Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Time Travel in South Los Angeles

A few weekends ago in Los Angeles, I rode the 210 bus down Crenshaw from Hancock Park to Leimert Park. I was on my way to facilitate a conversation on bike education in communities of color. This would be my first visit to Leimert Park in probably five years.

I took a seat in the third row back from the accessible seats facing each other up front. For the first little bit it was an uneventful ride. A small Latina woman got on with three little kids in tow, two boys and a girl. Two of the children bounced around happily before they chose the first two forward-facing seats, and their mother settled into the seat in front of me with the third kiddo. Other seats in the front of the bus had women of color sitting in them. A Black teenage boy took the seat across the aisle from me, his headphones on as he sprawled comfortably.

Then two Black men got on the bus at the same time, around Olympic I think. They weren't traveling together. The first man fumbled to pay his fare, looking anxious and holding a bulky object under one arm. He took a seat in the area up front. The second man announced himself loudly by starting a steady stream of vitriol that would not stop until he got off about thirty minutes later. He sat on the other side of the accessible area up front.

The best I could figure from his somewhat incoherent rage was that this man had worked for a fast food chain, and some complaint from a Latino co-worker had cost him his job. Maybe this happened very recently, or maybe this was an old grievance. He felt that it was a racially motivated attack, and he was letting us "Mexicans" on the bus know that he was not afraid of us, he was not going to take it from us. He knew where to find a gun, he let us know. "I love em, but I don't like em," he said over and over to sum up his feelings about Mexicans. Maybe this was a compromise between a Christian belief in loving all people and the anger he felt about losing his job. "I'm from Atlanta, Georgia, and no Mexican is going to scare me."

It's possible I was the only Mexican on that bus. The women and children around me could have been from El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines. There were no Latino men that I could see. It's also likely that the co-worker who had wronged this man had been a Central American immigrant. It's common for non-Latinos to assume that we're all "Mexican" or, as I hear where I currently live in DC, "Spanish."

As the man continued, he punctuated his frustrated ranting rhythmically with the repeated refrain of "now you know, now you know." The man across the aisle with the bulky package, who had been sitting quietly, suddenly started boxing the air. He mixed left and right hooks, bringing his fists close to his face between jabs. It seemed like the anger of the ranting man was upsetting an already troubled soul. I started to wonder if the boxer was going to punch through the window as his fists flashed close to it.

The mother in front of me gathered all three children with her into her seat, probably feeling safer having them behind the metal barrier of the seat in front of them. I don't know what these babies could understand in words, but no doubt they felt their mother's fear, the anger in this man's voice, and the energy in the fists displacing the air a few feet from their faces. I saw one little boy's eyes fixed on the ranter, wide and open. Maybe I was witnessing the birth of a traumatic memory.

My friend James Rojas facilitates tactile workshops that connect childhood experiences, both joyful and painful, with our adult preferences for public space. James wants to create a more inclusive urban planning process, one centered not in convenient assumptions but in complex lived realities. At one of James' workshops last September, I listened to men from both Central America and Burma describe hiding in the jungle from death squads. They smiled nervously as they explained what came out of their hands when they were asked to build a childhood memory using the countless objects James carries around the country in plastic tubs.

How would that wide-eyed little boy remember this day on the bus? Was I a coward for sitting still and witnessing rather than intervening?

The first intervention came from a Black woman behind us on the bus. She defended us "Mexicans" up front, saying we were hardworking people and there was nothing wrong with us. "You need to be angry with the white man," she proclaimed. "But you won't say that to him, because he'd kill you." There weren't any white people on the bus that I could see, though there could have been other half-breeds like me.

The ranter was not okay with this bold woman's intervention, and left the Mexicans aside for a while to belittle her.

As the yelling intensified, so did the air boxing.

Eventually the bold woman came down the aisle, while the bus was stopped at a red light, and it looked like it would come to blows. The bus driver asked the ranter to consider that his words were offensive to some people, but he did not kick him off the bus. Understandable, as bus drivers know they can be targets of violence.

At some point during this altercation the boxer jumped up and fled the bus. The bold woman also jumped off the bus exasperatedly, but as the ranter crowed what he considered his triumph, she changed her mind, re-boarding through the back door, advancing toward him and shouting. As their arguing grew more vicious, she did leave the bus for a final time. A new crowd of Black passengers streamed on, and the ranter thrilled at his larger audience. That was the most sickening moment for me.

I could see the Latina mother's relief when we made it to King Boulevard, and she grabbed the kids and hopped out the back door. I wonder what she said to them after they fled the bus. Did she explain in some dismissive way the man's upset? Did his behavior reinforce a stereotype she'd already held about Black people in this city?

