Since 2011, the Youth Bike Summit has brought together young people from high schools and universities, community bike shops, and advocacy groups across the US, all committed to the idea that the bicycle is more than a means of getting around. This year’s meeting in Seattle featured several young people who have been changed by their experiences on the bike and are now working to help their communities by getting more people cycling.
“Nothing is impossible…. For me, the bicycle represents endless possibilities, an example of how you can achieve every goal I set out to meet.”
Brook Negussie came to the US from Ethiopia with his mother and sister when he was nine. Speaking at the recent Youth Bike Summit in Seattle, the city where his family settled, he told of how back home his mother had been an accountant but in their new city she worked only minimum-wage jobs. As a child, Brook faced racism and economic difficulties, but things improved after he joined a cycling club in high school. The first rides were physically and mentally difficult, but he pulled through with the ride leader’s advice: “Don’t focus on making it to the top of the hill. Just pedal one stroke at a time.” A graduate of the Major Taylor Project (named for the African-American cycling champion of the late nineteenth century who overcame racist attitudes and institutional discrimination by the cycling associations of his time), Brook is now a University of Washington freshman, majoring in engineering.
Brook is part of the growing movement of young cycling activists emerging across the land. This past February, over three hundred gathered in Seattle for the Youth Bike Summit. For three days they shared stories, ideas and visions, and strategized about creating – with the aid of their preferred vehicle of transportation and transformation – a more ecologically sane and just world.
The gathering emerged out of the national Bike Summit that takes place every March in Washington, DC. While that event is a focal point for those engaged in making the country more bicycle-friendly, some youth felt that their concerns were not sufficiently addressed.
The result was a gathering organized and led by young people, with large groups coming from places such as Tucson, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. While attendees included some as young as seven and others as old as 80, those under 24 were in the majority, bringing along their youthful enthusiasm, knowledge, and hopes. Respect was shown to elders, but when a Boston presenter spoke of his city’s attempts to expand cycling and showed a photo of Beantown’s mayor riding, a young kid pointed out that the way His Honor wears his helmet shows that he spends more time in limousines than on a bike.
The Summit was held at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center in Columbia City, a Seattle neighborhood where gentrification has not yet taken hold, and where a large percentage of residents are immigrants and blue-collar, a reflection of the progressive and worker-oriented focus of the conference. A feeling of joy and optimism pervaded, with a clear sense that all were part of something exciting and essential, part of a movement that plays a vital role in the push towards a sustainable future.
A group of students from New York’s International High School at Union Square exemplified this spirit. “In Senegal I did not have a bicycle,” said Khadim Lo, a recent immigrant, “but here in New York we go everywhere on our bikes. It is good for exercise. You can see every part of the city. It is fun.” The public school, geared for those who have been in the country for less than four years, has students from 49 countries speaking 33 different languages, many who had their formal education interrupted by armed conflicts or economic hardships. Khadim and his schoolmates have formed a cycling club, learned how to repair and maintain bicycles, go on rides, and are completing a documentary film about bicycling.
The conference’s tone was set during the opening session. After Seattle’s mayor Ed Murray greeted the audience and promised that the city seeks to make cycling accessible to all, speakers shared their tales of overcoming personal and societal barriers, creating an atmosphere that sometimes recalled a revival meeting.
Among the powerful stories shared was that of Olatunji Oboi Reed, co-founder of Chicago’s Slow Roll organization, who spoke of the group’s efforts to increase ridership among minorities and the poor, and their attempts to get the city to spend more resources in communities of color. Currently a cyclist and researcher of traditional healing practices from the Amazon basin, he recalled a time, a decade ago, when he thought of ending his pain from depression. A ride along Lake Michigan changed his outlook. He experienced a new sense of purpose, realizing that bicycles can be a path of healing. “We ride to heal ourselves, communities, cities, the planet,” Olatunji said. He spoke of the need “to tell our own stories, and to make our communities stronger. There is no secret formula, just hard work. No one will save us but ourselves.”
Adonia Lugo, Equity Chair of the League of American Cyclists, spoke of growing up in southern California, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father and a mother from a European background. Raised by a single mother, she was keenly aware from a young age of economic and racial prejudices. A stay in Portland, Oregon, brought a discovery of cycling, but upon returning home she encountered what many minority riders experience: a lack of respect from motorists and a feeling of insecurity when riding. This promoted her to become active in cycling groups and led to graduate work in anthropology, focusing on Los Angeles’ cycling history, with her own experience as a cyclist and a social activist informing that work.
Eighteen-year-old Khalil Brewer also offered a story of struggle and change. Growing up in St. Louis, Khalil was burglarizing homes by the time he was in middle school, selling drugs, fighting, and suffering from depression. When asked by his sixth-grade counselor where he would be in a few years, Khalil predicted that he would be dead. But after seeing a good friend killed, having a mental breakdown, and getting a dressing-down from his grandmother, Khalil decided to change course. He moved to Seattle to live with his father, and at the suggestion of a teacher enrolled in a training program at Bikeworks, a non-profit community bike shop where young people learn to fix bicycles. At Bikeworks’ advocacy and training center, he learned to manage his anger, recognizing the respect and encouragement that the staff and other kids offered as a positive alternative. “I am much happier. Now I am the person my parents and grandparents can be proud of.”
Other speakers included Jennie Reed, the first American woman to win a track cycling World Championship title, who described the twelve years of grueling work that brought her to the top of her sport, and the foundation she established to spread cycling among young people; Jim and Keilan Sayer, a father and daughter from Missoula, Montana, who described their rides together across the continent and their organization, Adventure Cycling; Elyasa Walk, an executive at Giant Bicycles who encouraged her listeners to pursue a career in the industry and emphasized the importance of a good education; and Shannon Galpin, who spoke of her work with Afghani girls and women and how women in the West, in the late nineteenth century, had to fight for the right to ride their bicycles.
One of the conference’s recurring themes was the need for equity. Cycling in the United States has come a long way since the days when women and African Americans were excluded from clubs and races, and a mere ride was often accompanied by verbal and physical assaults, but much work still needs to be done. Some participants emphasized that even in bicycle friendly cities such as Portland, Oregon, lanes and infrastructure are more common in the wealthier neighborhoods and that poor people and minorities still feel unsafe on their bikes.
On Sunday, the final day of the conference, participants strategized about carrying the message of cycling forward. Activists spoke of how their organizations are encouraging youth leadership and participation and helping create a sense of community. Many connected the expansion of ridership to other issues such as living wage jobs and educational opportunities; others spoke of early organizing efforts, like the Bikes Not Bombs groups formed in 1984 in response to the US wars in Central America. Some of those in attendance are still involved with that organization and its yearly collection of over 6,000 used bicycles and tons of used parts, which are sent to countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Being in the company of several hundred young activists eager to change themselves and their communities is healing medicine for those who might lose hope about the current state of the world. As I hopped on my bicycle in the days following the gathering, this modest vehicle seemed like a harbinger of change. As many participants emphasized during the conference, more bicycle lanes and more riders can be a good start to a better world.
Alon Raab has been a cyclist since age three. He eaches religious studies at UC Davis and is currently writing a book about the history and culture of cycling in the Middle East.