Action  /ˈak-shən/ word. – the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim. See examples. Montgomery bus boycott, March on Washington Movement, Black Lives Matter movement

Interview with Michael

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

I’m Michael and I live in Kansas City, Missouri. I’m originally from Kansas, was raised in Georgia. I moved to Kansas in 2008 and I’ve been somewhere between Kansas and Missouri ever since. I work as the policy manager for BikeWalkKC, the area nonprofit for cyclists and pedestrians. We work to make Kansas City a safer place to bike and walk. I came into the job completely by accident off of a trip to Vancouver. It has been one of the most eye opening experiences that I’ve ever had. And my wife, Johanna, and I are very, very happy with where things are going right now and with our just-turned-one-year-old daughter, Nora.

How would you define beauty?

My definition of beauty is what form that a person can be happy and content with. It’s something that really is in the eye of the beholder. I think that a lot of times for people it’s hard to accept the imperfections even though those elements are, perhaps more than anything, what really helps to fully define you. I think that we try to act like we’re perfect, like we don’t make mistakes. But the truth is that we’ve all made mistakes and we’re all imperfect. And so beauty really is being able to look at that with all the things that you really do like and still being able to see something that is valuable. That is something to really examine and something that to really cherish.

How would you define Black beauty?

Black beauty is something that is resilient. This might sound like a cliche, but I use the example of my mother. My mother had kidney transplant surgery and I think that she is definitely the definition of Black beauty because she has managed to be resilient through that entire process. Of having to do dialysis. Having to wait. And now as she’s recovering, going to her appointments. Taking all of her necessary medications. Doing all the things that doctors ask. And still being able to do it with a smile. That is resilient and it is something that is invigorating for others to see.

“All of those things are elements of Black culture. …It is something that you kind of have to really try to understand in its totality. Because if you try to understand just one part of it, then you’re missing a much broader and more vibrant picture.”

How do you describe Black culture?

I describe it as something that is all encompassing. I think that too often there are elements that we like to say that we really like.  We like to be able to see someone like LeBron James score a lot of points. We like to see someone like Nick Cannon be a good host. We like to see someone like Barack Obama be an effective president. But the flip side of that is that you also have to deal with that elements of LeBron James speaking out against President Trump or Nick Cannon saying something that he shouldn’t to Eminem or Barack Obama being less forceful on something than he probably should have been during his time in office. All of those things are elements of Black culture. And while we may debate the merits of that, and whether or not we disagree with it, it’s part of what we are. It is something that you kind of have to really try to understand in its totality. Because if you try to understand just one part of it, then you’re missing a much broader and more vibrant picture.

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

I think that a lot of times for me, I feel like I’m an unofficial ambassador for Black people. Especially when I’m the only Black person in a certain space. And so the pressure for me is working to try to be authentic but also trying to do so in a way that, especially in the past is, is much more about trying to be authentic without being offensive. I think that, especially for me in the last couple of years, the offensive part of it, whether I’m going to offend someone has really sort of slipped away. And I think that’s for the better because I think that if I’m going to be an ambassador then it’s important for people to understand that Black people are not monolithic. We’re not all going to say the same things and we’re not all going to say it the same way. And so for me, I think the pressure is being able to get to a point to where I’m comfortable enough to not just to say something, but to say it in a way that I feel is most important.

“I think that a lot of times for me, I feel like I’m an unofficial ambassador for Black people. Especially when I’m the only Black person in a certain space.”

Have you ever experienced of racism or discrimination? If so, any stories you would be willing to share?

This is more extreme, I’ll admit, but it was actually when I was at K-State. So, my mother had actually come to town and we had to take care of some stuff and then go back to Kansas City. So we got through with our stuff early and my mother and I wanted to grab something really quick to eat before we left town. So we stopped at McDonald’s and the line was kind of long, so we decided to go inside. And so we’re going inside and as we’re walking across, these people, this car full of white white guys — they couldn’t have been any older than me and I was a college student at the time — they speed by us and I kind of yelled at them, Hey, slow down. What are you doing? And one of them yelled out, You effing n-words and sort sped off.

