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Episode 147 Guest Nedra Deadwyler

Nedra Deadwyler’s recognition that understanding history is required to build the future led to her creation of Civil Bikes, a provider of bike and walking tours in Atlanta that enables reflection and connection.

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Cohen: Josh Cohen

Deadwyler: Nedra Deadwyler

F: Female Speaker

Cohen: After a car crash a few years ago, Nedra Deadwyler of Civil Bikes in Atlanta proverbially unplugged from the matrix, vowing to bike, walk, and take transit instead of getting behind the wheel.  You’ll hear how she did it, coming up next on The Movement podcast.  Let’s go.

F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all.  Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders.  Here’s your host, Josh Cohen.  

Cohen: Our guest today is Nedra Deadwyler, founder and principal of Civil Bikes.  Civil Bikes highlights history, art, and culture presented in the Atlanta landscape, in an effort to make all of Atlanta’s people visible.  Welcome to The Movement, Nedra.

Deadwyler: Thank you for having me, Josh.  I’m excited to be in conversation with you, finally.  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Yes, I know, I know.  We’ve been working to get this on the schedule.  I’m excited for this.  Let’s start with just introducing us to your personal mobility story, and maybe that might lead into Civil Bikes and the founding of that.

Deadwyler: Yeah, for sure.  So, I think starting off with mobility is very interesting because I did not—I really have never thought about mobility until my adulthood.  Right?  I will say this—this just came to my mind now: I was born premature, and my legs were very crooked.  So, as a child, up until the age of four, I wore braces on my legs.  And I actually ran and ran, and like no one could catch me, and I never—I took off my braces, and I never wore them again.  So—

Cohen: Wow.

Deadwyler: So when I think—so you asked me the question about mobility.  Even from a young age, it was actually a part of my, say, self-concept, and I never really have thought about it until, like, this moment.  But, in terms of how we talk about mobility and just getting from place to place, and even how that impacts our lives, I think that came to me very differently.  Growing up in the South, very car-centric, probably has always been some sort of—I don’t know—relying on transportation to go far.  Right?  And for me, being in the car was very much about having a sense of freedom and being able to go where I want, you know, riding down the highway with the windows down, the music blaring.  It’s just that—it is just my—I’m in my bubble, just, you know, whatever.  That was my happy place.

And I started driving kind of early, maybe like 13, 14.  Now I will also just have to say, I was born in the ’70s, so [LAUGHTER] watching TV, like Back to the Future—I know there’s like a redo of that now—and Rebel Without a Cause.  So all of those movies also put a romantic light around—well, I guess Rebel Without a Cause more so than Back to the Future, this romantic light around a car.  So I always wanted to drive.

But when I finished undergraduate, I was working at a high school here, and I was on my way to work, and someone plowed into me, and it totaled by car.  My brother was in my back seat.

Cohen: Oh my.

Deadwyler: Yeah, he went to the school that I was working at.  And then from then on, I was like, “I’m done.  I’m done with cars.  I never will”—you know, it’s like I saw both of our lives flash before my eyes, and I was like, “I’m never driving anymore.”  And I was—I ended up moving to New York City, but it was pretty much first on my list because not only did I want to leave the South, but I also wanted to be in a place where I could bike and walk and take transit.  I did not want to be in a car and have to either surrender to something called insurance that puts a value on your car, that I could never buy a car for what they were going to give me back from my total vehicle.  Then having to be in a place because we lived in the suburbs where I had to drive to get to a commercial district or visit a friend because I bussed to school and I lived someplace else.  It was always—yeah, everything was so spread out, and life was very isolating.

So I wanted a different type of lifestyle, and that, I think, is what gives me more freedom, is to feel actually connected versus isolated.  So I think, yeah, mobility, it’s probably at my core, and it is about connection.  And through that connection, there’s actually this space of freedom, yeah.

Cohen: Wow.  That’s tremendous that you kind of had that connection there that you shared just from your early days, and then certainly those early feelings of freedom from driving.  I certainly remember those as well.

