Biking in the SGV with Amy Wong: Through the Lens of an Environmental Justice Advocate

As a child, Amy Wong spent a great deal of time in nature. Many of her earliest childhood memories involved playing in the backyard with her grandmother and watching her plant a variety of Asian plants and fruits like jujubes.

Her grandparents are the root of why and how she began her journey community building and becoming an advocate for environmental justice in the San Gabriel Valley.  

Amy Wong, an environmental justice advocate and one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels. (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Amy also remembers the first time she rode a shiny red bike her grandfather lent her when she was in the third grade. Her grandfather always biked, walked, and took local buses to get around the neighborhood. It was the beginning of a deep-rooted passion for opting outside, says Amy.

“I remember literally crashing it against my neighbor’s car. It was definitely too big, and I rode it anyway, but that was part of how I learned,” said Amy, one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels, a project of Active San Gabriel Valley (Active SGV).

Eventually, Amy went on to get kid-appropriate bikes so she could practice biking around her neighborhood with her sister and father. Amy would ride her bike every now and then in middle school and high school until taking a brief hiatus when she moved to the Bay Area for her undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.

“My perception of biking has definitely changed over time. At one point, I viewed it as an unsafe recreational activity. Even though Berkeley is progressive in terms of being bike-friendly, I didn’t feel like I connected with the biking community there. In general, I felt isolated in the environmental community at Cal as a woman of color, I didn’t see many women of color biking either. I walked and took public transit often, and didn’t feel a strong desire to bike.”

It wasn’t until college when she started thinking critically about some of the issues plaguing local communities. She began learning about environmental justice and looked into ways she could spark change on the local level, through advocacy and education.

“Many of us in our communities depend on a bike to get to school, to get to work, and that’s the lifestyle…. I started seeing it as, ‘there are actually a lot of people in my community who rely on a bike for their main mode of transformation,’” said Amy.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

She also started seeing it as more of an equity and environmental justice issue which inspired her to dive into her environmental advocacy work.

“I learned concepts like environmental justice—the fact that one can grow up in a certain zip code, be a person of color, and experience certain health disparities. So learning about public health in college really opened my eyes to these issues that I had never thought about in this context,” said Amy.

In college, Amy decided to shift from a science background to a focus on public health and the environment. She soon came to realize the technicalities of science weren’t fit for her and was yearning for something that would tie her back to her community.

“I wasn’t feeling that when I was in the lab and I was eager to explore other options. That’s when I took more classes in public health and the environment and that’s when I thought, ‘this is my niche and my thing. It not only talks about science but how it relates to community and health and the broader picture of quality of life in our communities.’”

After college, Amy moved back to her hometown of El Monte, California, in the San Gabriel Valley in 2013, and became reacquainted to her city’s local issues—everything from transportation to water access and more. She soon realized that there’s a huge biking infrastructure gap between the Bay and SoCal despite the fact that there are still plenty of people who rely on a bike every day in the San Gabriel Valley.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

“When I moved back home, I noticed a huge difference. I was incredibly desperate to find like-minded individuals, the folks who also valued the environment and public health and those types of issues.”

Yearning for a sense of community and a way to get back to work on environmental issues, Amy Google-searched “Public Health San Gabriel Valley” and one of the top results at the time was a nonprofit organization called Day One, which builds vibrant, healthy cities by advancing public health, empowering youth and igniting change. She felt the mission spoke to her and decided to get involved.

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Eventually, Amy volunteered for Day One and went on to work on a variety of projects and community-based organizations like Nature for All and Active SGV. Amy has also been part of a movement to work with youth and empower them to be advocates for public health policies. One of the greatest wins was being able to see her students advocate for a complete streets policy which was unanimously adopted by the city of El Monte in 2014, she explained.  

“Seeing that win made me really inspired to continue doing this work since I was able to see how we, as a collective, could advocate for safer streets. Safer streets for people who walk, bike, and take transit and not just cars. That’s very important work.”

In 2014, Amy also became one of the co-founders of Women on Wheels (WoW), a volunteer-run project under Active SGV that aims to empower women of all ages and abilities in the San Gabriel Valley to lead healthy, active lifestyles in a judgment-free setting.

Members of Women on Wheels (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Women on Wheels initially started because a group of female friends were also volunteering for Active SGV, and they realized there was a need for a space that was safe, and for women only, Amy explained.

“We noticed that in a lot of bike events… there would mostly be men biking in groups and we wanted to create a safe space specifically for women and women only so that they could feel confident and encouraged to ride without any pressure to go fast or to compete.”

The goal of Women on Wheels has been to empower women to join the movement and to view biking as a friendly, recreational activity that is approachable and fun, noted Amy.

“For us, it was important to maintain a network in which we could support women no matter what ability they are at for biking and that’s what we found was missing overall. Not only are there not that many bike groups, but in the SGV, to have a safe space for women biking, we didn’t know of any at that time. That’s why we started Women on Wheels.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Community-building and environmental advocacy organizations like Women on Wheels (WoW) are important, says Amy, because there’s a need to feel a sense of belonging in your community while fostering health and wellness.

“What has been really meaningful is from being a stranger to biking in the SGV to now being someone who leads these rides and co-organizes with other women who feel just as passionate,” said Amy. Today, the bike rides inspire her to do more and continue creating safe spaces for women who might not be encouraged to participate in biking or maybe just need to get over that hump of doubt, Amy explained.

