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WE Bike NYC Thrives Through Inclusivity

I can’t even count the number of amazing advocates, mechanics and educators I met when I attended the 2012 Youth Bike Summit. But Liz Jose definitely stood out. With a passion for getting more women on bikes and a clear commitment to inclusivity, I knew, after an hour-long conversation at the pizza party, that her talk would turn into action.

And it did. A few months later, Jose founded WE Bike NYC, a thriving and diverse female riding community in the Big Apple. 

Already doing innovative work, we were excited to award one of our Women Bike mini-grants to WE Bike NYC’s new Latina Outreach program: “Mujeres en Movimiento.” In this edition of Women Bike Wednesday, Jose shares the foundational elements of the growing organization and how it’s made inclusivity a core, guiding value.  

So I know, when we met at the 2011 Youth Bike Summit, you were thinking about starting an organization like WE Bike NYC; what motivated you to start a women’s-specific organization?

There were two converging projects that created WE Bike NYC. The first project was my graduate school thesis. I had been studying education and adolescent girls and began to realize that there was real potential for cycling to address many of the issues that urban girls face between the ages of 11 and 17. I decided to delve into this and wrote my Master’s thesis on the topic, with a mock grant proposal as an attachment (click here to read it).

After graduating, I thought, why don’t I actually DO this? So I started talking to individuals and schools to drum up support for the program. The problem was that most of the women I talked to about staffing the program didn’t feel comfortable leading a group along city streets. In fact, many of them asked if they could ATTEND the program, not work at it. This got me thinking.

Around the same time, I decided that I wanted to be in better cycling shape and decided to look for the all women’s, non-competitive cycling group in NYC. I was intimidated to join the co-ed rides offered by other groups and wanted to start in a supportive environment. I had only ever ridden with male friends and had no real idea how fast I might be or where I might fit in on the rides that were offered. So New York City being the center of the universe, I figured all I had to do was a bit of googling and then it would be up to me to pick WHICH women’s group I wanted to join. I mean, this is a city with a competitive pinball league- there must be a million lady bike groups, right?

So that was that. I was meeting women who wanted to learn bike skills, and I was simultaneously realizing that there didn’t exist a place for them — or me — to go. I sent out an email to about 20 friends and acquaintances suggesting we meet up and try to start planning some all-women / female identifying, non-competitive rides. In about a week, I had received over 60 responses — most of them from complete strangers. It quickly became clear that there was a need for this, and WE Bike NYC started taking off!

What were the tangible first three steps you took to move it forward?

Well, like I said, the first thing I did was send out an email to anyone and everyone I could think of. Step two was to pick a big ride that we could use as a goal — WE chose the 5 Boro Bike Tour in 2012 as our first big group ride and started training in smaller groups. The third step, and I think the moment I realized this was actually going to be something, was working with a few friends to design and print T-shirts. Once WE had shirts, it was for real!

Many of the other women’s programs we’ve profiled on the blog are embedded in a larger advocacy organization or group. What are some of the keys to keeping WE Bike NYC going — and growing — as an all-volunteer initiative?

One of the best things about WE Bike NYC is that it is run by an amazing group of dedicated women. WE have the flexibility and the momentum to try a lot of different things and let in a lot of different perspectives. Sometimes this is challenging, because there are so many passions in the group. But really, in the end, the diversity of members and voices has allowed us to become a very robust and sensitive organization.

WE have input from a variety of communities that help us to create and maintain our mission and goals. “Women” is not a homogeneous group, and by formatting our monthly planning meetings as open forums, we’re able to hear voices from a variety of communities such as people of color, transgender women, Latina women, the orthodox Jewish community, mothers, students and so many more. WE all wear many hats throughout the day and throughout our involvement in WE Bike NYC. By recognizing the diversity of ourselves and our group, WE are able to adapt and grow in ways that I couldn’t imagine possible if WE were trying to stick to an already formed mission in a larger organization.

Along the same lines, WE Bike NYC has grown very much through trial and error. WE learn from our mistakes, WE try a lot of different things, and, in the end, WE are lucky enough to have an incredible core of women who just keep coming back, offering their time, money, spirit and skills to continue to push us forward.

You’ve already done some really creative programming, like partnering with Hollaback. What do you think your biggest successes have been thus far? How have you pushed the envelope beyond being just a ride group?

