Late afternoon sunlight refracts off Lake Arrowhead, mountains hugging the park’s edges. I put my goggles on for a pre-race practice swim open to all athletes competing in tomorrow’s Olympic distance triathlon. My feet meet the squishy moss of the lake as … Continue reading
Throughout my past eight years of engaging in social justice, I’ve been drawn to people who have uncanny ideas. Ideas that peace and unity can exist. Dreams that Heaven can indeed be experienced on this planet. People who are unafraid to raise hell and create peace in every single breath.
But often times, in these circles, a buzz phrase kept coming up: “Being a voice for the voiceless.” This phrase is used in many circles, from large Christian NGOs to CNN. It likely means something different to each person. When it comes from voices in the faith community, it’s often rooted in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Speak out on behalf of those who have no voice, and defend all those who have been passed over” -Proverbs 3:18.
While I never believed in being a voice for the voiceless, I’ve had my fair share of ethnocentrism. As I boarded a plane for South Africa in 2007 on a service learning trip, I asked the white woman sitting in front of me what she’d be doing in Africa, as though everyone on the plane was going for a visit like me. “I live there,” she replied, flatly. “Oh.” I nodded, suddenly aware that I was projecting my view of Africa as a place where black people lived, forgetting entirely the ugly history of colonialism and apartheid. Because I had what writer Chimamanda Adichie would call a “single story” view of Africa, with a dash of do-goodism naivete.
But behind our do-goodism and voice-for-the-voiceless-ism is a something much harder: checking the place of privilege we’ve come from to be in a position that we can speak for issues without having to experience these issues firsthand perhaps because of where we live, the education we’ve had, the safety we experience, the family we come from, the healthcare we receive.
When we accept speaking for people as a solution to complicated issues like poverty, health, and human rights, we avoid having to ask ourselves hard questions: “If some people’s voices aren’t being heard, WHY aren’t they being heard?” “I am being heard. WHY am I being heard while others are not?” These questions can lead us to uncomfortable things like understanding our power or privilege.
Everytime we label an entire demographic as voiceless, we strip such individuals of their dignity, robbing them of the privilege of being heard. We re-iterate a message of powerlessness, as though to say, “You are voiceless. No one can hear you. No one is listening to you. They might listen to me though. Let me talk instead.” We accept our tongue as an acceptable transaction. We accept our voice, intonation, and inflection as a more suitable microphone while viewing others’ voices as taken away, incapable of talking, much like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, not by poverty, but by power.
Power, as defined by Chimamanda Adichie, is “the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
She continues, “That is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them. I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Instead of speaking for people, using our own words and interpretations of people’s struggles and joys, we can do something so much more beautiful. We can create platforms for more people to tell their stories. Or better yet, we can simply listen. Because sometimes we’ve done so much talking that it’s difficult to decipher what information has truly come from the people affected, or if we’re hearing someone else’s interpretation of others’ experiences. We can share the stories we’ve been given permission to share- not our story of someone else’s story that you may or may not have received permission to re-tell. We can share people’s photos- not our photos of “poor people” in branded catalogs with captions like “voiceless” and “poor.” Photos that some of us aren’t as familiar with—like the stories of forgiveness in Rwanda. We can offer people new ways to see themselves: not as poor, not as voiceless, not as victims, but as strong and tenacious, as victors, as having a voice. And with that voice we can teach each other how to use it for speaking up about love and equality and for building each other up until our hands meet the hands of all our brothers and sisters and know, deep in our core, that each person is being seen as a unique, loved individual, no more, but certainly no less.
(Preface: I’ve spent the past two weeks at the Global Health Corps Training Institute with 128 fellows from 22 counties between the ages of 22-30 who are spending one year in a global health fellowship in one of six placement countries. If you are interested in learning more about this program, please get in touch or check it out at: http://ghcorps.org/. I made this post public in case it might move you to shake and shape and create the world in which you wish to live).
…This year will be transformational.
I know, it’s a buzz-word that I was skeptical of in the beginning,
but now I have no other word for it.
This year will look like heart and passion.
This year will look like finally living the life I always wanted to live.
This is the year for trying.
Of doing it scared.
Of taking chances and seeking out opportunity-
and where opportunity doesn’t exist, creating it.
This year I will look at life experiences, social justice, and stories
from many perspectives other than my own.
Because my worldview has vastly expanded- I’m not sure where the end-line boundaries are anymore on this life map that I’ve thrown to the wind. Because this new space feels big and real and way more rich in love and wonder and exploration than ever before.