The loss of a few "Mexicans" did not stop the flow of hate speech. A Black man who had boarded after the bold woman gave up attempted to pacify the ranter, using a calmer approach and asking him to respect himself enough to drop the angry words. It didn't work, and the pacifier retreated.

Finally the ranter got off the bus, and Black women who had boarded and seated themselves around me started clucking to each other about his bad behavior. "He needed some assistance," I contributed, "seemed like he was off his medication." I wanted them to confirm to me that this man was sick, not just speaking the truth others were too cowed to tell. The elderly Black woman in front of me said "I'd have grabbed onto this pole and kicked some sense into him," and that comforted me. The fog around me started to dissipate as we shared distaste for the unpleasant storm we'd weathered.

But when I got off the bus at Vernon in Leimert Park, I still felt dazed. I was an outsider in a Black neighborhood, having just been confronted with how hollow it sometimes is to talk about "communities of color" as a unified front in a world where people on the bottom have to claw each other for scraps. I got a compliment on my sharrow tattoo from a Black man riding a cruiser on the sidewalk, which made me feel a little less like an intruder. My tattoo is often an entry point for conversations with strangers in public. I had time for some lunch, so I made my way across the park, where an African dance class had gathered women in colorful garments, and found a food truck.

While I stood in a parking space and waited for my fish, two men approached me, one Black, one Latino. The Black man took my hand, kissed it, and called me an angel. "That is a LOT of affection," I said. "That's how I always am," he said as he sauntered off. The other man asked me about my tattoo, and asked whether it was okay for a police officer to have stopped him for riding on the sidewalk in Alhambra in East L.A. But he didn't really want to talk about bikes, he wanted to describe his loneliness. In a Chicano accent, he told me he was on methadone, having kicked heroin in jail. He had a medical marijuana card for harm reduction, whether his parole officer liked it or not. He had recognized a pattern where his sadness drove him to escape with the needle, he said, and he didn't want to fall in again. Around us in Leimert Park he saw people with families, people who weren't alone like him. He felt outside of it.

He had a rolling suitcase and beads of sweat on his face. A teardrop tattoo by his right eye. He understood, he said, why his family cut him off, with all of his relapses and criminal behavior. He didn't have nobody, and it was terrible, but he understood. He told me about an ex-girlfriend in Colorado, and I think I must have reminded him of her, because she was half Mexican and half white like me. He told me about how he didn't think he'd be welcome in Mexico, a pocho barely hispanohablante. I sipped my can of soda and listened to his feverish rambling, willing to be a smiling female face for a few minutes.

My food arrived on the truck's high shelf, and I parted ways with this man, Joseph, and went to look for a place to sit and eat. Once I was seated in the park, listening to the drums and watching the dancers, it occurred to me that I could have offered to buy him some food. Maybe that was a question on his mind when he first asked about my tattoo, and then he got too shy to let me know he was hungry. I don't know what methadone does to appetite. I looked around to see if he might want to share my fish.

I spotted Joseph across the street, which was closed to car traffic but too hot for anyone to occupy. He was avoiding the sun under the marquee of a theater, he'd set his things on a table there. It looked like a security guard was asking him to leave, and when I looked up again he was gone.

Maybe the little boy on the bus had grown into Joseph, burdened with invisible baggage much more unwieldy than the rolling suitcase which carried all his belongings during the day until he could return to the shelter at night. And one of his memories might be this day structured by the reality that the best job a Black man could get was working in fast food, and that if in-group racial belonging is all you have, you don't have room to care that you're frightening the children of another race as you vent your rage.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Loving The Coast And Destroying It: A California Conundrum

The little brick cottage my great-grandmother's second husband built in Corona Del Mar in the 1940s stood for decades up the street from CDM Main Beach in Orange County, California. The two queens of our family, Grandma and Great Grandma, reigned there through the early years of my childhood, offering a safe haven to their descendants, who all needed it from time to time. The family added a new wing to the back of the house in the early 1990s to expand its living space, but the matriarchs passed away soon after, Grandma in 1994 and Great Grandma in 1996. The house was then sold, this course of action having been laid out in their wills.

Tiny Adonia at Great Grandma's house.
It hurt when we lost the family seat. The financial compensation wasn't a replacement. But over the years, we reclaimed our sense of place on that block and on the beach at the end of the street. All of us spend time there, though we don't live in the town adjacent anymore. In late 2013, Great Grandma's house became an empty patch of dirt, and now a modernist box takes up most of the lot. This has been the fate of many homes in the area. The process goes: raze the modest bones of a cottage, manufacture some stucco palace or other, and flip it all to make a tidy profit.

