Altadena Town Council member Dorothy Wong grew up in Aiea, high above the ocean in the Ko’olau Mountains, in Oahu.
“In Hawaii,” Wong says, “the mountains are respected. They’re regarded as gods.”
As a Girl Scout, Wong hiked the mountains and learned to respect the power of the ocean, pointing out that everything in nature was part of a greater story.
“In Hawaii, through traditional education, lore and daily life, we were reminded of the power of the mountains as sacred, and the ocean as respected places. Of course, many people who don’t respect it can die. This is all part of the Hawaiian lore … and the land is respected as resources for the people,” said Wong, referencing massive protests since 2015 in efforts to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, TMT, a project spearheaded and managed by Caltech on Mauna Kea.
“The irony of it all is modern times-tourism and big city life have led the way to today’s renaissance with activism to protect Mauna Kea,” Wong explains.
As a teen, Wong came to the mainland for school, hoping to be involved in media and music as a career and in 1983 enrolled in Loyola Marymount University in West Los Angeles, majoring in communications. During college, she worked multiple jobs, getting around via public transit and bicycle until she could afford a car. She also worked on a documentary film project about orcas in captivity, then moved into TV work full time as a production supervisor-associate. She often bicycled from Burbank to her job in Hollywood, leaving her car at home.
“Bicycling was a great therapy to get outside,” she says, as her job required her to sit for hours in the studio. A cameraman once told her that she’d probably like mountain bikes. Wong purchased her first mountain bike in 1995 and never looked back.
She spent the next 15 years organizing numerous events and racing her bicycle, winning multiple national awards.
“My love of athleticism played right into this,” explains Wong, who adds, “It changed my life when I became a pro-mountain biker.”
By 2005, says Wong, “I thought, what’s next?” and she learned about the League of American Bicyclists (formerly known as the Wheelmen). She became certified as a League Cycling Instructor (LCI) while living in Washington, DC.
“I became an advocate for bicycling safety,” said Wong, who notes that she’s seen many friends injured or killed in collisions that could have been prevented with safer streets.
Because of her certification, she came to work for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) as a bicycle safety advocate. She currently teaches bicycle safety to adults in the San Gabriel Valley, spending about 60 days out of the year teaching bicycle safety.
Wong points out that she learned about working for change when she became a board member with the La Jolla-based California Bicycle Coalition, CalBike, and she was more involved in legislation advocacy. She was also involved with the Nature for All Leadership Academy, a coalition of organizations whose goal is protecting public lands and connecting under-served populations to nature.
“I learned how to lobby for the causes I believe in, thanks to these organizations, and then I met Tim Brick of the Arroyo Seco Foundation,” she recalls of Brick, a longtime local activist and Pasadena’s former representative to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) board of directors. Brick was also chair of the Pasadena Bicycle Advisory Committee, which was established to implement the city’s bicycle plan. Brick was also a member of the Hahamongna Implementation Task Force, which set up the organizational structures to develop Hahamongna Watershed Park, then became executive director of Hahamongna Operating Co., a public venture established to develop the 1,300 acre park in the Arroyo Seco.
It was then that Wong says she realized that it’s the politicians who have the power to change things. “I’ve always wanted to know why things are the way they are,” states Wong, who is now in her second two-year term on the Altadena Town Council.
“Remember, you can’t get anything done without getting the community behind you. What’s wrong with politics today is that they don’t get the community behind them first. For me, it’s necessary for my work to be a good community organizer. As a bicyclist who gets marginalized, I have to stand up for bicyclists who get hit or killed.”
The Magic’s Gone
Wong started a traffic safety and mobility committee of the Town Council in order to prioritize safe routes to schools and to get people thinking about human powered ways to get around town.
“For me, the bicycle really tied into so many things that there is a need to advocate for, like being healthier, going to work, not having to use a car, and being a part of the environmental solution,” she says.
Wong points out that her discovery of the Arroyo Seco began as a bicyclist, and through the bicycle she discovered Altadena, the San Gabriel Mountains and Hahamongna Watershed Park.
She’s been actively involved with Brick’s foundation in efforts to reduce the scale of LA County’s “Big Dig” sentiment removal project at Devil’s Gate Dam, located in Hahamongna Watershed Park and reduce the number of trees that are still slated to be cut down.
“Trees benefit the health of our bodies and our environment in many ways, and it doesn’t matter if the tree is native or non-native. It’s best to be mindful of what we are doing with all these projects locally, and look at how they benefit us today and in our life. Some of the projects might seem to be mindful, but they destroy so much now for the presumed long-term benefit, and too many of these agencies are doing their own thing.”
With so many trees gone in Hahamongna, “the magic is gone, and I don’t go there as much anymore,” she says. “I went there to feel the magic, which is something innate in all of us, that desire to feel close to nature. We need to restore balance, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be all native, because the bees go to the mustard too, and the birds make nests in the eucalyptus and ash trees. Plus, have you heard the sounds of a rich forest? That’s not there anymore since they took all the trees out.
“It’s really important in all these things that we work together and be mindful of each other, take time to breathe, and not rush too quickly. If we really look at things a little deeper, then I know we can come up with sustainable solutions,” Wong says.
“Much of that information comes directly from the observation and study of nature, and from the Indigenous peoples’ understanding of nature. That’s the balance that I want to bring back,” she states. n