Deadwyler: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: And then that horrific crash, which led you to say, “I’m done with driving.”  What I think is so interesting about that is that I certainly feel like a lot of people might have made the opposite decision that you did.  Right?  So they would say, “Oh, I got in this crash.  I’m going to go get a bigger vehicle.  Right?  So I can be more protected.”  Right?  And you kind of went the other way.  You said, “I’m going to go somewhere where I obviously have a little bit more control,” because you’re, you know, walking or riding a bike or taking transit.  But certainly, it’s in some ways you have a little bit less quote-unquote “protection” in the sense that you don’t have that big cocoon around you—right—the steel box.  So I’m just curious about that.  Did anybody else have any—share any kind of feedback with you about that decision?

Deadwyler: Yeah.  I mean, I think—I’d say my—I will say that probably the loudest person anyway is always my mom.  Right?  [LAUGHS]

Cohen: It’s always the mom.  It’s always the mom.  Hi, Mom.  I’ll say hi to my mom because I know she listens.

Deadwyler: Hey, Josh’s mom.  Yeah, voice of reason, right?  And she did not understand why I would want to be in a place—I guess what you’re pointing out is, like, less secure, less safe.  To me, I saw the danger of another vehicle, and of a motorized vehicle, of be it someone who’s speeding or changing lanes or blind spots; like all of the possibilities that can happen when you’re in a car, to me, seems way more dangerous.

I’ve never—even though I’m a klutz, biking and walking, I’ve never had—I will say I have been hit before, a couple of times, but nothing dangerous where I was injured.  I just don’t see that as being dangerous.  I felt like I could have more of an awareness and more connection to the environment that I would be in, that it would keep me in a safe space.  Just because, you know, there’s always someone else on the sidewalk; you’re never really alone.  And it’s just a different experience.

I really wanted change.  Yeah, I think being hit by another vehicle and just like that loss of control, all the systems that you’re connected to when you’re in a car, yeah, I felt like—I really felt kind of diminutized in a sense, like I just had [INDISCERNIBLE] and no agency.  And I wanted to be stronger in my body, like I think walking is empowering, so is—same as biking.  It’s just a different way of moving through, yeah, moving through the world.  So, for me, I think, yeah, I guess my brain is wired a little differently to see it as a space of empowerment versus something that makes me more vulnerable.

Cohen: Well, it’s almost like you’re unplugging the matrix there.  Right?  It’s like, you know—

Deadwyler: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: Instead of kind of this tit for tat, kind of, “Oh, well, I’m going to lever up and get a bigger vehicle so that if there’s a crash I’ll theoretically be safer,” you said, “No, no, I’m going to just—I’m going to totally bypass this faulty logic altogether, and I’m going to go this totally different route.”

Deadwyler: Yeah.

Cohen: And depending on where you are, you’re right, that you’re kind of totally separate from a lot of those potential dangers, you know, again, hopefully if there are protected bikeways or greenways or something like that, that allow you to kind of be more safe.  But I’m with you, and that’s the way I like to move around as well.

Deadwyler: Yeah.

Cohen: And it’s a different feeling.

Deadwyler: It is a different feeling.  And I think that was—I will say, you talked about the environment there, and infrastructure as well; it’s like you have to almost be in a place, which is why I was like, “I’m moving to New York City.”  There were not bike lanes at the time when I lived there.  I mean, there are plenty of them now, and they are fantastic, just a whole different trail system, all of that.

It does make a difference, and definitely I felt safer.  I just went to New York recently, and I felt safer riding a bike than I did before.  It wasn’t like playing Frogger.  So it does matter.  Here, in Atlanta, where I live, where I am from, it is the same thing.  Like, infrastructure, you have it in some places, other places you don’t.  You have a sidewalk here.  It may not be 50 feet in front of you.  You may have a crosswalk.  You’re lucky if you get a crossing—a crosswalk with a light.  So infrastructure does play a role in keeping people safe, and to mitigate that vulnerability of the Yukons that drive around or these Ram trucks.  [LAUGHS] Not to call out— 

Cohen: Right.

Deadwyler: —call out brands, but those vehicles have only become more fortified than they were 10 and 20 years ago.