When one of my cousins happened upon the patch of dirt and let the family know what he'd found, it hurt again, for some more than others. My sister put together a collage of family photos taken in front of the house with its distinctive brickwork, subtitled "the life of a well-loved house." I felt a sense of powerlessness, but when I went to the beach the next time after that and lay on the sand and closed my eyes, I heard the same buzz of planes overhead that I used to hear from Great Grandma's living room. The sidewalk on their street pushed the same roughness against my bare feet that it always had. The comfort we draw from places we made is sometimes separate from the emotional breaking and bonding that we subject ourselves to in our system where homes are commodities. One of those sources of comfort, in my life, has always been the beach.

In Southern California, we love the beach. That's something that I think gets missed oftentimes when we decry the greed that drives destructive industries in the region. We recklessly endanger coastal habitats and beauty by allowing offshore drilling, overdevelopment of fragile coastline, and today, short-sighted desalination plants that will have longterm effects. Because you don't have to be a progressive environmentalist to worship the beach. Members of mega-churches stage family portraits standing in the sand with their jeans rolled up and the family dog splashing in the waves. Central American evangelicals baptize each other en masse, robed in flowing garments and singing. Kids from Santa Ana whose parents can't afford to buy them bathing suits frolic in t-shirts and shorts. Surfers commune with the water early in the morning. We stand along the shoreline and gaze out as a pastime. It's a ritual in my family to pick up food from A's Burgers in Dana Point and drive out to the manmade island in the marina there, watching kayakers and dog walkers while we eat our dinner.

For a long time I've grappled with the car dependence that underpins the Good Life in the place I can't stop thinking of as home. I've always taken it for granted that people embrace their lifestyle's oil dependence, but with the fresh spill damaging life off the coast of Santa Barbara, I started to wonder. I doubt most people think much about oil, even when they're idling their engines in line at Costco to refill their gas tanks. I don't think people spend a lot of time worshipping the oil that powers their status machines, that fuels their arms race to get the biggest SUV so they can be voted "most likely to survive the games of swerve-n-speed on I-5." People don't have reproductions of paintings of oil rigs and oil slicks and oil spills hanging on their living room walls. What they have is pictures of the beach.

The fact that loving the beach is a normal fact of life there doesn't mean the coastline is safe. Sometimes it feels like the social contract in Southern California is
1) Live here because it's beautiful;
2) Ignore our role in degrading its beauty.
This is such an ingrained fact of life in the region that people will react on an emotional level when you ask them to use less or use differently. These are often good-hearted people who consider it correct to close their minds to the damaging effects our everyday use of resources can have on the places we love. That's why I cried as I read about the oil spill this week. The beach is not mine, really, anymore than Great Grandma's house was. Maybe one day I'll walk over and it will be another empty patch of dirt.


When I was home last year, I took some time to bike down PCH, enjoying the buffered space that had been created since the last time I'd explored the area. I stopped at a beach between Capistrano Beach and San Clemente, and I was horrified to find a huge number of spray paint cans and colorful plastic spheres from a ball pit washing back and forth, back and forth, tangled in seaweed at the water's edge. I grabbed a trash bag from a nearby can and filled it with as much of the toxic garbage as I could find. Then I rode away, slowly, hoping to find a cleaner stretch of sand.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

For the People Protesting in Baltimore's Streets

Below are my notes from a talk I gave through LiveMove and the Center for Latina/o and Latin American Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene on Thursday, April 16. The paper I read is a work in progress, but I'm posting it unfinished in solidarity with the protests in Baltimore for Freddie Gray, who died because of police violence.
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I'm going to speak today about what I've seen as a bicycle anthropologist, that there are many unofficial ways of inhabiting our shared streets, even as these streets are shaped by institutions of power and expert knowledge. To start, I want to define “urbanism” really broadly. I see it as diverse and plural, many sets of norms for how people should and shouldn't act when sharing and moving through public space. When seen this way, we can differentiate between “urbanism” as ways of being in shared public spaces and specific expert systems that prescribe how those spaces should be, such as “bicycle urbanism” or “urban planning.”

I got this distinction from planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg. He distinguishes between individual experts and expert systems, arguing that, “the experts do not use rules but operate on the basis of detailed case-experience. This is real expertise. The rules for expert systems are formulated only because the systems require it; rules are characteristic of expert systems, but not of real human experts" (Flyvbjerg 2001: 85). The knowledge individuals gain from repeated experiences as they work informs their expertise, which is also shaped by the systems in which they structure the presentation and use of that expertise in codified ways. The point is that experts aren't objective; they form ideas, rather, from individual experiences that they feed back into shared expert systems.

