LACBC’s Tamika Butler Talks Bikes, Equity, Intersectionality, and Tokenization on Bike Nerds Podcast

Tamika Butler, Executive Director of the LACBC, in a photo she shared of herself during her powerful NACTO talk last fall.
Tamika Butler, Executive Director of the LACBC, in a photo she shared of herself during her powerful NACTO talk last fall.

“Does it feel like you’re the…you’re the token black woman who’s making the circuit in the bicycle and transportation realm to fit…an ideal of inclusiveness and diversity?”

It’s an awkward question to ask someone directly. And it sounded like BikeNerds host Kyle Wagenschutz felt pretty awkward while asking it of podcast guest Tamika Butler, executive director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC).

With good reason – when you’re talking about the issue of tokenization, you’re also essentially talking about merit. Would someone be asked to be a speaker, invited to be part of a board, or given a particular platform if they didn’t check a diversity box or two? And while Wagenschutz was in no way questioning Butler’s merit or that of other speakers on equity that he had seen in the last couple of years, he had noticed a pattern to way that speakers from marginalized communities were called upon by the larger mobility advocacy community, he said, and he wondered what that looked like from Butler’s perspective.

The question of tokenization is one all of us representing marginalized groups wrestle with on a regular basis. And it’s one that can leave you feeling unsettled or even raw, depending on the situation and the extent to which someone is being tokenized. Because while you might have every right to be somewhere, you are generally conscious of why others think you are there and where you do or do not fit in to the larger picture. Which means that you are also aware that your continued access to that space may be contingent on how well you fulfill the role that others have imagined for you. And that your performance is likely to be judged, not on how much you contributed to an outcome or challenged a particular paradigm, but how well you stayed within your lane and didn’t put others on the defensive.

Tokenization is something Butler said she was highly conscious of and counted among the biggest struggles she’s faced during her two-plus-year tenure at the LACBC.

It has made her occasionally question her job and her role in mobility advocacy, she said. And it has reminded her that as a “certain type of person of color,” as she put it, she is seen as less threatening and given greater access to white-centered spaces than other folks of color. She knows she has the right to be in these spaces – she is very good at what she does. But she also knows that many look to her as their go-to equity person instead of looking beyond her – either to others that have been pushing boundaries in the field longer than she has or investing in much-needed self-reflection and internal adjustment of their own approaches to programming and engagement.

The topic of tokenization comes up at the end of the half-hour long interview with Bike Nerds Wagenschutz and Sara Studdard, but it is consistent with themes discussed throughout.

The conversation begins with how Butler got involved in cycling when she moved to Los Angeles and the intersectional justice perspective she brought to the LACBC.

The LACBC, she said, had done work in and with lower-income communities of color for some time before she arrived. It hadn’t always gone well, she acknowledged, but noted it wasn’t always for a lack of trying.

In my own experience participating in the LACBC’s bike ambassador program in South L.A. a few years back, for example, it was clear to me the LACBC was sincere in its effort to build relationships there. But the deep disconnect in the way the organization expected South L.A. to work versus the way things actually worked there was just one of many hurdles the program was unable to overcome. And because, at the time, the LACBC didn’t have the institutional flexibility to adapt to the realities of the area – a place where it is tough for folks to do advocacy in neighborhoods they don’t claim, where recreational riding is hampered by gang issues, access to cheap bikes/repairs, police harassment, and the stigma associated with biking, and where people don’t have the luxury (or transportation) to attend meetings – the program left some (myself included, if I’m being honest) wondering if the LACBC could ever be trusted to work in the community.

Centering justice and equity, as Butler has done, has made it easier for the LACBC to take a second shot at building some of those relationships and at deepening and strengthening existing ones.

Doing so has inadvertently introduced tensions into some of the LACBC’s long-standing relationships with its core (and predominantly white and/or privileged) membership, Butler acknowledged.

Some of their base has complained that, while the organization’s work has expanded and reached new people under her leadership, it no longer focuses on making L.A. County a safe, fun, and healthy place to ride a bike.

It’s a critique Butler makes clear she does not accept. Arguing the two are not mutually exclusive, she explained that centering equity and justice only means that the LACBC is now also addressing questions of access. It would be hard for the organization to claim success in improving the bikability of the county while folks of color and others the margins were still being denied basic access to their streets.

Harmonizing the LACBC’s longer-term strategy and internal structure with the more intersectional approach Butler envisions is still a work in progress, she said. They are currently figuring out how to embed that approach within the LACBC’s strategic plan. It is a task that excites her, she said, as she anticipates the end result will be an organization that is more clearly defined as one that advocates for safer and more accessible streets for all.

Hear the whole conversation here (Butler appears at about the 10:20 mark).

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