A Conversation on Biking While Black with Yolanda Davis-Overstreet
As SCAG’s Go Human campaign prepares to launch another year of traffic safety strategies, we reflect on the people and projects that we’ve partnered with to make an impact in the Southern California region. At the forefront of this work is a partner and project that works at the intersection of social and environmental justice issues: Yolanda Davis-Overstreet and her short documentary “Biking While Black.”
Davis-Overstreet is a community sustainability, transportation equity, and mobility justice activist who primarily focuses on pedestrian safety in communities. Through years of inclusive planning advocacy, Davis-Overstreet has connected historically disinvested communities with institutional resources to create lasting transportation and safety improvements. Her intersectional approach to addressing local issues has strengthened the capacity of her community, collaborators, and co-creators.
In 2021, Davis-Overstreet was awarded funding through the Go Human Mini-Grant program to film and release “Biking While Black,” a short documentary film centering the daily experiences that Black lives encounter while bicycling. The film addresses critical conversations around police enforcement, historic disinvestment of infrastructure, racism, racial profiling, and even death. The film focuses on Los Angeles and speaks to wider issues of transportation safety and institutional racism. Biking While Black was recently awarded the Best Bicycle Film at the Better Cities Film Festival in Detroit and will be screened at the upcoming CalBike Summit in Oakland, April 6-9.
In the interview below, SCAG’s Go Human team asks Davis-Overstreet about her experience creating this documentary.
Go Human (GH): Welcome, Yolanda! We are so grateful to be able to have a conversation with you through this interview. We love seeing you and your community leadership being recognized recently through KCRW and Streetsblog. We are excited to learn more about you and talk about your incredible documentary “Biking While Black.”
You’ve been working on community issues for many decades now, and always at the intersection of social justice, transportation, art, and mobility justice before it was termed “Mobility Justice.” How does your life experience influence the work you do?
Yolanda Davis-Overstreet (YDO): Quite frankly, before I even knew I was “in my own way” combatting social injustices as a small business owner of a creative graphic design and outreach business in my twenties and thirties – I was advocating to be seen as a viable BIPOC contributor in the field of communication design! I was at that time, advocating that the narratives and needs of people of color be featured and discussed in published print, advertising, and resourceful collateral. In my mid-thirties, I also increased my physical endurance by training and completing the AIDS RIDE – bicycling from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
And then in my later thirties transitioned into parenthood, embarking on the journey of advocating for my children – per their education, and varied health-related needs. I had to learn how to better believe in my own narrative per the struggles I was facing, and how to have a deeper understanding of my journey as a Black Life and woman, if I was going to be truly self-reliant and resilient.
Fast forward into my fifties, was without a doubt the most transformative decade in my evolution as an adult! This decade encapsulated leaping into the advocacy work of speaking up and on Black Lives on bicycles, diving into a range of community service work, raising my children as a single mom, living on minimal funds and going back to graduate school at 55! Now, at 61, I have gained what almost feels like a mountain-top awareness on the need to raise the bar by whatever means necessary to eliminate and eradicate vast injustices and inequities, and to regenerate mobility, social and economic sustainability in our communities of color and the City of Los Angeles in its entirety.
GH: The documentary ”Biking While Black” shares important stories about the racism, police brutality, and injustices Black people face. What were the most poignant and thought-provoking realizations you learned from creating this documentary?
YDO: We interviewed around 15 community members that ride bikes, advocate for mobility safety and or mobility justice. There were key denominators that each interviewee collectively spoke on as barriers, as well as what they felt could potentially be just and sustainable solutions. The inequitable and justice-based issues discussed were on all accounts – concerns related to firstly, the misuse of enforcement based on the practices of racial profiling, ticketing, and harm to death in far too many cases. The second issue emphasized was the historic practices of abandoning communities of color aka Redlining, and as a result, what many Black and Brown residents have experienced for decades is the lack of safe pedestrian and motorists’ infrastructure – not to mention the non-existence of bike lanes. In each case, the City of Los Angeles’ decision to abandon our communities of color, and the people within them – has led to vast populations of Black and Brown lives not only being put in harm’s way but has practically removed us from playing a role in the decision-making process on where safety and mobility-justice change needs to occur to this very day.