This matters, because transforming individual experience into expertise is a powerful act. We all have urban experiences; are we all urban experts? No. People access resources based on their ability to demonstrate knowledge of policy and processes, through shared language and social networks.

As an example, let's look at opera. I've been learning about opera recently because my little sister is training to be an opera singer. In January, Vera visited me on the east coast and we went to New York City. We bought standing room tickets to see "Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera House. As we entered the splendid hall, we saw many people dressed up in their finest. Clearly a night at the opera is still a formal affair.

The curtain rose and the performance began. In front of each of us we had a little scrolling screen with translations of the words being sung. I didn't really know what to make of it. I could tell that the performers onstage had some mad skills, but I didn't know how to evaluate them. At the intermission, Vera excitedly explained a few of the distinctions that would be easy for me to grasp. I had a greater appreciation for the singing after that first break.

Think of urbanism as a plethora of musical genres, from classic rock to throat singing to opera. And then you have expert systems that train individuals to hear distinctions in some of those genres. When experts spend years learning to make sense to each other, adopting shared ideas of what's good and bad, a potential byproduct is transforming untrained voices into something that doesn't sound quite right.

As an alternative to expertise as objective knowledge, I use as an anthropological concept called “situated knowledge.” Donna Haraway defined situated knowledge as “embodied objectivity” (Haraway 1988: 581). It's a way to understand how our individual experiences come to seem objective; because they're what we know, we project them onto the world around us, and for some of us the world reflects back that we are correct. This is one aspect of privilege; when your experience matches the world you inhabit and others around you do the work of accommodating your normal.

As authoritative figures, experts have the power to place boundaries around what's relevant to a given problem and what's not. It is important to notice what an expert system takes for granted, and what has been cut off.

I've spent years studying and participating in the expert system of bicycle urbanism, and I'm interested in the way that advocacy-oriented bicycle enthusiasts identify themselves as an oppressed group who will benefit from street change but do not necessarily encompass other forms of oppression in their scope. I've found that the boundaries placed in bicycle urbanism sometimes make it difficult to show the relevance of other social realities to street activity. The agreed-upon causal relationship between built environment design and how people get around tends to overlook those individuals who do not or cannot comply with the city’s normative demands. These other bicycle users exist even in hostile streets designed without them in mind.

To me, this has shown that where we connect street activity to other areas, such as environmentalism or poverty, is culturally conditioned. Do we see streets as a Metropolitan Opera House, where only certain movements are deemed worthy of performance? The expectation that we'd only pay attention to street abuse when people who use streets are often oppressed in so many other ways shows that in bicycle urbanism certain situated knowledges give shape to the expert system.

What are the other styles for using public spaces that currently don't fit into an expert system? Think about protest as an illustration of how street action relates to other areas, as outrage spills into streets, the place I've heard some bicycle urbanists claim does not relate to racism, classism, and other forms of oppression.

There have been a lot of street protests since last summer, when Black Americans wouldn't take the silencing of their experience of police violence anymore. I don't know if any of you have been out in the street in one of these protests, but they are often much quieter than they're portrayed on TV. What gets portrayed in media is calculated to stoke fears of what a protest could become: a riot. I want to explore what a riot is a little bit, how this antithesis of "livability" has something to say about urban life.

So we're going to visit what was on the radio when I was in high school in Southern California in the late 1990s, Sublime's “April 29, 1992.” It's a song that lists the ways in which a riot offers the promise of fulfilling needs people have been denied the right to have.

April 26, 1992
There was a riot on the streets, tell me where were you?
You were sitting home watching your TV
While I was participating in some anarchy

First spot we hit, it was my liquor store
I finally got all that alcohol I can't afford
Red lights flashing, time to retire
And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire

Next stop we hit, it was the music shop
It only took one brick to make that window drop
Finally we got our own PA
Where do you think I got this guitar that you're hearing today?

When we returned to the pad to unload everything
It dawned on me that I need new home furnishings
So once again we filled the van until it was full
Since that day my living room's been much more comfortable

Cause everybody in the hood has had it up to here
It's getting harder and harder and harder each and every year
Some kids went in a store with their mother
I saw her when she came out, she was getting some Pampers

They said it was for the Black man
They said it was for the Mexican
And not for the white man
But if you look at the streets
It wasn't about Rodney King
It's this fucked up situation and these fucked up police

It's about coming up
And staying on top
And screaming 1-8-7 on a motherfucking cop
It's not in the paper, it's on the wall
National Guard
Smoke from all around


A guitar to express yourself; liquor to lighten the mood; diapers to keep a baby clean; furniture for a gathering space. In the song, all of these reasonable material goods are the fruits of the riot, which symbolizes fear, disorder, and chaos. The play of the song is to suggest that riots are productive for some people. I'm not endorsing riots; what I'm pointing out is the song's message that there are hurts in this world that make riots seem better than the current order. The riot is pressure exploding outward, people screaming because they can't fit their lives into the system in which they've been told they must survive. You can hear this when you go to a protest, when people shout together in the street. Can you imagine people shouting in the Met?

