Q&A: How Athlete Anita Naidu Teaches Mountain Biking for Societal Change

The pro athlete, humanitarian, and aspiring astronaut talks building community, dismantling injustice, and how mountain biking brings her joy

Q&A: How Athlete Anita Naidu Teaches Mountain Biking for Societal Change

Author

Joe Kanzangu

Photo by S. Allen

Sometimes it’s not enough to be the first global athlete of your ethnicity in a sport. Sometimes you realize there’s a bigger contest ahead of you. When facing systemic opposition that operates in discrimination and exclusion you sometimes have to forge your own path. One thing is for certain: dismantling the status quo so that other people of color can experience and excel in their pursuit of the outdoors doesn’t come easy. For professional mountain biker Anita Naidu, this lesson has been learned firsthand.

Naidu is the first pro mountain biker of East Indian descent, and breaking barriers has been the driving force behind her twenty-five year career in outdoor sports. As a dark-skinned outdoor athlete in predominantly white-centered sports, Naidu has pushed these spaces to move beyond eurocentric lenses and is a staunch advocate for amplifying women and POC voices in the outdoors. Naidu is a highly sought-after mountain biking coach, a diversity consultant for global brands, an award-winning international humanitarian, and an aspiring astronaut. It’s her life mission to make sure everyone has equitable access to the outdoors.

Recently, we connected with her to get her perspective on gravity sports, authenticity when it comes to partnering with brands, and building community through nature.

What are you excited about in your new partnership with Cannondale?

Besides riding great bikes, I’m so grateful and privileged to have a wide-reaching global platform to make a real impact in mountain biking, sports and beyond. I’m also amped on my teammates! What excites me the most about this partnership is the expansion of the anti-racism initiatives in mountain biking.

How are you incorporating anti-racism initiatives into your mountain biking?

I started high performance skills coaching and social justice education camps years ago and they became so popular that they now fill up within an hour. They are a warm, empathetic, and compassionate invitation in hopes of inspiring others to join our resistance and strive for improvement, all while learning badass bike skills. There is no holding back at these clinics—beginners learn wheelies, intermediates take on gaps and advanced riders learn tricks. Once you’ve spent the day mastering skills and taking your riding to all new heights, the evening is focused on learning about the world’s biggest problems and matching your innate skills to address them—from how to be actively anti-racist, to understanding climate justice, and learning how various systems work in cohesion to produce and reproduce global inequality.

"Combining mountain biking with anti-racism, climate change, and social impact education quenches a thirst that many people don't even know they have."

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We often get told to navigate injustice rather than dismantling it—that’s why launching the clinics with IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) is a significant step forward. It signifies that the industry is moving beyond mere optics of diversity. It's about creating an outdoor industry and a society that is alive to the struggles of others, one that teaches people to fight for each other rather than fight each other, and understanding what that truly means in practice.

Combining mountain biking with anti-racism, climate change, and social impact education quenches a thirst that many people don't even know they have. Achieving anti-racist outcomes and dismantling systemic racism are crucial goals for which we must use every tool at our disposal, including sports. Working towards those goals through mountain bikes and the outdoors fills me with so much hope.

What do you look into when engaging with potential accomplices in outdoor sports?

I look for individuals who possess a deep understanding of the injustices faced by others. It is essential for them to have developed a sense of empathy and self-awareness, as it forms the foundation for meaningful collaboration.

Inequality has always been a stark reality that some of us comprehend intimately. However, even those who haven't personally experienced it can learn and grow to recognize its existence. Seeking collaborators who share this belief and are open to learning, unlearning, and actively challenging the status quo is key

Consequently, I value potential accomplices who understand the profound impact of systemic barriers and lack of support. Engaging with potential accomplices means finding those whose commitment extends far beyond performative gestures such as inviting someone out skiing, giving them a free bike lesson or attending their movie premieres. You can do all these things and still not be committed to dismantling racism. Accomplices understand that truly showing up for marginalized communities is agitating loudly for change, risking one’s social capital, and challenging your own roles in upholding systemic injustice.

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How do you maintain active equity with the brands that you partner with?

One of the most important things I hold partnering brands accountable for is understanding tokenism. Tokenism does not mean just having one person of color—it's often misunderstood to mean that. Even when there are many people of color in a space or initiative, it can still be tokenism. Tokenism occurs when most of the marginalized individuals in any space lack real power to influence structural change. Their presence is being used to uphold certain aspects of white supremacy while falsely claiming it's in the name of inclusion. Tokenism brings BIPOCs into the proximity of whiteness rather than promoting anti-racism.

True anti-racism is not just about giving someone a bike, it's a commitment to putting pressure on society to ensure disenfranchised people have security.

When I have hard conversations with brands, I have to discern if their leadership understands that many marginalized people are fighting for their right to exist. The focus of many brands is marketing diversity, not making structural changes. What’s critical is to make sure they can go beyond just naming unfair systems; they have to recognize how they manifest and their role in them.

I refuse to represent a misguided idea of inclusion and so I only accept public-facing or media opportunities where the focus is to educate, push for inclusion, and acknowledge truths.

"When people get closer to the humanity of others, they end up closer to their own humanity."

How have the mountain bike skills clinics (where anti-racism, equity, inclusion, and climate change education are the roots of its foundation) impacted you?

Delivering change is hard. Counting my privileges and expressing gratitude sustains my optimism. The key to positivity is knowing how to search for and find lighthouses in life's storms and see moments of difficulty as opportunities. I get so much pleasure from condensing complex topics into meaningful learning experiences because I see how it can broaden people's perceptions and open doors.

When I witness the convictions that arise from educating people on topics such as energy policies, racialized capitalism, and how inequality advances, it bolsters my own convictions. When people get closer to the humanity of others, they end up closer to their own humanity. So that’s the baseline for my optimism.

The clinics are designed to look at a wider scope of the human condition while providing avenues for both the joy and growth that sport brings. Sport brings a lot of fleeting moments of happiness and freedom yet long term well-being radiates from purpose and contributing meaningfully to society. As someone who embraces reality and optimism, the ability to offer a space where all these amazing elements come together is a precious opportunity, a gift that keeps on giving.

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What’s needed for the outdoor and action sports industries to reach a state of diverse representation, not just among talent but in its infrastructure of people (guides, instructors, coaches, facilitators)?

Structural transformation is crucial, as mere appearances of action often conceal the reality of the situation. So to achieve lasting change, we must be willing to dismantle the root causes of societal inequality which are patriarchy and white supremacy. Merely playing in the margins will not suffice; we need to address the core of the problem.

Incentivizing values that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is essential. When decision-making and leadership roles are predominantly held by white individuals, there is a false perception that we should mimic their actions. DEI initiatives must be reflective of the people they aim to reach; otherwise, they become mere lip service.

Building social trust is a critical aspect of creating an inclusive environment. To initiate change, we should focus on what we are doing to show people why they should be involved. To truly reach a state of normalcy, solidarity should replace saviorism, and we must recognize and uplift women of color as the leaders they truly are. Equity is not solely about changing the skin color within institutions but transforming the entire culture.

As trails open up, what joy has mountain biking brought you?

Not only has mountain biking and all outdoor sports brought me immense joy but it’s allowed me to bring it to thousands of others—and the joy in that is truly immeasurable. It's a privilege to be in the lives of others and seeing their spirits lift as they conquer trails and challenge their limits. When combined intelligently with other social tools for social change, mountain biking has the power to radically transform communities. And it’s this transformative power of mountain biking that I want to share and encourage more people to experience.

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Q&A: How Athlete Anita Naidu Teaches Mountain Biking for Societal Change

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