BCU Board Transition: New President Angela Johnson-Rodriguez
Last week, Steven Bercu stepped down from his role as Boston Cyclists Union (BCU) Board President, and handed the reins to now-former BCU Board Vice President Angela Johnson-Rodriguez. (Katie Theodoros, a Board member since May 2019, was voted in as the new Board VP.) Below are statements from both Angela and Steve about the transition. Combined, the statements are lengthy, but we encourage you to read every word to understand how our organization has grown, and where it’s heading.
A message from BCU Board President Angela Johnson-Rodriguez
This year, neither Steve Bercu, the outgoing Board President, nor I could have foreseen the firestorm on two fronts we’re now confronting: A pandemic destroying lives and communities on a global scale, and a righteous roar against the racism that has plagued Black people and other racial and ethnic minorities since the founding of this country. On every level, people are calling for accountability and a reassessment of internal values. The BCU is no exception.
After multiple internal conversations between Steve, BCU Executive Director Becca Wolfson, and myself, Steve humbly acknowledged that he was not the best person to continue leading the board as our organization moves to more directly address racial equity, as he believes he still has much to learn about this issue. Today, I’m writing to you, our 10,000+ members and allies, to say that Steve asked me if I would step up — and that I gladly accepted the challenge.
When I was an intern for the Boston Cyclists Union in Summer 2014, there were nearly ten of us crammed into the old office at 375 Dudley Street. Back then, I didn’t think biking was an area of transportation that would become part of my career path, and the idea of a “bike community” was completely new to me. However, between tabling events and getting to know the staff and board members, I noticed something quite startling: No one looked like me.
After voicing that concern, and — honestly — highlighting the hypocrisy of operating a bike-focused organization in a predominantly Black neighborhood with no Black representation in its leadership, the BCU’s former Executive Director, Pete Stidman, suggested that I join the board. At the time, I was just 25 years old and fresh out of graduate school. To my surprise, my interviews went well, and I joined the Board in 2015, eventually becoming Board Vice President in 2017 and, as of July 21, Board President.
During my time on the board, I have watched both leadership and staff take steps to not just talk about equity, but to lead on equity. Our latest strategic plan, finalized last fall, included a shift in our approach from being bike-centered, to people-centered — and, to take it further, centered on people who are most likely to be profiled, excluded, and discriminated against not just within the bike community, but in our broader society. I was heartened to be part of a process where leadership was ready to explicitly stand behind the needs of residents of color, especially as a Black woman.
From the BCU’s Strategic Plan: “Equity is central to our vision of the future. Residents, especially people of color and low-income individuals whose opinions have historically been left out of planning processes, participate in the planning of their neighborhoods.”
At the BCU, we know that biking has the perception of being white, wealthy, and exclusive. But we also know that the reality of biking in Boston couldn’t be further from that truth. From co-organizing the Boston Neighborhood Bike Forum in 2017 and 2018 — an event whose goal was to “put Boston’s communities of color first” by “empowering attendees to advocate for safer streets and vibrant neighborhoods” — to the 2019 Boston Bike Stories series that aimed to “expand the definition” of who bikes in Boston, the BCU has increasingly worked to show our membership, our allies, and the community at large that people who ride bikes come in all stripes. Some look like you, some look like me — and we all deserve representation.
All that said, the BCU has still failed along the way in key areas. We have not managed to retain board members and staff of color for nearly as long as white staff and board members. We have struggled internally between making the focus of our messaging “Transportation for All” vs. a targeted approach centering the needs of BIPOC. I recognize that this will continue to be a painful process for myself, my fellow board members, BCU staff, and our greater bike community in understanding that being well-intentioned is not enough. We need to create opportunities for growth and power within the organization, starting with leadership, and through our hiring and staff retention. And we need to create opportunities for growth alongside our allies, some of whom continue to stand with us, and others who have begun to drift away.