The riot is not so different from street life; it's just an extreme of street chaos. Our streets are already chaotic, because the world is not just. In bicycle urbanism there's a pervasive idea that the biggest insecurity we face is in interacting with hostile motorists. This denies the struggles that some people who use bicycles today face in many other areas. Housing insecurity. Food insecurity. Water insecurity. Job insecurity. These are global problems. And the streets are the place where the pressure escapes, a melting pot where hierarchies can be overturned. An unemployed Black man can drive a fancy car and assert his humanity; a woman driver can cut pedestrians off, attentive only to her own needs at least in this space. Streets are riotous everyday.

What if we started defining what to include in an expert system through paying attention to all the ways people disrupt and reproduce hierarchy in the street?

The singer for Sublime, Bradley Nowell, was a white man who grew up in a wealthy community on the edge of Los Angeles County. There are important questions we could ask about Nowell's fitness to speak for people participating in the L.A. Riots, or the Civil Unrest as it is called in L.A. activist circles. The song doesn't even get the date right, and there are plenty of other poetic interpretations of the unrest from artists who are people of color. I don't know Nowell's intentions with the song. He had died of a heroin overdose before the song was released in July 1996. I'm not really interested in whether he rioted or not; what I'm interested in here is his role as an outsider, an observer, and a mouthpiece for the anger and pain (and yes, fun too) spewing out through violence during that week. What I'm interested in his decision to document marginal realities he saw in Southern California. More than anything, I see Nowell as a flâneur.

Flânerie is a French word for urban wandering and observation. It is a mode of keen openness to the vibrating life of the city. To learn more, Simon Sadler's book The Situationist City is a great starting point. You can also look at the work of Walter Benjamin.

In my work, flânerie is a central method. I've based my findings about bicycling on ethnographic wandering on a bicycle. I see myself producing situated knowledge about streets through recognizing the situated knowledge of all street users as they move around and express what they see as street rights and street wrongs. There are many different perspectives, habits, and values co-present in shared public spaces. They're not all respectable.

The urban observer is not confined to noticing what's respectable. She sees through her own eyes and can be deeply affected by what is going on around her, even when it's unclear where the lines should fall between right and wrong; there's a lot of sympathy in Nowell's words.

Sometimes what urban observers find are ugly truths that the current status quo would rather ignore. This is what the line “it's not in the paper, it's on the wall” says to me. Realities that exist without recognition overflow into daylight at some point. I have tried to harness the visceral feeling of vulnerability on a bicycle as a way to observe negative experiences as well as more pleasurable ones. It's made me unsure that we already know how to fix our street problems, because there aren't necessarily readymade solutions for improving situations we haven't invested in understanding.

A good starting point is opening our eyes to more forms of life in the street. This isn't a rejection of infrastructure or design; it is a call for further study of the diversity of street habits before making authoritative claims about how people should behave. Why must they change? According to whose standards? What is lost and what is gained, and by whom? Who defines the problems and who defines the solutions? Prescribing urban change can be done in more and less respectful ways, in tandem with struggling communities or in assuming things about them, cause we don't all define urban problems the same way.

Anthropologists Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis found an example of this in studying a once-segregated housing project in New Orleans. They documented how residents of the neighborhood saw the place as having positive aspects, which were overlooked by outsiders and city officials interested in razing it. What would it look like for those residents to decide how their neighborhood should be viewed? Interviewing a man named Troy Materre, they found that,
Although his trips were within the confines of the social and physical segregation of New Orleans, his telling of them recenters the black experience—young people in Desire did not necessarily believe their lives were marginal. And contrary to dominant assumptions, even young people without cars had considerable mobility in the city. Troy’s comment—“maybe they was cut off”—challenges liberal notions that black people are somehow deficient if they are not among white people. In this statement, Troy proposes a revisionist view of segregation: Through their own social practices and restricted spatial mobility, white people denied themselves access to Desire. (Breunlin and Regis 2006:751)
The destitute also have an urbanism, though they may not have the resources and expert languages to create positive representations of their norms. As an expert observer, I see the city from my own mobile position, and I also recognize as fellow travelers the people who inhabit other urbanisms, other livabilities. In cultural anthropology we take it for granted that people follow differing logics, and I have found that to support sustainable culture change we must take the time to respect and understand them. Instead of speaking for or on behalf of the voiceless, we can use our expert status to let them start the tune, and then we harmonize, we find through a shared chorus a new song none of us knew before. We can be in respectful solidarity with realities we may not live ourselves, but it takes letting go of the idea that the way we see things is the right way forward. That can be easier said than done.

