The Executive Director’s New Clothes
Trigger Warning: racism, classism
April 11th, 2016. 4:36pm. Voltaire Coffee Shop
“So…what did you want to talk about?”, Shiloh asks, her voice cool.
Shiloh Ballard is the Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). In the six months prior to this meeting, I had labored over an e-mail intended only for her. It detailed three very specific instances when I, a person of color, felt ostracized and abused while working with her non-profit organization.
After Shiloh had the opportunity to read over my e-mail, we agreed to meet in a public setting to discuss these matters over coffee. Upon my arrival, I had found her already situated in the corner of the cafe. She is calm, collected, and very much in control of the situation.
I clear my throat. “I do believe my e-mail has expressed everything I have to say. I’m just here to listen.”
Shiloh smiles. “I’m not going to explain to you how or why we do things.”
October 3rd, 2014. 3:24pm. San Jose City Hall
The first time I realized that that race and equity were an issue within the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition was during the San Jose Department of Transportation hearing on banning cyclists from the sidewalks in Downtown. The people had come out in droves that day, cycling and pedestrian advocates, city employees, small business owners; a real hodge-podge of all those impacted and affected by this ban. I had been given time to speak on behalf of my bike messenger service, and my words had garnered applause from the audience. It felt wonderful to be appreciated and recognized.
Upon exiting the meeting hall, I immediately sought out my regular cycling advocate group, which included Diane Solomon of KKUP, Andrew Boone of Streetsblog amongst others. As I went to shake hands and discuss our next actions, a small hand clasped my shoulder blade and a whisper found it’s way into my ear.
“Good work out there. You were very well-spoken.”
Being unfamiliar with the voice, I turned around to find myself face to face with Shiloh Ballard, who was then a Board Member of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. I was stunned on multiple levels.
For those unfamiliar or unaware, saying, “He/She/You’re so well spoken’ is NOT a compliment. It’s an insult, especially considering that same sentiment is rarely used when a Caucasian adult is being discussed.
I had never met or introduced myself to Shiloh in any formal sense. Acquaintances at best, while we did find ourselves at many of the same events due to our involvement with the Bicycle Coalition, there was never any formal acknowledgment of each other to my knowledge.
I bit my tongue in anger.
“Thank you”, I replied, as I quickly made it a point to separate myself from Shiloh before I let my emotions get the better of me.
April 11th, 2016. 4:40pm. Voltaire Coffee Shop
“We are actively working on equity, in fact, we just appointed Poncho Guevara of Sacred Heart to our Board of Directors. He’s very big on equity, and does a lot of work within the local community.”
I glare at Shiloh, which certainly won’t be the last time during this conversation. What I just heard, is, “We’re working on equity! We’ve even appointed a token brown person to our Board! If that isn’t equity, I don’t know what it is!”
She continues, “These changes don’t happen overnight. I can tell you we are actively working on equity, but it is a very long process.”
May 5th, 2015. 2:21pm. At The Corner of 2nd and San Fernando in Downtown San Jose.
As I was making my way into my office, I noticed one of my couriers standing on the sidewalk. His other job involves operating a pedicab, and much to my surprise, he was standing next to his vehicle, completely distraught as a cop is writing up a ticket.
This particular courier is quite possibly the single most laid back individual I’ve ever met. Always with a smile on his face, always laughing, never shaken by anything. May 5th was the only exception. As he fought back his tears, he let loose a vocabulary I had never heard him use before or since.
As I’m making an attempt to better understand the situation, his other boss pulls up. I’m pulled aside and filled in.
My courier had his pedi-cab parked on the sidewalk of 2nd and San Fernando. He was sitting in the back of the vehicle, taking a break and enjoying his coconut water, when a cop pulled up next to him and cited him for riding on the sidewalk. Though our shared courier tried to fight it, the cop wasn’t having any of it.
In the middle of this incident, two fairer skinned individuals on Bike Share rode by on the same sidewalk where my courier was parked. The cop also pulled these two over, but they were let off with warnings.
My courier was furious. And being newly informed, so was I.
I told the Pedicab Boss that we should go straight to the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. We all fought together against the sidewalk ban, and though we lost, surely we could do something to address this racial injustice against one of our own. He agreed but had to leave for another meeting, and asks that I keep him updated.
As per my usual MO, I walk straight into the SVBC office. Neither Shiloh or Collin(the Deputy Director) are present. There is only one staff member in the office. I grab a seat, the staffer’s ear, and lay out what just occurred not even a mile from their office.
“That really sucks. But I don’t know if there’s anything we can do. Race isn’t really a topic we cover here at SVBC. Are you familiar with DeBug off Stockton? They may be better suited to handle this.”
If I were a cartoon character, I would have had a superimposed atom bomb go off in my head, with smoke coming out of my ears. What part of, ‘We envision a community that values, includes, and encourages bicycling for all purposes for all people.’ did I miss? Is there some sort of sick Orwellian catch to this statement? Is there some sort of footnote in the vision that I missed that states ‘all purposes for all people’ only applies to Middle Aged Men In Lycra?
Selective enforcement by our local police — racial discrimination, had just occurred in SVBC’s backyard. And they couldn’t be bothered to even lift a finger.
I felt disheartened. Betrayed. Frustrated. For all my years being involved in the South Bay cycling community, this was the first time I felt alone.
