When Michael Wojcik left his 12-year stint on the Rochester City Council, he wrote a lengthy Facebook post informing his friends and followers that he would continue to “weigh in on issues like sustainability, transportation, the library and a living wage for the community.”
Still, you could almost feel Wojcik breathe. He talked about having time to visit his ailing mother in Hibbing. About enjoying a spot on a radio program focused on goings-on in Rochester. About putting his MBA and financial consulting skills to work by accepting a “pretty much full-time” position as a financial analyst and accountant with a local foundation.
“I have been pretty busy,” the former politician seemed eager to assure his followers. He’s about to find out what busy really means.
As the recently named executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, Wojcik is stepping into the shoes of longtime BikeMN head Dorian Grilley after a 2022–23 legislative session in which Grilley, who retired, was rightfully lauded for a number of important transportation wins.
“Transitioning from a giant in the industry is going to be incredibly difficult. I understand that,” Wojcik says. He praises the energy and expertise of his staff, and says he wants to keep Grilley — an old friend — close to the organization. “I’ve never run a nonprofit as an executive director,” says Wojcik, who holds an MBA and another master’s degree in electrical engineering. “I joked with my team that it was my role to come up with good suggestions that other people ignored.”
Barely a month into his new job, Wojcik sat down recently with Streets.mn to talk about where BikeMN is going and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. He biked in on a Pedago e-bike (“that’s my company car today”) and undoubtedly will soon bring one of his four bikes from home (well, six, if you count the two “do-it-yourselfers”) to keep at the office.
Wojcik’s 12 years on the Rochester City Council gave him “a wealth of expertise” in local politics and in implementing state policies at a local level. Past involvement with the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and the League of Minnesota Cities has gained him relationships with elected officials across the state, he says.
A son of the Iron Range, Wojcik grew up in West Cohasset Township and went to college in the Red River Valley, where he earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. “I’ve been to every state park and ridden almost every state trail in Minnesota,” he says proudly.
On how a home base in Rochester could serve him in this role: “We are a statewide organization and need to be recognized as such.” With 12 board members, three from Greater Minnesota, “the board is geographically diverse and increasingly culturally diverse as well,” Wojcik says. “We have to reach out to other parts of the state and build coalitions. The Bicycle Alliance has some strong chapters” — 10 total, including in Albert Lea, Cannon Falls, Duluth, Fargo-Moorhead and Willmar — “but I do bring statewide connections.”
On navigating between a home in one city and a career in another: Wojcik initially will divide his time in thirds: living at the family home in Rochester he shares with his wife, Lisa, who works in federal law enforcement, and two daughters, ages 15 and 12; spending time at BikeMN’s headquarters on Minnehaha Avenue in south Minneapolis; and traveling the state to build the organization’s influence and reputation. “I’ve never been a homebody,” he says. “I’ve always done a lot of travel, both personally and professionally.” With a teen and a tween at home, “a little time away is maybe OK,” he jokes. “My kids are a little bit older.”
On Minnesota as a cyclist’s dream state: “I love seeing cities by biking and walking and even taking public transit. I love going places where I don’t have to think about a car. The Twin Cities is one of the best urban areas in North America for bicycling and Minnesota is one of the best states. I’ve ridden in the Netherlands and in Minneapolis,” which Wojcik contends has better cycling infrastructure than St. Paul. “The Netherlands is better, but the gap is closing.”
Representing All Minnesotans
Wojcik, 46, grew up “by the second biggest coal power plant in the state. I was never able to breathe properly until I moved away.” That awakened him to environmental issues. His boyhood home was also located next to the Leech Lake Reservation of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. “Before I knew the word disparities,” he says, “I knew what disparities were.”
Like most white-founded and -funded nonprofit organizations in Minnesota, BikeMN remains largely — though not exclusively — white, especially in its base of longtime supporters. The organization’s educational programs, as well as annual fundraising rides like the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour and the Mankato River Ramble, are sure ways to expand its outreach, Wojcik believes.
“Hands down, we are the best in the state in doing education,” he says. Those initiatives include basics like “Smart Cycling” and “Dealing with Dogs,” but BikeMN also has a school-based Bike Walk Fun program and a pilot program called People Friendly Driver. Education “is where we’re investing resources,” Wojcik explains, “educating young people or adults in learn-to-ride programs.” Many of those students, he says, are immigrants and people of color.
On equity and inclusion: Whether measured in membership, participation or the makeup of the staff and board, “we are intensely focused on being more representative of the state of Minnesota,” Wojcik says. “We have a large contingent of younger supporters who are much more diverse. We’re reaching minority communities in a way that [other] organizations can only dream of.”
On cycling as an equalizer: “Bicycles are one of the ultimate tools of equity. Look at the budget of an individual or family. There are many things they have no control over. One that they do: The amount of their budget that goes to transportation. Lower-income households with a lot of children, people of color in this state who are paid less for the same work: One tool to help all of these groups with economic prosperity is to lower their transportation costs.”
Climate and Equity Drive the Future
A participant in one of Wojcik’s regular age-friendly bike rides told him: “God invented e-bikes because God’s getting older, too.” Wojcik, who wore out an e-bike during his City Council years in Rochester (“I put 10,000 miles on it, took it to the shop and the motor was dead”), believes e-bikes can help counter climate change, as well as keep older riders on the road. The “range of distance,” he says, allows more drivers to use their cars less.
On whether e-bikes are cheating: “For me, that’s fingernails on a chalkboard. Once I got an e-bike, I rode that more — and my other bikes, too. And I did trips that I’d never have done on a regular bike.” Still, the “dark side” of e-bikes is how fast some of them can go. “It’s important to come up with a reasonable set of standards,” he says.
On acknowledging climate change: “2023 is the year when a lot of skeptics are starting to wake up. Florida, Hawaii, the fact that I’ve been smoking two packs of Canadian wildfires a day this summer.” Water shortages and food shortages afflict those “least able to afford it,” he says. “Everything we can do to de-carbonize is building toward an equitable solution.”
Wojcik is a politician, and an articulate one at that — a man who, like his friend St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, often speaks in paragraphs rather than discrete sentences. He knows enough about policy-making to say that “the magic doesn’t happen when the bills pass,” as they did many times over at the State Capitol this past session. “The magic happens when you decide what to do with those bills.”
The future, he believes — for the sustainability of both the organization and our state’s climate — is with the people that BikeMN has not yet reached.
Prior to Wojcik’s arrival, the Bicycle Alliance website became available in four languages: English, Hmong, Somali and Spanish. An extensive anti-racism section on the site lists staff and board demographics, a reading library, encouragement to support BIPOC biking groups and more. “We’re not where we need to be,” Wojcik concedes, “but we have a broad commitment to equity in our strategic plan and continue to move in that direction.”
Relationships and alliances are part of that plan. “The organizations that will be successful in the future will expand partnerships,” he says. “Too many nonprofits want to be everything to everyone.” For Wojcik’s part, he just wants to cool the world.