I know from my experience as a bike user where the urgency in bicycle urbanism comes from. I know it starts with the surge of adrenaline and fear we get when motorists rev engines at us or honk. I know it is fed by the horrible pain of losing loved ones to street violence, and fears about climate disasters. But we need to learn how to situate ourselves and see the security we have in other areas that allows street security to be the biggest thing on our minds. Without that awareness, we uphold an expert system that is calibrated to serve certain groups' needs, when the population of bicycle users is really quite diverse.

We are in an exciting moment right now where people across the country, from all racialized backgrounds, are organizing together to shed light on more realities of racial profiling in policing. I'm not involved in criminal justice work, but what I see playing out in street rallies and protests is the surfacing of more truths, truths that had been pushed down because they are unpleasant and come from a marginalized group.

So for those of us interested in urbanisms and urban planning, let's take note: when are the expert systems that explain and manage urbanisms about transforming the city into a Metropolitan Opera House where only certain trained voices perform? And when are these expert systems modes for observing all the styles out there that people are performing, singing their pain and their joys out in the street? Let's challenge the idea that people need to learn our rules in order for us to pay attention to what they have to say.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Street Pain

In the summer of 2013, I was living in SE Portland on the corner of 32nd and Stark, a popular street for biking. One night a friend and I were inside watching a movie when a sickening crunch outside grabbed our attention. I felt a surge of panic and looked fearfully out of the window. It turned out we had heard a car colliding with a person on a bicycle. The bicyclist lay on the ground in the street a few feet from my building, his blood splattered over the broken windshield of the truck. Other people had already gathered, so there was nothing I could do to help. After an ambulance arrived and carried him away his blood left a stain on the street that remained for as long as I lived there.

Last night around sunset, I had just returned to my home in Northeast D.C. after biking to the grocery store. As I pulled into my alley, I saw some kids playing around, one of them lying on the ground. I thought to myself, that's not a good place to lie down, but I didn't say anything. I feel like enough of an outsider in this neighborhood without running around and telling kids how I think they should behave.

It was warm out, with just a touch of humidity to foreshadow summer. I opened the windows in my second floor apartment, and the kids I'd seen in the alley were hooting as they played. I could hear the sound of cars passing a little too quickly down our quiet street, as they often do. This is a town where people drive as fast as possible, I guess it makes them feel powerful. This is a town where feeling powerful is important.

And then the sounds outside changed. A screech and a thud punctuated the cries of fun and turned them into cries of fear. I didn't want to believe that it was happening again. The surge of panic returned, and I started saying "oh God no" over and over as I made my way to the bathroom window. I looked out and saw people gathered around someone lying in the gutter. It was one of the kids who'd been playing in the alley. A white sedan was parked in the middle of the road with the driver's door open. "Don't touch him, don't touch him!" an adult barked at the kids surrounding their friend. I saw the prone figure move his arms, apparently conscious, thank God.

I couldn't do anything to help, but I felt like I had to go wait outside until the ambulance arrived. People came from surrounding blocks to join the quietly waiting circle around the boy. I stood in my backyard, apart from them, remaining an outsider to this neighborhood where I represent the cure D.C. has chosen for poverty: rising rents.

I want to be part of a street safety conversation where this little boy matters as a whole person. What are the stresses his parents face as they try to survive in this city? Is he going to be scolded for darting into the street, while the lady who hit him with her car maintains her sense that driving is the best way to get around? What do these street traumas mean for marginalized communities that know all too well the powerlessness of pain?

I don't want to witness any more hurt in the road, but far too much of the "safety" work I see happening would cut off lives beyond the street. The insecurity that a Black family in D.C. faces goes far beyond the danger of a soccer ball rolling in front of a car. It's time to start bearing witness to the other ways in which communities are drowning. We are not going to break the back on driving by villainizing drivers, when driving matters so much to economic and social status.

Who cares about that little boy more: me, the bike anthropologist looking out from the second story window, or the woman who hit him who waited by his side?

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Maybe Bike Share Just Isn't Equitable

One of the biggest topics taking up airtime in the resourced part of the bike world is the development and expansion of bike share systems. I've been asked about "equity" and bike share many times. After about the 15th request for my expert opinion on the topic, it occurred to me that the believers in bike share see this as something that HAS TO WORK.

