Social Justice Planner Monique López and Bike Pittsburgh’s Julie Mallis Go Mobile To Connect A City’s Dots

Social Justice Planner Monique López and Bike Pittsburgh’s Julie Mallis Go Mobile To Connect A City’s Dots 

Mobility is important. It’s how we get about town, how we connect a city’s itinerant dots and how we get in touch with our future selves. For Monique López and Julie Mallis, it’s also a way to build community, whether by foot or by bike. In advance of Bike Pittsburgh’s Women and Non-Binary Forum, hosted at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh this past April, we sat down with López — a social justice planner and founder of Pueblo, a participatory planning and design firm in LA — and Mallis, a multimedia artist and the Education Program Manager at Bike Pittsburgh, to chat about mobility as empowerment, creating way-finding murals in the shape of fruit and making bikes more accessible to youth.

How did you get involved in doing what you do now, professionally?

I grew up in a small rural community in Imperial County out by the Salton Sea. This community is plagued by numerous environmental injustices such as hazardous waste facilities, field burning, pesticide spraying and toxins from the geothermal industry. Yet, time and time again, I witnessed elected officials and others with political influence move plans and policies forward with negative health and economic impacts, without consulting the people that these decisions impact most.

But in my early 20s, when they tried to build a sewage sludge incinerator in my community, I finally drew the line — I got involved in a grassroots campaign to stop it and we won!

It was there that I learned about the planning profession. I would go to the county planning department to get information about the proposed project and would have to go back multiple times to ask for the same information and experienced planners playing the role of a “gatekeeper” instead of public servant. This was my introduction to planning. But it also taught me the importance of community members being able to develop their own creative solutions that meet their needs. This early experience in my hometown, at the beginning of the formation of my worldview as a professional, has deeply influenced my approach to planning, design and policy development.

I am part of the next generation of planners who have experienced first-hand how planning, design and policy have historically embedded generations of structural racism and sexism in the built environment. I am also part of the next generation of planners that see great potential to provide opportunities for residents to use these planning and design tools to reshape their communities equitably, holistically and sustainably.

With the rise of inequality, climate change and negative impacts of decades of top-down planning, do we have any choice but to try something new?

Julie Mallis – Photo by Sarah Huny Young
Julie Mallis – Photo by Sarah Huny Young

“Once I started bike commuting, my independence spiked, I felt more confident and empowered and I felt very connected to the environments I passed.” — Julie Mallis

After moving to Pittsburgh for college, I immediately got involved with organizations as a teaching artist which led me to work for a youth empowerment organization. We ran arts, environmental justice and health programming, including a youth cycling program: Positive Spin. After about 5 years of Positive Spin, the organization ended, but I was able to transplant the youth bike program and myself to our local bike/ped advocacy org, BikePGH. Almost five years later, Positive Spin is running at schools and organizations across the city and has expanded into a free downloadable resource: The Positive Spin Toolkit. This lays out the curriculum, needs and pertinent info about setting up your own youth bike safety program and is easily adaptable for physical education classes, after-school clubs and more. In the coming years we are working with local schools to make accessing bikes and learning how to be safe on them more accessible for all youth. I’ve also expanded my role working at BikePGH to operate all of our education programs, as well as our Women and Non-Binary Program. I’m really excited about crafting this program to better serve people with a historically marginalized gender identity, so we can create safer spaces together, build community and tools and share skills. One such tool we are developing currently is a primer on gender, sex and sexuality so that our audiences gain deeper comprehension as to why we need to create programs addressing gender specifically with mobility. Outside of this, I am heavily involved in creating art and cultivating multimedia experiences through my role in creative collectives: BOOM Concepts and gfx.

How has being a person on a bike influenced the way you approach your work?

I am a social justice planner and advocate. I feel deeply connected to people because as I move around a city without a car, certain encounters trigger a memory of a moment in my own life that has shaped who I am as a planner and advocate.

Because you see…

When I ride my bike and feel the wind of a car too close for comfort that sends me into a cold sweat and makes my heart pound, I am reminded of my childhood. Scars on my right leg bare the memories of screeching tires and tears streaming down my 8-year-old face. My legs tell the story of the budget inequities that resulted in poor planning of the streets in my low-income neighborhood.

When I ride my bike by a vacant lot I am reminded of my childhood. As roots ripped from the earth, displaced by the shovel called eminent domain for what was deemed the “betterment of the neighborhood.” Twenty plus years later a chain-linked fence higher than my head imprisons the lot of my childhood memories. And I can’t help but ask myself, how is a vacant lot, displaced families, better than a child’s laughter that once filled the space.

When I ride my bike and find it difficult to breathe I am reminded of my childhood. Years exposed to environmental toxins, from pesticides to field burning to unchecked industrial facilities have taken a toll on my young developing lungs.

When I ride my bike at night and see someone on a bike without lights pass me, I am reminded of my college years. I didn’t have a car, but an old mountain bike with no lights to take me to and from work. Lights were the last thing on my mind as I was trying to make ends meet working 2-3 jobs to pay for school, food and rent.

When I ride my bike, these are the things I see, feel and remember. From my lungs to my legs, they have paid the bill for the poor and inhumane decisions of the planner, the politician and the privileged few.