I think our biggest successes have been in engaging women who are not often seen in the cycling movement. It’s not that they are absent, only invisible. From the start, our goal has been to create an inclusive environment that feels comfortable for all types of women. WE have gone so far as to stay away from the term “cyclist” in our mission and vision statements because our goal is to engage ALL women, not just those who consider themselves cyclists. Our vision: “WE want NYC’s cycling community to reflect the diversity of the city. Through innovative programming on and off the bike and partnerships with local communities, WE create a supportive environment for women, girls, transgender and gender nonconforming people to get where they want to go.” WE see cycling as a way to move ourselves forward and to help others move forward. It’s about riding bikes, but it’s also about everything else!

Our programming with Hollaback! was another attempt at making visible something that is often ignored or made invisible in the cycling community — this issue of sexual harassment while riding. There is a lot of general harassment of cyclists, and this is unacceptable, as well, but the issue of sexual harassment hasn’t been addressed or even acknowledged by any major cycling organization that I know of, and it is a constant and unnerving (at best) reality for every female cyclist I know. Being on a bike can be liberating and empowering, but it only takes one cat call or lewd comment to turn one off from cycling for a long time. The fact of sexual harassment is something that many of my male riding partners don’t even know is happening, and by partnering with Hollaback! WE are attempting to make this issue visible to all cyclists and create streets that provide space for women in both the physical sense with protected bike lanes, but also in the emotional sense with a community of riders who support, encourage and motivate each other to ride through everything that’s out there.

In this way, and in all our programming, WE see ourselves as a community first and a ride group second.

In this first round of Women Bike Mini-Grants we were delighted to fund a new program We Bike NYC launched around engaging more Latina riders. Talk a little bit about how that program came to be…

The Mujeres en Movimiento program came from our core value of inclusiveness. WE realized that many Latina women weren’t being engaged in cycling because the literature wasn’t in Spanish. Furthermore, the majority of literature and photos out there were of white women in spandex, so how do Latina women picture themselves as cyclists if the photos are telling them they are not?

The idea of reaching out to Latina communities was kicking around in our heads for a while, but it wasn’t until a fateful Happy Hour event for women movers and shakers in NYC that I met Prerana Reddy from the Queens Museum of Art (QMA) and the program really got rolling (pun intended). The QMA does an incredible amount of work engaging the community in art — really blurring the lines between art, participation and community building.

The Immigrant Movement International space is a community center art project that offers classes. Wanting to meet the community where it was, we decided to start with an Earn-A-Bike class where women could sign up for a 10 week class to learn bicycle maintenance, and then after successfully completing the class, they would be awarded a bicycle. Furthermore, WE were interested in creating something that was sustainable after the initial classes, so the eight women who have completed the earn-a-bike also teach community classes and lead group rides in the same space during the summer. WE hope that the program can be a pilot for engaging other communities by providing the physical resources (a bike), as well as the leadership resources (mechanics skills and ride leadership skills) to support the beginning of a community bike movement.

The program was originally and generously funded by the Partnership for a Healthier New York and that funding has made it possible for us to buy three sets of teaching tools and stands. Furthermore, Brooklyn Cruiser donated 14 bicycles to the project so that women would be awarded bicycles that were reasonable and practical for city use, as opposed to light road bikes that aren’t helpful for day-to-day errands, like hauling groceries. As we met more and more with the women in Corona, it became clear that there was a derth of Spanish language outreach materials and resources. The grant from the League will help us translate our website and events into Spanish, to make rides and meet-ups accessible, as well as allow us to print materials like a Spanish language “fix a flat” spoke card and a ride leader manual. In the end of the summer, WE’ll be compiling these resources into a kit for other ride groups to help them start outreach in local communities.

The coolest thing about this partnership has been learning from the women in the program. WE knew coming into it that this community was different than the 30-something Brooklynites who had been on most of our rides, and WE designed the program to be able to adapt and change based on the input from the participants. The great thing is that, no matter how WE are different, WE all love riding our bicycles, and that seems to be enough to bring us together for rides, like our mother’s day CycloFemme ride to Roosevelt Island! One of my personal goals is to create programming that will allow WE Bike NYC to be a hub for smaller bicycle communities throughout the city and to be able to provide resources for groups to make the bike work for them.

What are 5 programmatic steps you’re taking to increase the number of women riding this year?