Bike share is one of the current "silver bullets" of bike advocacy, the trends that become THE solution, THE intervention that is going to fix the United States' problem with biking. Bike share creates access to bicycles; boom, problem solved.

The thing is, no matter how many vision boards y'all are creating to attract customers and resources to bike share, there is no silver bullet. And this groupthink around bike share seems to have made it difficult for folks to recognize something that matters: maybe bike share just isn't equitable. Where stations go, what kind of bikes are used, how you pay for them; all of these are interesting design questions that are hard to answer in a way that works for everyone in a given city.

Maybe we'll find that these inherently limited bike share systems aren't a great use of public resources. If companies want to invest in them as a lifestyle amenity making certain neighborhoods even more desirable according to "livability" standards, that's a different conversation than this idea that bike share is somehow a public transportation resource.

There's a lot of other more immediately equitable stuff to invest in if you want to spend transportation dollars on bicycling. Money could go to local entrepreneurs who want to start up bike shops in neighborhoods where there hasn't been one in many years. Money could go to youth education programs where kids learn to build bikes for themselves and for family. Money could go to community events where people find out that hanging around outside of cars in the street is pretty fun.

Given the fervor and flurry of investment I've seen around making bike share equitable in recent years, I think I might be saying something pretty controversial right now. Well, that's on purpose. The bike world needs more controversy if it wants to grow bigger and make bicycling work for more people. It's important that people researching bike share as a possible use of public resources remain open to the potential conclusion that these systems simply aren't the best option.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Multiple Meanings of Equity

I've got a chapter in a new academic volume called Sustainability in the Global City, and recently another contributor, Professor Miriam Greenberg, invited me to participate in an online educational resource called Critical Sustainabilities. Talking with Miriam about the project reminded me of how many notions can be represented by a single term like "sustainability," and how a critical analysis of these multiple meanings creates a more democratic, shared change project.

As a bike researcher, I've been engaged for years with the Bicicultures collaboration that has experimented with this multiplicity in "bicycling." There are many cultural practices assumed by different individuals when they hear that word, and anyone who wants to expand bicycling to more people should get curious about what bicycling means in different settings.

I've also encountered this multiple meanings phenomenon with the term "equity." Here I'm going to discuss a few of the ways I've heard equity used in the transportation equity conversation at the national level and in bike advocacy networks. Each of these meanings represents a useful part of a larger equity strategy, but on its own has some limitations.

PR. Some people think "equity" means changing who the public associates with a particular mode of transportation such as bicycling. They try to accomplish this through featuring people of more racialized groups, genders, and abilities in communications materials.

In bike advocacy this has been a common tactic for a few years. It happens in two significantly different ways:
1. An organization with a homogeneous staff and board starts using images of heterogeneous people in their communications materials.
2. A group or individual who shares an identity with the marginalized group portrayed generates the images.

What's the difference? Let's say a bike organization with all white leaders produces a booklet featuring people of color advocates. The reason this difference or similarity between the producers of the images and the people portrayed matters is that simply pasting more diverse faces on the same projects designed by predominantly white expert circles is tokenizing and does not set up a standard for including more people in decisionmaking. Are we trying to send the message that people of color do bike (true), so there's not a need for changed decisionmaking in bike advocacy (false)?

Another example: the public discourse on bike share is really focused on the bad optics projected by a lack of diversity in who uses the systems. In my experience it's been harder to draw supporters' and reporters' interest to behind the scenes issues that might improve bike share (worker organizing, designing systems differently from the get go, and questioning why the systems were publicly funded in the first place).

Building a diversity-focused PR strategy can be a good way to signal an intention to change, but on its own does not constitute that change. The case of UN Women canceling their planned collaboration with Uber is a recent example of a PR strategy being challenged because it was focused on image rather than equitable change.

Data Inclusion. I've heard many D.C. professionals use "equity" to refer to a policy project to include more data about people of color, low-income families, and people with disabilities in legislative processes so that public funding reaches these marginalized groups. A great example is the National Equity Atlas, a comprehensive resource designed to increase access to available information about inequality.

Many people believe in the power of data, especially "big data" (another term with multiple meanings that is circulating widely), to produce a more equal society. Of course, "data" on its own is not objective; it is a source of information that can be interpreted in many ways to many ends. Who is interpreting the data should be seen as part of the picture, and in this equity project, policy professionals remain in charge of speaking for community needs without necessarily explaining how those professionals earned their right to speak for community members. In practice, I've seen this meaning of equity become "train the white professionals to serve other groups' needs better through exposing them to data about those groups." This doesn't problematize a lack of diversity in leadership and professional positions.

