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.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Bicycling, Above or Beyond Traffic Laws?

I ride in a cycle track on my morning commute. This narrow strip of pavement, separated by parked cars from a one way street with three lanes of traffic, gets very busy in the direction of downtown DC. Some people ride a little wobbly, on bikes that don't fit so great. Others ride really fast, zipping between the slower movers. Sometimes it's both at once, a wobbler who thinks traveling asfastaspossible is the right way to go, and they swing around me with their gym bags flailing.

I wonder if these riders know much about the politics of bike infrastructure, and that it took a considerable amount of effort and years of pushing to get this little bollarded avenue in place. I prefer not to pass people in the cycle track, because I view it as a space that's been created precisely to subvert the expectation that everyone on a bike will ride fast. At least, that's the message assigned to cycle tracks in bike advocacy circles. But it's pretty difficult to affix one group's definition onto shared public spaces that thousands of individuals define for themselves in how they use them over and over.

Much bike advocacy today aims to convince the public to act in certain ways in public streets through changing infrastructure and enforcing laws. I've got a different approach as a bike anthropologist, acknowledging that the bicycle has a particular capacity for disrupting time and space and thinking about how to take this into account.

Riding a bicycle encourages a remarkable trick: a person on a bike finds fissures in time and space, gaps between red lights and green, moments when drivers haven't noticed they can proceed. It's pretty ingenious, you can squeeze through small gaps in space better than a larger car can, and you can squeeze through small gaps in time better than a slower pedestrian can.

In the U.S. today, squeezing through these gaps often involves breaking the law. And from the standpoint of Follow The Rules So We Are Taken Seriously, it means biking "wrong" because lawful behavior is supposed to legitimize us as road users. But as an observer of streets, I can see that many people out and about are less interested in following traffic laws than they are in squeezing through time and space gaps. They legitimize themselves as road users by just going. If getting to work quickly will be aided by riding a bike through an intersection against a light, they go ahead and do it.

Based on the fact that I'm often the lone cyclist waiting at a red light while others stream past me, I'm not even sure that the other pedalers are actively scoffing traffic laws. If they are, the hesitation while they deliberate whether to scoff known laws must be measured in microseconds. It's a pretty clear challenge to the goal I know many bike advocates share of making streets safer through following standardized rules. A lot of bike professional work is devoted to adapting European bike-specific rules and designs, so that the way we move around can fit into existing traffic engineering standards. The cycle track is the fullest realization of this vision, an increasingly standardized traffic control device specifically designed to regulate the flow of bicycle circulation.

Beyond controlling behavior through street design, us bike people also try to convince folks that being lawful is a good idea. In some places I've lived, especially Portland, Oregon, bike users take it upon themselves to police the behavior of others on bikes. I remember when I was finding my groove as a bike commuter there in 2005, I would yell at bikers who blew through stop signs. The feeling of self righteousness was like a drug, pumping some more adrenalin into my veins. When I moved to Los Angeles, I developed a more flexible approach: I would stop if drivers were around, but I wasn't going to put my foot down at a stop sign if there was nobody there. I no longer found it appropriate to tell other people how to use the streets, considering the pressure we all faced from hostile drivers. But riding against red lights remained anathema. Here in DC, I'm starting to crack, feeling like a fool as I watch others exploit the time gaps I'm letting slip by.

And then, this summer, a man driving a car with a suspended license struck my mother and her partner as they crossed a street lawfully, in a crosswalk, with a walk signal. They were in Newport Beach, California, along a stretch of the beautiful Orange County coastline where people driving cars hurt people walking and biking with a frequency that speaks volumes about how little consideration is normally offered to bodies outside of cars in my home region.

So now when I stand at red lights astride my road bike and feel the breeze of other bike users passing through the empty intersections, I think bitterly about how the law did not protect my mother. She was behaving in accordance with street infrastructure and legal regulations when another person chose to ignore multiple laws and break her bones in four places. What does the law protect? What does using the infrastructure properly ensure? I don't have that feeling of self righteousness anymore to keep me smug while other people get home faster.

When people on bikes take advantage of time gaps and cut off pedestrians, I'm troubled. To me, this is what it means to bike "wrong": to make oneself into a threat to other road users. If there's a person approaching me on foot, I don't think of the space that person is about to occupy as up for grabs. I'd like to see more bike people espouse an inclusive message about "right" ways to ride that acknowledge others' rights to occupy space, even if it's going to mean letting go of one moment's forward motion.

I'd like to see bike people get past acting above the law, and focus on moving beyond it. I don't see a lot of value in fighting so hard to create special laws and infrastructure for people on bicycles to ignore, just like so many people do when driving cars. I want to legitimize the existing and future social reality of shared streets, both in our own habits while riding and in our advocacy work.

