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Mattapan on Wheels: Sparking Change in Their Community

It’s no secret that the power of the bicycle is transformative. Communities nationwide are taking innovative approaches to spark local change for better bicycling, and seeing incredible results. This is exactly what we’re hoping to empower through the League’s Community Spark Grants – our annual mini-grant program which funds grassroots projects that have the potential to make a big difference for communities. 

Mattapan residents Bernice, Yvette, and family member at the 12th Annual Mattapan on Wheels. Photo by Jovan Zuniga, Designs by Vivid Life
Mattapan residents Bernice, Yvette, and family member at the 12th Annual Mattapan on Wheels. Photo by Jovan Zuniga, Designs by Vivid Life

One Spark Grantee from 2023, Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition (MFFC) in the Mattapan of Boston, Massachusetts, is on a mission to build intergenerational leadership within Mattapan’s Black and Brown community to advocate for equitable access to healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.

Their Spark Grant project was the 13th Annual Mattapan on Wheels (MoW): a youth-led biking event created to benefit the community’s health, bring awareness to the city of Boston that Black and Brown people do bike, and provide route options about where riders can go on their bikes from Mattapan. 

We talked to Shavel’le Olivier, Executive Director of MFFC, about her insights into public health in her community and how Mattapan on Wheels fits into MFFC’s vision.

You’ve been working with Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition for over a decade. What keeps you going?

Our community has so many folks with incredible passion and wisdom gained from decades of fighting for equitable resources. In particular, MFFC’s advisory group is a group of lovely women of color with a lot of knowledge about public health. They have such determination, compassion, and drive to mitigate negative health disparities and health challenges in Mattapan. Their perseverance makes me want to continue what they started. 

How did the Mattapan on Wheels event get started?

I started the event along with a group of fellow teens when I first got involved with MFFC in 2009. This wasn’t long after the organization itself was founded, so we were still in the process of finding the best ways to take action to improve public health in Mattapan. At one meeting, we had a show of hands for who likes to ride bikes. All hands went up! But when we asked who had a bike to ride, a lot of hands went down.

That’s when my peers in the Vigorous Youth program decided to take on the challenge of making Mattapan more bike-friendly, and we agreed a youth-led bike event would be a great way to make a difference. 

Two African-American young adults stand together against a backdrop of trees. The man wears a high-vis safety vest and a hydration backpack. The woman wears a light t-shirt, clear glasses, and a big smile.
Youth Ride Leader Ishmael D. Hazelwood, and Executive Director, Shavel’le Olivier, at the 13th Annual Mattapan on Wheels. Photo by Seth Daniel, Dorchester Reporter
A diverse group of cyclists gather in a grassy green field. Several individuals are wearing high-vis safety vests.
Participants waiting to start the Family Ride to Tenean Beach/ Photo by Jovan Zuniga, Designs by Vivid Life
A pile of helmets rest on a table. The tablecloth says "Mattapan on Wheels. Moving forward one pedal at a time."
Two young Black men wearing Mattapan on Wheels t-shirts get ready to ride their bikes.
Former Vigorous Youth Kenny Dera teaches another former Vigorous Youth Christopher Eugene how to ride a bicycle.

How many people participate in Mattapan on Wheels?

When we started out, it was just 25 people, an intergenerational mix – notably including Boston’s current mayor Michelle Wu.

This past year, we had 75 riders participate coming from Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, Malden, Newton, Cambridge, Somerville, and more! Mattapan elected officials City Councilor At Large Julia Mejia and State Representative Brandy Fluker Oakley stopped by to mingle. More than 20 volunteers gave a total of 126 volunteer hours during the planning and implementation of the event.

Over the years, how have you seen the impact on the community in terms of getting more people on bikes?

One major impact is the increase of Black and Brown people coming into leadership roles in the local biking community. Mattapan is an 87% Black and Afro-Caribbean community, but when we first started most of the folks who were teaching things like bike education and mechanic skills were White. So shoutout to those allies who supported the Black and Brown people coming into this space.

This is a powerful impact because not everyone knows that biking can lead to viable career paths. Mattapan on Wheels brings people into the bike movement and realize there are so many opportunities here from urban planning to transportation and environmental engineering.

Lastly, I just want to pass you the mic and let you speak what’s on your heart. What do you want people to know about Mattapan, and about biking in your community?

Mattapan is a diverse and vibrant community with so many different faces, stories, and experiences to uplift – yet it’s often in danger of being reduced to stereotypes. People try to push harmful narratives on Mattapan and point out its deficits. To combat this, we often reflect with our young people about what is happening in the community, why it is happening, and why the work they are doing at MFFC is instrumental in empowering communities and shedding those weaponized stereotypes others have of them and the community.

On the topic of public health, biking is one part of the strategy to improve physical health and nutrition in the Mattapan community, but health doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Supporting the health of Black & Brown communities like Mattapan requires taking action on multiple levels to address social determinants of health, and that has to be part of the conversation.

This is just one story from our 2023 Community Spark Grant awardees. Each micro-grant provided is a small spark that, when fueled by a community, can create incredible change. In Mattapan, this grant gave MMFC the funding it needed to support a longstanding youth-led biking event. But as we’ve heard from Shavel’le Olivier, the impact goes far beyond the day of the event — Mattapan on Wheels ignites a grassroots passion for cycling, builds intergenerational solidarity, and inspires the Mattapan community to become more physically active. 

With our next round of Community Spark Grant announcements just around the corner, stay tuned to find out what communities will be sparking change for better biking in 2024! Funding for eight of the 2023 Spark Grants, including Mattapan on Wheels, came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity as part of the CDC’s Active People, Healthy NationSM Initiative, which is working to help 27 million Americans become more physically active by 2027.