Setting the Stage for a More Equitable Future: Reflections from The Untokening

by / December 20, 2016

On November 13th, over 130 leaders from across the country gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for The Untokening: A Convening for Just and Accessible Streets and Communities. Taken place days after the 2016 Presidential Election and the aftermath that ensued, the discussions and the discoveries that unfolded at The Untokening give power to acknowledging that any advancements in mobility cannot be separate from or ignorant of the implications of change on the historically marginalized and discriminated. In the words of the organizers - "To truly reclaim streets for people and make them safe and accessible for all, we need to address what that means in terms of culture, class, race, identity, and community."

At CalBike, we are set on a course to pursue equity, diversity, and inclusion in our bicycle advocacy work. It was critical for us to send representatives to the convening and learn from the discussions that were held in order to better inform our work, including the upcoming strategic planning process and our 2017 California Bicycle Summit. We are deeply grateful to the organizers for bringing together a dynamic and thoughtful gathering for CalBike to participate in. 

The following pieces written by CalBike Board Member Esteban del Rio and Membership Manager Norma Herrera-Baird are personal reflections from their attendance. These essays are the beginning of an ongoing conversation regarding CalBike’s role in advancing transportation justice across California.


Esteban del Río, PhD

The election of Donald J. Trump did not sit well with me. I would like to be clear about that. I’m not trying to make an overtly conservative or liberal argument in that statement – at least not here. Rather, that xenophobia, nativism, bigotry, racism, and misogyny targeting peoples’ identity and status received oxygen and legitimization in political discourses deeply disturbed me. When I had the chance to participate in The Untokening in Atlanta less than a week after the election, I had to face the task of turning my despair into something more hopeful and productive.

That Sunday after the election, activists, practitioners, scholars, and community organizers convened in a large room in Atlanta to “untokenize” the work of creating a national agenda for just and equitable streets and spaces. We created a space so that perspectives of people of color, marginalized and distressed communities, and others who often find themselves as the “token” diversity person in mobility, planning, and placemaking conversations could determine the agenda.

A big question loomed above all of us: How do we move equity from the periphery to the center? The people in the room are often called upon to bring “diversity” and “equity” into processes, organizations, and politics that are ultimately resistant to being transformed. Many of the participants in The Untokening have found themselves in such a position: invited to speak about equity in contexts that are interested - but not committed to diversity. Interest is when one does equity work when circumstances allow for it. Commitment is when one changes the circumstances to make equity a central consideration and part of any action agenda. I found the conversations remarkably powerful and authoritative about the need to change the “center” of bicycle advocacy so that equity issues are at the heart of the matter, rather than some add-on that appears during special days, speakers, or programs.

What does the national agenda for bike advocacy look like if designed from the perspective of those in the room? How do we conceptualize safety and vulnerability from a more historical, accurate lens when considering bodies in public space? How do gender non-conforming people move through space safely? What about black bodies in public space? The undocumented? How do we make transformational moves to realize the diversity and opportunity in our state?

At its best, Calbike is a social justice organization that uses bicycle advocacy as a vehicle for cultivating a more just, equitable, and healthy state for all of our residents. For me, this is true for two primary reasons: 1) Safe and accessible infrastructure for bicycle riding indicates a local municipality values human scale development – where walking, transit, sustainability, and community interaction are prioritized; and 2) If we create human-scale streets, towns, and cities, we need to confront the power and privilege dynamics that flow through identity and status. If we do not, we are adding to the inequities that our planning, budget allocation, and cultural practices usually prefer.

The moment has arrived to conceptualize bicycle advocacy as a social justice project. It's time to see ourselves as social justice activists – contesting - marginalization, seeking justice, and creating more humane and human-scale communities where the struggle for equity is joined all people of good-will.

How might you participate? Join. Create spaces for communities of color to lead - for the economically, culturally, and politically marginalized to lead. Given the position of leadership that California occupies in our national imagination and the sanctuary it will become during a time of national foment, we must take equity and social justice as the center of our work as advocates.



Photo by: Argenis Apolinario


 Norma Herrera-Baird

Equity. It’s a word used a lot these days, especially at CalBike.  And we genuinely want to fight and work for the underserved people and communities in our beautiful state. Who are these “underserved people?” The term is broad but they tend to be poor and people of color. In other words, people like me. Add in the fact that I’m a woman and the child of immigrants and you’ve got the perfect token for your organization.

But that is not the case. At least I don’t feel like it’s my case. Yet, when I first read Sahra Sulaiman’s piece on The Untokening, in which she opens with a story from the 2015 CalBike Summit, I felt the overwhelming need to attend this convening held in mid-November.

Hours before the polls closed on November 8th, I landed back in Oakland from a trip to the UK. Jet lagged, I was asleep before the election was called. I woke up before the sun rose, still on London time. I checked my phone - the news that greeted me need not be repeated. I went to the office in a daze, took a long lunch, went home early. Took a mental health day the next day. I almost cancelled my trip to Atlanta, feeling unsafe about traveling after hearing reports of hate crimes against Latinos and immigrants. There were, and still are, hundreds of reports of violence against a wide range of marginalized groups, from brown folks to LGBTQ to Muslims and everything in between so my feelings are not unwarranted.

Perhaps not all 60 million people who voted for our President-elect are racists who hate immigrants but the fact is that there are people out there who voted based on their fear and hatred of people like me: brown, progressive, immigrant. Hearing of hate crimes committed against friends and friends of friends was more than enough to make me scared to travel to Georgia, to cancel going to a convening I was excited about upon first hearing about it. I’m glad I didn’t.

The Untokening was first and foremost a healing experience. Being in a space dominated by women and people of color from all over the country was a powerful experience that continues to inspire me daily more than a month later and will likely inspire me for the rest of my life. We were able to talk freely about the issues we face as advocates for better mobility. Issues of feeling unworthy because of our skin color, our gender, our lack of a degree. Feeling pushed out of the very communities we work in because of gentrification and a nationwide housing crisis. Feeling like we’re crazy because the people we’re often in meetings with don’t understand where we’re coming from, why we’re talking about social justice when we should - or so they feel - be talking about bikes. Simply, they don’t understand our experiences.

My biggest takeaway was that experience matters as much if not more than formal education. As someone who has been an active member of the bicycling community for a large chunk of this decade, I can offer a wealth of ideas about where the bike advocacy movement, and the larger mobility movement, should and could head to next. CalBike’s participation at The Untokening was the beginning of working closely with the organizers of the event to hold similar gatherings in California, such as listening sessions where women and people of color can freely, and safely, talk about the issues we know and care about. Further reports directly from The Untokening will be released in January 2017, with a compilation of the information shared and the outcomes produced.

Beyond the bike lane, the bicycle can be a tool for social change. I look forward to continuing the fight on two wheels and taking back our streets for a safer and more inclusive future. Join me.


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