This is the year for asking questions. Lots of them.
Questions about people’s life experiences,
the things I don’t understand, the things that move my heart,
the deep questions that unfurl streams of inexplicable beauty.
This is the year to say what I really want to say,
no matter how vulnerable it feels,
and even if doing so might elicit tears… perhaps even more so.
Because I’ve tasted life in authentic community.
Because I’ve seen how much more enjoyable it is when
we collaborate instead of compete.
Because people I’ve known for just a couple weeks have generously and bravely shared parts of themselves with me… and I won’t take these conversations lightly as I hug these truths, these stories, these gems close in my heart.
Because I’ve been inspired.
As I lay here alone in my room tonight, it’s tempting to start to settle back into some of my old ways, but I come back to the realization that even if this fellowship year were to suddenly end tomorrow, it will have been nothing short of transformational.
But it’s not going to suddenly end. In fact, with just two weeks in,
it really, really is just beginning.
And when those final weeks close in, I know we’ll say, “Hellooooo fellows,”
gather ’round the table one last time in solidarity
and exchange stories we can only dream about now.
It will be amazing.
But until then, we have work to do.
And I’m so grateful to do it alongside folks amazing as you.
See you in Rwanda…
with a soccer ball.
“Ok, so I”ll send you my flight information and see you on the 17th!” I replied as I hung up the phone, shocked and excited. I just confirmed a week long stay at Luquillo Sanctuary Farm in Puerto Rico through a program called WWOOF- Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In exchange for a half a day’s work on a family’s farm, WWOOFers receive free room and board at one of thousands of farming sites across the world. This farm is a small, developing farm in Puerto Rico along the foothills of the El Yunque Rainforest. The opportunity sounded like Heaven, along with a whole lot of anxiety provoking unknowns. What if the people I stayed with weren’t who they said they were? Was this safe? But the predictable life depleted of risks leaves us believing that strangers are scary, that safety is quintessential as we choke on our own comforts.
So I flew into San Juan on June 17 not knowing why I had come on this journey, but positive that it would help me learn to embrace life in all of its fullness. The host farmer picked me up from the airport, luggageless as my bags had been loaded onto another flight, and brought me to the campground where I’d be stay for the week. I was greeted by three other WWOOFers from Texas and Czech Republic. Nothing but the backpack on my back, they showed me a tent I could sleep in temporarily and gave me some sheets. Just go with it, I told myself, and fell asleep in a stranger’s tent, lying beneath cocqui frogs and insomniaic bulls that groaned all night long.
In conversations over digging farming beds and mowing the lawn with machette knives throughout the week, I learned much about Puerto Rico. The US provides an estimated $6.7 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, mostly in provision of food stamps and subsidized housing, while the US receives almost $58 from Puerto Rico through imports and manufacturing. “Instead of growing our own produce, much of the food is shipped into the island from other countries because it’s cheaper,” my host farmer shared. It was a startling wake up call to the reality of the pitfalls of capitalism and untapped resources. On our daily walks to the beach, we pass mango tree after mango tree and simply reach up to chomp on fresh fruit. Sure enough, when we went to the grocery store, our carrots were from Georgia and fruit from Central America. We could eat local. But there simply lacks farming infrastructure and political will.
That’s where farms like Luqillo are slowly changing this. Part of Luqillo’s mission is to be a non-profit organic educational farm for children, teaching them hands-on skills. On Saturdays, kids from the neighborhood come to work on the farm. That’s when I met Gabriel, a sweet 12 year old, who, when it was time to fill our buckets with the dug up grass from the rows we picked, turned it into a contest raced us up to the top of the hill, winning time afer time again. It’s awesome to think about how these kids might grow up differently from those around them. Grow up different because their hands have touched the grounds of where their food was birthed. They are closer to the Earth and will respect it. They will be leaders after tasting a bit of what life can be when you live outside the status quo for your town.
After a wonderful week of farming and climbing through the El Yunque Rainforest, we capped off the week of farming with a trip to Culebra, a small island East of mainland Puerto Rico, my eyes meeting vast aqua waters for the first time. Mountainous cliffs lining the countours beckon you to dive in. My friends shared their snorkling masks, which opened up a whole new world of wonder, discovery. A rich reminder that there is EVEN so much more out there than we can fathom.
