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Videos and Insight from Online Equity Discussion: “It’s Not Infrastructure First”

Adding to the discussion around our recent report: “The New Majority: Pedaling Toward Equity,” the League and Sierra Club hosted a live, online video chat to dig deeper into issues around equity last week. Moderated by Hamzat Sani, co-author of the report and member of the League’s Equity Advisory Council, this engaging conversation featured both local and national leaders, including:

Despite a few technology hiccups the Google Hangout identified some critical insight for advocates at the local, state and national level — and key steps to keep the momentum moving forward.

Watch the videos and read some of the highlights from the discussion below…

What does pedaling toward equity mean to you?

Allison: For us it’s really, how do we use bikes to address social justice issues? How do we reach communities of color and low-income communities who may already be riding bikes but aren’t currently part of the mainstream movement. That’s always been the starting point for us here in L.A. In 2008, when we started as a program, for us it was about how do we become more inclusive of a movement and how do we address bigger social issues with bikes as a starting point.

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: One thing we’ve talked about is that, as this movement happens — as public policy is made, as federal funds are spent and as infrastructure is developed — there’s a very specific effort to enlist and engage those communities, especially communities of color. As far as transportation is concerned, from a historical perspective, transportation infrastructure development has not worked out for black and brown people in terms of the state of the community when it was done. Right now, as we look at cycling and transportation infrastructure development, this is an opportunity to do that, so equity relates to the ways communities will be engaged, enlisted educated and brought along as an integral part of the conversation as growth in the movement happens.

Rob: We don’t look at it from a clearly social justice issue as they do in Los Angeles; we look at it from a reality perspective. Populations are changing and we traditionally reach older white men. The reality is that older white men are becoming fewer and fewer, so, from a reality perspective, if we want to survive, we have to be able to reach multiple constituencies.

Andy: I’d certainly echo what Rob was saying: If we’re not a representative or more representative movement that affects our political capacity to get the job done at the federal level.

Rachel: Sierra Club is all about making sure people have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and biking is a great way to make sure that we have clean air — and transportation equity is making sure everyone has access to that…. The reason Sierra Club is so invested in transportation and biking and bike equity right now is that streets are not safe for people to get out to walk and bike or take public transit to where they need to go. For us, to have clean air and a safe climate, we need to make it easier for everybody to access those types of transportation choices and the benefits that go along with them. Bike equity means the ability to make choices and have access to the types of transportation that keeps people healthy and keeps the planet healthy.

If you had to sum up in one word or phrase how to start taking action on equity…

Rob: Partnerships — You can’t enter into this discussion, dialog or even sense of reality without first partnering with people who are doing this work day-to-day, the community-based organizations, the churches, the institutions that are much better and integrated into communities of color than we, as the bike movement, are.

Allison: Organizing — We need to actually invest in staff. We need to bring an organizing mentality to this work so we can actually bring communities of color in as constituents and staff.

Anthony: The key thing for us is this idea that equity is not diversity; it’s not equality. That’s important. Equality is making sure everyone has shoes, whereas equity is making sure everyone has shoes that fit. So as we develop partnerships and strategies and organizing we really are looking at this and doing initiatives that are genuinely created by, owned by and reflect the culture and philosophy and mindset and vision of the communities we’re working in.

What’s working — and what challenges do you face?

Rob: One thing to frame this conversation about equity: For us there’s a difference of color and race and nationality, which is different than economics. But we also look at equity in terms of geographic representation. One of our goals in our organization is to get to 25% mode shift. We could probably best do that by focusing on the southeast side of the city, which is mostly white folks, but we’ve integrated into our mission and values statement that geography matters and demographics matter. It’s not enough to focus on one community; we need to have lens of equity from a variety of perspectives and that dictates all of our work… We recently participated in a local and regional equity retreat that helped us start to establish the basics of an equity audit to look internally and externally at what we’re doing. One of the results of that has been closer partnerships with community-based organizations, community development organizations and groups working on public health. The key piece in what’s working for us is when we’re able, as an organization with a high level of sophistication and funding, to bring dollars to the table, resources and assets to that community organization. We’re partnering with Rose CDC — a community development corporation on the east side. Financial resources from the regional MPO came to us, but we’re staffing staff at their office and helping pay for the overhead and management expenses to provide that assistance. That really helps to open up a lot of doors. They don’t see us as another group asking for our needs to be met by them; we’re asking them for help and bringing resources that can help them as an institution.