Planning Together. In my own work on the power divide between expert and community knowledge, I've used "equity" to mean changing who participates in decisionmaking. We need more professionals making decisions based on the skills they developed through surviving as a marginalized group; we need more community members standing up for their right to use shared urban spaces in ways that make sense to them. We need more people to decide what to decide, not just chase them down to choose from a list of options experts created to solve problems experts defined.

Based on the tensions I've encountered as I've tried to move this strategy forward, it seems like this meaning of equity can be a bitter pill for current experts and leaders to swallow. It's tough to continue advocating for power sharing when people in power do not want to admit what's in their control. So a major limitation of this strategy is that it's a challenge to get authentic buy-in from leadership.

Gloss for Race. If you're uncomfortable talking about the role that racializing processes play in our society, you can refer to the fact that you know there's a problem by using the term "equity." This vague meaning of equity has its utility, because admitting there's a problem is an important first step in any change process. It's an oblique approach, kind of like not wanting to look directly into the sun because it's too bright, so you shield your eyes and look to the side. It's a start, right?

I do think that there's a danger of this imprecise approach leaving other marginalized groups' needs out of equity projects. When I was running an equity initiative for a national bike organization, I was reminded a number of times by other professionals and advocates that the "equity" picture needs to include individuals with disabilities, for example.

A Comprehensive Approach
What are the effects of people using the same term but meaning different things by it? We could all benefit from more discussion about what we have in mind when taking on an "equity" project. Mapping out a comprehensive approach that explains how different meanings of equity support one another and build into a bigger picture would help many organizations and agencies focus their work.

Perhaps most importantly, these kinds of mapping exercises would create transparent agendas for equity projects that new stakeholders could use to hold institutions accountable. The expectation that community members should trust groups simply because they've started to use the word "equity" is troubling.

Personally I'm going to take a break from using "equity" and get back to challenging the divide between expert and community member more directly. There are great ideas and techniques for social justice and sustainability out there that don't fit in the current equity conversation, and I want to help make more room for those ideas in our planning and development processes. When people ask me for advice about "equity," I'll request that they be specific about what the term means to them so that I can give answers that explain my own commitments more clearly.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bicycling Beyond Bike Advocacy

I often hear people describe me as leading change in bicycling, in the sense that I am championing the inclusion of something new. I'd like to clarify something: I'm not bringing anything new into bicycling. I try to use my anthropology training to bring more existing bicycling realities into bicycle advocacy, research, and planning.

Many bike advocates refer to bicycling as though it's some isolated and singular phenomenon. Starting from this belief that bicycling exists as some sovereign thing, they assume they can choose whether to connect (their version of) bicycling to other issues through their advocacy agendas.

But, to quote myself and other bike scholars, bicycling does not happen in a vacuum. It's not separate from the streets, the neighborhoods, the communities, the life and history of the places where we ride. When bike advocates deny or selectively recognize these connections, which are fundamental features of bicycling and other mobilities, it's no wonder headaches and misunderstandings result.

I've been realizing lately, through conversation with some of the bike thinkers I know, that I bought into a myth that everyone who likes bicycling has something in common. I don't believe that anymore. I support bicycling because it's cheap, good for the environment, and a great metaphor for change. I've been lucky to find a particular bike movement that puts social justice at its center. But our perspective is not the norm in bike advocacy, as I'm reminded every time I see myself portrayed as some challenger.

I know that for some folks, their advocacy starts from a very real experience of feeling less-than on bikes. They've seen bicycling excluded from certain road or trail spaces, or they've felt under attack because of hostile motorists. Some of these advocates then make metaphorical connections to other oppressed groups and appropriate the language that describes their struggles, using phrases like "second-class citizen" to describe what they see as a lack of rights for cyclists.

The thing is, this step to claim through bike advocacy an oppressed minority status is itself very exclusionary. Since bicycle users are not a homogeneous group, many of us who bike are members of embattled racialized/gendered/classed/abled groups. For us, biking might be a liberating practice that encourages us in other areas of life. That doesn't mean biking is our only form of expression, or our most central one.

There is no singular bicycling identity; there are lots of shared cultures where people agree about what biking means and how to do it properly. Bike advocacy is one of those cultures. It's been my belief that opening bike advocacy to more bicycling perspectives will lead to better results. I have to admit that my recent experience working for the League of American Bicyclists has shaken my conviction that bike advocacy is ready to lead a diverse bike movement. Some individuals are still held back by some personal issues that keep them from celebrating the mixed, jumbled, beautiful reality of our streets.

For this reason, I think it's important to restate that bicycling is not the same thing as bicycle advocacy. If bike advocates want to speak on behalf of bicycling, they need to let go of the exclusionary fantasy that people like me are crashing some bike party.

We are the party.