This is Season 3 Episode 5 of Grist’s Temperature Check podcast, featuring first person stories of crucial pivot points on the path to climate action. Listen to the full series: Apple Podcasts | Stitcher | Spotify

“At that time, I didn’t know anything about endorphins and what it means to get your blood going and your muscles moving, and the impact that could have on depression. I just knew the totality of the experience, the socializing with people, the nature, the exercise, all of it together helped me feel a little bit better. And I knew this was not just a bike ride. This was the start of something.” 

– Olatunji Oboi Reed

Episode transcript

Olatunji Oboi Reed was working in the corporate world when his long struggle with depression forced him to take a leave of absence. During that time, he made a decision to get on a bike, and that ride, it eventually led him to his life’s work promoting racial equity. This is his story. 

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My name is Olatunji Oboi Reed. I am 49 years old and I am the founding president and CEO of the Equiticity racial equity movement. 

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Growing up, we lived a modest life. Sometimes my mom had a car, sometimes she didn’t. My parents were divorced at a pretty young age. Same for my father – sometimes had a car, sometimes didn’t. So I would say it was mostly public transit, walking, and sometimes somebody may have a car.

As a kid, we loved riding bikes and it was super popular. It was a form of freedom. You know, as a child it was our way to explore our streets, our neighborhoods, get a little bit of distance from our parents, you know, have some freedom and just, you know, hang out and be with friends. Me and my brother, we had two of the coolest bikes on the block. He had a blue and gray Schwinn Stingray. I had a green and yellow Schwinn Stingray with the tall handlebars, the banana seat. It was awesome. We were the cool kids because we had some cool bikes. 

I think it was around sophomore year in high school. I started to lose interest. Started to lose interest in going to school and studying. Felt like my energy was low. I wanted to sleep more, wasn’t as interested in spending time with my friends. Had a challenging relationship with my father. 

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I do recall in high school a mentor of mine said, “You know, I think you’re struggling with depression.” And at that point in my life, you know, I’m a young brother growing up on the South Side of Chicago, running with a crew of more young brothers and trying to be as hard as we can be and trying to, you know, get as many girls as we can get. The idea that I would even acknowledge maybe I have depression was just something I, you know, I couldn’t even consider.

I probably was a little ashamed of the potential that I could have a mental illness and didn’t want anybody to know. So some part of it was that I did not believe him. Some part of it is that I didn’t want to acknowledge it to myself.

I don’t know that I really had any coping strategies. I just tried to do what I could. That meant oftentimes not doing well, you know. Not doing well in my classes in high school, because I’m not showing up, I’m not studying, and I’m not focused. I can’t read. I mean, I knew how to read, but I couldn’t, like, sit down and focus because, you know, one of the challenges with depression is that you can’t focus. 

I have an older brother. There’s two of us – me and my older brother. He’s about 11 months older than me. And I figured he just – he got the right genes, you know, because he was studious, he was focused. He was clear on his goals and objectives. And I was just kind of floundering. So I just thought I was the lazy one of the two of us. He was the one that had figured it out. 

My older brother was going to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and at first I was at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi, and wasn’t doing well. So he said, “Well, come up here and figure it out.” And he was leading an organization on campus called If Not Now, a black activist organization, and they did a mentorship program at an elementary school. The program was housed at Planned Parenthood. And, you know, because he was my older brother and I wanted to be around him, you know, he went, I went, and I loved it. You know, we were working with these middle school young brothers, and it was great. When the program director left, he asked me to apply for his position, and I wound up applying and got the job.

Probably around that time I thought nonprofit was for me, you know. And there was a gentleman who worked for the utility company in Champaign, and we were running leadership development programs for high school students and taking them on college tours, and I would always reach out to him when we needed some extra funding. Oftentimes, he would come through with the extra funding. He would bring this big check. He would bring a photographer. He would ask the media to come. And I just started thinking: Who is this guy? What does he do? What is his job title that he just gives money away and gets the media to cover it and make a big deal of all of this stuff. And I learned he does something called community relations. So in 1999, I moved from Champaign to Chicago, and I made up my mind that I’m going to go into community relations in the corporate sector. 

It wasn’t the corporate sector itself. It was the idea of community relations, community affairs, community development. Like me being someone who could take corporate resources and give them to our neighborhoods. Like, I could do that. I could be a philanthropist. So I came back to Chicago, and I just went trying to find a job in the corporate sector. And fortunate enough, I found one working for Bank One, which eventually was acquired by Chase Bank, and that was my first corporate job. 

I don’t know that this was a coping mechanism because, you know, I’m in the world of work now and what I’m doing is just pushing through my depression. And when I can’t, I step back and I come up with excuses for why I can’t be more present. You know, calling off sick, somebody in my family passed away. Any excuse that I could, you know, come up with. 

