By Lucia Graves

A group of bicycling advocates gathered for a conference in Pittsburgh earlier this month, and it was pretty much the Portlandia sketch come to life that you might think.

At a “Future Bike” panel, Adonia Lugo of the League of American Bicyclists passed out sheets of paper with the outline of an elephant and asked audience members to jot down what they thought was missing from the national conversation about bicycling—the elephant in the room. The panel discussion began only after audience members had gotten to know their seatmates. (My seatmate worked for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and sported an intricate butterfly tattoo.) And the panelists—Keith Holt of the Wisconsin Bicycle Federation and Barb Chamberlain of Washington Bikes—engaged in a little politically self-aware banter. “Our first thing here,” said Chamberlain with a smile, “will be whether the black man talks first or the white lady.”

The rough consensus was that bicycle advocacy needs more candid conversations about race and class and gender. Chamberlain (“the white lady”) spoke first at Holt’s urging, and read the note she had written outside her elephant. “I’m white and that’s OK,” she told the audience. “We can get past that.” Holt’s elephant had a different message. “White people need to stop being scared to step up and also need to let go of making mistakes while doing this,” he said. “And to all my people of color, we need to let them in.” At one point, a panelist cried.

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