Women Bike Wednesday: Jess Mathews & the Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit
Jess Mathews is one of those magnetic people who’s passion and energy are evident within moments of meeting her. Lucky for Ohio — and bicycle advocates nationwide — her passion is getting more women on bikes.
After attending the League’s National Women’s Bicycling Summit in Long Beach last September, the Safe Routes to School Manager for Consider Biking got the wheels rolling for a women’s summit in her state. With the Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit exactly one month away, I wanted to learn a little more about Mathew’s background and get a behind-the-scenes look at the organization and focus of perhaps the first stand-alone state summit specifically focused on women and bicycling.
So what’s your story, Jess? How did you get into biking?
One of the repeated questions that takes up space in my mind is, “How will I be remembered when I die?” I want to be remembered as a leader passionate about making her city (Columbus) more people-focused, specifically, a city that places priority on bicycling and walking.
I lived and went to art school in San Francisco back in the day and started bicycling there. The ease of using my bike in SF didn’t click until coming back to Columbus and experiencing how challenging and unfriendly it was here. Not only did I get crazed looks when I was on my bike trying to get to my destination, my being a woman trying to get to my destination via bike I think compounded those stares. Experiencing how difficult it was here, I started to become involved in local bike events and bike organizations, like Consider Biking. My youthful passion and determination led me to become a board member of Consider Biking. At that time, I was the youngest person on the board and the fourth woman on the board. Long story short, funding became available, I interviewed and the rest is history!
What inspired you to host an event around women cycling — rather than an outreach campaign, ride series, etc?
Actually, I am not only organizing — along with two incredible women — the first statewide Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit. I actually created an outreach program directly geared towards young girls in marginalized neighborhoods — Girls in Gear — and I lead what has become an explosive ladies’ ride here in Columbus: 2 Wheels & Heels.
The future face of biking is going to be women and families and I am passionate about the empowerment of women and girls. I whole-heartedly believe that it is critical that city officials, such as Mayors and Directors of Public Service, grasp that the success of their cities will revolve around transportation options for ALL. City streets need to be re-designed so that everyone feels invited to enjoy their public space, including women. Our city leaders must comprehend that our streets need to be “designed” and not “engineered.” They need to be designed with women and children in mind and, if they are not, then more designing process needs to take place.
In the past two years, there’s been HUGE momentum to decrease the gender gap when it comes to men and women on bikes. When I attended the Women Bike gathering in Long Beach, Calif., I knew what I needed to do when I returned to Columbus: continue the momentum here and create the first Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit. I’m a “do-er!”
Who’s behind this event and how did you rally the coalition / support required to put on the Summit?
One evening, I had asked a couple of colleagues of mine to meet me for a beer. During that meetup, I said, ‘Would you two be interested in helping me organize the first statewide Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit?” Their answers: “HELL YES!” It was a pretty easy sell.
Jeannie McKenna Martin is our Acting Director of Consider Biking and runs her own landscape architecture business and Mimi Webb is the Sales and Operations Manager of the Trek Bike Stores here in Columbus. I specifically thought of these two because they’re ‘do-ers’ as well. We’ve been organizing and planning since last October. I couldn’t have asked for better partners. Trek Bikes and ROLL are two of the local bike stores that jumped all over this Summit and have been extremely supportive. Support from businesses, city leaders, women and men have been paramount.
Overall, there’s been this missing niche of women-on-bikes empowerment that we’re tapping into— and people are excited. Women e-mail and tell me ‘Thank you! I’ve been waiting for something like this!’ This past year, Columbus celebrated its bicentennial birthday and our focus was to brand ourselves as “Open & Smart.” The Ohio Women’s Bicycling Summit exemplifies this.
Are you focusing in on certain issues or topics? What are the key objectives or take-aways of the event?
The Summit’s mission is simple: To engage, educate, and activate more women in Ohio to ride bikes. We came up with five categories speakers including economics, fashion, dispelling barriers, bike mechanics and riding for transportation. We specifically wanted to keep the topics broad, so they’re able to reach and touch as many types of women riders as possible. Based upon responses after the Summit, we’ll see which topics were of most value and plan accordingly for next year.
You’ve attended the past two Women Bike gatherings — how have past events informed what you’re doing with the Ohio Summit?
I think / feel that both Women Bike gatherings have guided me towards the thought that no matter where you live (California, North Carolina, or Ohio) the issues that women face and struggle with when it comes to the barriers of riding are the same. How do we achieve “choosing” the bike? It’s going to take years — decades! — here in America but the conversation has begun, and that’s the first step. I think just the idea that we’re putting something together here in Columbus, completely women-specific is bold and says, “Hey, we know the importance of women’s inclusion and understand the leadership that women possess, and if you get women to collectively support a cause with purpose, it usually succeeds.”
Are you getting push-back around it being an event “for women”? Why go this route rather than co-ed?
The only push-back I’ve received is that guys want to attend which is pretty awesome! I went this route because I know and understand first-hand the importance of empowering women. Women and men are different. We work through our processes differently. I have found and watched through both my “2 Wheels & Heels” ladies’ rides and “Girls in Gear” program, that there’s an enhanced comfort level when it’s “women-only.” There’s a greater sense of kinship and encouragement that I’ve seen — and its incredible. The women and girls learn from one another and are more prone to help one another and not judge them for any lack in knowledge. It’s the whole ‘Lean In’ experience that I feel you just can’t have if it were to be co-ed.
What are some cool, innovative things you’re doing with your event that are new or creative approaches?
Well again, I think just beginning the conversation here in Columbus, Ohio of actually having a statewide Women’s Summit is innovative, cool, and creative! People presume that these kinds of events are more apt to be held in bigger metro cities like D.C. or Long Beach — but it’s just as critical of a need here as it is in other cities. This being the innaugural Summit, we’re keeping it pretty controlled. I love measuring outcomes, so after our first Summit, obtaining post-Summit surveys given to both attendees and presenters for next year, will allow us to build and maneuver our creativity and innovative approaches with a bit more ease. This year is about starting the conversation with hopes of watching it blossom into an endless field of women and bikes! (Cheesy but true!)
What are YOU most excited about?
I’m excited that other women and girls are excited. I get pumped when I hear women say, “We need this and I’m excited you’re doing this!” I’m excited that middle and high school girls are attending, as well as grandmothers. I’m excited to continue this Summit to where, two or three years from now, it becomes the “Midwest Women’s Bicycling Summit.” What can I say, I’m a visionary!
Stay tuned to the blog each Wednesday for profiles and coverage of women’s cycling efforts in communities nationwide.