Justice-Oriented Mobility Advocates to “Untokenize” Active Transportation Movement at November Convening
The Token One
He was so glad I had “talked about people of color committing violence against other people of color,” he gushed, shaking my hand.
My eyebrows shot up.
The focus of my talk at last October’s CalBike’s annual summit had been the extent to which the socio-economic and cultural landscapes of a community are inextricably intertwined with the physical one. Using the installation of amenities in a historically disenfranchised lower-income community of color as an example, I had explained how decades of disinvestment, discriminatory planning, suppressive policing, and denial of opportunity had generated chronic insecurity in the public space. And how, as a result, many residents were still unable to access these “improvements.” Our stories about mobility, I concluded, must therefore also engage questions of access, equity, justice, and a wider range of historical and contemporary barriers in order to be truly inclusive.
At no point did I ever offer support for the artificial and highly problematic construct of “black-on-black violence.”
And yet, here was this white gentleman in front of me, congratulating me for having done so.
The advocates of color I spoke with afterwards had understood exactly what I was going for. They got the placement of mobility in a community context. And they got the call to think beyond bicycles to the constraints contexts imposed on the actual bodies moving through space on those two wheels. These were frameworks they understood intuitively.
But much like the guy shaking my hand, many of the white advocates in the room had filtered the presentation through their own experiences. And what they had come away with was very different.
A few said they had never considered the idea that certain streets might not be accessible to some people for reasons that had nothing to do with cars. Was this really true? Others seemed to think certain communities were unapproachable. How would one even begin to engage people in such a community? How would you know who to talk to? some asked. It seemed so dangerous to some, but also kind of edgy and exciting to others. Are you giving tours?
I wasn’t sure I could have expected better.
Despite being spot-on-topic at the “Equity in Motion”-themed summit, my presentation had been a major outlier.
The panel had been focused on how to pitch stories about the positive aspects of cycling – the joy, sense of well-being, freedom, and links to community it can bring. But as a reporter whose beat is specifically tied to two transit-dependent and historically disenfranchised lower-income communities of color in Los Angeles, mobility meant something different to me.
And given the theme, I had argued to the panel organizer, it seemed appropriate to explore the extent to which a choice framework both excluded those who cycle out of need – largely lower-income people of color – and rendered important questions of accessibility to the margins.
The organizer and the other panelists were enthusiastic about including an equity perspective. But in the weeks leading up to the event, it was clear that being open to including equity and actually creating the space for that topic to be properly explored are two very different things. And the more I tried to explain my critical approach to the organizer, the longer and more involved my emails became, and the more consternation I felt I was causing.
People don’t like to be told what isn’t working, I was admonished at one point.
But I didn’t see where I had a choice.
I have to speak to current frameworks to be heard. And I have to spend most of my time deconstructing said frameworks just to explain why I should not be dismissed out of hand. And every single time I have to proceed this way – every time I post another 3,000 – 5,000 word story trying to justify the incorporation of marginalized voices and realities, compose yet another lengthy explanatory email, or look around the room where I am speaking – I wonder if this will be the last time I will be invited to opine on this topic.
The More Things Change, the More They Really Don’t
It’s an odd thing to observe that the more popular the topic of equity has become over the last few years, the less genuine space there is to truly address it in a meaningful way.