Dr. Amy Smoyer, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), offers students a new perspective of New Haven with a bike tour of the City’s downtown neighborhoods. As Dr. Smoyer explains, “What we think we know is shaped by our power and position. When our position shifts from a car or bus to a bike, what we can see and learn also shifts.”
Last semester, Professor Smoyer began including a bicycle tour of New Haven’s West Rock, Dixwell, and Hill neighborhoods as part of her Research Methods for Social Work syllabus. The goal of this “biking ethnography” is to teach students about the Elm City and help them understand how perspective and position build knowledge of people and places. The idea was first inspired by Smoyer’s own experiences bicycling around New Haven. “Whenever possible, I commute to work on a bike–a 5-mile trip that takes me from one side of the city to another,” explained Professor Smoyer. “These rides have transformed and expanded my understanding of the city. For example, I was recently riding down Grand Avenue, one of New Haven’s busiest streets, and I was struck by the smell of cinnamon. I would not have noticed this if I had been in my car with the windows rolled up. The smell drew my attention to the numerous Mexican and Ecuadorian bakeries and other small businesses along Grand Ave.”
In addition to drawing attention to different sights, sounds, and smells, biking produces a certain vulnerability, which can build empathy among Social Work students. “They’re used to dealing with clients from a position of power––from behind the desk or in an office—and moving to a bike in the community shifts that dynamic,” says Professor Smoyer. “Many students have not been on a bicycle for years and feel awkward and uncomfortable at first. Further, some students have not spent a lot of time in our city’s neighborhoods; the tour brings them face-to-face with places they may have only read about, or seen from a distance. We learn when we put ourselves in a place where we’re not completely comfortable. As social workers, we often ask clients to move out of their comfort zones––we need to be willing to do that ourselves.”
While the tour is not required, it has proven to be a popular excursion. This past summer, the group consisted of nearly twenty people, including students, faculty, and social workers practicing in the community. “This interaction between peers and across social hierarchies is exciting–it’s a very rare thing to go out on a bike ride with your professor or the Dean,” notes Professor Smoyer. “This is a different type of learning environment that allows you to see people in a new light – in a bike helmet, pushing up a hill!”
The ride starts early in the morning, allowing the group to be on the city streets before traffic forms. A safety presentation delivered by Joe Milone, a ranger with the New Haven Parks Department who is a biking expert, as well as an SCSU grad and part-time faculty member, kicks off the tour. “Joe’s participation is key,” underscores Professor Smoyer. “He gets the bikes ready, gives a talk about safety, and manages mechanical and logistics issues, like flat tires. He also knows a lot about New Haven.”
The tour aligns with course discussions about epistemology and ontology. “What we try to do in Research Methods is ask: How do we know what we know?” explains Professor Smoyer. “To learn about a community, you might interview residents or send out a survey. Biking through and with New Haven’s neighborhoods is yet another method of understanding peoples’ lives.”
The tour is a thirteen-mile loop that starts and ends on the SCSU campus. The group rides through the city, making stops at sites related to social justice, including historical sites, urban development projects, and social services agencies. Stops include the Brookside Housing community, James Hillhouse High School, the New Haven Correctional Institution, a youth outreach center, the New Haven Green, City Hall, including the Amistad monument, Maya Lin’s Women’s Table on the Yale University campus, and the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail.
Each student is assigned a stop to research prior to the tour and makes a short presentation at that site. “There could be a million different bike tours,” says Professor Smoyer. “The current tour shares just one set of stories.”