“I think seeing more women embrace that and feel more confident about biking and understanding what wellness resources are in the community that’s inspirational,” said Amy.

Women on Wheels. (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

Amy shares that Women on Wheels is never about racing or competing, or having the nicest or fanciest biking gear. It’s just about going on your bike no matter your skill level and riding together, as a female collective. Many of the rides are beginner friendly and they range from 5-10 miles per ride. “We always encourage women to ride at events as they are.”

The bike rides are hosted every other month, and members need to provide their own bike or can rent one through the organization. “We try to make our rides really fun and to encourage women to explore new places they wouldn’t otherwise,” said Amy.

Amy says the group tries to be as creative as possible by incorporating and mixing activities like biking and then doing a yoga session or pilates in the park or having participants stop by a Farmer’s Market. The goal is to provide empowering events that connect women with activities they would do anyway, but through biking.

“That’s the theme of our rides. Women are riding to connect to nature, to their communities, to connect to wellness resources in the community.”

When she rides today with Women on Wheels, many of the same feelings she felt as a kid — the feeling of complete euphoria and bliss — come back to her. It’s what keeps her going.

Women on Wheels (Photo courtesy Amy Wong)

“It’s really fun and it does evoke a lot of the same feelings of childhood: The exhilaration of being fast and feeling like you’re flying. It still stays with me, but there are so many layers behind why we bike. In solidarity with so many of us who rely on the bike as a main mode of transportation, I also see it as an equity issue in terms of how our streets are designed,” said Amy, who simultaneously serves as a Planning Commissioner for the city of El Monte, California. “The way they are designed right now, there are some bicycle lanes, but for the most part, they are not connected in an integrated network that feels safe. There’s a lot of progress to be made on that front,” she added.

Moving back to her hometown of El Monte, California, was a decision prompted by the need to spark local change, give back to the community, and explore her San Gabriel Valley roots again and address environmental and transportation issues concerning the community.

“It’s been a very personal journey in terms of realizing my life meaning and what I find meaning is by helping or tackling these issues. There’s a stigma of it’s a shame to live with your parents or to not leave your hometown in the San Gabriel Valley, and I think it’s this unspoken thing where success is defined by how far you move away or if it’s in another major city.”

For Amy, she has found success right here in her hometown, where she is starting a grassroots environmental and community-building movement in her own, empowering way.

A Love for Nature and Environmental Justice

As an environmental justice advocate, Amy says some of the most pressing concerns, particularly in the SGV and LA County, are the following: 1. lack of park space 2. Air quality 3. Clean water access.

There are not enough parks or green spaces in our communities, argues Amy. She would love to see more green spaces in communities. “This is driven by facts and data from the LA County Parks Needs Assessment in 2016, which evaluated all 88 cities and unincorporated areas in terms of how many parks we have and how many amenities are available in those parks and from the report, we found that LA County is in general very park poor.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Looking at El Monte, specifically, there are roughly only 0.4 acres per 1,000 residents, says Amy. “LA County, in general, has 3.3 parks per a thousand residents. On a county average, we as a city definitely need more parks and open spaces, and this ties into a sense of safety and more opportunities for recreational activities with families and residences. Park space is a high need.”

The other issue that Amy discussed is air quality. “We have the worst air quality in the nation in LA. Specifically, in SGV, we have helped install air quality sensors.” Amy shared that Active SGV recently purchased air quality sensors to measure the level of pollutants in the air, which then gets uploaded to a public website called purpleair.org.

She adds that the San Gabriel Valley is placed amongst a network of busy freeways, which host many trucks that drive for imports. “40 percent of them come from the ports of LA and Long Beach, and they have to get to other parts of the country through freeways. Many of the freeways in the SGV such as the 60 and 10 serve as those corridors for the goods movement.” Living near close proximity to freeways makes us prone to pretty bad air quality, she explained.

“The closer you are, there are higher rates of obesity and diabetes. Again, it’s a very high priority issue in terms of environmental justice. Air is necessary for life and for a lot of nature-based elements and it’s a shame if we don’t address these issues now,” said Amy. In her work through Active SGV and Nature for All, Amy also advocates for the protection of the San Gabriel Mountains, which was previously designed a National Monument under the presidency of former President Barack Obama.

Amy adds that the San Gabriel Mountains not only help provide a third of our drinking water in LA County, but they also provide 70 percent of LA County’s open space.

“All these environmental issues are interconnected and you can’t have one with another. With water, as you know, California is in a major drought and there’s a need to protect the water we currently have. We have had recent rains but much of it gets washed away into the ocean.”

Photo courtesy Amy Wong

Amy urges the need for systemic improvements and says that sometimes, people associate the concept of environmentalism or think about it only in terms of individual actions like recycling or reusing single-use items.

“What I’m really passionate about is looking at environmental issues at a systemic level and thinking, ‘how can we collectively do better in terms of protecting the environment’ and enhancing the quality of life for our communities, and to never lose sight of the people aspect.”

Amy hopes to continue working to create a healthy, environmentally sustainable San Gabriel Valley that addresses issues of equity and environmental justice.

“I truly believe women’s wellness and health is critical to ensuring we have that. I believe in a vision in which our communities have a high quality of life, access to parks, clean air, clean water, and everything I do is connected to that. That’s my personal thesis statement. That’s what I care about.”

-Written by Monica Luhar for Mornings with Moni

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