So I come back to Chicago in ‘99. By 2000, I’m working at Bank One, and it was a junior level community development position. And I had a lot of flexibility. I could kind of come and go. So while I’m still struggling with depression, I’m able to use those coping mechanisms and not put myself in too much risk of losing my job. I leave Bank One and I go to Citigroup, where I become a vice president and director of community relations. And in that position, those similar coping mechanisms didn’t work. Like, calling off more than once every few months is a problem. Or not delivering on an assignment. You know, something is due, it needs to be turned in on time. Like, any minor slip up was noticed. I couldn’t hide the impact of my depression. 

When I’m depressed and I’m working it’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to socialize. It’s hard to articulate. It’s hard to read. It’s hard to keep a schedule. And when depression does get to the point where I just can’t even go to work, I can’t even wake up, the way it manifests for me is to sleep as much as possible and just try to ignore the world and maybe, you know, maybe I’ll wake up and it’ll all be a dream and everything will be alright. But it was a form of escape, you know, just to sleep and not acknowledge it. Not talk to people, because anyone I talk to: “How you doing? What’s up with work? How about therapy? How about medication?” And I didn’t want to face those questions. 

You know, I’m not sure how or why I started to think about the bike I had in the basement. I know that I had been socially isolated for probably two months or more on a medical leave of absence from work. Not answering the phone, not answering the door, you know, not communicating with family and friends and really questioning, is it worth it? Should I should I continue to struggle with? And some kind of way I just thought about it. Like, I do have a bike, you know, I do have a bike in the basement. Maybe – because I had been, you know, in this darkness, both literally and figuratively – maybe I could just go for a ride and just, you know, feel a little better. Just at least get out the house. I thought it could just give me a little bit of respite from the darkness and the pain. 

So I muster up the strength to take the bike to a bike shop, because it had been sitting in the basement so long, it was sitting on flat tires and in disrepair. Got the bike fixed, put the bike in the trunk and drove to 63rd Street Beach. Grabbed the bike out the trunk, took a deep breath. Because I’m still struggling. I mean, as much as I’ve done to get that bike to that lakefront trail that day was a big deal, however, I am deeply, deeply depressed, just sort of pushing through to bring this bike ride to life. Hop on the bike and started riding.

It was a beautiful summer day in Chicago, and it was early in the morning. And as I’m riding, I’m noticing a few things. It’s on the South Side of Chicago, and there’s Black folks on the trail, because it’s in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and they’re acknowledging me. They’re passing me with a head nod, with a “how are you doing, brother?” That acknowledgment after social isolation for several months was massive. 

The sun is peeking out of the clouds, and it feels like the sun is playing a game of hide and seek. So I’m sort of getting a little kick out of the sun coming in and out. The wind blowing the leaves of the trees sounded like a song. Like the leaves were singing to me. The sun’s rays following me on the water, bouncing off the water and just following me as I rode felt like it was this protective envelope around me. It was nature speaking to me in a way that I had never paid attention to. I had never looked to just take a moment and embrace all that is happening in nature. In that moment, I did. I saw it, I felt it, I heard it. It was like this cacophony of experiences and sounds and motion and things moving, and it was all happening. 

And then it was the physical movement of riding a bike. At that time, I didn’t know anything about endorphins and what it means to get your blood going and your muscles moving and the impact that that could have on depression. I just knew the totality of the experience, the socializing with people, the nature, the exercise, all of it together helped me feel a little bit better. And I knew this was not just a bike ride. This was the start of something. 

When I got back to the car, there was this sort of realization that all is not lost. You know, I’m not painting a picture that the bike rack cured me or that I was no longer depressed. However, it certainly helped me have a little more hope and gave me a little more faith that I’m able to come out of this deep, deep depression. 

I’m starting to ride more and more, and there was an old friend who I reconnected with, and we decided to go for a bike ride. And we’re on the Major Taylor Trail on the South Side of Chicago, kind of southwest, and I see a group of young people with an adult in the front. And these young people are in this practically straight line. It’s beautiful to see all of these young people riding, and the adult is clearly, you know, teaching them how to ride safely and manage the ride. And it was it was cool to see. And in that moment, I kind of thought about it, you know, maybe I could start a bike club to help get people to ride with me. So I decided to start a bike club. It was called the Pioneers Bicycle Club, and I would just invite family and friends to meet me at the Point here in Chicago, and let’s ride our bikes on the lakefront. 

I go back to school, you know, I left corporate America. By that time, I had went to Nike and left Nike. Decided to go back to school and did a study abroad program in Brazil. So I paused the Pioneers. When I came back, there was a new organization called Red Bike & Green, which was founded in Oakland. A woman named Ebony had brought a chapter to Chicago, and I loved everything that they were doing. They were focused on the black community and I connected with Ebony and asked her, “May we consider, you know, I could fold the Pioneers into Red Bike & Green and we could, you know, co-lead Red Bike & Green together.” And we did. 