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And the thing about it was that it didn’t bother me as much that they were calling me the n-word, as it did that they were calling my mother that. And I don’t know why, but I took a step as if I was going to chase after them. And my mother told me to wait. She said, Stop. Don’t go. And I was irritated because here’s my mother and all she’s wanted to do is just get some food and go back to Kansas City and now we have this issue that has happened. And rather than being able to resolve it the way that I would have liked, which is to have given them a piece of my mind, I now have to sit with it. And it was a really difficult drive back because that really bothered me. And it’s unfortunate because I think that I had a lot of good experiences at K-State and in Manhattan, but that is a memory that bubbles up to the surface more often and more prominently than I would like to, simply because it was so negative. And it is unfortunate, but that’s kind of how it is sometimes.

“You try to do all these things on your own, but when there’s someone who’s really able to sort of hold you up and make sure you continue on the path, even when you may feel like you’re going to fall astray, that is something that really means something.”

What do you feel you have accomplished in your life? What are you proud of?

I’m proud of the stuff that I did with speech. I was a competitor coming out of high school and I had a lot of success with KCKCC (Kansas City Kansas Community College) and then I was, I was fortunate enough to come on to the K-State speech team and have some more success there. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done academically, being able to graduate and then being able to go get my masters. And I’m really proud of the work that I’ve been able to do through BikeWalkKC. In the first year that I was there we helped to get Kansas City to adopt what’s known as a Complete Streets policy. Complete Streets is this idea that streets are meant to be for everyone. Cyclists, pedestrians, transit users, people with limited mobility. All of those people deserve a safe place to be able to move through Kansas City. And this policy enshrined that idea in how we approach transportation and development. That was something that I was really, really proud of. I’m proud of all of the work that I’ve been able to do in that space because there are so many people who benefit from that and so many people whose lives are touched in sometimes seemingly small to catastrophic ways when we choose not to invest in the built environment. So I’m really proud to be able to continue that work and be a part of such an important organization in Kansas City.

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But I think that what has been the biggest accomplishment for me is the life that I’ve been able to build with my wife Johanna. I met Johanna doing speech and she has been my biggest cheerleader since we’ve been together. We’ve been through a lot of big things together and that includes our daughter, Nora. So of all the things that I’ve done in the past and all the things that I’ll do in the future, I think that it matters a great deal, having someone who can support you and being able to say that you’re able to have that over a relatively long period of time –hopefully longer, knock on wood —  is something that I think is sometimes overlooked. You try to do all these things on your own, but when there’s someone who’s really able to sort of hold you up and make sure you continue on the path, even when you may feel like you’re going to fall astray, that is something that really means something. And I’m thankful to have her and our daughter, Nora, in our lives.

What are your personal dreams?

Oh gosh, I think I just want to be able to continue to be successful in my job. I know it may not sound like much at the moment, but there’s a lot riding on Kansas City being a place that is more friendly for multiple modes of transportation. Be it the economy, be it area health, be an equity, be it the environment. And so I hope that I’m able to be successful and more than what I’ve already been able to do in that job. I really dream — and this is kind of very, very broad and abstract — I just want stability. And stability for me means not having to worry about finances, not having to worry about my health, just not having to worry. A lot of things have gone right and a lot of things have gone well that have put me in that direction, but I’m not entirely 100% there. I don’t know if I’ll ever be, but that is the kind of the thing that I shoot for as a broad goal–stability.

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

I think that one big problem that is really overlooked is with transportation. So, in the United States we have had an increase in terms of pedestrian and cyclists deaths over the last few years. And an unfortunate fact about that is that the people who have been injured and killed who were pedestrians or cyclists tend to be older and they also tend to be people of color. In fact, according to Smart Growth America, the only minority group that is more over-represented among pedestrian crashes is Native Americans and Alaskan Indians or Alaskan natives

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Something that it also ties into is access to health and access to the economy. We have this history of Troost Avenue being a historic dividing line in terms of housing and segregation in Kansas City. What we also don’t realize is that it has also been a dividing line in terms of transportation equity. If you were to put an overlay of the neighborhoods where there is a high concentration of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists and households without access to a car, you would find that a majority of both of those are East of Troost. And so for me it’s personal. I talk a lot about BikeWalkKC, but there really is a personal element that I see every day. People who want to be able to go to a grocery store, who want to be able to access an education, who want to be able to have an easier time going to their place of worship, and they can’t because we have not invested equitably in their transportation needs. And so for me, I think that what’s most overlooked but perhaps most important for people of color is being able to give them better access through better and more diverse modes of transportation.

“People who want to be able to go to a grocery store, who want to be able to access an education, who want to be able to have an easier time going to their place of worship, and they can’t because we have not invested equitably in their transportation needs.”

