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One big way ‘Women Bike’ is changing the face of advocacy

Posted by on March 5th, 2014 at 8:04 am

Suepinda Keith, bike advocate.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

—BikePortland’s coverage from Washington D.C. is made possible by Planet Bike.

There’s been a lot of talk in the hallways here at the National Bike Summit about the Women’s Cycling Forum. Started just two years ago as a single panel discussion before the Summit, it has turned into a full-day of programming with well over 400 attendees. The sessions were packed, the energy was high, and its success has led to interesting conversations about how it compares with the Summit, it’s larger and more established sibling.

To be clear, the Women’s Cycling Forum is a product of the League’s Women Bike program, an event to make the summit, and bike advocacy in general, more welcoming to women. It was launched in response to a growing awareness that American women don’t ride bikes nearly as much as their male counterparts.

When the National Bike Summit opened Monday night (just minutes after the Women’s Forum concluded), there was a palpable change. The faces in the crowd became less diverse, a bit older in age, and much more male-dominated. And the speakers at the big dinner and evening plenary were all men. Then the next morning at the Opening Plenary the speakers were also all men. This didn’t go unnoticed by many attendees.

After all the enthusiasm for Women Bike and growing awareness about the importance of including women’s voices on the national advocacy stage, how could the League not include women in the two opening plenaries? If the League really embraced the spirit of Women Bike, why not integrate women leaders, speakers, and activists more fully into the Summit, instead of having a separate Women’s Forum?

Some might see the lack of women at the Summit plenaries as a glaring blind spot and proof that the League has a lot of work to do. Others say the League did have a lot of women leaders at the Summit, they just scheduled all of them for the Women’s Forum. Suffice it to say, this is an ongoing discussion among advocates and among the League itself.

This issue also came up during a recording of the Talking Headways podcast. Joining me on the show were host Tanya Snyder of Streetsblog USA, activist Doug Gordon of Brooklyn Spoke, and bike tour leader Suepinda Keith of Triangle Bikeworks in North Carolina.

“I’m the only person of color in my state delegation. I need to be in those [congressional] offices to speak up for low-income communities and people of color to make sure those voices are heard.”
— Suepinda Keith

It was Suepinda’s second time at the Women’s Forum. She shared during the show, and during a conversation with me afterwards, that, as a woman of color, she felt very comfortable and empowered at the Women’s Forum. Then, as the Summit started and she settled into the opening plenary, she felt much differently. “It felt yucky” were her exact words on the podcast.

“Inclusion was front and center at the Women’s Forum,” she shared, “I saw a lot more diversity and a feeling that ‘we’re in this together.’ As a woman, coming into the Summit [plenary], I was scanning the room for people of color. They need to be here. And if they aren’t, what are we doing to address that?”

But despite those initial feelings, Suepinda found her place at the larger Summit event. She attended every session she could that dealt with equity and women’s issues (she’s especially inspired by what activists are doing in Los Angeles). I could tell that Suepinda enjoyed her time at the Summit and she seemed invigorated by the new people she’d met and the information she could take home.

And today, Suepinda is joining the her fellow North Carolina advocates on Capitol Hill to lobby their members of Congress. She’s a bit nervous about it and she’s never done anything like this before. And, she said, “I’m the only person of color in my state delegation. I need to be in those [congressional] offices to speak up for low-income communities and people of color to make sure those voices are heard.”

And here’s why all this matters: Suepinda would not be lobbying on Capitol Hill today if it weren’t for the Women’s Forum event. It opened doors for her and gave her the building blocks to move past her usually shy and introverted personality (by her own admission) and become a strong voice for bicycling. She has some great stories to tell and I think they’ll resonate loudly on Capitol Hill.

Suepinda’s story is a great sign for the League. While they can continue to tweak how best to make the Summit more reflective of the inclusive and welcoming spirit of the Women’s Forum, they’ve clearly made important strides in the right direction.

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Comments
  • Hart Noecker March 5, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Thanks for address these issues of gender and race here. Class is a big one, too – as well as their various intersections.

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    • Christopher March 5, 2014 at 11:49 am

      This was also discussed in length at the Summit. Scroll through #bikes4all on Twitter for some of the discussion.

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  • Jessica Roberts March 5, 2014 at 10:46 am

    I enjoyed this article – thanks for bringing these questions about inclusion and marginalization to the forefront.

    Recommended Thumb up 5

  • BellaBici March 5, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    It was Suepinda’s second time at the Women’s Forum. She shared during the show, and during a conversation with me afterwards, that, as a woman of color, she felt very comfortable and empowered at the Women’s Forum. Then, as the Summit started and she settled into the opening plenary, she felt much differently. “It felt yucky” were her exact words on the podcast.

    “yucky”, really? Based upon what? My impression is that this was based upon her own superficial ascriptions. Is this not what we are trying to reach beyond?

    Better that she should pause, observe, look past skin color, age, gender, etc., and judge these speakers and attendees by the merit of their character and contributions. Is this not what we want?

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    • daisy March 5, 2014 at 2:08 pm

      Or maybe we should trust and listen to her experiences and not argue back, you know? She’s a woman of color saying she didn’t feel comfortable. Perhaps we shouldn’t assume she’s in the wrong.

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    • Christian March 5, 2014 at 2:19 pm

      Is it really that superficial to want to see yourself represented at a National Bike Summit, at more than just a forum specifically labeled for/aimed at you?

      Judging speakers by the merit of their character is what we want, yes, but we can’t just “look past” skin colour, age, gender etc.. Those are attributes that guide how people are treated throughout their lives. A woman of colour is going to experience life differently than a white man and vise versa. Those varying experiences are what we need to bring to the table, instead of shoving them off the table entirely (by, say for example, booking exclusively male speakers at a national forum) and refusing to acknowledge them in the interest of a version of equality that suits the majority party’s tastes.

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    • ladyfleur March 5, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      Note that she said it *felt* yucky. She’s reporting her reaction to it, not saying that the event was yucky.

      It would be interesting to me to hear more about why it felt wrong to her. It sounds like it was partly that she didn’t see people of her background at the Summit. But it could also be that the more traditional approach of bike advocacy didn’t suit her. What’s empowering to some can come off as overly emotional “rah rah” to others.

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    • Rita March 6, 2014 at 9:22 am

      If all of the women’s issues were herded over to a separate forum, but not discussed in the main event, I suspect it felt yucky in the same way as being 19years old and relegated to the children’s table with your 8 year old cousins at thanksgiving. Or being told to use the segregated drinking fountain. Recall that separate-but-equal isn’t.

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