Hunter College– Locking her bike up in front of the school’s North Building, Rachel Brown, 35, strides into class, bike helmet in hand. Wearing denim shorts and a purple tank top, ear piercings lining her ears, she’s ready to teach her media-film class after biking to work from Astoria.
With a passion for cycling, Brown, a filmmaker, has found a way to combine her love of the sport with her passion for the arts and youth development. Leading bike tours, making films, and teaching media to students around the five boroughs, as well as finding time to work for a non-profit, this avid cyclist has found a way to make all of her hobbies intermingle.
“I think that if you are spending a lot of time in a particular community, or thinking about a specific topic or just doing the same activity on a daily basis, it becomes a part of how you see the world. For this reason, feminism and biking have been the focus of several of my films, and it feels very comfortable for me because they are things I understand, things I embody,” Brown said.
If there’s one thing that the people in Brown’s life can agree on, it’s that her dedication and passion in all aspects is extremely applaudable.
“She cycles no matter the weather, it’s impressive to meet up with her in cold or inclement weather and find out that she cycled. On days that I would be hesitant to get on my bike, she still rides. I think that speaks to her determined and persevering nature,” said Siji Kompanal, a friend and fellow cyclist.
Biking to her various teaching gigs around the boroughs, Brown also found a way to combine her passion for cycling with her love of film, having made five films now about cycling, trying to show women’s perspectives in the cycling community, a voice that is not heard much.
“My most recent cycling film was about women who cycle through winters in New York. There are a lot of cyclers who stop in the winter months but there’s a special breed who still cycle through very cold, very windy winters. So I found women that shared that same crazy passion and made that film,” she said.
Brown wasn’t always certain of the route her career would go in. Born in what she calls the “middle of nowhere” Ohio, Western Ohio to be exact, Brown and her family moved around the Midwest a lot- from Ohio to Michigan to Missouri, ending back in Cleveland for middle school and high school. Through those moves, she lived in both the country suburbs and the city. Brown moved to New York when she was 17 for her undergraduate degree, attending Hunter College and double majoring in political science and film production.
Moving around a lot, one constant in Brown’s life was her bike. Her older brother, a bike mechanic and bike messenger, always encouraged her to keep riding. Like a lot of kids growing up she had a bike, and remembers the training wheels coming off and having her first bike ride around the block. “I have an older brother and one of his friends had a bike and I had a mini crush on him and I remember being so proud of myself that I went to wave at him and wiped out because I didn’t have a sense of the bike yet as a new rider. I totally lost it, lesson not learned,” Rachel said holding back laughter.
Coming to the city as a young adult to study as an undergrad, Brown wasn’t sure what path to take. “I don’t know why I chose film except that I was doubting myself as a performer and thought it might be easier- it’s just a different art form,” she said. Brown had always been into the arts, and thought the performing arts were where she was going to head. “It happened in the beginning of my freshman year at Hunter College, I went into film because it’s not an innate talent but a more skill based talent that I could learn.”
Brown’s new found passion for film would later be incorporated into her love of cycling and youth development. Coming to the city, she didn’t ride at first because of the fear of traffic, but Brown has now been a year round commuter for about 12 years, riding her bike to every job and gig all over the city, rain or shine.
Kaija Siirala, a fellow professor and friend of Brown’s, recalled first seeing her colleague carrying her gear into the classroom on a beautiful September day and thinking “it was cool” that she’d biked there. “When I learned that she bikes all over the five boroughs, I was impressed. It’s pretty hardcore, but Rachel always seems to power through,” she said.
Strapping her bike in front of Hunter College and lugging her big red backpack up the stairs to her fourth floor film class, this is just one of the teaching jobs Brown cycles to. Along with teaching in classrooms around the city, Brown works with Mouse, a national youth development nonprofit that believes in technology as a force for good. Brown is passionate about passing on media skills to the younger generation so people who aren’t represented are able to put their voices out there through the arts, similarly to the way she was able to give a voice to women cyclists in her film “Yes I Rode Here”. “I would never see myself being a math professor because I don’t see it as being important, I’m more interested in finding solutions to social issues and I feel like the arts are a better way to do that than math. How we experience the world is very different and through the arts, you touch on things that are not quantifiable and there’s more room there to be heard,” she said.
Patrick Weaver, Brown’s supervisor and friend at Mouse, describes her as having a “really interesting perspective and approach” both creatively and academically. “She brings the perspective of someone who’s learning while teaching, and she’s passionate about it, which helps develop new projects and ideas,” Weaver said.
Rain or shine, snow or wind, Brown will be rushing by on her bike, pedaling away to one of her many teaching jobs, camera in hand and a fire in her heart. Brown has been working on being more experimental lately with her films, trying to not be as “on the nose with a topic” and following a less traditional form. Her new film has dance in it, another one of her loves.
“As for combining passions, it feels natural to me. I don’t think people are moved to create art about things they aren’t interested in; artists want to express or capture something unique about subjects that move us.”
Rachel’s Website: http://www.wanderingarrow.com