Anita Naidu—Mountain Biker and Activist
SOON AFTER the start of the war in Syria, Naidu, a professional freeride mountain-biker and onetime engineer for the Canadian International Development Agency, spent three years embedded in Beirut’s slums researching human trafficking victims and refugees. As a woman of East Indian descent and an Arabic- speaker, it was easy to blend in, even if it was a risky proposition. Still, it made the Canadian’s goal of finding technological solutions to their plight much easier.
The experience in Lebanon spurred Naidu to lead a project that won a Google Impact Challenge grant, in 2017, for an app that connects refugees with humanitarian aid and has since served some 6 million people. The experience also broadened Naidu’s vision for how her other passion, mountain biking, could also contribute to positive change in the world, catalyzing her to start clinics that combine learning freeriding biking skills with workshops on social change.
“A lot of people see my life as two different worlds,” she says. “One day you’re at the U.N. Peacekeeping Summit and the next day you’re filming on your bike. And yeah, it can be pretty crazy, but at the same time, both things stem directly from a core value: to make the world a better, less divisive, place.”
How do you transition from something like a humanitarian crisis to riding your bike?
“It’s honestly like drinking from a firehose of feelings. I’ve got to package it all, compartmentalize it all, so I can show up and be like, all right guys, we’re going to learn how to take seven-foot drops today! Let me teach you how to whip your bike. You’re just switching so quickly and turning things off. It’s what really made me realize that we have to not separate these worlds so much. That was really the impetus behind my clinics.”
What are the clinics like?
“In the day, we teach skills like cornering, jumping, and riding down technical terrain. Then there will be evening gatherings with moderated discussions. We’ll have 60 to 70 women participating. There is no topic I won’t touch. Oftentimes I will start with the changing role of women in society, and move on to what making an impact really looks like. Then I get into matching the skills that a person has to the world’s deepest needs. So it’s all about helping them understand how they already have what they need to create ripple effects.”
How did you get into mountain biking?
“In the same way as skateboarding. When I was 10 years old in Montreal and I saw these kids skateboarding. I was attracted to the rebellious nature of it, because it seemed so defiant compared to all the restrictions and rules that existed, both in my world of traditional culture and in the everyday world of girls. I really liked being able to challenge what is expected of you. I moved to Whistler when I was a teenager and had greater access to mountain biking and got into racing there.”
You’re the first woman of East Indian descent to be sponsored in a gravity sport. What has that been like?
“I understood when I was young that I was going to have to give up certain parts of myself to retain more important ones. I had to change the narrative of my traditional Eastern values, and also the Western world’s idea of what an athlete should look like. I think that defiance, and a willingness to be controversial, is really what set the tone for everything else that I would do in my life.”
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