The Feminist Library on Wheels: A Roaming Tool for Social Justice
Providing Objects of Liberaration (Books!) to Greater Los Angeles
The Feminist Library On Wheels (aka F.L.O.W.) was started by Jenn Witte and Dawn Finley, with the aim of bringing feminist literature and media to the people of Los Angeles, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. I recently spoke with Finley to find out more.
When did you start the library on wheels? Who is behind it?
F.L.O.W. began in July 2014, when Jenn Witte was thinking about how to make a library for the Women’s Center for Creative Work. She brought that idea to the Feminist Reading Group I helped facilitate for the WCCW, and wondered, “Could it be on my bike?” I had recently become a big cycling enthusiast, and the idea sounded absolutely brilliant. We met to chat about it, and before we knew it we were well on our way. It’s all still run primarily by the two of us, Jenn Witte and Dawn Finley.
What’s the goal of the project? Why was it started?
The Feminist Reading Group began with bell hooks’ Feminism is For Everybody, in which she writes:
Imagine a mass-based feminist movement where folks go door to door passing out literature, taking the time (as do religious groups) to explain to people what feminism is all about. . . Most people have no understanding of the myriad ways feminism has positively changed all our lives. Sharing feminist thought and practice sustains feminist movement. Feminist knowledge is for everybody.
I’m not sure how to describe our goal in a finite, concrete sense—I suppose the ultimate prize would be to help create a world in which feminism is a natural part of how the world is structured, how we relate to each other, ourselves, the planet. In a more practical short-term sense, the goal is to make as much feminist material as available to as many different people as possible, using bicycles and tricycles, with minimal reliance on cars. Not because we have a singular idea of what feminism is and how it should be encouraged, but because we have a tool we want to share, for people to use in ways that are productive and meaningful for them, their families, their communities.
How many people are involved?
We have had some volunteers come and go, and there are a couple working in the library now. But primarily Jenn and I are the people who make this happen day-to-day. We also have about 900 card holders, around 2,000 followers on Facebook and another 2,000 on Instagram. We’re also very grateful for the institutional support we get from the Women’s Center for Creative Work.
What are some of your favorite books that are part of the library, and why?
As we have around 3,600 volumes in the library now, I find this an extraordinarily difficult question to answer succinctly. We do have some special items, like signed editions delivered directly from authors: Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, Kate Schatz’s Rad American Women A-Z, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Hope Larson’s Chiggers. We also have autographed editions of several books by Kate Millet, and a complete set of the periodical Chrysalis, published at the Women’s Building in Los Angeles from 1977 to 1980 (the Women’s Building played a big part in inspiring the founders of the Women’s Center for Creative Work).
As far as you can tell, are you the only Feminist Library on Wheels in the country? Do you hope to see this expand to other cities?
It would be wonderful to see F.L.O.W. grow! There is The Free Black Women’s Library in NYC, which is close to what we do but I think they’re not a circulating library, as we are. As far as I know we’re unique, although we also share a lot of kinship with the book bikes increasingly used by public libraries around the world (we had a t-shirt swap organized online with a public library in Canada!), and Little Free Libraries, popping up in more and more neighborhoods near us.
Where do you get the books from?
All of the books are donated. We have both occasionally added books personally, but everything in our catalog has been donated. Some have come from donors who gave us one or two items, others around a half-dozen at a time—we’ve also received donations in the mail. A couple of large private donations have considerably increased our collection as well. Building our library this way means we are building a collective definition of feminism; a F.L.O.W. library card doesn’t tell you what feminism is—it’s a tool you can use to figure that out for yourself.
What’s the biggest challenge of running this particular library? How has it grown from when you first started, and what are your plans for the future?
The biggest challenge is finding the time to do everything we want to do, with a very small budget, while still working full time at other jobs. We have grown considerably faster than we expected to when we started, and I think the continued positive attention we’ve received has been both rewarding and a surprise. I seem to remember in our first conversation discussing whether we’d wind up begging people to invite us to their birthday parties. Now we could really be out at events several times a month, if not once a week. Ultimately we’d like to build our infrastructure so that we can have multiple branches; plenty of drop-off locations, from the east side of Los Angeles to the ocean; a strong reserve of volunteers who can help us handle the books but also cycle around town to pick up returns and donations, as well as attend events like CicLAvia, L.A. Zine Fest, Clittoral Mass, etc.; many, many books in languages other than English; substantial holdings for children and young adults; and perhaps an electric-assist cargo bike or sturdier tricycle so we can accommodate more, and more diverse, riders. With some basic additional equipment and more hands on deck (and more time!) we can take the trike out regularly for reading hours at Echo Park Lake, for instance, or other spots around town.
