Meet Barb Chamberlain Chief Strategic Officer for the newly merged Washington Bikes and Cascade Bicycle Club

Any time I can encourage young women to go after what they want and can share some of what I’ve learned, I want to do that. And if I can use my privilege to somehow open doors for people whose voices have not been heard I’m there.

Barb Chamberlain is an Idaho native who has lived in Washington for many years. A proud WSU Cougar with bachelor’s degrees in English and Linguistics, she also holds a master’s in public administration from EWU and completed some coursework toward a PhD in political science that is on permanent hold while she changes the world through bicycling. Her other study of political science was much more applied, as the youngest woman elected to the Idaho state House and Senate in the early 1990s, and then as an elected member of the North Idaho College Board of Trustees.

Barb led communications and public affairs for over 14 years at WSU Spokane while volunteering actively on bicycling, health, and school levy/bond campaign committees. In 2012 she joined the then Bicycle Alliance of Washington as executive director. She led its rebranding to become Washington Bikes and then its decision to merge with Cascade Bicycle Club in 2015 and is excited about the potential of the merged organization. In 2014 she co-chaired the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on Parks and Outdoor Recreation, and she has spoken at numerous national and state conferences on bicycling, social media, public policy, and other topics.

Melissa Balmer: What's your favorite early childhood bike memory?

Barb Chamberlain: I had a yellow 10-speed that I rode to my country school through the rolling wheat fields outside of Lewiston, Idaho. I've looked up the distance and it's 1.4 miles, which feels like nothing now but at the time I felt so adventurous heading out under my own power.

MB: At the beginning of 2016 you as the Executive Director of Washington Bikes, and Elizabeth Kiker of Cascade Bicycling Club, successfully merged your organizations to become the nation's largest statewide bicycling advocacy organization. And yet...at the National Summit hosted by the League of American Bicyclists this past March the two of you weren't on the "main stage" presenting, instead you presented at the Women Bike track of the summit.

Why do you think the League decided to do this? Is it to draw more men into the Women Bike event? Or are they being a little tone deaf?

BC: Honestly, I think the League was dealing with their own changes in leadership and staff. At the same time I'd guess they were trying to figure out how to maintain the "juice" that I so loved in the Women's Bike Forum, and inject that energy into the main Summit. 

Last year I moderated the panel on gender and biking and we talked about whether we still wanted a space defined by gender (in an inclusive and welcoming sense for W/T/F). The merger itself isn't really a gender-based topic, although I find it telling that we made it work when both organizations were led by women, whereas other organizations that have contemplated mergers and haven't gotten there were led by men. It's over-generalizing to say in a pat way that women approach leadership differently, but I think we do.

MB: You've attended the League's annual summit several times. What was your favorite part about this year's and what would you like to see more of in the future?

BC: I loved the opening panel discussion with the next generation of leaders: young women, most of them women representing racial and ethnic diversity. Women and people of color are the majority of people, period. We have a lot of ongoing work to do in order to reshape the general public's assumptions and stereotypes about who rides bikes and a panel like this is a step in that direction. I want to see more speakers who challenge stereotypes and assumptions and who do so in a way that makes it possible to bring along people who started their bike advocacy in a different era, as well as bringing in more energy and more leaders from spaces outside bicycling who can see their goals and issues aligning with ours as we learn to listen and speak their policy language. 

MB: You actively recruit women from across the country to speak at the annual statewide Washington Bike Summit. What are your recommendations to other organizations who want to successfully do the same? 

BC: I'm so proud of the awesome speaker lineup. Don't settle; don't just invite the obvious or easy-to-find speakers." Bottom line: Pay attention to who's doing great work. Get to know them. Find out what fires them with passion. Ask them to speak. And track what you're doing. Having a diverse set of perspectives among your speakers doesn't happen by accident, it happens by intention.

I approached our keynote speaker line-up as if it were a panel that would be all on stage at the same time. Would it look exclusionary if they all stood together? Then you have some more recruiting to do. Of our five keynote speakers the majority were women and the majority were not white.

For the Summit overall one of my charges to our committee was that we wouldn't create a bunch of panels eligible for listing at allmalepanels.tumblr.com. I was also watching whether we ended up with lots of all-white panels. Out of 19 sessions, just under half were either all-white or all-male (two were both).

I'd also note that I built a lot of awareness of potential speakers in the course of compiling the list at womenbikeblogs.com (which is woefully out of date--working in bike advocacy gets in the way of doing bike things I did as a volunteer). Looking for bloggers who focus on a particular topic, whether it's a particular type of riding, a geographic region, an issue, will yield names of people who aren't necessarily leading organizations or being paid to work in bike advocacy, and you'll find new talent. Be willing to take a chance on people who aren't yet on everyone's list of stars; you're getting them on their way to becoming stars. 