But who knows, maybe I'll just start yelling at the bicyclists who cut pedestrians off. Old habits die hard.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The other day I rode my bicycle
To the National Museum of the American Indian

I wanted to see with my own eyes
What I've started to feel
That other ways of living
Pre-conquest, those were real

Before the moment of contact
And long after it too
People made cosmologies
And they looked like me and you

Before the world turned to
Where it's still stuck in time
Where Cortés and Columbus are heroes
And the ones already here, slime

So I rode my bicycle down
To the NMAI
Because I needed to know
There's more than just lies

And there they were
Facts out on display
They wanted us dead
And yet we're here today

My sister ran our DNA
To learn our antecedents
Africa, las Américas, Europa
Slave, indígena, peasant

Norway, England, Germany
Ireland, Spain, Mexico
Other words are lost
Those are the names we know

Whose bodies absorbed contact
Through everyday brutality?
Annihilation visible in retrospect
Eased through consanguinity

Well if it were up to me it would crumble
The view that puts white in the clouds
That puts black in the ground
Endless evidence in shrouds

But there is no choice for me
Of a self/other divide
My cells are a remix
I see through enemy eyes

I confirmed the hunch
That's pounding in my skull
The clearer I can see
The more my knife seems dull

There is no other place
In which to be this self
Whipping my flesh
Leaves you with welts
I see myself at NMAI
But I can't keep conquest at bay
Mestizo irises light my eyes
Always, forever, Columbus Day

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Bike Equity Isn't

Equity isn't
The width of a lane
A couple extra inches
That make us all the same

Equity isn't
A smiling brown face
And hot pants on a bike
Sex in an exotic place

Equity isn't
A list of easy steps
That make our biggest problem
Into boxes you can check

Equity isn't
Policing a divide
Where some can travel freely
Others, stand aside

Equity isn't
Settled by a report
Every time I write
I wait for the retort

What equity is:
A landscape we don't know
It means a future world
Where every child can grow

If you deny how far we are
From reaching that plateau
Equity isn't
Because you won't make it so

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Don't Make a Chipwich Out of Me

I'm a chipster, a Chicana hipster.

I grew up wearing vintage clothes and lying on brown shag carpet behind the ripped up screens of our 1970s stucco apartment in a Mexican ethnoburb, whose suburban lawns and pools didn't keep white outsiders from calling it a ghetto. I wore Converse two sizes too big for me for several years because they were the only kind on sale at Costco. I use my long brown legs to ride a 1980s Panasonic road bike.

And, make no mistake, I fucking love the Smiths.

In some ways, my existence has been charmed. I get to think across many worlds: bicycle advocacy, cultural anthropology, bicycle research, Latino urbanism, and I've been trying to find a place in environmental justice. My career has given me a ridiculously specific and exciting opportunity: I get to help show that while bicycling lives at the poles of "Entitled White Man's Toy for Running Red Lights" and "Invisible Person of Color's Mode of Last Resort," it also exists in the vast continents in between. Chipsters like me also use bicycles. Us in-betweeners know that the world is a complicated place, and we've got some pretty good ideas about how to make things better.

For example, I understand why it is frustrating to see a lot of white men running red lights on their bikes. But you know what? My frustration doesn't stop there. As a woman of color, historically and structurally relegated to the role of observer, I know that power and privilege fill our roadways. I know that you can be a jerk with a car, a bike, or just on your own two feet. I know how cutting someone off on the street connects intimately to larger structures of domination and power. I know that the ability to influence infrastructure investment has a lot to do with power. That's why I've focused my energies on working with bike advocates to envision what equitable bike policy and planning should mean.

In short, I don't need anyone to explain to me that white male privilege is at work in the street. I got this.

What motivates me a lot of days is the knowledge that a lot of people in this world have no voice, and the more conversations I join, the closer (incrementally, infinitesimally, achingly tinily) we are to justice. But lately I've been feeling kind of compressed, like my existence isn't appropriate for mainstream consumption.

The reality is, a lot of activism is still about white men fighting each other for dominance. This week I had the bizarre experience of a white man telling me that biking can't possibly be a space for social justice because (wait for it) all bicyclists are privileged white men.

Where do people like me fit into that framework? If we've got white saviors running around yelling about white privilege, what are we for? Are we just puffy oppressed puppets you can put on your hand before you sock that jerk who dared to think differently from you? Are we just sand to fling in the eyes of your white rival on the playground?

I may be a chipster, but I am not a chipwich. I'm not the filling in a sandwich where white men squeeze me into oblivion so that they can get at each other's throats.

My troubled brown father didn't have much to give, but I will always be grateful for the freedom that comes from knowing that I don't need a white man to tell me right from wrong.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


I live underground.
I seem to be whole.
I have two arms, two legs,
A head.
I can move freely,
If I stay down.

Surfacing is tricky.
Some people don't want to see all of me.
They can accept
My fingers, maybe some knuckle.
Sometimes I can reach out as far as my elbows.
Sometimes I go feet first, and make it to my knees.
 But emerging whole
Is offensive
It's dangerous.

It makes the people
Whose feelings matter more than mine

They squirm, unaccustomed to seeing bodies like mine.
My existence is an abstract to them
Something to argue about, and dismiss when they're bored.

The arguments happen because they feel they are to blame somehow.
They do not seem to grasp
That keeping me down,
That is their culpability
That is their contribution
To the centuries of oppression
To the history they find too ugly to reveal.

That is when the fresh new hands
Get dirty
By shoving us down
And telling us it's not time
To exist.