Cohen: Right.

Deadwyler: And it’s a bit scary sometimes.

Cohen: It does make you wonder where it ends.  Right?  Like, what the—and then again, that’s why I kind of talked about you unplugging from the matrix there a little bit, because it does make you wonder, like, where this size thing will end.  And, you know, that’s a little bit beyond the scope of kind of my interest or my background.  So I don’t really know.  It’s just more of an unanswered question than I’m sure will—unless there’s regulation, I’m sure it will just keep growing.

Deadwyler: Right.  Even with—it’s beyond my scope as well, but I will—I guess we can talk about electric cars because that is where cars seem to be going, but that one vehicle that another brand, Tesla, had designed was a fortified-looking truck.  And so it’s just like if we look at vehicles needing to be fortified in order to be safe on the road and feel empowered, then I think more people do need to have that, you know, unplug from the matrix and let their brains kind of have a bit of free space.

As my friend had told me a couple of months ago, go somewhere and look at clouds and just, like, relax, because bigger, stronger is not going to keep anyone, even another person in the vehicle, safe.  So if we can—if we’re building—like I’m in an area of Atlanta right now, like I was just at a coffee shop, and it’s called Summerhill.  It’s kind of reinvestments, you know, gentrification.  Like all of that has sort of happened in this one neighborhood, and the commercial corridor is open again.  And so we have these little condensed villages.  There’s no real place for cars to be here, but, I mean, maybe you can’t hear them, but they’re cruising down the street.  They’re parked along the road.  There’s a big, massive parking lot out here, like I’m sitting in my vehicle, so we’re not doing away with cars.  But it would be nice to imagine something that was a little gentler and smaller and able to have—make like these very minute village-like, commercial districts more enjoyable, would—to have—would be to not have vehicles running through them, so—

Cohen: Yeah, I’ve heard the term “human scale,” you know, a lot—

Deadwyler: Yeah.

Cohen: —when they talk about those types of places and those experiences, and that certainly does kind of, in your mind’s eye, kind of help to make that as clear as possible.

Deadwyler: Yeah.

Cohen: I did want to maybe get some insight into the founding of Civil Bikes and what the goal of that group was and some of the work that you do.

Deadwyler: Yeah.  I mean, that’s another good question because, well, starting at—I don’t know if I knew—I will say I did not know what I was doing when I started doing this.  I wanted to—I was a social worker, and I was kind of burned out from that work, and I decided that I just wanted to connect to something that I enjoy, that I love.  And I had found the joys of cycling when I lived in New York City and then out in Seattle.  And it was something that was always on my mind, and it was very difficult for me to recreate those experiences and that life, lifestyle that I had out there, here.  So, by working and biking, I was like, “Yeah, I could bike every day if I do this.”

But I will say the idea of Civil Bikes really came from, again, connecting to earlier experiences, growing up in the South, having parents that had come from, like, working-class families, in a sense, and coming—I’ve been in rural areas, what were, what now are probably small towns, or I guess maybe—I don’t know—little cities now.  And then they were small towns.  But—so having, like, salt-of-the-earth people in my life, just listened to my grandparents, born in 1920s—great aunts and uncles, my parents and their siblings, they integrated.  You know, so going through their experiences from education, you know, being when it was like “Colored Only” spaces or “White Only” spaces, and then integrating and the civil rights movement.  One of my grandfathers was an actor.  And my dad’s grandfather, he started a groce—no, a gas station.  You know, so like, family members of entrepreneurs, like that kind of thing, I was like, “Oh.”  

It was—that wasn’t—I guess the other thing I would say is, like, I never really found that history when I was in elementary school, high school, when you’re learning history, learning about—like, those stories were not there.  There was not really much about my people in the history books.  I mean, I did my own education outside of school, but that just was not on tap.  You know, I couldn’t get it.  