That’s really interesting. The smaller things are the links to the bigger problems. Why do you think politicians or people vote against something that seems like a very simple fix and would benefit a wide audience?

I truly think that it really is that people just don’t know. We advocate and we try to be prominent and vocal in explaining these things, but we’re also a nonprofit that has a very small staff. And so we understand that there are people who just don’t know. That includes our elected officials. I think that the data and the statistics and everything are important, but I have more and more in this job found that what really pushes someone over the top is just the narrative. And I can give you all the data and statistics in the world, but what’s really going to sell you is hearing from a neighbor of yours, hearing from a resident, hearing from a constituent of your jurisdiction that says, My life has been negatively impacted by not having the sidewalk on my street or My life has been negatively impacted because my child was struck and killed by a car. I think part of the reason why we’re starting to see more and more attention and awareness and willingness to collaborate, is because those narratives are beginning to breakthrough. And people are beginning to hear those stories and to see that pain and realize that there is something that they can do.

Soo… One more question about transportation. Anything that involves public use typically revolves around taxpayers’ money. Even if a taxpayer is not going to benefit from something like more public transportation, why should they care?

There are a multitude of reasons why people should support and care about these things. Safety. When we invest in these changes to the built environment, evidence tells us that it’s not only safer for the pedestrian or the cyclist, but it can also be safer for the drivers. So in choosing to invest in these things, it’s actually something that is helping you as well. If you want to think about it from health, evidence tells us that when we build streets that are more walkable and more bikeable people do more physical activity and that helps us to improve heart health. It lowers the chance of obesity and that that cuts you off from having to deal with a whole host of negative consequences and diseases like hypertension, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you want to look at it from an economic development standpoint when we invest in those changes they are actually good for business in terms of money that is spent and in terms of better property values.

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In terms of economic impact you are making that street safer, you’re helping to make businesses more productive and you’re lowering insurance cost because the chance of a crash is less likely. And the broader, more important part of it is there’s an environmental impact. So, I’m gonna get on my soapbox here. The EPA has said that transportation is the largest sector of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It is 29%. And within that 29%, 59% of transportation emissions come from what they classify as light duty vehicles. Those are cars, trucks, SUVs.  Within Kansas City from 2013 to 2017 the only sector of greenhouse gas emissions that grew overall was transportation. Everything else either stayed the same or dropped. So when we invest in these changes, it’s something that is going to encourage people to use their cars less, which will lower our greenhouse gas emissions, which will ultimately help us to save the planet. And if you need more convincing after that, I’m happy to talk about it more.

Hmm… It’s interesting how you articulated that argument because you mainly mentioned benefits that actually do impact the taxpayer. Do you think to solve social problems, we have to pitch from a primarily self-interest position?

I think that from an equitable standpoint, the thing first is making sure that we’re sort of centering those narratives and perspective and bringing people from those places into spaces of leadership and I think that that’s something that we try to support. So, within the organization,I’m the policy manager, so I’m the head of the policy team, and I help a lot with decisions around that. We have made it clear that it’s important to include and involve the voices of people who sometimes get left out of these conversations. So, if you’re talking with people about more bike paths, for example, you should talk to a place like Hope Faith Ministries that serves homeless people. For a lot of the people who are served there using a bike is the easiest and cheapest form of transportation they can have.

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If you’re talking about something like the environment, it’s important to include people from what are known as frontline communities in that space. And those also tend to be people from low income and minority communities. The reason why that’s important is because if we don’t include those people, then we’re leaving out the voices of the folks who are going to be most directly and immediately impacted by the effects of a changing climate. It is not lost on me at any point, how we can look for elements of trying to be more equitable and trying to make sure that we’re centering the work that we do around the voices of others. I think that the way to do that is to be upfront about it and be honest about that. I think that more often than not, you don’t get pushback. You get people who want to do and want to know more. I think it goes back to the idea of people just don’t know. And it can be frustrating sometimes, especially when you’re a person of color, because you think, Yeah, why don’t you get there? But there really are people who just don’t know . That doesn’t mean that they should be let off the hook for not trying to understand it, but I think it also kind of explains why people may seem tone deaf or why something may be done that is offensive is because people really just don’t know.

“I think acceptance and celebration of our differences is something that has really dried up in the last few years and it has given way to a very harsh climate that is painful and dangerous and threatening to people who not only look like you and me, but people who are trans, people who are refugees seeking a better life for their kids.”