MB: One of the big reasons I've just moved Pedal Love from statewide to national focus is that I decided to take my own advice and step up. What advice do you have for women who want to be in the "top of mind awareness" as spokespeople?

BC: Build a social media presence. I'm interested in doing more of - and I highly recommend - writing op-ed pieces for a traditional mainstream media publications, and guest blog posts for online publications. If you need some coaching, get training like what Pedal Love offers or check out The Op-Ed Project. Attend conferences and ask good questions. Suggest topics to organizers of conferences. Put together a panel you can moderate and propose that, if you don't want to carry the mic alone. Always be generous and share the work of others you admire. Karma and reciprocity rule.

As a speaker, learn to tell a compelling story with an arc that can fit into various timelines. If every story you tell starts with where you were born and leads up to today, you’re not ready.

MB: You're now the Chief Strategic Officer for Washington Bikes and the Cascade Bicycling Club. What will you be focusing on now and what are you excited about as your two organizations move to become one?

BC: Following the merger we're one staff, but still two organizations working statewide with distinct portfolios of work. Getting to define the two brands, which are different from what each of us was last December, creates a really exciting opportunity. This is true both for communications, which is my particular love, and for the programs that will serve communities around the state I've been connecting with during my time as the Washington Bikes Executive Director. I'm leading our work to define what it means for Cascade to have a statewide mission, our bike tourism initiatives carried over from Washington Bikes, and--in a really jazzy part of the job--I oversee training on what it means for us to comply with the distinctions around Cascade being a 501(c)(3) and Washington Bikes being a 501(c)(4) that can do political endorsements. 

MB: What kind of programs and projects does the new Cascade Bicycle Club/Washington Bikes have especially for women?

Barb shown with Elizabeth Kiker, Executive Director for the newly merged Cascade Bicycle Club/Washington Bikes.

Barb shown with Elizabeth Kiker, Executive Director for the newly merged Cascade Bicycle Club/Washington Bikes.

BC: Cascade places a high priority on getting more women riding. Women are the growth market! And the research shows that places that have a higher proportion of women riding have more people riding, 

Cascade engages women through direct encouragement with our She Bikes suite of women-friendly rides and events, such as a talk on nutrition for women. As we expand into our new statewide mission I hope to be able to provide this as a template for places looking to establish women-friendly activities. Some towns already have women's riding groups, like Velofemmes in Tacoma or Women on Wheels in Spokane, and we're publicizing those groups to help them find new participants. 

We also prepare advocates who work for low-stress, comfortable connections that invite women and families to ride. I'm not making any sexist assumptions when I say that a mom (or dad) pulling a trailer or riding a family bike with a couple of toddlers on board appreciates a different infrastructure type than a woman out putting in training miles to prepare for riding our Seattle to Portland event.

Washington Bikes is leading state policy work and will endorse bike-friendly candidates. As a former elected official myself I especially want to encourage women to run for office. We're looking at how we're going to approach candidate questionnaires and endorsements now that we've moved the political role from Cascade when it was a regional organization to Washington Bikes working statewide.

MB: You were once the youngest woman to be voted into both the Idaho House and Senate and have always been an innovator. Think outside the box. What conference or summit would you personally like to be a keynote at in the future?

BC: I love this question! I'd like to talk to a conference of people who don't necessarily think bicycling relates to their priority and motivate them to take action because they see how getting more people on bikes contributes to their goals. 

This could be an economic development conference (bikes mean business) or something in the travel world since bike tourism is booming. Or an association of school board members and school administrators--I'd really love to talk about the importance of school siting, designing for active transportation rather than driver drop-off, including bike safety education in the PE curriculum for all ages, and how important the school is as an expression of what our society values. I volunteer on school bond/levy campaign committees and know how widespread the school network is.

If there were some way to talk to a gathering of people who work in movies, television and advertising I'd do that in a heartbeat. The power of popular culture to shape our assumptions is sometimes so invisible. I see cars in ads for things that have absolutely nothing to do with cars, like cough syrup (I wrote about this a while ago). If those culture-shapers start showing people on bikes as a routine, no-big-deal method of getting around, those portrayals would have an influence over time. You watch old movies and see how incredibly pervasive smoking was and then look at today's films, where generally if you're a smoker you're also a bad guy. That reflects a deep societal shift in our acceptance of smoking. If we change the assumptions around transportation that show up in pop culture we'll accelerate the work of advocates.

I was incredibly fortunate to connect with women leaders who encouraged me to run for office, and others who supported me in office and who encouraged me to make bold career moves. Any time I can encourage young women to go after what they want and can share some of what I've learned, I want to do that. And if I can use my privilege to somehow open doors for people whose voices have not been heard I'm there. That's more apt to be me not speaking and instead suggesting someone else; those of us who have more privilege have to be willing to step back so others can step up and be visible as leaders.

Speaking at any conference that plans to meet in an amazing bike city would be top of the list too.