We were on a road trip from Seattle to San Francisco in 1998 promoting bikes on buses. Susie was driving the big white support van. We were just south of Eureka in the Redwoods headed South, and I was riding shotgun giving my usual expert counsel on everything. When I finished reciting some miracle I'd performed in Texas as the executive director of the Texas Bicycle Coalition, Susie let a beat go by and using her best Washington nice voice cut me down to size with, “Well Charlie, that’s one way to do it.”
In that moment she reminded me that there are usually a lot of ways to solve problems, or take advantage of opportunities, my way was only one of several. Ouch, but thanks.
Susie Stephens was the 2nd Executive Director of Washington Bikes, the Washington State bike advocacy organization. She started that job in 1995 with a skeptical board of directors, a handful of volunteers, and a few hundred members. Her youth and inexperience was typical of those of us who had found our tribe in these early days of the bike advocacy movement. Most of us were environmentalists, or urbanists, and could see how bicycling was part of the transportation solutions our communities were looking for. We weren’t non-profit management professionals, we were political activists pioneering bike advocacy. And we knew we needed to build people based, powerful and sustainable bike advocacy organizations to keep the movement going long term. So we banded together to learn from each other.
This year, 2016, this band of brothers and sisters is celebrating the 20th Anniversary of our first gathering at the spectacular Thunderhead Ranch outside Dubois, Wyoming. Using foundation money raised by Bill Wilkinson of the Bicycle Federation of America, he set me to organizing a training session for a handful of professional bike advocates who were running non-profit advocacy organizations in their cities or states, along with some promising newcomers such as Susie representing fledgling bike advocacy organizations.
Susie’s inexperience was balanced by three other traits she possessed and honed as she matured as a professional bike advocate. She was constantly learning and applying new skills. Susie tapped into her mentor and peer network with a student’s curiosity and innocence. In return she gave freely of her talents and skills at Thunderhead Gatherings, and as a co-creator and first Managing Director of the Thunderhead Alliance. Her style set a tone of giving freely among our growing network of advocacy professionals. Over her career Susie established herself among the seasoned, inspirational advocacy leaders of our movement.
Like her peers, Susie was an ambitious risk taker. She knew she had to work hard and over-perform to create confidence and momentum. She knew she had to be thinking three moves ahead and anticipating outcomes without assurances of success. So she was bold and fearless in service to her mission. And as she would confide in me, the fearless part didn’t come easily. When she first started standing before audiences to share her vision and invite them to participate she would simply role play. Gradually she built her confidence and became a dynamic and persuasive public speaker.
The last trait Susie Stephens possessed and went with her in her untimely death in 2002, was her sunny spirit and optimism for bikes role in the future. Susie was famous for hitting the road on her bike and traveling the back roads of Washington, gathering her members and interested folks together in small groups to discuss their future together. She could teach, charm, persuade and recruit better than anyone in the nation at the time. And as an early adopter of technology, she used the internet to amplify her voice telling tales of the road to her fans across the state. As a consequence Susie was beloved indeed.
In 1996 a small group of seasoned bike advocacy veterans decided at the Thunderhead Ranch that they valued the type of peer training and inspiration they received from being networked with each other. They pledged to nurture a sustainable organization that would continue this mission and expand the network. Susie was among this group of visionaries who started the Thunderhead Alliance, now the Alliance for Bicycling and Walking.
After this decision was made Susie and I went for a walk and talk. As the guy who had organized the first two Thunderhead gatherings, my role was that of default leader of this group of peers. Being sensitive to my sense of ownership, she told me of the groups plans. My surprise was not that they wanted to take ownership but that it came faster than I anticipated. I was expecting a slower progression. As the idea sunk in to my head Susie could tell I needed reassurance. She provided it with this prediction. “Charlie,” she said, “you will be proud of what we do with what you started.”
I was and am proud of our progress as a movement. Susie Stephens is remembered as a leader in the top ranks of bike advocacy and as a pioneer of the profession. She was also a very good teacher and friend.
More About Susie Stephens (from the Alliance for Biking & Walking Website)
Susie worked with several key local advocates from around the country to form the Thunderhead Alliance, now known as the Alliance for Biking & Walking. Susie served as the Alliance’s first managing director. After serving as the Alliance’s founding director, Susie started her own consulting business to help communities and government agencies better plan for bicycling and walking.
In 2002, Susie traveled to St. Louis on her second consulting job. The task at hand: train National Forest Service employees on better planning for bicycle and pedestrian use. While in town, she walked across the street to make copies and grab a cup of coffee. On her way back across the street, she was fatally struck by a turning tour bus. She was 36.
Learn more about Susie and the powerful impact she had on those who were fortunate enough to know her at the susieforest.com.
About Charlie Gandy
Charlie Gandy consults with cities promoting active living. He is a nationally recognized expert in bicycle and pedestrian advocacy, and a popular consultant and speaker known for sparking innovation. Charlie founded Bike Texas, and has hosted biking and walking advocacy trainings across the country, including the groundbreaking Thunderhead Alliance retreat. In the mid 90's he played a key role in the original "Bikes Belong" national political campaign to re-fund biking, walking and public transit at the federal level. During his time as the Mobility Coordinator for the City of Long Beach he originated and developed the Bike Friendly Business Districts program. Reach Charlie at gandy.charles [at]gmail.com. Image by Allan Crawford.