Florian Lorenz did a great review of the World Bike Forum that happened in Medellin, Colombia, February 24-28, 2015. The big lessons:

  1. A team of volunteers pulled off the World’s largest event on pedal-powered mobility
  2. A free and collaborative event can host a powerful discourse
  3. A global network of engaged citizens can drive urban change
  4. Women are taking the lead in bicycle advocacy
  5. A multi-lingual discourse in possible
  6. Latin America is key for sustainable urbanisation
  7. Activism shows the way for urban change
  8. There is limited future for one-size-fits-all solutions

Check instagram’s #fmb4 for great images of the event. I’m sure many others also have great reports, but I would like to talk about bicycle and active transportation advocacy issues and where my ideas have evolved to after having been fortunate to both attend and speak in Bogota and Medellin.


 

Anyone close to me knows that I have been moving away from the Copenhagen inspired/urban planning/policy wonk model of social change. There’s some inspired rants as to why those ideas, career paths and approaches are not working, but another time. Let’s just say that when I arrived in Medellin, I was 100% involved in exploring the activist VS advocate debate.

Which, funnily enough, was a main topic of discourse.

ADVOCATE OR ACTIVIST?

The answer should be pretty clear – advocates tend to be middle class people who intended to get a job in the non-profit sector after university. Activists, on the other hand, are unpaid passionate people who can’t stand the thought of things not getting better and expend their free time finding creative ways to change things.

There are a lot of racial and socio-economic factors in which side of the advocate/activist divide you might fall on. Some people, like myself, have been on both sides of the fence. In general, it’s more like having a visa to the other side, than having two passports… if you know what I mean. There are many people working on how to make this “movement” more diverse – though what that really means is getting more of the hugely diverse activist populations into the paid realm of advocacy. It can’t happen soon enough.

ARE HIERARCHIES REQUIRED FOR CHANGE?

Glad you asked. In the traditional way that social change has happened: activists mobilize around a cause, one of them starts a non-profit to raise money and work within the system, the non-profit hires some professionals who can play the local/national powers (who rely on the activist community to sign petitions, volunteer, donate, etc) and eventually laws are passed or a bike lane built.

So, to a degree, yes. Since our current governments haven’t been toppled, we have to achieve goals that require influencing politicians, people rich enough to donate money, and frequently large companies – all things that are very structured in individual roles and access. But completely re-envisioning what social change from the bottom up looks like is not only possible, but necessary. Every year the biggest social change/bicycling project successes are ones that reject hierarchy and encourage the participation of people of color, non-traditional gender identities, the very young and the very old and even non-english languages.

So what happens next?

The current system of advocacy (with the established organizations, players, expectations) can slowly add some “spice” in the form of nontraditional hires who will bring in more nuance. OR the entire process could shift away from this model and into something new based on distributed networks, AKA collaborative process.  That doesn’t mean that existing orgs would all go away – but it does mean that how they work would change.

MONEY

Behind any conversation – how to start an education program, get more bike lanes, what is the difference between advocacy and activism? The answer is always money. But as people who want to make the word a better place, talking about money is taboo. Plus so many people are working towards these goals without any money involved, that you’re kind of a jerk if you want money for your work. And since there’s no money in bicycling, those programs need to be re-imagined as something else, say anti-obesity or congestion, if you want to get any support.

The first thing we need to talk about isn’t “is your organization racially diverse?” but – where’s the money coming from? And how is it being used? 99.99% of the time there isn’t any money and people work tirelessly and unpaid until they eventually realize that they can’t keep that up. This is a huge problem in the activist community, where turn over is very fast. Even within advocacy, it’s usually not the most comfortable job you could get. Money is a huge important topic, but it’s enough for now to say that it’s a problem we need to actively discuss and acknowledge.

COLLABORATIVE NON HIERARCHICAL NETWORKS

Are frustrating as hell. Constantly shifting, very difficult to manage. And yet, this is the biggest strength that we have – massive numbers of people who all care about the same goals and are willing to give something to make those happen. The World Bike Forum – organized by volunteers, was a hugely impressive display of what a hybrid model of collaboration could look like. The best example is the cooperative structure. And it turns out that we have a fantastic network of bike co-ops in the United States and internationally. Though, in general these groups are focused on direct service: helping repair bikes, provide basic education and getting bikes to low income individuals. I haven’t ever heard of an advocacy co-op, but if you have, please email me.

At the heart of it is community organizing – how do we reach people? I believe that as technology continues to become more sophisticated and people have the chance to refine it, that being able to reach larger numbers of people globally or on the street level, will only get better. But we have to remember that we have to come to them on their terms, not broadcast the latest news or request and hope that people care enough to do something. I’m enormously excited to see that community organizing specific conferences are showing up more frequently and even replacing the traditional conference where a lot of bored professionals recite what’s going on.

OK, SO WHERE IS THIS GOING?

Hopefully a beautiful world free of pollution and filled with healthy, happy people riding bikes all over the place.

What I am hoping to see in the next decade or two are the creation of meaningful interconnectedness between influential individuals, organizations but most exciting – large populations. And that the way that we are organized (and funded) has a shift towards large cooperatives. Yet we also need to be supported, funded and work with large companies and governments. How that happens can change. If you want to get really nerdy (and awesome) I recommend reading Community Detection in Networks with Node Attributes (warning: Math). But many of these ideas can be understood through other, more social or experiential means. We need a lot of people thinking about how we can share knowledge and what the best way to do that is.

I believe that the current system of having each city, region re-discovering and creating things by themselves is a huge loss when many lessons and inspiration can be borrowed. However, we also have to realize that each city, town and neighborhood is unique. Look around. Does it look like Denmark? Is everyone speaking Dutch? No? Then let’s take the appropriate lessons and feel free to create our own authentic bike cultures.

The “Solar Countries” that Jaime Ortiz talked about in his moving keynote talk at the World Bike Forum reject the import of other countries expectations and assert that South America and other places along the equator are already far along the path of new solutions, organization. For that we should be grateful and asking more questions about how we can learn, share and evolve together.

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