But I am not under any delusion of where I stand today. I acknowledge my current privilege that my job, my education, my networks have provided me. It has allowed me to sit at tables across from elected officials, call the cellphones of high-level city staff, be consulted by agencies on how to develop plans, policies and prioritize funding.

But as I travel through the city I see the true story for many about being car-free in this place. The lack of investment in bike lanes, crosswalks, sidewalks in low-income communities of color. Displacement of families from their beloved neighborhoods as rents rise as streets improve. Communities being choked by poor air quality near freeways and poisonous industries and people on bikes with no lights just trying to make it home safely.

As I sit at decision-making tables, I cannot divorce my connection to my neighbors — my memories will not allow me to. My own experience has influenced how and who I see. For me, social justice is not a set of principles that guide my work, it is the very real need for the people I see navigate the tangled jungle of streets. It is the people, not the theoretical principles, that I am connected to.

Julie Mallis teaching Confident City Cycling - Photo by Shannon Kenyon
Julie Mallis teaching Confident City Cycling – Photo by Shannon Kenyon

It has always been very clear to me how important mobility is. My parents both had cars but were pretty busy working multiple jobs to support our family of seven, so I usually ended up getting rides from my friends’ parents and catching the school bus. As I got older, I started walking super far, taking combinations of SEPTA transit (Bus, Rail, Subway, Trolley) and even Craigslist Ridesharing when traveling between cities. I was very multi-modal, and I would test out different combinations of public transit just to see what could get me to work on the other side of the city faster or cheapest. At that time in my life, I didn’t really know how to ride a bike yet and I did not own one.

Once I started bike commuting, my independence spiked, I felt more confident and empowered, and I felt very connected to the environments I passed, hearing the sounds, feeling the grass beneath me and holding onto the very real vulnerability that riding 2-wheels can inhabit. I knew how to get across the city very fast, which streets to avoid and what short-cuts would help me avoid car traffic or extraneous potholes. Bike commuting means working very hard to move yourself and your items from place to place and witnessing everyone else commuting around you in all of their forms. It’s this on-the-ground experience that informs my work as an educator and community builder. You must experience and do the activity along with the people you are working with, so if I am teaching middle schoolers how to ride a bike, I remember the struggles I faced when I learned. If we are going for a group ride, it means I tested out the route ahead of time before bringing an even more vulnerable group in my care to ride it. It means building in time for breaks, ensuring our youth get enough food and water and doing lots of check-ins to make sure everyone is feeling nourished mentally, physically and more.

What can people do to get more involved in organizing and planning?

This also affects the way I look at my creative practice. When I was commissioned to paint a 1000+ feet way-finding mural in Downtown Pittsburgh this past summer, it was the obstacle courses that I created for our bike safety classes that inspired its form and function. I painted an on-the-ground mural into a game of “The Floor Is Lava,” where passersby can dodge the lava by jumping on shapes of fruit. It also posed questions along the way: “Who gets to eat the most fruit?” and “Who is missing from your table?” as tables are set up along the route during the warm months. This was a great opportunity to provide an experience that is interactive, with an option for physical engagement and a jump-off point for discussion.

When it comes to organizing there are three women who I look to for guidance. I’ll let their words speak for themselves and have you marinate on them:

“The thing I don’t like about the word ‘ally’ is that it is so wrought with guilt and shame and grief that it prevents people from doing what they ought to do. Co-conspiracy is about what we do in action, not just in language. It is about moving through guilt and shame and recognizing that we did not create none of this stuff. And so what we are taking responsibility for is the power that we hold to transform our conditions.” 
— Alicia Garza, Co-Founder Movement for Black Lives

“Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable.”
— Aurora Levins Morales, Author and Social Justice Leader

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
— Lilla Watson, Indigenous Artist and Activist

When it comes to getting more people involved in the planning process, the burden should be on public agency staff and planning firms in which they contract out to, in order to ensure the process is accessible, transparent, relevant and accountable. It is these very reasons in which people do not get involved in the planning process. As practitioners we shouldn’t shame the community for not being involved, we should ask ourselves what are we doing wrong and how we can improve the process to ensure people have an opportunity to dictate their own future and their community’s future.

Everyone is needed, whether it’s through using art and the medium of your choice to express yourself anyway you can or organizing a neighborhood committee to create campaigns and make changes at the local level. “Power with” is an important concept, where the power of the people — the workers, the laborers, the learners — can exert pressure over the few who power over at the top. When we come together over shared demands, we win.

It may feel defeating when you look at what’s happening internationally, but you can really affect some change locally and inspire people around you. It’s our connection with one another that is so powerful. Any challenges I confront while commuting, working or simply existing as a non-binary person may help to break down barriers for someone else. Knowing that makes it a lot easier for me to push ahead and I hope to be able to promote positive changes so that today’s youth won’t have to go through the very same struggles.

The 6th Annual Women and Non-Binary Forum took place on April 6, 2019 at Ace Hotel Pittsburgh, with a Confident City Cycling class on Sunday, April 7th from 1-4pm. For more information about the event and others like it, you can visit Bike Pittsburgh.

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