Women, Bikes & Buddhism with Carolyn Szczepanski

Melissa: How did the idea for creating the Women Bike program come to you?

Carolyn: After years as an investigative journalist, it didn't take much digging to see the need for a women's initiative in the bike movement. Moving from reporter to communications manager at the Alliance for Biking & Walking in 2010, I was inspired by the spur-of-the-moment Women's Caucus convened at the Leadership Retreat — a short but critical gathering that highlighted the need for solidarity among women in advocacy and new ways to expand the number of women within the movement, our memberships and on the street.

Melissa: Was there a pivotal "aha" moment?

Carolyn: Many advocacy organization were beginning to arrive at an important conclusion: 

In 2009, women accounted for just 24 percent of bike trips in the U.S. — and we cannot make bicycling a true, equal-access transportation option without meaningful engagement and the critical input of women.

It seemed clear that, the time was right for a national program to build a sense of collective energy around women on bikes and support and grow that energy with events, information, best practices and more.

The seed of the League's Women Bike program started with just a two-hour panel at the National Bike Summit in 2012 and quickly grew into a full-scale program. In just one year, we've:

  • Hosted three national events attended by more than 1,000 women (and men),
  • Supported local women's-specific campaigns with more than $20,000 in local grants
  • Published a first-of-its-kind report benchmarking women's ridership and leadership in the U.S.
  • Shared dozens of success stories through webinars, blogs and social media channels — and we're just getting started.

The need for and success of the Women Bike program, also led to the establishment of the League's larger Equity Initiative, which is aimed, not just at engaging women in bicycling, but listening to and being led by youth leaders and people of color. 

Melissa: You wear two very different hats now at the League as both the Director of Communications and the leader (do you have an official title?) of the Women Bike program. You've pulled together quite an impressive network, but that means you now have dozens of people who are experts and advisers from very different backgrounds with very different opinions on the way forward.

Share with us how your longtime dedication to being a Buddhist practitioner has helped you keep your center, your vision and to always be such a delight to work with!

Carolyn: I started a seated meditation practice when I broke my leg in 2009 — and couldn't do asana or ride my bike! A movement oriented person, I struggled at — but moving to Washington, D.C., which has a strong Buddhist community, I was fortunate to find an LGBT sangha with an amazing community dharma teacher at the helm. Since then, my practice has deepened, not just through the inspiration of teachers like Tara Brach, Cheri Maples, Arinna Weisman and Sharon Salzberg, but also through my daily travel on my bike.

I find that pedaling through the city is a perfect exercise in mindfulness, placing me in the present moment and connecting me with my body, community, nature and other road users. 

Melissa: This has been quite a year for you! The Women Bike "Women on a Roll" report is out with fascinating facts (like young women are 60% of new bike owners) and sobering ones (heart disease is still the #1 killer of women). Has anything surprised you about the response to the report?

Carolyn: Ever since our first event in 2012, I've been getting emails and calls from folks looking for various types of information related to women and bicycling. Reporters looking for data for bicycling stories. Potential bike shop owners looking for women's consumer trends to bolster their business plans. Advocates and individuals looking to start women's campaigns in their organizations or communities. So I knew there was a strong interest in gathering some of this sought-after data and compiling it in a way that could help folks make the case that we (women!) are an important and growing constituency and are changing the movement in amazing ways. That said, I didn't expect the level of response we've seen thus far. I'm getting calls and emails not just from reporters and advocates in the U.S. — but abroad, as well. And the interest among folks in the bike industry has been astounding. This is a hot topic from the grassroots to the board room. 

Melissa: You'll be at Interbike this September, what interesting things will be going on there for women to know about?

Well, we'll be working with our partners at the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition, Spokeswomen, CycloFemme and Girl Bike Love to unite around the message that "Women Mean Business." We'll be working our collective social media channels to share with the Interbike audience some of the compelling information in our report — and some *new* additional data from the phenomenal researchers at Leisure Trends to let folks in retail and industry know that women are a growing and important consumer segment. Women Bike will be co-hosting the Spokeswomen Happy Hour, which is the largest gathering of women at the show and also be reporting out to our wider Women Bike audience who aren't able to attend Interbike by sharing pictures of great products, posting short video interviews with women bike entrepreneurs, live tweeting compelling events, like the OIWC keynote from Elysa Walk, GM of Giant Bicycle USA... and more. So definitely stay tuned to Women Bike Facebook and Twitter!

Melissa: Carolyn we're excited to have you coming to California by Bike this November. Why are gatherings like these so important for women of all walks of life to participate  in?

Carolyn: These types of events are the spark of inspiration that keeps us going in our day-to-day efforts at the local (or national!) level. Sure, we all communicate on the phone and via email and social media, but, at least for me, to meet new people and connect with fellow advocates in person, over a beer or during a bike ride, reignites my passion for this work. It not only makes me feel part of a (uniquely awesome, I dare say) community but shows how all of our individual / organizational efforts roll (no pun intended) into a much larger, transformative social shift from coast to coast. It's a reminder that our collective efforts are having a huge impact! Plus, just like any other industry or sector, these types of events are critical for networking within the bike world. As women, we need to show up, share our ideas and assert our presence as leaders in the movement. Especially in California, there are SO MANY phenomenal women doing such amazing, innovative and exciting things to expand bicycling — and create stronger, healthier, more connected communities — so I can't wait to see and hear from some of the women who are the reason there is a Women Bike program!

About Carolyn Szczepanski: 

Carolyn directs the League of American Bicyclists communications - from American Bicyclist magazine to the Bike League Blog - and also leads the Women Bike program, which aims to encourage and engage more women in bicycling and   leadership in the movement. Carolyn joined the League staff in March  2012, after nearly 10 years as a print reporter and two years at the  Alliance for Biking & Walking. Carolyn is also a columnist for Bicycle Times magazine and a  contributing writer for Momentum magazine.