Traveling opens your eyes to new people, new cultures, new landscapes. And now, it opened me to the life beneath the water. The coral reefs right there below. Fish of many hues and sizes darting in and out of caverns. I’ve always known there’s a huge whole world above us- being the night sky filled with billions of stars, most of which are imperceptible to human eyes. And now, to be reminded of entire ecosystems below the surface of the water, I am blown away into wonder and grandeur and mystery. As the sun sank below palm trees, we built a fire on the beach and ran streaking into the water skinny dipping. It was everything I’d cracked it up to be, minus my second jellyfish sting of the night.
As we took the ferry back to mainland Puerto Rico, I chatted with Lena, a student in microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico. “It’s amazing because here I am on this one part of the island, in one school, and there’s all this out there,” she shared in awe. I told her that’s how I feel when I look up at the stars. Together, the stars and waters below sing of a world that feels even bigger.
We are invited into a life that tells us to look up, look around, look below. A life that takes the attention away from worries or our own selfishness because so many beautiful places exist without the contribution of human hands. Rainforests. Coral reefs. They will continue making beautiful and we will be here to awe, wonder, and appreciate hopefully with hearts that treat the Earth with the kindness its placid ways deserve.
I can’t believe I’d ever think to miss out on trips like this because I was afraid. Afraid to stay with people I never met before. Afraid to try something so unknown. But never again.
All of this has left me in love with the world, lusting after all the places that I will never get to taste, see, or touch simply because the world is huge- reminded like they sang in the Lion King that there is “more to be seen than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.”
It pains me because I will always want more. I will always want to see more, to keep needing to press the zoom-out button on my worldview lens because it keeps expanding. But instead of loathing that it’s all too much, I celebrate that tonight. I celebrate the opportunity we have to do some of that seeing and doing while we still have breath in our lungs. Because we have been invited to get into life.
Get into the kind of life that loves this world, all of it, the things you cannot see under ocean waters when you fly over them.
Get into a life that looks up regularly. For inspiration. For perspective. For no other reason than to use the eyes you’ve been given.
Get into a kind of life that loves people- loves to get mouths and hearts talking about the things that really matter to each one.
Get into loving God, your creator, whatever that name is to what/whom you attribute the great celestial connection of earth and land and people and connection. I am finding God is out here everywhere, especially in laughter, showing me the light at the end of the tunnel to all of my unfounded fears. I watch this God and this world take away my fears like carbon dioxide as I release the poisons that trap and breathe in the invitation to this new kind of life.
Because the adventure is calling in whispers and shouts across the sky, “Will you get into life?”
In 2013, I met talented, creative, and gracious writer friend Amber Cadenas. Today I share a story about the juxtaposition of life and death as a part of her “Tales of Beauty from the Rubbish Heap” series on her blog “Beautiful Rubbish.” If you enjoy reading about spirituality, grace, and finding God in everyday experiences, be sure to check out her Facebook page for updates.
The words must have slipped out of my mouth so nonchalantly that I didn’t even catch them. “Alright, I’m heading back home,” I told my mom and gave her a big hug after spending the weekend at my parents’ house, … Continue reading
All this is what my heart beats for
Oh this is what my heart beats for
Raising hell and creating heaven
When people say what they really want to say
Watching a woman fall in love bicycling
End-to-end rainbows shouting ROY-G-BIV
Catching elderly people in unadulterated moments of touch and affection
The last ten seconds before the finish line at peak speed
The sanctuary of warm evenings on the front porch
Living out of my boldest dreams and creativity
instead of debilitating fear and doubt
Looking people in the eye
The three seconds after jumping off a cliff, body entangled in open air, before landing in water
All this is what my heart beats for
Oh this is what my heart beats for.
The questions and conversations that ensue from lying beneath dark star-filled skies
Gathering around the table in beatific communion
Seeing animals face-to-face in the wild that I’ve only ever seen caged in zoos
Late night heart-to-hearts reminding me that each human heart contains some of the very same pieces
All of this tastes of Heaven on Earth
A portion so sweet, tears collect in the corners of my eyes
Reminding me how beautiful it all is
I take one more breath, not wanting to close to my eyes
I want to see it, touch it, taste it, inhale it, exude it, splash in it, roll in it, make waves in it
No skipping beats, no wavering from the present
Steady my heart; this is what keeps it beating
A rhythm that cannot be quelled
And one day, death it will arrive
But life will just be getting started
We’ll meet on the other side;
A heartbeat yielding to the soul’s beat of all that cannot be explained.