And as I’m starting to ride more and more across the city, I notice some distinct differences of riding bikes on the South and West Side, which is predominantly Black and brown and low-to-moderate income, and riding bikes on the North Side or downtown, predominantly white and middle-to-upper income. And as I became more and more of an advocate, I would talk to bike advocates, mostly white. I would talk to government agencies and staff – again, mostly white. And I would ask, “Why is it harder to ride in our neighborhoods and easier to ride in white neighborhoods?” And what they all told me, to a T, “We focus bicycle resources where they will be used the most.” 

And that never sat right with me. Because I’m thinking about myself as someone who has turned to bikes to address my depression. And I’m also recognizing all of the health care disparities in Black and brown neighborhoods, from mental health to diabetes, heart disease, obesity. We could go on and on. And I’m thinking, well, should you focus bicycle resources where they will be used the most? You’re going to put those resources in predominantly white, middle, upper income neighborhoods, because those are the people who are going to take to cycling because they don’t have the inequities, they don’t have the structural challenges that we have in our neighborhood that stop us from taking to cycling. So you’re incentivizing people who are already well positioned to cycle. And you’re not going to put those resources in our neighborhoods where they’re needed the most.

So I became more and more of an advocate. Eventually, I co-founded Slow Roll Chicago. Slow Roll Chicago was an organization that came out of Slow Roll Detroit – Slow Roll Detroit was this massive bicycle movement. We were doing weekly rides in Black and brown neighborhoods, and narrated rides in partnership with community-based organizations. And at that point, I felt like one of the most important things needed was infrastructure. And when I’m in Black and brown neighborhoods and I’m telling people in our neighborhoods that we need bike infrastructure, I’m getting a lot of pushback. People are telling me that they don’t want the bike infrastructure, because it’s not for them, it’s going to cause gentrification and displacement. And it was tough for me to hear, because I’m a cyclist and I believe infrastructure will allow all of us to bike more – Black and brown people to bike more. We should we have safe bike infrastructure on our streets. However, I’m understanding their concerns. So I was, you know, I was twisted. I was deeply concerned that there was all of this pushback.

And a few things happened. On a whim, I learned about an organization called PolicyLink, based in California in the Bay Area, focused on equity. And I should just add, at this point, I’m talking about bicycle equity in Chicago. I’m advocating for bicycle equity. And nobody is listening. And in fact, many people are fighting me on bicycle equity and they don’t believe in it. They don’t want to support it. It’s not going to work. I shouldn’t do it. And then I go to PolicyLink’s conference in LA., and I’m surrounded by people who are talking about equity. It was like going to a family reunion and meeting family you never knew existed. 

So I come back and a couple of things happen. The video of Laquan McDonald’s murder is released, there’s a global racial justice reckoning as a result. Shortly thereafter, the city of Chicago announced its strategy to reduce traffic violence. It’s called Vision Zero, and their leading strategy was enforcement. And I could not see how the city’s answer to traffic violence, which is mostly impacting in our neighborhoods, is enforcement.

There was a white-led organization here in Chicago – and I think this was just what took me in a different direction. They decided to host a summit about Vision Zero. And as soon as I saw their announcement, I knew that they did not want Black and brown people there. It was on a weekday from 8 a.m.-12 p.m., located downtown, and it costs $50 to get in. And this white-led organization wants to do a summit to talk about traffic violence happening in our neighborhoods, and don’t engage with the community organizations operating in our neighborhoods, people who live in our neighborhoods. So I just decided, you know what, we’re not going to let this one go. Y’all not going to keep disrespecting our neighborhoods. 

And I told them, “Cancel it. Cancel the summit.” And they said, well, we made some mistakes, however, we’ll fix it. We’ll bring some Black and brown stakeholders to the table. We’ll work together to figure this out. I said, “No, no, we’re done. Cancel it. Start over from the beginning and a full partnership with Black and brown people in Black- and brown-led organizations. This summit is – it’s not happening.” After an intense three weeks, they canceled it. 

So in that moment, it really showed me there’s power in our neighborhoods. There’s power in our neighborhoods to do what needs to be done to change the course of history. To change our future, to improve our communities. That really sort of cemented for me that Slow Roll Chicago was not the right vehicle for me, and I needed something new. And that’s what gave birth to Equiticity. 

I wanted to move towards other forms of transportation. Transit, walking, emerging transportation technologies – you know, Bikeshare was becoming more and more popularized, scooters were on the horizon, dockless bikes were coming up. After learning about PolicyLink. I wanted to focus on equity more broadly, and in the context of equity I really wanted to focus on racial equity. 