April 11th, 2016. 4:52pm. Voltaire Coffee Shop
“We see so much potential in you, and we are more than happy to share our resources. You can do so much within the community, and the last thing we want you to do is burn out. What can we say or do to convince you to stay?”
I feel sick. As if Shiloh is trying to buy me off. As if I need her, or her organization’s help to accomplish anything. As if I am not capable by myself.
In the course of the past three years, my business partner and I have created a bike messenger service from nothing more than good intentions and the messenger bags on our backs. We now service not only all of Santa Clara County, but also work with some of the largest names in Silicon Valley.
This was not made possible by SVBC’s support. This was made possible through hard work, tenacity, sacrifice, and the support of our local community. We donated our time and energy to SVBC and never asked anything back. Now, when I am asking for equity and equal representation for cyclists of color, I’m having the door shut on my face.
Shiloh and I are no longer seeing eye to eye, if we ever saw eye to eye at all.
October 30th, 2015. 6:16pm. Crowne Plaza Cabaña Hotel
It was the end of summer 2015, and SVBC had once again begun promoting their Annual Winter Dinner Fundraiser. Much to my surprise, a photo of myself dressed in tuxedo posing with two of my friends was used in their promotional materials. I heckled SVBC on Facebook for using my image to promote their event; something along the lines of, “If I’m part of the advertising campaign, does this mean I get my ticket comped for the Dinner?”
Being a small business owner, I am constantly strapped for cash. After the couriers get paid, the equipment gets serviced, the insurance and taxes are taken care of, then and only then, do I allow myself to draw my paycheck. I assure you, there’s never much left over after all’s said and done. $150 for a dinner, even if it’s for the very community I serve, is a lot of money.
Much to my delight, one of the SVBC Board of Directors reached out to me. She offered me a spot at her table, the SAP sponsored table. I accept her generous offer without hesitation. She earmarks that I should wear my tuxedo. I present no objections.
I biked from my office in Downtown San Jose to the event in Palo Alto. Thirty-five miles one way, my tuxedo hanging from my backpack the entire way. To my amazement, there are no wrinkles or blemishes on my suit upon arrival.
With a spring in my step, I make my way onto the patio. Finally, I feel as though I’ve made it. From fixed gear fanaticism, to having a spot at the prestigious SAP table at the biggest SVBC event of the year. I am welcomed as an honored guest. I am dressed to the 9’s. My shoes are polished, my suit pressed, and I walk into the courtyard feeling like a million dollars. Seeking out a familiar face, I catch the laughter of a friend, who is to be recognized for their work that night. I tap on their shoulder, eager to congratulate them on their accomplishment. As they turn around, a look of surprise adorns their face,
“Oh! I almost didn’t recognize you; I almost mistook you for the help!”
I felt less than human the rest of the night.
April 11th, 2016. 4:54pm. Voltaire Coffee Shop
“I don’t think you understand Shiloh. You’ve told me time and time again that I can’t always be ‘swinging my gavel around, hoping for change to come about.’ You are mistaken. When it comes to interacting with institutionalized racism, I reserve EVERY right to be angry. What I’m doing right now is facing my abuser. When I confront the others, I will once again be confronting my abusers. It is literally taking everything in my power to hold back from screaming at you right now. There is not a single person on Earth who can tell me that my anger is not justified in this moment.”
In that moment, all of Shiloh’s defenses came undone. She is broken. Shattered. The realization of the weight of her actions, the actions of her organization, and the underlying racism of it all has finally hit home. It shouldn’t have taken this much to get my point across.
“I’m so sorry. I’m sorry you see me as a bad person, that was never my intention.”
This drivel continues on for a few minutes. There is no remorse for her actions. Only for how she’s perceived.
“Shiloh, it’s not that I see you as a bad person…”
I think long and hard before I reply. Looking out the window, it’s a beautiful March afternoon. Slightly overcast. Could easily be mistaken for fall instead of late Winter. I look back to Shiloh, as I ignite what little is left from the bridge of comradery we once had.
“…it’s that I see you as an ignorant one. And it’s not my job to teach you how to do yours.”
Judging by the look on Shiloh’s face, you’d think I just drop kicked her dog into the Hudson River. The message was received. “So there is nothing we can say or do to have you stay?”
“No. The Bicycle Coalition is not a safe space for me, or those who don’t identify as privileged.”
Despite everything that occurred over our conversation, we left on amicable terms. I ensured Shiloh that I would not lash out, that I would fade away quietly, and that if anyone had questions, they could ask me directly.
I am only speaking out now because things have become worse. Over the past eight months since our last face to face discussion, both the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Bike East Bay, SVBC’s sister organizations, have held multiple public events addressing equity and racism directly with both their staff, as well as their membership base.
What SVBC did was release a statement that they were moving forward by relying on literature written over a decade ago, and pushing forward with creating equity through a broken bike share system that caters to their already dominating white upper class culture. This isn’t equity. This is textbook White Savior Complex; a white person or based group “saving” people of color from their oppression, with the stated savior “discovering” themselves along the way. What Shiloh, and by extension SVBC, want to do is make use of a tool that was created by and for financially stable white people. This is a misguided attempt at moving towards a more equitable organization.
I love the people that make up SVBC. Amongst them are some of my most trusted friends. They know this, because we have shared in experiences and struggles that neither of us would trade for the world. If anything were to ever go wrong (which it has), these individuals know that nothing would keep me from coming to their side in their time of need.
As an organization, they will never receive my, or my company’s support again.