From BMXer to advocacy pro: 6 questions for Mychal Tetteh

From BMXer to advocacy pro: 6 questions for Mychal Tetteh

Mychal Tetteh with what he described as
“my favorite bike … the Schwinn
‘Tuskegee Tornado’ Sting Ray.”
(photo courtesy Tetteh)

When the Community Cycling Center announced last week that it had selected its former shop director Mychal Tetteh as its new CEO, quite a few people who know him applauded the choice.

But plenty of Portlanders haven’t yet met Tetteh, 31. And he’s got plenty to say — and, we suspect, plenty to do. Here’s what the Benson Polytechnic High School ’00 grad told us about his early days dirt-biking across Portland and the reasons race matters to local biking.

When did you start biking for fun? What about for transportation?
Fun on a bike started when I found out that I could stand a cinderblock on end to get on my brother’s BMX bike. It has been awesome skid-outs and weak bunny hops ever since. Getting myself across town to school at MLC was my first foray in cycling as a bicycle commuter. Before that, it was the way I got to Devil’s Ditch in Laurelhurst Park.

How did you first hear about the CCC, and what drew you to it?
The Cycling Center was my neighborhood bike shop. I lived on 23rd and Alberta, and the Center was right up the street. It reminded me of the great independent bike shops that I grew up with and they had all the cool stuff you couldn’t find anywhere else. So when I decided that I wanted to work at a bike shop they were the only place to give me the time of day, much less an interview. That was 2005. Now here we are.

You’ve just spent a couple years away from CCC to run the Village Market corner store at the New Columbia public housing development. What have you learned from that job that you’ll take with you to this new one?
New Columbia is the nation’s largest affordable housing development. It has over 2,700 residents that hail from 18 different countries and speak 22 different languages. It’s the most diverse neighborhood in Oregon. Over 52 percent of the people who live there are under the age of 18. With the establishment of a healthy, affordable and culturally approachable grocery store, the neighborhood is positioned to continue removing barriers to abundance for its residents. By the time I left, I was sure of one thing: Portland has the capacity to end poverty one community at a time. The future is closer than we think.

What’s your goal for the CCC? Describe how it or its work might be different three years from now.
In 2008, we embarked on a transformational change process as an organization. Change is tough, and transformational change is the toughest. The nice thing is that the Cycling Center already has a strong direction and a clear vision. I’m going to finish what we started in 2008 with a focus on innovation in active transportation advocacy. [For example], bike sharing. If we want to see bike sharing in the near-term that meets the needs of people who live outside of the center of the city, we may need to develop a different tool. The Community Cycling Center, in partnership with the BTA and other stakeholders, has been contributing to the Open Bicycle Initiative. This scalable, customizable, bottom-up, open-source approach to bike sharing constitutes the greatest potential for sustainably getting share-bikes in the hands of people who would benefit from them the most.

An often overlooked finding from the Understanding Barriers to Bicycling project was that the leading barrier to riding a bike was often not having a bike.

“Race, power, and privilege have constituted a blind spot for active transportation advocates in the whitest major metropolitan city in the U.S.”
— Mychal Tetteh, incoming Community Cycling Center CEO

How would you sum up the ways that race is related to biking in Portland?
Race, power, and privilege have constituted a blind spot for active transportation advocates in the whitest major metropolitan city in the U.S. It’s complicated. The noble morality of mainstream bike culture develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself by empowered individuals. This righteous nobility perspective often prevents a deep understanding of the reality experienced by people that don’t have the benefit of empowerment, privilege and a legacy of both. It’s deep. Check out Friedrich Nietzshe, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, #10. This lack of perspective prevents effective advocacy from within, and in collaboration with historically disenfranchised social groups — women, LGBTQ, people of color, immigrants, etc.

The fact that a person lives close enough to where they work, makes enough to invest in a sweet bike as a priority, and is confident enough to know that they won’t be subject to unwarranted persecution while fully exposed in the right of way, is just some of what people may take for granted every day when they leave the house.

Why should people who care about equity and social justice care about bikes?
If you are looking for inexpensive ways to empower people from all walks of life, there is no better lasting return on investment then to focus on active transportation issues. Environment, economics, empowerment, education, equity: There are tools that can address these issues individually in a more effective way, but there are few tools that can address all these issues at once and cost so little.

As the CCC’s top executive, Tetteh will work as the public face, partnership-builder and strategic captain of the organization, and current Interim Executive Director (and former Deputy Director) Anne Lee will step back to manage day-to-day operations.

You can hear more from Tetteh in person on the new episode of KBOO FM’s Bike Show, taped last weekend. Tetteh will also be hanging out at the CCC’s transportation trivia night this Wednesday, and we’ll look forward to his formally taking the handlebars on Sept. 16.

Qs & As edited for brevity.

NOTE, 10:19 am on 8/27: We changed the headline of this article twice: once in an attempt to make it clear that race is an important part of this interview, and then back, because we don’t want to overemphasize the issue, either. Thanks for reading and for talking about this, everyone.

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