And then there was this interconnection of transportation and police violence. When Laquan McDonald was murdered, he was walking. When Philando Castile was murdered, he was driving. You know, like, police violence and transportation are inextricably linked. We can’t separate those two. And I also wanted to center power, and that’s what drove the name of this organization. 

So Equiticity. Most people see “equity city” when they see the name. They see equity city. And I understand. It makes sense that you would see that. For us though, that’s not what it was about equities. It is a play on equity and electricity. The same way electricity requires a physical infrastructure to be transformative, so does equity require a social infrastructure to be transformative. Equiticity is about allowing power and equity to flow through our neighborhoods. Our central question from the founding of our organization has always been: what happens when we turn on the power and equity moves like electricity through our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods and our cities? That’s Equiticity. 

Equiticity is a racial equity movement operationalizing racial equity by harnessing our collective power, through research, advocacy, programs, community mobility rituals, and social enterprises to improve the lives of Black, brown, and Indigenous people in our society. 

We did research titled “Biking Where Black,” focused here in Chicago. Through that research, we uncovered that Black people are eight times more likely to be stopped and ticketed for riding bikes on the sidewalk than white people. And largely where we’re being stopped is on large arterial streets where there’s no bike infrastructure. That inequity is really two compounding inequities coming together, the infrastructure inequity and the enforcement inequity. When we ride bikes on the sidewalk, we get stopped by the police. When white people do it, they don’t. 

I’ll give you a quick example of some of our program work. One is BikeForce. It is a program focusing on high school students, teaching them about the technologies inside of e-bikes. There’s a wave coming to our society with these e-bikes. Bike share is eventually going all e-bike. Cities, states are offering incentive programs for people to go and purchase e-bikes. And we want our young people to sort of be at the forefront of that wave so when the time is right, they’re in a position to create employment opportunities for themselves. 

We do five types of rituals: community bicycle rides, neighborhood walking tours, public transit excursions, group scooter rolls, and open streets festivals. We also want to do the work to position us to be financially independent. So we are incubating some social enterprises that we see some potential of one day helping to financially support our organization and create jobs in our neighborhoods. 

From our perspective, when we think about climate, we think about it from the perspective of environmental justice. You know, the people in our cities – in Chicago and many cities across the country – the people who are the most impacted by climate change are Black, brown, and Indigenous people. So when we think about the sectors that we’re the most active on, of course transportation is number one, and we’re active on environmental justice and sort of growing our work in that space. 

So one of our programs is Mobility Opportunities Fund. It is a stipend program providing residents in North Lawndale with stipends to purchase climate-friendly transportation. That includes a conventional bike, e-bike, e-cargo bike, or an electric vehicle. So it’s our opportunity to begin to move people from, you know, regular cars to more sustainable, healthy forms of transportation. 

I don’t think it was until Equiticity that I felt like this was in my blood. Like it was in my body. It was something that was inherently the work that I should do. And that work, to be clear, is racial equity, you know, not limited to transportation. It is a part of my spirit. It’s a part of my soul. It’s everything that I want my life to be about. 

I’m a new father now. I have a newborn daughter. I want her to be excited about bikes. I want her to ride with her big cousins. Cycling has grown in the U.S., especially among Black and brown people, and knowing that I’ve contributed in even a small way doing something that maybe my daughter will appreciate, and my niece and nephews will appreciate, gives me a profound sense of purpose that I think I really, you know, in those younger years, I really struggled with.

I’m feeling pretty good. Of course, I have my ups and downs as one who continues to struggle with depression. However, I’ve maintained a nice regimen, some strategies to stay healthy. Of course, cycling is part of that mix. Doing what I love is a part of that mix. Being with family and friends. Having a new daughter gives me, you know, a whole new life. My daughter is six weeks today. She turned six weeks old today. So, yeah, things are going well. I don’t take any of it for granted. I know it’s a fragile existence for me. However, I’m proud of progress I’ve made. 

Everybody want to ride bikes now. Everybody. People visiting Chicago: “Oboi. Hey, can we hop on some bikes?” People want to come to North Lawndale, wanna ride. Everyone wants to ride. So I don’t have a dearth of people who want to ride. I probably got too many to keep up with all the requests to hop on some bikes. I don’t get to ride as much as I used to, however, our Friday night race series in North Lawndale is one that I love, and every time I’m able to hop on some bikes, cause it’s always a lot of young people on those rides, it reminds me that this is the reason I do this work.

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Grist editors: Jess Stahl, Claire Thompson, Josh Kimelman | Design: Mia Torres | Production: Reasonable Volume | Producer: Christine Fennessy | Associate producer: Summer Thomad | Editors: Elise Hu, Rachel Swaby | Sound engineer: Mark Bush