Q&A with the Wisconsin Bike Summit’s Keynote Speaker Melody Hoffman

Thanks for agreeing to present at the Wisconsin Bike Summit in Milwaukee. As a local bike advocate who has focused much of his work on communities of color and having read your book Bike Lanes Are White Lanes, I am personally  looking forward to hearing you present at the Wisconsin Bike Summit in Milwaukee on Thursday, May 4th.

Melody Hoffman PhD on a Trike

Tony: As a native Milwaukeean, do you think we have a bike equity problem?

Melody: No I do not. From my standpoint, the biggest concern is getting more funding for bicycle and non-motorized transit in Milwaukee. I am very aware of the legacy that Scott Walker left behind when he refused federal funding for local infrastructure. But when local advocates do secure more funding in the future, it is important to be aware of patterns other cities have shown in where that funding goes.

Tony: With a city as racially segregated as Milwaukee many of our bike rides seem to be just as segregated. Should we be more inclusive in how we promote our bike rides or is it more important to give communities of color their own space to host their own events?

Melody: The latter. It is always important to promote bicycle events across a diversity of communities. But in my observations, the most successful events that include people of color, for example, are those that were created by and for people of color. The scraper bikes in Oakland California. The ovarian psychos in LA. Slowroll in Detroit. Some of these groups are unabashedly POC only. Others have expanded beyond their target demographic. But it is hard for me to think of an event that has been organized and run by white people that just so happen to then have a diversity of people attend.

I would say the same thing for WTF (women, trans, femme) groups. I believe it is important to have groups that are dedicated to lift up marginalized people. Malcolm X’s understanding of separation to empower rings true here.

Tony: What do bike advocates need to be aware of when we encourage, educate, and organize in communities of color?

Melody: Are the advocates you speak of white? Are they middle to upper-class? Are they not from these communities? I think it is really hard to pull off community organizing with people from outside those communities. One exception, would be the artery in Harambee. But even in that instance I know that there was some struggles with how the community was engaged. But overall I was very impressed with how the community organizing went down. And in part that was because they tapped into community organizers that could relate to the people they were trying to engage with.

There is a lot of distrust between groups of people in Milwaukee and rightfully so. That doesn’t mean that the work can’t be done. It just means that we need to talk about it and make sure that advocates are hiring from within the communities they seek to empower. At the same time, advocates cannot expect everybody to get excited about bikes in the same way. Which then goes back to creating community based groups that know how best to motivate their own community.

Tony: With a book title, Bike Lanes are White Lanes, how should city engineers go about installing bike lanes in communities of color?

Melody: With a lot of direct community engagement that is not based on public meetings. The engineers representing the project should look like the people they are trying to engage with in the community. If not, hire people to do the engagement work. Go to the community, not the other way around. Be prepared for neighbors to ask for crosswalks or improve sidewalks when talking to them about bicycle lanes. For many communities, the infrastructure in their neighborhoods need a lot more work before bicycle lanes get put in. In some instances, funding streams for these things are different. But overall, it is the perception that needs to be considered not the inside baseball reasoning that engineers use.

Tony: What neighborhood did you live in when you lived in Milwaukee, and what was your favorite part about it?

Melody: Riverwest! I love Riverwest. What I love about it is the community strength. Neighbors know each other. People work together to make the neighborhood better. Numerous co-ops are run within the neighborhood. Riverwest is a model for how I wished all neighborhoods run. And in fact, when I moved to Minneapolis I sought out neighborhoods that were similar. Often times these neighborhoods are seen as the dangerous or sketchy places. I have never understood why that is.
Oh and most pertinent to my research, Riverwest has resisted gentrification for decades now. That is because the neighborhood is strong.

Tony: Do you have any pets? Tell us about them.

Melody: How much time you got? I have three gatos. Two are siblings named after Mr. Rogers characters (and oddly have taken on the character’s traits. Daniel is sweet and sensitive and X is wise and solitary). The other gato is a recent addition to the family. Her name is Cece and she is a sanctuary cat with a heart murmur. But you would never guess as she likes to eat all of my food and zoom around the house like a long-distance runner.

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