Like the Phoenix that rises from the ashes, Black and BIPOC lives continue to have an unseen connection to the realms of hope and resilience. Some of the key revelations that were spoken of during our interviews were on uplifting and educating our youth to become leaders and navigators in bicycling education and mechanics, safety education, and engagement, paired with mobility justice advocacy. Some of our interviewees even talked on the aspirations of training and mentoring our next Black and Brown bicycling Olympians and cycling professionals. We talked on the need to create more BIPOC-owned bicycling shops and CoOp’s, and on how this would look and operate under a social and mobility justice lens. The collective agreement was that one can’t exist without the other – mobility can’t exist without justice as it relates to the wellbeing and safety of BIPOC lives. And lastly, from the transportation agency perspective, we spoke on the need for these agencies to invest in acknowledging, hiring, and collaborating with community leaders who have been doing the work to help keep their multi-generational community members safe and informed.
GH: You have a great quote in the documentary that you control your life and you control your bike, and not the other way around, which seems like an incredible lesson in resiliency. What advice would you give to BIPOC, and BIPOC youth especially, looking to make a difference in bike safety and the transportation field?
YDO: I believe the significance of this quote is that no matter where we are positioned in life, especially in those times of crisis and or hardships – and even in those split-second decisions we have to make at times, it is up to us to be aware of who we give our power to as it relates to our next action!
I say, believe in your internal strength and intuitiveness that wakes you each up – each and every day! This navigating tool (within us) guides and holds an innate knowing of the mobility aka movement – and how to move around and within the natural and healing elements that surround us. In my life of being a child of the 60’s, learning how to maneuver and handle the bike was an experience in which I had to develop bicycling skillsets that kept me safe from the unnatural obstacles – like cars, disenfranchised streets and infrastructure, debris on the streets and on the sidewalks, and other unpredictable elements.
That’s where the trusted bike safety education and maintenance came into play. That’s where community exchange of riding styles and resources came into play. Where the community bike shops to go to for maintenance, bike talk, and to purchase more gear came into play. It’s where the held memories of the many rides I have done over the past five decades resonate that have taught me who I should give my power to and how to maneuver it all. It taught me how to see and take in what was around me, and thereby gain control on how I maneuvered around the debris, the disenfranchisement, the crisis, the injustices, and the victories that life reveals to us. This method of taking in the environments and experiences teaches us how to defeat fear and make the choices to navigate life moving aka pedaling into directions and spaces we dreamt about exploring and even improving upon.
This quote, in concluding, speaks into how we must first value our own existence, and then acknowledge and observe the natural and resourceful strengths we innately have, and thirdly to seek, retain and honor the learned skills of the great outdoors, mobility, justice, respect, predictability, and resilience.
GH: I’m curious about your creative process and the role of partnerships. Can you tell us more about what supports you to be able to tell a captivating story?
YDO: To trust in my truth firstly, and to be okay with not knowing it all. To be okay with releasing what is not working in my approach of social engagement, and to be open to daily learning and evolving. Also, knowing my weaknesses and triggers is very important. This is what adaptive leadership is about and it allows me to better prepare and enter the storytelling platform in such a way – that who I am engaging with is able to tell their truth and talk on their lived experiences! That’s not to say I will agree with everything they share, but I have in all authenticity created a space where we can have human dialogue. And it is my hope each time we are able to engage in dialogue we can collectively evolve internally and externally to create better understandings of what our next actions should be around the issues and challenges that confront us.
“Biking While Black” was recently awarded the Best Bicycle Film at the Better Cities Film Festival in Detroit and will be screened at the CalBike Summit in Oakland on April 6. “Biking While Black” is a powerful reminder that truly inclusive planning is grounded in racial justice.
Thank you to Yolanda Davis-Overstreet and all the interviewees and partners that made this project possible.