into account broader and sometimes less convenient narratives.

    So if Mission, ChinaTown or Bayview residents tell SFBC that they don’t want bike lanes because of the connotation of gentrification, then SFBC either has to accept that and change policy in those neighborhoods, or commit the error we both note of trying to “re-educate” those communities.

    SFBC and similar organizations have historically responded to minority resentment about bike lanes, bus lanes and pedestrianization projects by branding as “buybodies” or “rabble”. That’s arrogant.

    So the real question is this. How open is SFBC to paying the ideological price for broadening its currently very narrow appeal? How flexible are their imperatives? What you’re describing is a lot easier said than done.

  • ubrayj02

    I’d really like to be shut up with some proof that my criticisms are untrue, that this social justice talk has led to direct material and cultural change that makes my life and the lives of others walking and cycling less likely to end in a car crash, due to diseases of a sedentary lifestyle or pollution.

    All I get back is a bunch of personal attacks and venom, so far.

    If it moves the ball forward and projects get approved, we build a greater political voice for people riding bikes and walking, then yay, I’m all for it. If not, I have less than zero time, I have a deficit of time I’ve already sacrificed on the altar of “trust in the NGO and the process”.

  • ubrayj02

    The LACBC is an anti-partner in fighting for change in city hall, as are many of the local NGO’s that claim to do so. Not only do they not help, they suck away resources and attention – a net drag on efforts to improve conditions on the streets.

    The LACBC called and emailed dozens of activists in NELA to shut up about North Figueroa. They did, and we got nothing but more death.

    “Hey, can we use the names and emails in the RideFigueroa list we all helped build up to contact our neighbors and continue to organize?”

    Here, have some social justice: more government work for the LACBC, more lobbying at Metro for contracts, more recreational politics free cycling events, less organizing at the local level, no voter education, no growth in membership.

    The war is nearly over, and we’ve lost. Third rate crap is the rule even when we do get projects. Our NGO’s are parasites and structurally incapable of addressing the problems they were created to work on. We’re back to where we were without the shiny, fun, rebellious edge that helped in the mid-2000’s.

  • Prinzrob

    I’m in the East Bay, not SF, but I personally have been very effective when working within structures that aren’t inherently bike-specific, either by providing support to organizations already doing great stuff or by helping to bring together individuals with similar interests to represent their own communities. This way it’s not just the “all powerful bike lobby” swooping in, but neighbors talking to neighbors.

    There is indeed the risk that some of our coalition members might not be on board, or that we might get less “credit” for successes, but so far the benefits and increased support from a broader network have far outweighed those downsides.

    Our organizational goals were developed as part of an open and community-driven strategic planning process early last year, which has helped immensely. As mentioned in the article, the SFBC will be going through a similar process later this year, so I’ll be very interested to participate and see how the outcomes of that process affect their organization going forward.

  • ubrayj02

    I 100% agree with you.

    A bike coalition should be about establishing a membership base and growing it, supporting existing cyclists, and organizing for political and cultural change.

  • ubrayj02

    I’d really like to be shut up with some proof that my criticisms are untrue, that this social justice talk has led to direct material and cultural change that makes my life and the lives of others walking and cycling less likely to end in a car crash, due to diseases of a sedentary lifestyle or pollution.

    All I get back is a bunch of personal attacks and venom, so far.

    If it moves the ball forward and projects get approved, we build a greater political voice for people riding bikes and walking, then yay, I’m all for it. If not, I have less than zero time, I have a deficit of time I’ve already sacrificed on the altar of “trust in the NGO and the process”.

  • mx

    The pushback here is so weird. I don’t get how it’s so terrible to spend an hour or so, as a one-time event, as part of a series of talks on different topics, discussing what sorts of voices aren’t represented so much in the SFBC’s work and whether the organization is standing up for all cyclists in the city, especially people who ride bikes for transportation but may not consider themselves to be “cyclists” and get involve in advocacy. And then, to the extent that some voices aren’t as represented, discussing how to better work with local communities. The idea is to get more people involved and ask them what they want, and to work with more community groups to push for changes more effectively. Why is that such a bad thing?

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