So, when I went to Alabama with a friend who was—back in 2013.  He’s a journalist and does a lot of travel, travel journalism, and was going to Alabama because I guess we were in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Greenwood, several different cities, because they were opening up their Civil Rights Trail, and this was—I believe it was the first one in the U.S.  And Alabama—the State of Alabama did it first.  And it was really well done, so a representative from the tourism board, we were in her vehicle; I was in the back seat, and she was driving us around from one site to the next.  We happened to meet and talk to—basically, there were either children, so some of the foot soldiers.  There was a minister we spoke with.

And just—so this first-person narrative, they were kind of giving us an oral history, sharing these material artifacts with us, and it was so engaging.  It just reminded me of the times growing up with my own family members.  Right?  Like, I’ve heard similar stories.  And because I was in the back seat of a car of this travel, not necessarily even in the front seat to see the scenery and how the city was connected internally, and then intracity travel, intrastate travel, I missed those connections, and so there was a bit of disconnect for me.

But I’m sitting in the back of the car, and I’m just thinking, “This would be so much more fun on a bike.”  And that’s how the idea of Civil Bikes came to me, is like, one, you can see the connectivity.  You could see how dangerous or not—just imagining the stories that were being shared.  It just makes a difference being in the environment and experience it, the sites, the sounds.  [LAUGHS] It just creates its own aura, you know, and so—and from that, I was just—that fire, that fire really lit, and that was like June of that year, and by September, I had like a rough plan, and I was like, “Okay, it’s time to go with this.”

But, you know, it was like serendipitous.  I was really unaware of bike advocacy organizations, really unaware of, like, you know, bike movement and all of this stuff.

Cohen: Right.

Deadwyler: It just was not in my experience.  Although I might have gone to events when I lived in Seattle.  I did several events, but still, advocacy—there was no internet, or that wasn’t the way that people engaged.  So, yeah, it was—what was happening here, the bike advocacy organization was doing more of, like, “Hey, let’s”—having events, trying to get people out.  We—there was some pop-ups.  What is that called?  Like urbanism, basically.  Like urbanism—

Cohen: Tactical urbanism?

Deadwyler: Tactical urbanism.  And just like, “Okay, let’s have a pop-up shop here.  We have all these empty corridors of commercial buildings, so let’s put businesses, incubate businesses in them.”  I got into different—I started going to meetings and getting involved and signing up for things and being selected, so it was just like—it was also just timing.  I had really good timing.  But I also—there was timing, but there was also, I had to pursue this—

Cohen: Yeah.

Deadwyler: —if I really wanted to do it.  So it was just a lot of hustle that summer, that first summer, first year.  And I learned a lot.  So, I mean, we began with bike—well, biking tours.  We started doing walking tours because someone was like, “I don’t bike, but I’d love to tour with you.”  But as my own activism grew, and 2016—so a couple years later, the Untokening, which is an un-conference happened here around, you know, BIPOC not being tokenized in the bike movement, and like really addressing issues around equity.

I began to go, “Okay, so this is not only about, like, facilitating someone’s desire or needs.”  It’s also about accessibility, how to make these tours accessible to folks who don’t bike or can’t bike.  But even walking.  So it started to complicate my work and my own learning and—but it was necessary, and I’m really glad that there was so much.  There was the opportunity to grow as a cyclist and also as an advocate and as a burgeoning activist.  So it really worked out.

Cohen: I love it.  I love it.  I’m guessing that there has been some stories that have emerged from your time doing this over the last, you know, eight to nine years, either, you know, a story about the community that you tell or you help highlight during the tours, or even from some of the participants, you know, after they experience the tour, that maybe this opened their eyes to some degree.  Any of those jump out to you that kind of resonate or stick in your mind more than others?

Deadwyler: Yeah, I would say a couple of things.  One, I think history is not in the past.  It’s very much under our feet.  It is the building we’re looking at.  It’s all around us, and it affects our daily lives right now and our future.  And the one thing that became very apparent to me, I guess kind of that first year, is that if we don’t know this stuff—right—like the stuff that we do know or we think we know, whatever it is—if we don’t understand history, where we come from, we’re really not going to be able to have these futures that are brilliant and wonderful and get beyond having bigger and bigger cars.  Like, we need to have these reflective periods and moments, and space, so the importance of place is—yeah, place is important.