He pointed to his back tire. I knew now what that meant. I believe it was his way of subtly but firmly saying, “I see you’re pushing yourself. You’re reaching that point where you’re getting close to exhausting your energy. I want to see you succeed. Draft off my wheel and keep going because you’re capable. NOW GO.” I nod and stare intently at his back wheel, no longer worried of hitting his back tire like I used to fear in the beginning. I trust my instincts and that he was paying attention to the road and traffic around us. It feels so good to have allies, now, I think to myself, and we attack the remainder of our sprint. It’s Wednesday night and I’m riding on my local bike shop’s weekly ride. I’m one of three females out here—something I’m making my mission to change— but at least it no longer feels intimidating. I can’t speak for all of the men out here, but the ones I’m getting to know so far are allies, open to hearing new ways to support women in cycling.
It hasn’t always been that way. Like many women, I’ve battled feelings of inadequacy, intimidation, and fear in bike shops and on the road, despite having grown up biking with my dad in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, and being a triathlete since 2005. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, when I signed up to ride in a 365 mile women’s bike ride across Maryland with World Relief, that I even learned basic bike mechanics. The great folks at Race Pace gave our team a general bike maintenance overview, including instructions on how to change a flat tire. But being a tactile learner, I went home that night and quickly forgot everything I was taught. It wasn’t until I started consistently bike commuting in spring 2013 that I realized there’s no way to fully avoid a flat tire and knew it was time tackle this skill. I confess, I went to a bike shop and paid to have it done the first time. The mechanic let me intently peer over her shoulder to learn—and my, was it awesome to learn from another woman. “Just practice in front the TV and you’ll get the hang of it,” she encouraged me. Satisfied with simply being able to successfully get home, I called it a night.
When I had a little more time, I went to another bike shop to buy tubes. “What size do you need?” the gentleman asked. What size do I need? Why don’t I know this stuff!? I thought. “I don’t know; what kind do you need for a road bike?” I asked, sheepishly. I learned that I needed 700×23-25c and scribbled this in my notebook as newfound vocabulary as soon as I got home. It wasn’t until my second and third flat that I used the tubes and gave myself a pep talk: “You’re gonna fix this damn thing if it takes you all night!” I then You-Tubed, grumbled expletives, levered, and pumped my way through fixing a flat 38 minutes later- a long time, I know, but at least it was a starting point.
As I began training for my first half Ironman, I began having gearing issues. “What kind of gearing do you have?” the gentleman at the bike shop asked. Here we go again… why do I STILL not know this stuff? “Um…” He came from behind the checkout counter and started counting: “3×9,” he shared, which I scribbled in my notebook later on that night.
After addressing the gearing issues, it wasn’t long before I experienced shifting issues on a training ride. So I went back to the bike shop and spent five minutes trying to describe what was happening when I shifted. “I’ll take it outside, shift through all the gears, and I’m sure I’ll figure out what you mean,” the gentleman reassured me. A couple minutes later, he came back in the shop. “I see what you mean. It’s skipping gears.” Yeah. Skipping gears. That’s what I was trying to say. The staff pointed out all sorts of parts I needed and $238.35 later, I made a commitment to learn how to do some of my own repairs and to actually understand the parts I even ordered. I spent months bingeing on Youtube bike anatomy videos, scribbling in my bike notebook, and vowed to lift my head a little higher each time I entered the bike shop.
Fast forward to now, and I love everything about going to the bike shop. The new tire smell. The myriad of shiny bikes that inspire me to dream of new races to register for. A place to test out the vocabulary I’ve accumulated and to laugh at myself when I invent names for parts that don’t exist— like I did last night. Ask me to tell you my story about “lib nuts.” But I think the thing I love most, though, is that my eyes now meet the eyes of each employee and my voice is louder than when I first walked in. I stand a little taller and don’t beat myself up when I mis-name a part.
Bike shops can be an intimidating place for some women initially, but it doesn’t have to remain that way. I believe that women can make a conscientious effort to familiarize ourselves with bike terminology and to practice effective communication skills. To go into the places that make us feel uncomfortable, even if we’re nervous. To ignore any internal dialogue of inadequacy and to remember that most people in the shop just want to see you experience the joy of cycling. To do it scared. To say yes. To surprise ourselves. Because I’d rather lack knowledge (and learn) than lack courage to embark on something new.
There are some things bike stores can do, however, to become a little more “female-friendly.” Take a look and share your comments & experiences below:
-Hire more female staff. An estimated 89% of bike shop owners are men, while 33% are owned by a husband-wife team, and 45% of paid bike advocacy staff are female. If more women are hired as bike mechanics and employees, perhaps more women will feel a sense of belonging.