Allison: Our challenge is little different than Portland. Although people of color are the majority here in LA County, we have a lot of poverty and not a lot of resources to deal with transportation issues. We’re one of the first programs or organizations to explicitly address equity in bicycle programming, so it’s been a challenge trying to create more dialog at the national and local level —not just with environmental groups but also social justice groups who might feel their populations could be negatively affected by bicycle facilities. We’ve had an interesting challenge trying to bring together both sides into a unified perspective of helping low-income populations. Also, there’s not a lot of resources put into this, so the support from the other groups is great, but without economic resources behind that, grants or funding, it’s challenging to do robust programming that’s meaningful and really grooming people of color to become leaders, whether immigrant cyclists, youth or within staff we want to grow. We need to be able to start targeting more resources to this work to make it long-term and change the face of who’s in this community… Within the past year it’s been an amazing trajectory just to see our city politicians and mayor get behind transit and bike expansion in the city… but now we have to be very vigilant that these bicycle and transit expansion opportunities actually are equitable and don’t just displace people. We’re work with coalition partners to make sure, for instance, that transit-oriented development has affordable housing opportunities, because, the last thing that our group wants to do is advocate for bike lanes in these areas and then not have a way for people to thrive and stay in their communities and not benefit from the facilities we worked so hard to win.

Anthony: With the National Brotherhood of Cyclists we have a relationship with over 40 significant clubs in major markets in this country — and these are not people who need you to give them a bike. What I see with many of them, which are primarily African American, in terms of their development, it’s still about being a club and about riding. Our work right now is helping them learn to become advocates and that has not been easy. Our club in Minnesota, we’ve really tried to be a model… We’re working as a club to keep ourselves in the mix of what’s going on in the transportation community. We assign club members to be part of different efforts going on, like the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota or the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, and Women on Bikes initiative. There are lots of things going on here and we’re trying to stay involved in that way. The clubs themselves [nationwide] have started to grow organically, so, about five years ago, we began to connect them to one another into a national network of clubs. We have own national summit and we’re trying to get them to become advocates and participants in the change that’s happening in their communities.

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: And I think we’re going to see change happen really quickly. The League has woken up to the fact that we need to deal with this issue properly. We need to take it seriously; devote actual staff, resources, time, energy and effort to make a difference with the work we’re doing… This is a conversation that’s been going on within the League for a couple of years now and I’ve been in the movement for 30 years, so it’s not a moment too soon. And part of our responsibility is to listen and find out what role we can most usefully play to support groups at local level making a difference in their communities.

Hamzat: As a movement, we’re in a good place in terms of developing some framework on how to engage in new communities and make sure that issue of leadership is addressed. A lot of organizations are coming out of these local communities but connecting them to the larger national conversation and local organizations; and making sure the work of those organizations goes beyond just infrastructure to concrete engagement with communities they’re looking to put a bike lane through. I think that from the equity perspective, making sure there are actual resources out there for groups to be able to develop their own programming, whether those resources are toolkits or reports or conferences or conversations like this — or at end of day, money and staffing to make sure these things are actually happening. There’s a lot of opportunity. Just the title of the report, “The New Majority” highlights that shifting, that changing of the guard on a lot of different levels. So it’s really important that the bicycling community doesn’t fall behind and, not only take a hold of that, but be the innovators and trailblazers in terms of that.

