Pride Month Profile: Rose Johnson, YBike program leader and freelance bicycle educator
By Katrina Dodson
Try to contain Rose Johnson in a single frame and you’ll end up with a fantastic blur. The bicycle educator, adventurer, and culinary entrepreneur zips between work with a dizzying array of local bicycle-related non-profits and her own business of making hummus and other vegetable creations that she delivers weekly (on bike, of course) to customers of Apothocurious, which Johnson describes as a “CSCA,” or community supported culinary adventure.
Over a Rose-made lunch of salad with chickpeas, summer squash, and red sea salt sprinkled over boiled eggs, we spoke of the intersections between biking, education, identity, and resources. With her seemingly endless array of ideas and the fearless energy to actually carry them out, Johnson evokes a more socially conscious Max Fischer, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore hero. “I’m not really good at doing one thing,” she says.
Much of Johnson’s bicycle education work happens through YBike, the Presidio Community YMCA’s bicycle education program that has become increasingly integrated into local schools, from afterschool bike clubs and P.E. classes to this year’s Safe Routes to School sessions. Johnson leads skills workshops and rides at the Hoover Middle School bike club, among other youth work, and coordinates the YBike volunteer program. She has also helped organize the last two Bike to School Day events, which encouraged an estimated 1,000 parents and kids to bike this year.
To diversify her bicycle educator experience, Johnson also works with adults, one-on-one, and trains other teachers through the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and Alameda’s Cycles of Change and is also helping out with the upcoming Oaklavía, Oakland’s take on San Francisco’s Sunday Streets and Bogota’s Ciclovía, which will open miles of streets for people.
The twenty-five-year-old seems surprisingly adult in her self-awareness and ability to articulate certain principles but also childlike in her restless curiosity about the world. Her “coming of age” as someone who loves to bike is at once circumstantial and informed by more philosophical considerations. After graduating from college in Ohio in 2005, Johnson crisscrossed the country and eventually ended up in the Marin Headlands, teaching environmental education at the Point Bonita YMCA. With a desire for San Francisco weekends, she got used to biking longer distances. “I totally fell in love with cycling at that time–and haven’t stopped since,” she recalls. Last summer Johnson rode in the AIDS Lifecycle ride to Los Angeles and is now planning a trip to Vancouver.
Beyond recreation, Johnson uses her bike out of respect for resources, crediting her parents, a philosophy professor and an inventor in Virginia, with teaching her early on about the true costs of things, as opposed to their monetary value. “I believe in reusing as much as possible, and I believe in participating instead of paying for something to be done. And riding a bike is my opportunity to participate. You know, D.I.Y.–I do it myself–and this is how I can do it myself. By transporting myself.”
This preference for participation also drives Johnson’s mission as an educator, both of others and herself. As an alternative to graduate school, she has embarked on a “life thesis” to study “the creation or maintenance of communities through the distribution of food, the transportation of people, and community building–the movements of the people.”
Wariness of the conflicts ingrained in politics keeps her activism on a more personal level for now, manifested in her everyday activities. “I don’t separate being a woman and being a queer woman that much,” she observes. “All of the things that I do, I notice that more men do than women, for the most part. I studied media in college, and I think that images are really really powerful.” With this in mind, Johnson believes that as a youth bike educator in a male-dominated practice, “just being strong and confident and smart and capable is really important to being the role model.”
After noticing that boys outnumbered girls at Hoover’s bike club and that “the girls kind of missed out on being able to define the space and group dynamic” because they were quieter and not as familiar with biking, Johnson created an all-girls bike club, successfully encouraging more girls to join their excursions.
This summer she’ll be working specifically with LGBTQ youth for the first time as a counselor at Camp Ten Trees in Seattle. Looking ahead to the experience, she explains, “My childhood was challenging because I wasn’t the average girl. So this is an opportunity for me to validate difference with youth and validate that difference with myself and go back to a time when I was there and felt really uncomfortable and hopefully find comfort through resolution of that.”
Year round, Johnson is able to queer the spaces around her, queer being a quality not bounded by sexuality: “I think it’s almost queer for a woman to ride a bike. And in that aspect, I love being queer. And I’m getting places way faster than everybody else,” she adds, laughing.