And so, you know, even as we’re, like, remaking cities, gentrifying cities, reinvesting in cities, renaming cities and towns and areas, the history is not going to go away.  There’s also, I mean, a lot of historically Black neighborhoods is where a lot of investment is happening too, and these were spaces that had been segregated for, you know, the past 50 years, really.  And so there’s meaning in that, and there’s like a big bucket of meaning there that needs to be explored because it’s opening up worlds that are new to those who are moving in, and also it’s been like a safe place for the Black folks or the immigrant people who have lived there.  It’s just a different—there’s so much change that is happening, and I think, like, to be able to pull that back and slow it down, to see what is—what stories it’s unearthed, I think it would do us all a really good—a good deed to just, like, slow down and really unravel, like let those stories unravel.

And some of the—you know, going back to what happens on a tour, I mean, some of my favorite tours are with students.  And be it biking, there’s this one group, one school, set of teachers from—they’re from Strasbourg in France.  They come annually.  We’ve not seen each other for two years now, so—

Cohen: Oh man.

Deadwyler: It’s a lot of tears, but I love Cathy [ph], and I love Damon [ph].  And we’ve been able to build a relationship like five years running.  But it’s so much fun engaging their students, who primarily speak French, you know, where some things we’re trying to translate, and sometimes it’s just talking.  So getting over that language barrier and talking about place and history and race is always interesting.

And then with American students, it’s the same thing.  I mean, there is no inhibition, and questions.  You know, they’re really sharing what they’re thinking, and they ask a lot of deep questions.  I think—I mean, there are so many I’ve been—I love every engagement with young persons, but we—there was this one session on a tour.  We usually stopped at a cultural space or like and also a local business.  And the student was just, like, being very respectful, and she’s like, “Can I ask you a personal question?”  And I was like, “Oh, my God, totally.  We can totally get personal here.”  And the town that she lived in was mostly White, and there were some students who were either immigrant or knew they were different.  And she was like, “How do I make this a welcoming space?”

And so we talked.  I mean, most of our conversation ended up being about race because this was an opportunity for them to have that discussion.  And, I mean, they were 11, 12, 13-year-olds, so it was really, I wont say a raw experience, but it was just a time of great vulnerability for all of us.  And I love that.  And some of my other, like, favorite moments would have just, like, been with family.  This one Black family, they were doing a rites of passage for their children.

Cohen: Oh wow.

Deadwyler: Yeah.  So it’s like they were doing civil rights stuff here.  And then they were going to Africa.  I don’t remember which country—the continent, but which country they were going to.  But maybe they were going to Sierra Leone.  But they were going to, like, where people had been captured before they were shipped over, coming across the—taking the Atlantic over.  So that transatlantic slave movement, they were going to the other side.  So—

Cohen: Wow.

Deadwyler: It’s like—yeah, that was—I mean, it was just so impactful.  And then this—and then the last one I will share is just, with a White family, a student, he was in college—brought his mom and dad, and his mom started crying.  And she just like—as he was growing up, they would watch documentaries.  And so being here and just like going to different sites, it just kind of—she got overwhelmed by just like doing it now with her son, or doing it at that time with her son, and just connecting to place.  You know, again, it’s so important to connect to place, the ground and the stories of where we are, because it does create meaning.  And it just created a new meaning and memory for her.  But it was amazing to be a part of like this—you know, these families’ experiences at these pivotal moments in their children’s lives, be it they’re young or they’re older.

Yeah, so I think those are some of my favorite, like I’m sitting here talking to you, but I am there in my mind.  It’s really—

Cohen: I love it.

Deadwyler: It’s crystal.  It’s crystal clear.  Yeah.

Cohen: I love that.  I love that.  You know, I want to think about this, which is—you know, and you touched on this, so I’ll give you a pass if you want to just say, “Yeah, I already covered that.”

Deadwyler: [LAUGHS]

Cohen: But, you know, I’m curious; what’s still missing to help build the equitable and accessible and verdant mobility future that we all deserve?

Deadwyler: Yeah, I think the piece that’s missing is, like, I think the part that you just said, like this future that we all deserve, and it is one that’s verdant.  You know, it’s kind of—there is something there, and it’s worth pursuing and figuring out.

