“Facing Race” in the Bike Movement, Part I

Carolyn Szczepanski
Communications Director
November 2012

Source: BikeLeague

Facing Race Conference Poster

At bicycle gatherings over the past few years, I’ve attended discussions about building an inclusive movement, engaging more diverse communities in our work. We’ve started the sometimes difficult but absolutely critical conversation about race, class and bicycle advocacy.

But it’s not just about who’s at the table when decisions are made about our streets. It’s also about who’s engaged and how we’re doing our work within bicycle advocacy organizations themselves.

That’s why Hamzat and I went to the Facing Race conference last week. We know the League has a lot to learn.

Organized by the Applied Research Center — which addresses racial justice though media, research and leadership development — this national conference brought more than 1,400 people from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to Baltimore to learn how we can address social justice in our diverse work to build better communities.

Now, addressing racial inequity can be an uncomfortable topic, and, in my experience, that unease can push the conversation to the backburner as we scramble to fight the day-to-day fires of grassroots advocacy.  So for the first session I went to a panel on “Changing the Conversation on Race.” Right away, Maya Wiley, founder of the Center for Social Inclusion, made a great distinction about how we even approach conversations about engaging diverse communities.

In many cases, “we’re conflating racism with race,” she said. “If you start with racism, people feel like you’re accusing them of being really bad people. But the vast majority of Americans consciously believe that racism is bad. What they don’t always necessarily see, in a visual way, is how there is structural racial inequity. That doesn’t require bad actors. We want to get at the structural underpinnings — how even when institutions operate race neutrally, they may be reinforcing inequity that continues to exclude communities of color.”

Rinku Sen, ARC’s executive director, took that explanation a step further, explaining that there’s a difference between diversity and equity. Think of it like a party, she said. If she’s invited to a gathering, sure, it adds diversity. “But if I get to the party and the music doesn’t suit me and there’s no way for me to change the music, then I’m not going to stay at that party very long… Diversity is about getting bodies into the room; equity is about what people are able to do once they’re in the room. Diversity can get people to come to the meeting, but, without equity, they won’t necessarily pay any attention to what you say. Diversity is a good start, but equity is the real prize.”

That’s certainly a key point to remember as we work to broaden the number of folks at our growing bike party: Not just opening the door but getting everyone’s input on the playlist.

In many cases, that kind of change isn’t just about shifting folks’ personal beliefs. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s about creating policy, too. “Policy is a fundamental way in which we change attitudes,” Wiley said. “What takes attitude change to scale is changing the policies that continue to drive the decisions.”

Certainly, bike advocates know plenty about the power of public policy — we all work for good laws and funding criteria that lead to better streets for bicyclists. Many organizations and coalitions — like the Community Cycling Center in Portland; City of Lights in Los Angeles; and Local Spokes in New York City — are extending the circle of stakeholders, making sure city leaders hear the voices and needs of day laborers, refugees, low-income people and communities of color.

Especially in tough economic times, Milley Hawk Daniels, from PolicyLink, said her organization emphasizes: “Equity is a superior growth model.” And that’s more than a catchphrase. To help advocates, across a range of issues, advance equity in their campaigns, PolicyLink produced a guide called “GEARs: Getting Equity Advocacy Results.” The resource charts, step by step, the benchmarks, frameworks, and tools for measuring progress in equity efforts for policy change; click here to download.

But policy isn’t just the domain of our city council and members of Congress. Advocacy organizations and clubs create norms and standards, too. That’s why I was particularly interested in the “Internalizing Racial Equity Institutionally” session, which addressed how the policies in our employee handbooks and the overall culture of our nonprofits can make or break our efforts at inclusion.

Gita Gultanti-Partee, of Open Source Leadership Strategies, framed the issue succinctly. “We’re all hoping to be agents of change, but we’re also units of change,” she said. “How can we embody the change we wish to see?”

We spent the better part of two hours exploring that complex question — and many others. How do decisions get made in your organization? How do resources get distributed? How does someone become a leader? As Maggie Potapchuk, of MP Associates, pointed out “If we’re not intentional or explicit, we’ll constantly go to the default — recreating and embodying the same power dynamics we want to change.”

I can’t share the assessment tool we used because it’s still in development, but I can say the interactive session definitely got me thinking. Check out the resourcesoffered by Potapchuk and Gultantee-Partee to start an inquiry into your organization’s culture and process.

… And stay tuned for more insight from the conference tomorrow!