Unfortunately, I will only be with you through December, as I will be enrolling at Rutgers in January. Though I will be leaving Massachusetts at the end of the year, I strongly believe that the Boston Cyclists Union is on the right path; we just need a little course correction. That’s why I agreed to become BCU Board President even as I prepared to pack up my life. I will be a part of the search for the next Board President, who will lead the BCU in becoming a stronger ally of our most impacted cyclists (BIPOC, queer, femmes, low-income) and the broader bike community.
I am honored to serve as the new BCU Board President, and look forward to working with the board, the staff, and you, our supporters, in making this organization a stronger, broader, and more inclusive voice for change.
Boston Cyclists Union Board President
A message from former BCU Board President Steve Bercu
Dear Members of the Boston Cyclists Union Community:
I’d like to share a few of my thoughts regarding my recent decision to resign as President of the Boston Cyclists Union Board and to pass the torch to our former VP, Angela Johnson-Rodriguez. When I assumed my role as President in August 2014, the organization was arguably still a startup, and unquestionably an upstart. I have been fortunate in my time leading the board to serve with many of the finest, most committed, most determined, most visionary and good-hearted people I have ever known. I am proud of our staff and my fellow board members, many of whom I count as friends.
Over the past six years, our accomplishments have been dramatic. We moved successfully through an executive-director transition. We completed two cycles of strategic planning. We grew our staff and budget by more than 300% each. We gained both the respect and the fear of city governments, and became a voice increasingly trusted by the media and community alike. We professionalized the organization through thoughtful and creative policies and governance structures. And we have emerged from this time with a sharp focus on working to counter the twin systemic evils of automobile supremacy and white supremacy.
Surfacing the ways in which white supremacy manifests within our own organization and the broader advocacy community has been a revelatory and at times painful reflective journey for our board, our staff, and myself personally. Confronting the racism inherent in our transportation system — and reimagining our streets, neighborhoods, laws, policing, transit networks, municipal budgets, zoning codes, and public spaces — presents a paramount challenge to us as advocates, one made all the more urgent by the primacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing uprisings against state violence
The area where I believe I have most fallen short as a leader of the board has been in realizing a sufficiently inclusive board culture. Too many of the excellent board members of color we recruited during my tenure ended up departing earlier than we had hoped, and while their reasons for leaving varied, the pattern points to some clear deficiencies. I take responsibility as a leader of a board that fell short of some of its own goals in supporting POC board members and other colleagues. Under my watch, our progress in finding ways to center and uplift people of color within the BCU and broader bicycle community was simply too incremental and too slow. I am optimistic that, under the new board leadership, the BCU will better empower those most vulnerable to violence and discrimination on our streets, and center the demands of those people in our campaigns for safe and equitable public spaces.
A key prong of the BCU’s strategic plan calls on us to “counteract our deeply entrenched car culture through a focus on shifting hearts and minds.” One of the ways in which we do this is to “normalize and humanize biking,” in part by framing “issues in ways that remind residents that people-first design is not new; we used to live this way.” For me, this is the core of our work as bicycling advocates, and I believe that a thriving urban future and a survivable planet depend on it. My parting wish to the board as I step back is to keep the flame burning on this part of our plan, and to never stop fighting for it. In stepping out of the Board President role, while remaining a member of the board, I plan to assess how I can use my own skills, passion, and resources in the most impactful way in furtherance of the BCU’s fight against automobile supremacy. It’s in this area that I think I can be the most helpful to the BCU’s overarching mission to “transform the streets of Greater Boston into equitable and inviting people-centered spaces affording access and connection for every body.”
Angela Johnson-Rodriguez has served ably and admirably as Board Vice President since 2017, been a valued advisor and sounding board for me and the rest of the Executive Committee, and provided a consistent, steady, and highly-informed voice of both reason and impassioned advocacy within the wider board. While I will miss our partnership as board leaders, I am pleased and proud to pass the mantle of the board presidency to her. I know that she will perform well in the role, and she has my entire confidence and support.