Minneapolis has the kind of traits that make American cities great: a diverse, hardworking community that inspires builders and entrepreneurs; sprawling urban parks and trails that breed a love of the outdoors; and an unpretentious vibe that encourages exciting arts, bars, restaurants, and craft breweries. Robust social services complement a thriving philanthropic infrastructure.
But the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police highlighted deep fractures beneath the city’s progressive surface. Protests, rage, fear, and flames devastated certain neighborhoods, igniting a reckoning on race and equality that leapt first state, then national borders. The city itself sustained an estimated $500 million in property damage, all amidst a surging pandemic.
For a handful of men in unexpected corners of the city, the debilitating despair required action. An outdoorsman, chef, NHL player, and distiller might seem like unlikely agents of change. But in the darkest hours of upheaval, they saw the need for something new as an opportunity to build something better. These four men prove that it’s not the what that makes America’s cities great, it’s the who.
Leading the Way to Better Outcomes Outside
When I arrive for the Slow Roll bicycle ride, people are already gathered in a parking lot next to a small white house along the tree-lined blocks south of downtown. DJ Walter “Q-Bear” Banks of KMOJ is playing Earth, Wind & Fire. The vibe is relaxed, with 40 or so riders gathering: women, men, boys, girls, mostly Black. It’s an eclectic mix—hipsters, cool kids, bohemians, nerds, a city councilwoman, and the chair of the Minneapolis Board of Education. The youngest rider is 9 years old; the oldest is 79. Some appear to be serious cyclists—light bikes, high-end gear, lots of miles behind them—while others seem so new, they might squeak. Some riders are lean, others less so. For those without their own bike, it’s all good. At a Slow Roll, they’ll size you for one, and you can bet it will look new and be tuned uptight. If you’re underinflated, they fill you up. If your seat is too low, they raise it.
I spot Anthony Taylor, the founder of Slow Roll. We almost bro-hug but bump elbows instead. Everyone is masked up. Taylor and I talk for a bit inside the house, which is gutted and occupied by about 150 bicycles, boxes of parts, and gear. It seems impossible that Anthony and I have never met; our mothers are good friends from the city’s Cultural Wellness Center. On Facebook, we have 234 mutual friends. We both love cycling; we both love being outdoors. I meet his daughter; she answers all my questions about school with patience and poise. Anthony’s son introduces himself. He’s effervescent and sports impressive dreads and a gigantic smile. He asks me if I want to snowboard this winter. “You think I can do it?” I ask. “For sure,” he says with a confidence that makes me feel like I can. He follows that with, “Well, are you good with failure?”
The Slow Roll was meant to launch at 5 p.m., but this gathering has CPT (that’s what we call “colored people’s time,” which is dictated less by the clock than by when people show up) all over it. At 5:10, Taylor says he’s waiting for a few more people. At 5:30, Minneapolis City Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins speaks. She talks about George Floyd and the community and the plans for the future—plans in which Taylor will play a prominent role. At 5:38, Taylor takes the mic, reviews the rules of the road, and talks about the route. The Slow Roll launches at precisely 5:47 CPT.
In 1995, Taylor helped create the local chapter of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club, a group for Black cyclists named after cycling’s first Black world champion. Rides with the Major Taylor club average 18 to 25 mph, so Taylor (no relation to Major) started Slow Roll as an alternative. Speeds on a Slow Roll average between 7 and 10 mph, and it’s not unusual for 100 people to join—many getting on a bike for the first time in years.
Taylor is 61 years old and lean, with muscles as defined as words in the Webster dictionary. In addition to cycling, he’s a devoted cross-country skier; he camps and paddles and snowboards with his children. In these activities, he almost always includes members of the Black community. “My instinct is to build community,” he says. Last winter, he took 56 Black people snowboarding. He also co-founded Cool Meets Cause, a program that introduces underrepresented, BIPOC youths from lower-income Minneapolis communities to snowboarding. But Taylor takes time to himself, too. Sometimes, on weekends, he rides his bike to Wisconsin and back—90 miles round trip. When I ask how he feels when he’s riding, Taylor replies: “I feel gratitude, immediately, of mobility, of healthy choices, of opportunity, and privilege. I realize riding my bike is a statement of revolution and liberation.”
The lines between all this outdoor activity and his professional life are intentionally blurry. He’s a commissioner on the influential Metropolitan Council, a regional policy and planning agency responsible for economic development in the Twin Cities. After George Floyd was killed, Taylor began consulting with the YMCA of the North on racial equity in its outdoor programming, working with it to better serve communities of color. He was already consulting with the Sanneh Foundation, founded by retired professional soccer player Tony Sanneh, a St. Paul native and one of the Twin Cities’ Black pioneers in urban youth development. With Sanneh, Taylor helps provide fresh food to those who would otherwise go without it.
Taylor says he’s “trying to mobilize and have a real impact on quality of life for [affected] communities.” Moving the needle, collectively, means operating on a lot of different stages: it’s parks, it’s outdoors, it’s bike rides, it’s food.
As part of that effort, Taylor convinced Ramsey County to help 20 youths gain certifications in mountain biking, paddling, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. These kids will be paid to train, then teach these skills to others in their communities. Taylor argues that Black people will find it easier to learn if their teachers look like them. The main goal is to get them back to nature. “Our well-being is integral to how we connect to the outdoors,” Taylor says.
A mile and a half south of where we launched, the Slow Roll stops at a simple one-story white house at 46th and Columbus, a house you might roll right past if you didn’t know it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. On the northeast corner of the house’s lot, there is a sign labeled “South Minneapolis History: The Arthur and Edith Lee Family.”
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