Anthony: I think that one of the things that has to happen is that it’s not infrastructure first. That’s something that’s a very big piece of this. If we can do this in a way that infrastructure becomes part of a solution for something the community wants for itself we will find that is something totally different…. Purely looking at it from a transportation perspective leaves that piece out of it. We have these really cool ideas and things that happen but the community is not enlisted, is not brought along. There’s a perspective change that has to happen for some communities we’re working with, and transportation is not it. It may be health improvement; it may be safety on the streets. As you mature and really look at it, then it becomes transportation, but in the beginning it’s health improvement. I don’t have any data on this but health improvement may be the number one driver in the African American community, the number one thing they’re excited about biking and walking and then, once they’re reintegrating biking and walking into their lifestyles, they want to changing their communities so they can do it more safely, more often, more easily. One example: We get a call from the Church Olympics, an organization that’s going to get a lot of churches involved around a bike ride. I go to the first meeting and they look at us and say, “We got this bike ride thing handled. We just want you to be there to help us.” These guys planned to put all the church members on a bus, drive seven miles, ride around the lake, jump back in the bus, come back and call it a day. They live in the community but were unaware that there was an entrance to the bike route that leads to that lake less than a half mile from where we were having the meeting. So there’s lots of pieces that organizations need to change and understand. It’s not infrastructure first. It’s relationships first, understanding the culture and motivations first and then infrastructure is a solution.

Rob: The first key is listening. If you don’t start out by listening you’re not going to be able to engage. That’s something a lot of us have trouble with. We go in and say, “You need to do this. Why aren’t you on bikes?” For us, the key is just listening and hearing what concerns and issues are in the communities and safety and health are the key. We did focus group studies in Portland and San Francisco. Words not to use: green, sustainability. Words to use: safety, wealth and heath. So we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about biking as being key to accessing American wealth values, particularly in the African American and Latino communities.

Anthony: The listening piece is so important. I just feel like saw this in Austin, Texas. The Austin community, in the traditionally African American community, they saw this well thought-out infrastructure change, reconnecting areas to downtown, as something happening to them, going through their community, not happening in their community. That’s what it looks like when we focus on infrastructure: something goes through a community, it happens to them so those people can get from their homes to their jobs. So the listening piece has to happen because you will find what solution these infrastructure changes will create for them.

Allison: In LA, we’ve had sort of sector of the bike advocate movement that’s wanted to see paint striped on any street, no matter what. And because they’re not thinking about community impacted by it or where the most effective proposal would be based on which communities’ streets have bike lanes and what will actually get used… A campaign we pushed for two years, to get the first road dieted bike lane here in LA is going through the communities we’re targeting that are very dense, with a lot of immigrants and people who are very dependent on bikes and transit and don’t necessarily own cars. On 7th Street, we got the bike lanes and it’s one of the more heavily-used bike lanes in the city. Many of the bike lanes are not in strategic areas, just places that were maybe easy to do and the bike advocate said, “Yes, another mile of paint” — but its not a meaningful type of facility or in the right area where it’s going to be best used.

What are some tangible next steps on the local and national level to continue to move this forward?

Rob: Our funded partnerships with two nonprofits are the first step in the external piece. From the internal side, we’re in the middle of an equity audit. So those are two concrete examples of things we’re doing. At the national level I think need to look at a real analysis external and internal, beyond just pictures, at what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong.

Anthony: Ours is really to continue to be engaged in the public policy and infrastructure development and be part of the conversation. We love to ride and a lot of our people will ride anyway, but we’re trying to educate ourselves and get connected so that we can make an informed contribution to how that development happens. Part of that is holding our public policy makers accountable, which we’ve not done a good job of. I feel strongly that when we get organized and build capacity we should be able to make a phone call to our network and we should be able to touch someone in a legislative seat or city council somewhere because we need to let them know that people are listening. Being organized like that, I’m really learning what a difference that makes. From a statistical standpoint, I know that if we have strong relationship sin top 25 TV markets in this country, which our network does, we can get to over 50% of African American people in the country. That kind of effort will matter. When we wield that kind of influence that matters. So that’s our next step.

Stay tuned to the blog for more updates about the League’s Equity Initiative.

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