A desire to dissolve divisions and a passion for serving the underserved brought Ellen Willis-Conger to SBBIKE as the coalition’s first associate director.
In her childhood, Ellen Willis-Conger was a recreational bicyclist. When she attended Santa Barbara City College in the ’70s (read, no bike paths to speak of), she commuted by bike. “I consider myself incredibly lucky to have survived that,” she quips, only half-joking. That wouldn’t be her last challenging bike commute. She transferred to San Diego State University. There, she commuted to work as a TA in a kindergarten class and then to school—during the wettest winter on record. She’d bring a change of clothes, hang her wet ones on the drying line alongside the students’ paintings, and change back to ride to afternoon and evening classes (and another change of clothes). “I did more laundry and chain cleaning—and changing—that winter …” She laughs.
A pivotal experience around the same time set her on a work-life path that reflects her core values. She joined Amigos de Las Américas, which enables young people to live and work in Central and South American communities. “I had the opportunity to see the side of our community I was not otherwise exposed to,” she notes. She also learned Spanish while working in undeveloped settings in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador.
After completing her undergraduate work in community health and education, she returned to Honduras to work in Salvadoran refugee camps. Next, she directed a community clinic in Tucson, Arizona, where she met her husband, Phil. The two went to Berkeley. She attained a Master’s of Divinity, was ordained a Methodist minister, and spent 15 years working with communities and congregations throughout Arizona.
Willis-Conger returned to Santa Barbara and, in 2014, became the assistant deputy of community health with the Public Health Department, overseeing a number of regulatory programs. Working with nonprofit partners enabled her to see and experience an aspect of her home that had long disturbed her but that she didn’t have the words for during graduate school—“the disparity that we have here in Santa Barbara.” It was one of the reasons she left (along with an inability to afford to live here and do what she wanted to do—serve the underserved). “I find it to be a very troubling moral condition for our community,” she says. Willis-Conger speaks passionately about identifying that disparity and how it’s a health issue as well as an economic one. A lower income means housing and work environments that are health risks and less access to preventative and curative care.
“I have a passion around the vulnerable and the lack of equity in how people live,” she says. “And SBBIKE is addressing that at a really grassroots level.” The coalition enables Lycra-clad people exercising and people pedaling in work garb and everyone in between to work together to make a safer biking environment for all and to “dissolves divides. I don’t want there to be divides.”
As associate director, a new position for the organization, in her first months, Willis-Conger has taken on administrative roles that “need more attention,” human resources, processes, and policy review. “This place is roll-up-your-sleeves-and-pitch-in,” she adds. “So I’m learning about other things I can do.”
Policies need to evolve to meet current needs and changes, Willis-Conger notes. For now, she’s established two guiding principles. The first is to ensure that everything SBBIKE offers is available in Spanish and English. Translations must be good and use local idioms, she adds. “We need to honor and respect our Spanish-speaking members.” The second is consistency with Bici Santa Maria, ensuring that the two main Bicis move forward together, informing and supporting one another. “What’s good for Santa Maria is good for us,” she explains. “If it’s going to work for us, it has to work for them too.” For example, a work trade idea both Bicis were considering is policy for now.
Willis-Conger says the organization is in a great place. “SBBIKE is pivoting from a grassroots movement to an organization with a structure that’s more sustainable and not reliant on any one individual.” She notes that changes means growing pains. She’s excited about the long-range vision for the community and SBBIKE and happy to help continue the grassroots passion, involvement, and support. “I’m relying on our staff and members to guide me,” she says. “I have much to learn.”
Why cycling? “Active transportation is important for health, to ensure access to all of life for people who can’t or don’t want to drive, for the health of our environment and our world—all of the above.”
These days, Willis-Conger’s taken on a new bicycling adventure—a tandem with Phil. They were advised by another couple, “If you’re ever in trouble communicating, get on the bike. When we get home, we’re better.” It’s proved true, she says. Dennis, previous owner of Rincon Cycle and their instructor, told them, “The stoker” (the person in the back [Ellen]) “is always right. The job of the captain is to keep the stoker happy.” That suits her fine. The pair has taken multiday trips and aspires to long-distance touring overseas.
Willis-Conger’s passion for service and cycling is a family affair. She and Phil have two adult daughters. One is at graduate school in Berkeley. She bikes. The other recently returned from the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and will be moving to Mexico soon. Phil works with long-term homelessness, bringing services to the population he’s engaged with.
“We have a commitment to vulnerable members of our community,” says Willis-Conger.