How do you define a feminist? Are a lot of guys involved in this project?
Anyone can be feminist. bell hooks, again: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” I also like her distinction, in Feminist Theory from Margin to Center, between saying “I am a feminist,” and “I advocate feminism”; the latter makes room for connections to other forms of struggle (against racism, capitalism, homophobia, among others) and social justice movements. We have had cisgender men who have volunteered, and we have quite a number of cardholders who are cisgender men too. At most of our events (unless the host has designated a space that is for women-identified audiences only), we have conversations with men who are curious about what we do and eager to know more. We’ve had only a couple of negative encounters.
Do you have any particular anecdotes you can share?
At our first CicLAvia we met a lovely pair of young girls, sisters, who knew all about us, and were very happy to tell us about their own library at home. They were delighted by our trike, and equally thrilled to talk about their own bikes. It was pretty magical to witness their totally direct, earnest, pleasure. Riding the trike a few blocks through the festival that day, I was greeted with lots of waves, smiles, people shouting, “Hey! I saw you in the paper!” I nearly crashed the trike when a rider came up shouting from behind, “Feminist Library On Wheels! Hey! We have a donation for you!” A pair of wonderful women in their mid-sixties, complete with festive outfits, stopped to hand me half a dozen books, and I signed them up for library cards right then and there. Another conversation really stood out to me from our first visit to L.A. Zine Fest, when a man approached the trike and was very excited by F.L.O.W. when I explained what we do. “I know how to talk to my son about race-based privilege, but I really don’t have a clue how to talk to him about gender privilege. Thank you so much for doing this.” We’ve overhead mothers point at one volume or another and say to their daughters, “You need to read this!” At a recent event I asked a new volunteer how she was doing about halfway through the evening. She said, “It’s so wonderful! The way people’s eyes light up when you tell them what it is!”
In your opinion, what are the most important issues that have to do with feminism right now?
In swiftest brushstrokes: dismantling the gross reality of income inequality (for every worker); ending structural, institutional racism; stopping and repairing environmental devastation, globally and locally; preserving what’s left of our reproductive rights and restoring rights that have been eroded; protecting the lives of the vulnerable and exploited; dissolving the brutal violence of rape culture; increasing the visibility—and insisting on the value of—narratives by and for those outside normative, dominant, mainstream culture; and stretching individual and collective horizons for what is acceptable, what is possible, when humans treat each other and the planet with joy, respect, and gratitude. For starters.
Do you ever have to deal with hostile/irrational people who try to start arguments?
Jenn had one man come into the bookstore where she works and very aggressively confront her about F.L.O.W. I had one conversation with a young man that took a strange left turn when he asked me about Gamergate—thankfully another woman standing nearby sort of edged him out, and it never became an outright hostile conversation. We’ve been luckier than I’d suspected when we started; difficult encounters have really been at a minimum.
How did you come up with the name for the group? I love that it’s FLOW for short!
Jenn had a stroke of genius! I constantly feel so lucky and relieved she had the inspiration; it really is a perfect name.
Do you guys do this as a full-time job, or is it all volunteer? What else do you do?
We are unpaid volunteers. We also work full time—Jenn at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. I am a primary caregiver for a 97-year-old retired professor (which is often a more-than-full-time job).
How are books and bikes perfectly paired?
The “Women on a Roll” report from the League of American Bicyclists helps explain some of the objectives that motivate us: “In the United States, women from all demographics are recognizing and championing the bicycle as a simple solution to so many social challenges: economic recovery, community health, environmental protection, and neighborhood vitality.” The public benefits of bicycling extend to concrete personal liberation as well, much in the same way reading a book can bring freedom and joy that change your life, or simply transport your imagination to a new time and place. F.L.O.W. also promotes inclusive, evolving feminisms as a natural, ever more timely and necessary, part of our physical, cultural, and political mobility. Our mission combines these three components—books, bicycles, and feminism—to nurture and manifest increasingly sustainable, vibrant, just, and equitable communities throughout Los Angeles.
Books are truly objects of liberation—they require no wifi, no LEDs, and libraries like us share them freely. All that’s needed are patience, openness, and curiosity. Bicycles are similarly simple—all you need to do is hop on and go (and builders are making cycling available to more and more kinds of bodies every day). For us the connection seamlessly includes feminism too. We’re not simply a library, or literary organization, that has a tricycle—the three parts of what we do are deeply intertwined.
Is it true one of you named your bike bell after bell hooks? (I read that in the LA Times article!)
Yes, it’s true!