Photo by Brian Palmer
Veronica O. Davis
For two years, Veronica O. Davis started her day with a short, but poignant, detour. A young engineer at the Federal Highway Administration in Washington, DC, Davis would bypass the second floor where she worked, and ascend to the eighth, occupied by the US Secretary of Transportation.
A daily routine of both reverence and ambition, Davis would walk that hallway every single morning, taking in the portraits of each of the then 15 past holders of the top office.
Quiz Davis about past transportation secretaries and she fires off an answer instantly. First African American? Bill Coleman. Women? Two: Elizabeth Dole and Mary Peters. Civil engineers? John Volpe.
Davis’ ultimate goal is to see her portrait on that wall, the first to combine all three traits.
“To me, transportation is who I am,” Davis explained over brunch almost eight years since she last took that daily hallway walk. “It’s something that I really feel is my calling. I eat, sleep, and breathe the idea that improving the transportation system is a way to revitalize and connect the community.”
On this spring Sunday, it’s just a few days after Davis has won a Democratic Party election to serve as the District of Columbia’s committeewoman. It’s by no means a glamorous or high profile position, but it is one step along a calculated path this engineer has charted to the eighth floor at US DOT.
But there’s one thing Davis didn’t bank on: becoming a national name in the bike movement.
Back in 2011, Davis was just riding her bike to meet some friends for a movie. As she passed through a predominantly African-American housing complex, she heard a shout, “Mommy mommy, there’s a black lady on a bike!” a young girl exclaimed.
For a moment Davis was taken aback. “This is an area with bike lanes, so I know there are bicyclists,” she told me in 2012. “But I had the realization that I looked like her and she was very excited to see someone who looked like her riding a bike.”
That little girl inspired Davis to start a conversation on Twitter using a bold hashtag: #BlackWomenBike. Over the past three years, Black Women Bike DC (BWBDC) has evolved from a few Tweets to a ground-breaking organization with growing influence at the local and national levels – and more than 1300 members in its Facebook group.
Why has it taken off so quickly? “We have a mission people can believe in,” Davis said. “To get more black women and girls biking – for whatever reason.” Whether it’s getting to the grocery store or riding a century, women of all ages, interests, and ability are drawn to the group’s offerings, which have grown from social rides to educational clinics like "How to Ride at Night and in the Winter."
Now, the bright orange shirts and the cycling kit bearing the swagger and style of the BWBDC logo are a common site in the Chocolate City. At the regional meeting of women cycling advocates, it’s not just Davis representing the group; there are more leaders from BWBDC than any other club. And the impact goes beyond the increased number and visibility of African-American females on the roads and in the advocacy realm “Black Women Bike now has two women on the DC Bicycle Advisory Council,” Davis said. “For me, it’s not just about riding a bike; it’s about black women getting their seat at the table where decisions are being made.”
The success of the group has certainly given Davis a well-deserved spotlight. In 2013, she was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change and gave a keynote address at the National Bike Summit. Her leadership has both called attention to and started to break down long-standing barriers and assumptions about bicycling in the United States.
“Bike advocacy, nationally, has been traditionally white men, so people assume that’s who’s cycling,” she said. “I think the emergence of Black Women Bike gave voice to the fact that women bike, the fact that black people bike, and that black women bike – and that started the conversation nationally.”
It also started an increasing number of inquires from advocates and riders from coast to coast, interested in replicating the success of BWBDC in their community. While Davis sees the group moving into new jurisdictions in the DC area and eventually nationwide, her engineering mind is still wrestling with the final schematic of the group’s success. “We’re not a cycling club, so we’re still trying to determine, what’s the real model of DC as a test case?” she explained. “It’s not just about giving someone a bike or putting in a bike lane, but all those other soft things. So what’s the right combination, the right plan of attack to increase the numbers?”
After all, the concept is still evolving as Davis and BWBDC leaders come up with innovative ways to get more women in the saddle. Four months ago, when member Allyson Criner Brown gave birth, she still wanted to be part of the BWBDC community – but her baby isn’t yet old enough to be on a bike. So, this spring, the group is partnering with Girl Trek, a walking group for black women and girls, for Sisterhood Saturdays. Given the disproportionate rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes among African American women, it’s a partnership that fits Black Women Bike’s goals on multiple levels.
“We have a real crisis in our community, and we have a lot of women who want to bike but need to be in the atmosphere,” Davis said. “They’re gun shy. They want to see how it works before they do it. By creating this sisterhood that’s focused on taking back our health, we can get people exposed to the thought of being on a bike. And we have a lot of women of all shapes and sizes who are biking, and on different types of bikes. You don’t have to have a carbon fiber road bike to be a part of Black Women Bike.”
Black Women Bike isn’t the only avenue where Davis is leading. Her engineering firm, Nspiregreen, is committed to building its business with women at the helm. “We’re women-owned and women-run, and see ourselves as growing female leadership in engineering and urban planning,“ Davis said. “You often see women-owned companies with all male principals. But we’re increasing female leaders in the profession so that, in five years, our principals could be all women.”
So where will Davis – and Black Women Bike – be 10 years from now? She sees herself moving from the day-to-day management of Nspiregreen to a more advisory role. She envisions so many black women riding and engaged at high levels of bicycling leadership that BWBDC puts itself out of business. And, ultimately, she wants her portrait up on that wall at the US DOT.
“Being US Secretary of Transportation is my ultimate career goal,” she said. “I want to set the national policy and national vision for how we think about transportation in this country.”
Secretary Davis has a nice ring to it.