-Conduct free or low cost bike mechanic workshops at the store. This is a sign that the store is safe to newbies and less experienced riders, thus making it more inviting to ask questions without fear of how it will be perceived. Furthermore, 26% of women say that learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more. Similarly, 20% of respondents in a 2010 Women Cycling survey said that a bike repair class would cause them to start or increase their riding.
-Host women’s rides from the store. While I realize a male-only ride can be off-putting, given that men outnumber women in riding 3:1, a ride designated for women can tilt the pendulum back to center and provide an unintimidating space to ask questions. And hey, since you’re at the bike shop anyway, it’s easy to go into the store afterwards for parts or tools. If you live in the Baltimore area, check out Twenty20’s women’s rides- 9:30 AM the second Sunday of every month.
-Examine the interior for subtle gender messages. Are all of the shop’s wall posters pictures of men biking? Is the TV in the store only showing men’s cycling events? Take a mental note the next time you’re in a bike shop as to what images you see. I did this recently and every piece of wall art featured a white male cyclist. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong about this, there also isn’t anything inspiring or inclusive of the rest of the world that’s not a white male. A few small changes in ambiance can help convey the message that women belong in the biking world.
-Stock child carriers and trailers. One factor that some women cite as a barrier to cycling is the inability to carry children and other passengers (19% of women reported this, compared to 7% of men). To increase ridership among different demographics, such as mothers and fathers, bike stores can have on display children’s bike seat attachments. If you’re going to promote the product with a poster advertisement, earn a brownie point for featuring a man toting his child via bike instead of a woman.
While we’re on the topic of reaching different types of cyclists, let’s place panniers and fenders on visible display to inspire men and women to commute and run errands via bicycle. Women comprise 24% of trips taken by bike, but on average, take an additional 110 trips per year than men, so same as above: if you’re going to have a poster promoting these products in the store, show a picture of a woman riding a bike with panniers and fenders to challenge gender norms.
It’s not just women who benefit from inclusive settings. As Chicks on Bike radio points out, not every man cycles competitively, so making bike shops more friendly in general can go a long way to make both genders of every ability level feel welcomed.
Moreover, we also know that both men and women cite traffic safety (both perceived and actual), lack of infrastructure, and the inability to bring bikes on other forms of public transit (such as trains) as a few of the many reasons for not biking, so in the mean time, let’s keep riding, keep advocating, and keep educating our friends and family on the realities of cycling.
See you on the roads—
For more info, check out the following resources:
Local Baltimore Bike Collectives:
Bearings Bike Project and Velocipide Bike Project: Open environments designed to be safe spaces for learning about all things bikes, including how to do your own bike maintenance.
Local Baltimore Bike Advocacy groups:
BikeMore- advocating for biker rights, bike friendly infrastructure, and increasing ridership.
Baltimore Bicycling Club- Partners with area organizations to promote advocacy and ridership
Local Baltimore Groups to Ride With:
Biking in Bmore- weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces
Baltimore Area Triathlon Club- weekend, evening, and morning rides of many distances and paces- newbies to experienced riders. Road bike with clips recommended.
Crank Mavens-women only rides Monday nights, ~10 miles
Twenty20- Wednesday evening rides for experienced riders- road bikes and clips; women’s ride 2nd Sunday of every month, all paces welcomed
Race Pace- Beginner rides Sunday mornings out of Columbia; advanced rides Tuesday evenings at CCBC
Baltimore Bicycling Club- several rides per week of varying distances and speeds
Baltimore Bike Party- last Friday night of every month in costume!
Women on a Roll, The League of American Bicyclists, August 6, 2013
The Uphill Climb of Women’s Pro Cycling, Stuff Mom Never Told You, August 28, 2013
How to Get More Women Riding Bikes, The Bike Show Podcast from Resonance FM, March 12, 2012
Women: Expanding our Presence in the Bike World, Chicks on Bikes Radio, December 20, 2012.
How did Women Pedal Their Way to Emancipation? Stuff Mom Never Told You, May 11, 2011.
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike
Overcoming Bike Concerns, Women Bike
10 Myths About Women & Cycling, The League of American Bicyclists
Women Mean Business: Will the Bike Industry Benefit? Women Bike
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Row Home Lit, a literary publication for Baltimoreans at heart, just published their first edition. Beautiful poetry! Check out the electronic version here: http://issuu.com/rowhomelit/docs/row_home_lit_vol1?e=10683710%2F7004005 You can also visit them on facebook or tumblr.
From my friend Dave Reichley— find him on instagram at: davereichley “The week well spent, I succumbed to slumber and dreamt of boots on rocky trails, … Continue reading