2012 National Women's Bicycling Summit
I just attended the first National Women's Bicycling Summit in Long Beach, California. I could not have attended without the encouragement and monetary support from you, my generous friends! Every time I told people that I fund-raised to attend the Summit, they were really impressed and happy I could make it. Thank you for making my trip possible!
Rockin' out in Belmont Shores, rep'n Minnesota
A few years ago there was a gathering of bike advocates where nearly 50% of the attendees were women, but almost all of the presenters were men. Some of these women got together and hosted the 2012 Women's Cycling Forum, leading up to the creation of this Summit, which took place on the tail end of Pro Walk Pro Bike.
Durkee and I arrived early, checked in, and worked the room a little bit. We met quite a few people from California, but we also got to hear about groups starting in Oklahoma, New York, Washington... Everyone wanted to discuss what they had heard about the great cycling conditions in Minneapolis, and if our winters are really that scary. (I explained they aren't scary, but they are a surmountable challenge!) I wanted to know if they were funded and how, what inspired them to start organizing, and what they do to engage new riders. I learned a lot!
Carolyn Szczepanski, Communications Director for the League of American Bicyclists, started off the Summit by making the case that women are pioneers in the bicycle advocacy and social justice field. Safe Routes to School, for example, was initiated and championed by a woman. The movement is not only relevant in our country; groups like Femi Bici in Mexico are organizing to get more women riding. The gender gap is real, and is a real problem, but through grassroots and national organizing, we are all working toward the same goal: WOMEN, GET ON YOUR BIKES AND RIDE! It was nice to feel the energy in the room, the collective realization that we are not alone, we have each other's backs, and that things are getting better.
The keynote speaker was Leah Missbach Day, co-founder of the World Bicycle Relief Fund. She told personal stories of women from rural, Sub-Saharan Africa and how the bicycle changed their lives. Her organization gives bicycles to people whose situations could be improved by having a vehicle take them to school or to the market, for example. They assemble the bikes in Africa and train field mechanics to maintain the bicycles, creating local jobs.
I took several lessons from the keynote presentation. In impoverished nations, women are generally worse off than men because of lack of birth control, and child-rearing, chores, and household responsibilities, to name a few reasons. Humanitarian organizations agree that educating women is the closest thing to a silver bullet to alleviating poverty for all. I found it completely uplifting that a simple machine that has been a huge part of my personal revolution in my first-world existence can do so much for a woman living in rural Sub-Saharan Africa by increasing her access to formal education. (In rural Africa schools are often far away, and it is not always safe to make the journey after dark.) Leah Missbach Day said, "All answers come from the field," referring to developing a bicycle to appropriately serve the needs of the end users. This has a wide application when serving any community- don't assume what people need, get in the field and ask them what they want from you. It makes your job easier (sometimes!) and makes it more likely the community will get what they really need.
Break-Out Session A
"Beyond Spandex, Toward Social Justice: Women Redefining the Movement" was my favorite session. The interactive panel format was really conducive to sharing all of our experiences and knowledge and all of the panelists were top-notch. Kristin Gavin, founder of Gearing Up in Philadelphia, Claire Stoscheck, a member of Cycles for Change in St. Paul and the Community Partners Bike Library Program, Allison Mannos, co-founder of Multicultural Communities for Mobility, and Ovarian Psycos bicycle brigade from LA gave a quick overview of their model for engaging different communities, and then asked us to share challenges that we face in our own work.
Break-Out Session B
"Young Women Who Ride" was a session outside of my area of knowledge, but I am glad that I attended. I got to hear stories from Pasqualina Azzarello, the executive director of Recycle-A-Bicycle in New York, and from three young women, Lisa Rodriguez, Katherine Westmoreland, and Nelle Pierson, whose lives were changed drastically in positive ways because they were given opportunities through biking.
Fashion Show Fundraiser
The reality of these types of events, speaking of the Summit, is that it is unlikely that you will be stoked on every aspect of the event, about every speaker, or every topic. And that's okay! By and large this was a quality event with something for nearly everyone. However, I feel it is immensely important that I publicly voice how offensive I found the Fashion Show Fundraiser to be. I attended the "Cycle Chic: Past, Present & Future- A Celebration of Dressing for the Destination" Fashion Show Fundraiser, hosted by Women on Bikes SoCal, because the proceeds were to go to a "Street Savvy" adult bike safety education program, and I certainly don't mind checking out cool clothing and fancy bikes. I am critical of the "Cycle Chic" movement, and the term's founder and special guest of this event, Mikael Colville-Andersen, but I tried to keep an open mind for this fundraising event.
The emphasis of the show was on "high fashion," as opposed to "practical fashion." True to Cycle Chic form, no helmets or gloves were displayed, and high heels were favored. Out of the thirty or so models that moved down the runway, only four women were actually riding bicycles. There were a few outfits throughout the show- the long and cumbersome canvas jacket, flowy floor-length skirts, spike-studded jean short-shorts- that I was suspicious wouldn't work on a bike, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because the glossy pink flyer advertising the show mentioned both bikes and fashion quite a few times. But I ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT give the skimpy bikini, made out of a t-shirt and some leather laces with "HATER" printed across the crotch, and the tight metallic bikini on the woman sporting gold body paint, the benefit of the doubt. There were no bathing suit outfits on the male models in the show.
After spending the better part of a day with a room full of hardworking activists and organizers who are passionately toiling to raise up women and feeling good about raising the level of discourse regarding sexism and gender discrimination, I was extremely disappointed to see the female body objectified in such a way. I am very disappointed that this event was so out of line with everything else about the Summit.
So many meaningful stories and perspectives were shared at the National Women's Bicycling Summit, that it would be a poor representation of my experience to end on a negative note. Overall, I had a wonderful time. I'm energized, I'm inspired, and I feel like I refined methods and added new tools to my kit. I hope I am able to attend next year!
Common threads emerged during the Summit.
- Communicate directly with your target audience, find out what they want by asking them directly.
- The hard part is accessing the community. With some persistence and creativity, it is possible. Community partnerships are an excellent way to access "invisible" communities and can provide a lot of support to your program. (Grease Rag knows all about that!)
- I've personally benefited from having a mentor, and was pleased that all of the Youth presenters directly or indirectly praised their relationships with mentors.
- When trying to find a solution to a complex issue like getting more women on bikes, it is important to lean on each other and celebrate the small victories too, because there is always more work to be done.
- Don't underestimate the healing power of bikes, or the potential impact you can have on others by simply riding.
Retro Row in Long Beach
Read more about the presentations I attended.
I have collected links to other blogs and photos about the Summit in this round-up.
Forgive me, I wrote a poem. (From words scribbled in the margins of my notebook.)
Annnnd, of course I rode my bike! (Coming soon!)