What are you dreams for society?

I think more acceptance. I think that, unfortunately, under the current administration we have a drought of a lot of good qualities that we could really use. I think acceptance and celebration of our differences is something that has really dried up in the last few years and it has given way to a very harsh climate that is painful and dangerous and threatening to people who not only look like you and me, but people who are trans, people who are refugees seeking a better life for their kids. All of the people that we really need to be pulling for and looking for ways to support are being sort-of let down right now. And I think that my dream for society is that we get back to a place to where we’re able to celebrate differences, but not necessarily try to use those differences as justification for harming one another. I think if we’re able to do that then there’s a lot of potential for us to get back to a place of leadership, not just within ourselves as a country, but also within our place in the world. That may seem optimistic, but I mean, that’s what dreams are for. They’re about space for you to be idealistic to shoot for something more and to hope that something sticks.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

I would encourage people to get out of their cars. You know, walk down the street in your neighborhood. When was the last time you just spoke to your neighbor about something? When was the last time you rode a bus and just struck up a conversation with a fellow transit rider? When was the last time you just got on a bike and went somewhere close by your place. I talk about transportation a lot, and I may even come across as preachy sometimes, but I really have seen how it can be this game changer for not only the broader physical things that we can measure, but also those invisible things that we can’t really touch but we can really feel.

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When this all started, when Johanna and I went to Vancouver for our honeymoon, we were there for a week. We only used a car once. Everywhere else we went we walked, we took the subway, or we took the bus. And it was really weird because here we are, these American strangers in Canada, and it felt so much like a community when we were riding on the bus. People would strike up conversations about what they thought about the local hockey team. When we were walking to the shore, there was a guy from Vancouver who recognized my Royals hat and struck up a conversation with me and ended up buying Johanna and I scones because we were so nice. And there were also those sort of tender moments where you got to see a mother reading to her kid on the subway. There are ways for us to be able to reach one another to be able to do things better. And I think the transportation can help to be that equalizer. And the crazy thing about all of this is that if you ask transportation advocates in Vancouver, they’re going to tell you that this system is terrible. That this is not something that we should be happy with. This is something that we need to improve even more. And yet, this is something that in just a week of me experiencing was able to get me to believe in the power of people and believe in how much we as a society can improve if only we’re willing to invest a little bit more in a bike path or some expanded bus coverage. And so if we really think about that and we take it to its logical conclusion, that’s something powerful that we’re really missing an opportunity for. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What advice would you give to other Black people?

I think the advice I’d give to other Black people is just be authentic. And don’t try to hide anything. I think that there’ve been moments where I have just let myself be me and it’s led to some really, really cool interactions. So there’s this guy I met at the National Bike Summit in Washington D.C. earlier this year, his name is Robin Mazumder, and the reason he was there is because he is someone who lives in Canada and he often times speaks about transportation and the needs of people, especially those who have limited mobility and limited access to things, in a way that I can only hope to do someday. And it was really cool because he sat next to me after he had done his keynote and we’re sitting together at breakfast and he sorta strikes up a conversation with me and I tell him about Vancouver. He was so awed by that, that he actually tweeted about me and there were all these people from Vancouver and Canada who were like, Oh, this is so awesome that you thought it was cool enough to actually go and work and try to do something like that in Kansas City. But that’s the thing about it, if you’re your authentic self and you just do and say things in a way that only you can do it, it’s infectious. It makes other people admire that and want to do that more. And so be you and be authentic and be infectious.

What advice would you give to non-Black to help them understand the Black experiences?

Besides giving some suggestions for some really, really good movies to watch, like Moonlight, I think that the thing to do is to constantly ask questions. I think that we only learn when we search for knowledge. And so it’s important to be respectful in that and to recognize that there is only so much that you can know, but you can’t fully understand. But, that shouldn’t stop you from trying to know. And understand that sometimes you, you may get an answer that you may not want, but that’s, that’s what the answer is. Black people aren’t monolithic, like I said earlier. What that means is that you almost have to spend an entire lifetime asking and understanding. But you shouldn’t stop trying to do that because you gain more insight. You become wiser in trying to be more aware and be more involved in those conversations. Do it on a bike, do it on a bus, do it on the street car. If you’re in Kansas City, you might be surprised what sort of insights you get.

Additional Information

Interview Date: November 9, 2019

Day 5 — Story posted on February 4, 2020

Personal Links: BikeWalkKC

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