  1. Mechanics Workshops: Mechanics workshops are a big thing in WE Bike NYC because, if you feel like you can fix your own flat, you have more freedom to go further and longer. You don’t have the same fears of being stranded or left behind.
  2. Field Trips: This is our way of opening up the cycling community and all its millions of different parts. WE want to help riders find their place in the community, whether that’s among commuters or with the kids who play Bike Polo. For this reason, our field trips are safe spaces to try new things such as riding a fixed gear on a banked track, visiting custom frame builder studios, racing in an alley cat, playing bike polo, or riding a tandem with Achilles visually impaired riders. Field trips help open up the world of cycling beyond just going to work.
  3. Social Rides: I’ve said many times that WE Bike NYC is a community before it is a ride group. These rides are a place to meet other people, try out something new, ride on city streets with a group and have a lot of fun. In the past we’ve done ice cream rides, rides to a pumpkin patch, as well as just jaunts around Prospect Park, Central Park and Flushing Meadows. In the winter, we even have a few “bicycle optional” rides that encourage people to come out and talk bikes, even if they might not be ready to ride in the snow. These are the rides where WE hope people will get together and say “Oh! If she can do it…”
  4. Training rides: These are rides that train for specific events like the 5 Boro Bike Tour. Organized rides can be intimidating — especially longer rides like the NYC century- so it’s nice to have a group of people to train with, to motivate you and to say hello to on the day of the ride.
  5. Language Inclusion: This year WE are making a huge effort to make all our our resources and rides accessible for Spanish and English speakers, alike. This is a HUGE goal and WE are taking small steps, but WE realize that lots of people want to ride, and WE’d love to ride together!

On our Pedaling Toward Equity discussion last month, we talked a lot about the importance of listening, partnerships and really engaging communities to identify how bicycles can be a solution for their unique needs. Has any of that played into your work with this program?

I think listening is really important when creating programming. Last year, the majority of WE Bike NYC events happened in Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan and the majority of participants were 20-30 yearold women with their own bikes. This year, WE really wanted to expand our reach, while at the same time recognizing that the reason it was easy to recruit 20-30 year-olds in Brooklyn was because I was a 20-30 year old in Brooklyn. It’s easy to know what people like me want to do, because I know what I want to do. It is less easy to know what mothers want to do, or what Latina women in Queens want to do.

Because of this, instead of just doing the same thing in a different place, we asked mothers and Latina women what THEY needed. The point people on our 2013 initiatives “Moms on Wheels” and “Mujeres en Movimiento” are women from those communities. WE Bike NYC is an umbrella and a resource, but much of the programming, including the timing and types of events, are dictated by those point people. So much innovative programming has come out of listening! Our “Moms on Wheels” kick off allowed families to try out over 15 different bikes, seats and trailers for riding with your family. Our “Mujeres en Movimiento” program started with an earn-a-bike because the community told us they needed bikes if WE expected them to ride! Partnerships are great because they help get people in the door, but they also help shape our programs so that they meet the needs of communities and provide sustainable solutions to local issues.

I just have to say, you all have the coolest logo of any program I’ve seen thus far. It’s empowering, iconic, multi-cultural… how did you pull that off?

Well, just after our first meeting as WE Bike NYC, when I realized that this was actually going to be something, I had a fateful coffee with a friend and graphic designer Amanda Williams. She offered to design a logo for our program and we talked a little about what I wanted it to say as an image. I think my original instructions were something like “no flowers, no hearts, feminine, powerful.” So, needless to say, Amanda is an incredible artist!

We bounced images and ideas off each other for a while — I would send her things I saw and liked and she did a lot of research about bicycles and bike communities as well. (She would not consider herself a cyclist.) The final design is really amazing, and the strength of it is that it can continue to evolve as WE Bike NYC does.

By having a variety of women inside the wheel, it allows us to celebrate the diversity of female cyclists out there. WE aren’t just one thing, so why should we have just one rider in our logo? Every few months Amanda sends me a new lady or two based on our new initiatives and activities. I can’t say how excited I am about our logo every time I look at it!

The megaphone is really important as well, because, as I mentioned earlier, WE Bike NYC aims to engage a lot of people who feel invisible in the cycling world. By giving the woman in the wheel a megaphone, WE are giving her a voice and a place in this growing community!

Read more about WE Bike NYC here!

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