As the City with a Capital C hops on the struggle bus that is implementing a bike share program in coordination with the seemingly perpetually unorganized operation that is Bike Nation, a group of local biking advocates decided to take matters into their own hands by focusing on the groups who need it most—in this case, the many women who face physical and mental abuse through poisonous, debilitating relationships.
It is not unknown that self-identified Jesus Chick Elizabeth Williams, whose bubbly behavior matches her lollipop pedals, is an advocate for underserved populations. Her project Bridging the Gap to Biking in Underserved Communities, announced in January of 2013, was geared toward bridging many inequities in regard to biking infrastructure and access—and out of that bridging, a gap was filled by way of Empact Long Beach, a six-month program and partnership with avid bicyclist, advocate, and Ghost Bike saint Danny Gamboa.
“It is challenging and frustrating when you are forced to rely on others for your needs. When you are able to make decisions for yourself, it builds a sense of inner strength and responsibility.”
If there is one thing to be said about bikes, it is that they are a tool. In the words of Leah Missbach Day, co-founder of World Bicycle Relief, just a few years ago: “This is not a bike.” It is a tool that helps generate economic stability, community cohesiveness, and gender equality. That last part is key: if we do not engage, empower, and elevate what is roughly 50% of our population—women—we cannot succeed.
Even more disturbing outside the fact that women are already marginalized is that there are further margins within the marginalized—mainly in the name of violence. When it comes to women who have experienced domestic violence, be it physical or psychological, the ideas of engagement, empowerment, and elevation become difficult if not outright daunting to employ.
Williams is no stranger to the dark world of domestic violence. While volunteering for School on Wheels—her first experience with Century Villages at Cabrillo and a transitional living program—she was assigned to engage with women who experienced what all too many do. Though impressed with the quality work being done at The Villages, the experience after the first day sent her home in tears.
“I remember driving home crying because my heart was aching for the women and children living there and the fact that they were going through such horrific circumstances,” Williams said. “Since then I’ve wanted to help these ladies… I worked with Century Villages at Cabrillo in the past and know people who have had to use shelters to get back on their feet. Unfortunately, I know several women who have dealt with physical and mental violence. And I’m pretty sure most people know a woman who has, whether it’s talked about or not.”
“The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.”
Working with these women, despite the tears, invigorated Williams: she simply wanted to do more. Creating an impromptu bike drive and with the assistance of the old Bike Hub, Williams succeeded in giving away 13 bikes to 13 thankful women.
That was nearly three years ago. With the creation of Empact Long Beach, her and Gamboa decided that it was time for something more accessible, more communal, and more grand: the first full-on bike share program for an organization in Long Beach.
Seeing how much a bike share could help underserved communities, Gamboa [pictured below] said, “I had the idea to approach this particular organization because of my previous work with the East Los Angeles Women’s Shelter. We wanted to create a free bike share program in Long Beach and thought that the local shelter would be a great fit… To be honest, I wanted the bike share program to go to a place where it’s most needed. I recently came back from D.C. where they have Capital Bikes—but you need a credit card or be a part of the program to rent them. We thought that a free bike share program can work on a small scale in a secured environment.”
Even more, women seemed to respond to the program more than men as expressed by the participants in various Empact workshops and rides. This isn’t to mention the already-existing gaps in transportation access throughout the LA region.
“It is challenging and frustrating when you are forced to rely on others for your needs,” said advocate Tatiana Séré. “When you are able to make decisions for yourself, it builds a sense of inner strength and responsibility. It is up to the individual to make it to appointments and meetings on time. Also, freedom is powerful; it can change your entire outlook on life.”
Using a working concept does not equate to it easily being executed: due to the safety and confidentiality of the women in the organization, Gamboa and Williams had to organize bike safety workshops for the staff, who would then train the participants who want to use the bikes. Given this rather unique situation, the pair has decided to create their own bike safety training video to be dispensed not just to the staff of the organization, but to shelters and organizations across the nation.
“Unfortunately, I know several women who have dealt with physical and mental violence. And I’m pretty sure most people know a woman who has, whether it’s talked about or not.”
With a generous donation from Fleet Street, the duo had their bikes, and with funding from The California Endowment, they had their sets of bike lights, locks, helmets, and baskets’n’bike racks and soon their training video. Empact will be providing free maintenance of the bikes at the shelter each month until they score funding to pay their mechanic.
Of course, Williams and Gamboa are not stopping there. An ambitious partnership between Empact and the Long Beach Public Library has resulted in a very promising project: the possibility of a bike share program that would create an integrated check-out system using library cards. Additionally, the pair is meeting continually with nonprofits, both local and regional, to serve underserved populations.
“The power of the bike with marginalized folks—where do we start?” Gamboa said. “Bicycles—today more than ever—can be used as transportation, recreation and relaxation vehicles. But even beyond that, they create self-reliability. Susan B. Anthony said it best: ‘The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world.’”
Amen to that.
Empact Long Beach is a six-month pilot project that is due to end November 30. They are looking for funding to keep their program operating and continuing to empower Long Beach residents and making our wonderful city even better. If you are interested in sponsoring their program, a workshop, a bike ride or a bike share program, please contact them at [email protected] or call 562-334-BIKE (2453).