Pitt leads the pack in cultural cooperation


Sean Crandell (right) volunteered at ICP’s food drive “alleycat.” (Courtesy of Sean Crandell)

It’s a chilly Saturday, the sky is gray, and some 15 bikers are gathered to begin a 15 mile race. Why would anyone in their right mind do such a thing? For the sake of building friendships, learning something new and feeding the community.

I work as a volunteer director of the Food Pantry at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and a few weeks prior, I received an email from a fellow Pitt student and recreational cyclist Sean Crandell, a senior at Pitt who wanted to hold a unique community event to benefit refugees and other food-insecure individuals in Pittsburgh. As an avid biker, he proposed a bike scavenger hunt — an alleycat.

“Alleycat” is cyclist slang for a bike race with no set course. Instead, there are checkpoints set up in a certain area and the racers get to choose what route they want to take — much like a scavenger hunt. The end of the race isn’t a finish line either — you finish when you arrive back at the start with proof of having stopped at every checkpoint.

I can barely pedal my way up a Pittsburgh hill and traffic scares me like nothing else, but Crandell didn’t want to invite me to the race. He wanted to collaborate with me in organizing it as a food drive. He envisioned bikers stopping at grocery stores as checkpoints and purchasing food to then drop off at the food pantry.

A food drive was just what the food pantry needed. It usually needs $800 a month to buy and give food to its clients of all faiths and backgrounds across Allegheny County. But at the time, the pantry was $800 short.

Bringing bikers and mosque-goers together in a race to help feed people is a novel and fresh idea. I’ve frequently attended both interfaith and cross-cultural discussions, and while these events are enjoyable, they tend to attract the same crowd — one that is familiar with discussions between cultures. As a result, the conversations become repetitive and tired.

Our campus has been home to wonderful initiatives such as the Conflict Kitchen, the Cultural and Linguistic Diversity Conference and the interfaith film screening of The Sultan and the Saint, the last two of which were held earlier this spring. They aimed to bridge gaps over food, academic discussion and a movie, respectively. But time and time again, many of the same, well-intentioned people gather at such events, and few new faces are seen.

The alleycat was different. This race engaged bikers and mosque food pantry volunteers, groups of people who likely have not spent time together. It’s important for Pitt students to continue this legacy of intersectional initiatives to build bridges between different types of people and promote causes. When people who don’t normally interact work together and have fun, there is more opportunity for learning and engagement.

After a couple weeks of preparation, the inaugural Cathedral Crawl Alleycat finally arrived on February 25. It was a cold and gray Saturday — typical for Pittsburgh. I stood giddily by, watching the opening scene with my hands in the pockets of my orange wool coat alongside other food pantry volunteers. Despite the biting cold, about fifteen bikers gathered under the tent in Schenley Plaza and began to sign in.

I saw racers from all different backgrounds, from the obvious Pitt students in blue and gold shirts to the average community members. There was so much diversity at the event, proving that students aren’t the only ones interested in ingenious partnerships like this. But every racer had one thing in common — an empty backpack that they would soon fill with donations.

When the race kicked off, I hurried back to my station at the ICP, where racers were to come once they’d collected food from the grocery stores along the way. Half an hour after the start, the first racer made their stop at the ICP — one of the checkpoints — with a backpack full of food.

In light of the recent wave of refugees out of the Arab world and beyond, Crandell wanted to make the event educational. So in addition to providing food for refugees at the food pantry, the racers had another task at the ICP — familiarizing themselves with Arabic.

It was an exciting routine. A racer would speed up to the front of the ICP then drop their bike on the lawn, run through the doors and unload their backpack with the food they’d purchased at their previous stops.

After choosing a phrase or two from an array of index cards at the table, we volunteers helped them practice. Then, after a quick and sweet goodbye, the biker was off again, zooming down Bigelow Boulevard towards Schenley Plaza. Their final test? A recall of their Arabic phrases at the finish line.

I was amazed by the bikers’ recall, first of all — to be able to remember phrases in a foreign language is impressive enough, let alone during a bike race in the whipping cold. But moreso, I was inspired by Crandell’s enthusiasm to motivate two seemingly unrelated groups of people. He created an event that was fun, rewarding and educational — and lucky for me, he invited me along for the ride.

This event showed me that this kind of change — the grass-roots kind that works on changing opinions and preconceptions — is how students need to lead the charge. Many of the bikers who came to Crandell’s race had never been to a mosque, let alone spoken Arabic. But by the end of their race, they all had done both. All of us involved made new friends, had fresh conversations and helped feed their Pittsburgh community.

For the alleycat, the cause was simple — get food for people who are hungry. But its implications reach far beyond the stomachs of those that were fed, far beyond the City of Pittsburgh and even beyond the bikers themselves.

If building bridges between cultures doesn’t sound worth it, at least it got people excited about exercise in the winter. But I have a feeling that when leaving the finish line, their sore legs were the last thing on the racers’ minds.


Mariam Shalaby primarily writes on social change and foreign culture for The Pitt News.

Write to Mariam at [email protected]