Jenna Burton turned anger and isolation into a new, powerful force within the bicycle movement.
When Burton moved to the Bay Area from the East Coast, she fell in love with bicycling. With a history of diabetes in her family, she discovered the tremendous health benefits of traveling by bike — but she also discovered a lack of diversity in the local bike scene. So she took action.
In 2007, the Oakland resident started Red, Bike & Green to empower and engage more black bicyclists in her community. With a motto of “It’s bigger than bikes,” RBG has a three-fold mission of improving the health, economy and environment of the African American community. In just a few short years, new chapters have sprung up in other major cities, like Chicago and Atlanta.
Who taught you to ride a bike and where?
My father taught me how to ride as a child in Hartford, Connecticut where I grew up.
How did you get back into biking as an adult?
After I graduated from college on the East Coast, I moved to the Bay Area. I fell in love with the bike culture out here, purchased my first bike (as an adult), got rid of the car and have been riding ever since.
What’s your bike style?
It depends on the mood. Most days I use a road bike to get around. It gets me to and from work and most other places I need to get to in Oakland. Every once in awhile, I’ll break out the cruiser, put on a cute dress and just ride.
What was the original spark for RBG? A particular ride? A conversation with a friend?
Obviously, I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about health and the African American community. As soon as I got a bike, I found myself trying to find my place in the bike community. I did a few group rides with one of the cycling clubs in Oakland. During a conversation with another African American on the ride who had been living in Oakland for several years at that point, he mentioned not being able to find a group of black people to ride with when he first moved out here. That was the spark. After that, I started looking for black people to ride with. Since there wasn’t an organized group, I decided to start one.
After that initial inspiration, what was the first thing you did, the first step to actually making change in the community? Did you have any background in activism or community organizing?
I called all of my friends that I knew rode bikes, but the first big step was to just go around to people in the community. When I saw a black person on a bike, I would just go up to them and start talking to them about this new bike group I’m starting and invite them to ride. I made a lot of new friends that way! In college, I did a lot of campaign work and after college I did a bit of community organizing. The strategy was different though. Community organizing felt like a job. I always felt like I was being controlled by a larger entity. With Red, Bike and Green I was able to just be myself. It was liberating — much like bike riding
I wrote a story for Momentum awhile ago and I heard from a number of people of color that the initial reaction they got from friends was “Black folks don’t bike!” Is that sentiment changing?
I think the sentiment is slowly changing. It’s no longer unheard of, especially in most metropolitan areas. But the social elements that have black folks resistant to even considering bike riding as an alternative mode of transportation are still very strong.
If you had to choose one thing, what’s been the most important key to RBG’s success?
I know it sounds cliche, but RBG is by the people, for the people. It’s entirely grassroots. It came from members of the community, using community resources. It’s free and easily accessible with no strings attached. It’s literally like going for a bike ride with your next door neighbor. The most important key is community.
I can’t help but notice that there seems to be really strong female leadership in RBG — is that the case? Has that been organic and do you think that’s impacted the growth of the organization?
Yes! That is the case, and it did happen organically — or maybe not so organically with the founder being a woman. I may be a bit biased in answering this question, because I think it has had a very positive impact on our growth. We are talking about an organization that functions in a predominately white male community, but is led mostly by black women. That type of dynamic is kind of uncomfortable. Fortunately, the purpose of RBG is to touch on issues that tend to make us as a society uncomfortable — so the dynamic works.
How has RBG changed YOUR life?
The initial inspiration for RBG came from a lot of anger I was feeling about the condition of the black community. Something really positive came out of that anger. Many times I’m reluctant to express my anger out of fear of what label or stereotype I may be stuck with. But, with the success of RBG, I realized that I have every right to be angry and by simply facing that anger I might channel it into something peaceful.
What’s the ultimate goal of the group? Chapters in every city?
The ultimate goal is to stimulate a sea change in the way bike riding — and to a larger extent healthy living — is perceived through the lens of African American culture. Chapters in every city would be great, if African Americans in those cities think our model will be useful in building a healthy black community.
Hear more from Burton and learn more about how RBG is changing the culture of cycling at the National Women’s Bicycling Summit!
Carolyn SzczepanskiCarolyn joined the League in March 2012, after two years at the Alliance for Biking & Walking. In addition to managing the League's blog, magazine and other communications, Carolyn organized the first National Women's Bicycling Summit and launched the League's newest program: Women Bike. Before she crossed over to advocacy, she was a professional journalist for nearly 10 years.