SRTS Conference 2011: NYC Student Activist Inspires National Audience

Kimberly White

Only two speakers at this week’s Safe Routes to School National Conference in Minneapolis earned a standing ovation. For former Minnesota Congressman Jim Oberstar the crowd stood out of honor and gratitude. For Kimberly White, the audience shot out of their seats with sheer awe and inspiration.

A resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and a sophomore at Baruch College, White’s a recognizable face to some in New York City. She appeared on a Times Square billboard with a solar bicycle and organized the recent Youth Bike Summit, attended by several hundreds students from 14 states.

Addressing her first national audience during the closing plenary of the Safe Routes conference, White described her evolution from passively accepting injustices in her low-income neighborhood to discovering bicycling as a vehicle for environmental activism and personal transformation. Given the crowd of educators and officials, White didn’t shy away from one key point: Adults too often discount the intellect and ideas of youth.

Ranging from feminism to education, here are some of the highlights from White’s rousing keynote.

  • After moving from the island of St. Vincent, gentrification pushed White’s family from Park Slope to Flatbush — and into near abject poverty. “I questioned why, in my family and neighboring households, food scarcity was the rule and not the exception… I wondered if the lack of bike lanes was unique to my neighborhood or if there were issues surrounding this lack of infrastructure that could be attributed to something else. At the time I had many questions that I thought no one could answer and it drove me to action.”
  • At 16 years old, she discovered Recycle-A-Bicycle. “It seemed like such a weird place. Bicycles everywhere in sight — hanging from the ceiling, tiny parts in drawers, and rows and rows of bikes on the ground… I was so intrigued. You see, while I could appreciate what bikes meant for sustainable, alternative transportation, I had never actually learned to ride a bike.”
  • So White resolved to learn, but there was another obstacle — and opportunity. “I really wanted a bike but I couldn’t afford one… I coordinated an Earn-a-Bike internship with Recycle-A-Bicycle that enabled me and my friends to receive a bike as long as we put in the sweat equity and learned how to build the bicycle ourselves… Our instructor dumped us in a sea of about 1,000 bicycles and frames at the warehouse. It was fabulous to feel inundated by beautiful bicycle frames. When I saw the frame of my bicycle, I experienced true love for the first time.”
  • Almost immediately, White became a bicycle advocate. “I have come to believe that bicycling is like the hub of a wheel; it’s the central point to which all the spokes connect. Building a bike at Recycle-A-Bicycle led me to advocate for Safe Routes to School at the National Bike Summit in DC. This lead to the creation of the Youth Bike Summit, which led me to this podium from which I greet you all today.”
  • Bicycle advocacy, she explained, isn’t just about transportation. “Bicycles are an articulation of feminism, youth empowerment and an understanding of the power dynamics and systems of oppression. Susan B. Anthony articulated it best when she said, ‘… [Bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.’ Along with the pursuit of untrammeled womanhood, cycling led me to other people and it brought me many surprises, such as being on a giant billboard in Times Square this year posing with a solar bike.”
  • White thanked her mentors, like Pasqualina Azzarello, the executive director of Recycle-A-Bicycle. “But it’s important to note that the inter-generational exchange goes both ways… Every generation of young people has been discriminated against by older people and their peers… We should hold young people to a higher standard, because young people — myself included — are ready to change the status quo. We just need adult support in the actions we pursue.”
  • Yes, Safe Routes to School is a positive, progressive idea. “But it’s how we implement the opportunity that validates its meaning in our local, national and global communities. By insisting on an inter-generational effort, we secure the longevity and broader community investment in our growing movement.”
  • Her own family is proof. “We’re now brokering a deal with Recycle-A-Bicycle to get my mom a bike, too.”