Updated Sunday at 6:43 p.m. CT
A bicycle ride in Milwaukee this Saturday called Riding Over Stigma will attempt to de-stigmatize mental illness, especially in the Black community. One of the sponsors of the ride is the local chapter of Red Bike and Green — riders who bring more diversity to biking.
Red Bike and Green was founded in 2007 in Oakland, Cali., as a collective of Black urban cyclists. But it's not just about riding. Organizers developed a three-point plan focused on the health, money-saving and environmental benefits of biking. The collective has a few chapters around the U.S., including one in Milwaukee started by artist Ammar Nsoroma six years ago.
Nsoroma says one hope is to use exercise to battle health disparities faced by Black people, such as higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. He says greater mental health is also a goal.
"Because riding together and creating a sacred space where we can be ourselves and socialize is good for mental health,” Nsoroma told WUWM.
Steven Hunter, a wellness artist, says riding frequently with Red Bike and Green has helped him be more comfortable on the local trails. Most of the riders on the Oak Leaf and other trails are white.
"I myself didn't ride the trails a lot because I ride the streets so much. And then, earlier on, being on trails sometimes, being looked at funny by white people, like, with this feeling of, 'Oh, what are you doing here?' That's not encouraging. But it's time for everybody to learn to share the space together,” Hunter said.
Bennie Higgins is another regular rider. The former Milwaukee police officer now works on fatherhood and ending violence programs for the nonprofit Alma Center. Higgins says Red Bike and Green is partly about healing.
"We've all experienced a lot of pain in our lives, right? And when it's severe and impacted greatly, we call that trauma. And sometimes we carry that in, as toxins in our body and we do not do anything to alleviate it,” Higgins said, adding that riding a bike is a powerful way to heal.
There are Black women who ride with Red Bike and Green. Anna Rose Menako says she didn't always like biking.
"My dad would take us out for bike rides when we were young and I hated it! But he would force us to ride, and now, I ride for fun,” Menako said, laughing.
Menako lives in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Milwaukee's near north side, where Red Bike and Green rode for 7 miles on Aug. 8, as part of the city's annual Bronzeville Week.
While some of the collective's rides are for Black solidarity, other rides are open to anyone, and sometimes include teaching moments.
At a stop during the Bronzeville ride, with about 40 riders listening — a mix of Black and white cyclists —Ammar Nsoroma stood on the 12th Street bridge over Fond du Lac Avenue and mentioned the murals he painted a decade ago for the nearby Interstate 43 underpass.
"The pieces I created deal with the Underground Railroad and how it was used in this community here,” Nsoroma said.
Nsoroma says Red Bike and Green usually does about 40 rides between May and October. Fewer this year due to COVID-19, he says.
Serious themes are occasionally mentioned, like the Saturday Riding Over Stigma event. Troney Small says the ride is in memory of his late brother Justin, who was schizophrenic.
"He lived many years with this condition, but we called it everything but what it was. And a lot of times in our families, in our communities, we either don't talk about it or talk about it in a very negative way,” Small said.
Small's effort to de-stigmatize mental illness among Black people seems on par with Red Bike and Green, the collective that sees riding as a way to better mental and physical health.
On Sunday, Aug. 16., another group coordinated a Milwaukee bike ride to celebrate and empower the Black community. The Black is Beautiful Ride II began at Reservoir Park. Just as with a similar ride in June, the event was a fundraiser for local nonprofits.
WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach took the following photos, as the ride left the park.