I do believe that it’s—it takes reflection in order to create that.  And we just came through two years.  [LAUGHS] We’re not even done with the pandemic.  Like, boosters are being administered right now.  People still have to take tests.  Folks are still dying.  You know, we’re arguing about a mask mandate, but it takes reflection to really create an equitable system.  So, you know, instead of—so much has happened.  Even in over the last week.

So it’s just like thinking about what’s more important; is it property?  Is it our vehicle?  Is it our buildings?  Or is it ourselves, our humanity, our lives?  And, I think, in order to create this amazing transportation system, we really do need to have reflective moment, take accountability and responsibility for what we have, what we continue to put in place, how we’ve band-aided equity and not really created equity, I think.

And I think we do need to have—like, we do need to start doing more things that’s codesigned with nonexperts.  I mean, I think being a planner is great.  Being an engineer is wonderful.  Being an architect—like all that stuff.  I have friends; my brother is an engineer.  Like, that’s not how my brain works, but like—

Cohen: Right.

Deadwyler: —it doesn’t mean that I cannot speak to what would make my environment safer.  And so I think we just need to all be able to work together and be able to codesign the system, because there’s something that a non-engineer would think of that an engineer will not.  So to be able to incorporate all this—these different types of intelligences into, you know, the creation of these spaces, I think we would have a better—we’d have better outcomes.  So—

Cohen: Hmm.  I like that about codesign.  Because what that makes me think of is, I think that would help ensure that we all acknowledge our interdependence.

Deadwyler: Hmm.

Cohen: Because I do believe that’s what I feel like is missing a bit right now.

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: Is an acknowledgement that your decision impacts me and my decision impacts you.

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And that nothing is made in a vacuum.  And I think that can be extended to the pandemic, that could be extended to climate change, that can be extended to safety in how we move.  It can be extended in almost everything.

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And I do think that there’s something there.

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: And I think that’s connected to who gets to make those decisions.  Right?

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: That’s in codesign.  I think that’s reflected or that’s connected to reflection, which you mentioned as well.  That’s also connected to the history that you mentioned earlier, as well, which is acknowledging that history.  So—

Deadwyler: Mm-hmm.

Cohen: I think a lot about that, too, and I don’t know necessarily the way there, but I’m thinking about that more and more as about this interdependence and—

Deadwyler: Yeah.

Cohen: —and how that’s this critical element that I—we still haven’t, I believe, cracked yet.

Deadwyler: Yeah, we haven’t cracked it, but I think, you know, those are some of—at least some of the ingredients that we need.  And interdependence is—it is a big one.  I mean, our culture, it is not—it doesn’t scream interdependence.  It’s like independence.  But there’s so much more freedom when we can acknowledge that we need each other.  So [LAUGHS] there’s—I mean, there’s even something about my own story that I do not—that I cannot access by myself.  Like, there are some things that I connected by talking to you today.  So we all need each other.

So I appreciate you talking about and pulling out that characteristics.  But, yeah, if we were going to bottle it up and say, “Here, you take this; here’s a pill if you want to practice this and create this,” it’s interdependency, reflection, codesign are definitely two of the—three of the ingredients that we need to have in that pill, for sure.

Cohen: This has been so great, to just chat with you and to kind of get to know you a little bit better.  If folks are traveling to Atlanta, and they’re interested in learning more about Civil Bikes, or maybe even taking one of the tours, where would folks learn more about the organization?

Deadwyler: Our website is civilbikes.com.  I’d say we’re real active on Instagram, @civil_bikes are the ways to get in touch with us.  We’re doing a lot of, like, cultural heritage engagement, and we do have a calendar, so beginning in next year, we will have our—more things on our calendar.  So, find us, come and visit us.

Cohen: I love it.  Well, thank you so much, Nedra.  I appreciate the introduction and the conversation.  And keep up the great work.

Deadwyler: Yeah, thank you so much, Josh.  It was good to meet you and to be here on your show.

F: Thanks for listening.  If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast.  You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP.  Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.