Charles Gandy

The Big Ask

The Big Ask

Almost twenty years ago, 1997, and I'm at the podium in a Las Vegas ballroom at the Interbike trade show. The bike industry’s 200 senior leaders have packed this room to hear our pitch.  I’ve summarized our campaign and now this is my big finish. “You’ve heard the threats from Washington and our proposed response. If we don’t start this Bikes Belong Campaign now and win it, federal funding for bicycling will completely disappear. So, are you ready to join us now, and get this campaign started?”

I stopped talking, allowing space for a response. Silence echoes back at me. The highway lobby was targeting our share of federal funding for bike infrastructure. Andy Clarke of Rails to Trails, Cosi Simon of League of American Bicyclists and I representing Bicycle Federation of America, had just risked our reputations on this first ever big ask of the bike industry to fight back.

Our plan mobilized bicyclists and bike dealers in key congressional districts while working an overall capital hill strategy. We needed to raise $300,000 from them to launch this campaign, now.

Time in the ballroom slows. My body tenses and sweats, my heart pounds in my ears. I scan the audience; they’re squirming, clearing their throats, looking around nervously.

I wonder if I'm going to need to do some kind of impromptu face-saving, soft-shoe act to gloss over their non-response. After all, this was an audacious ask from advocates to the bike industry. But we had never before fought as big a battle as this one and we couldn’t do it without their help.

Like many good ideas this one had come together fast. Andy scribbled it on a notepad while flying to Wyoming to pitch me in July. We honed it into a plausible proposal for this group of business leaders in September. Mike Sinyard of Specialized organized the meeting and invited his peers.

But our doubts lurked just below the surface. Maybe we hadn't given ourselves enough time to put together a compelling enough case for this audacious, first time ask. Maybe asking for money in public like this was just too awkward. Maybe...

Then on my right side, leaning against the wall a young man raised his hand. I recognized him as John Burke, the new CEO of Trek Bikes, and point at him to speak.

John says, “I like what I am hearing from you and the team. On behalf of Trek Bikes I pledge $100,000 for the Bikes Belong Campaign with one condition. The condition is that the rest of the bike industry must match this amount two to one by the end of Interbike, three days from now, so we can this campaign started.”

It took a moment for that to sink in on me, and the audience. Our doubt had just died and our dream was on. I said “wow” as the audience exploded in unbridled revelry. Applause, yelps and standing ovations you’d expect from a joyous family whose young patriarch just stood up and signaled to his peers, “Success is this way friends, follow me.”

I use the revelry time to take a deep breath, wipe the sweat off my hands, and bask in the emotional relief of Burke’s pledge and challenge. Leaning over to Andy and Cosi, I ask them to help keep track of pledges I'm about to ask for.

“Thank you John, for that generous leadership pledge and ambitious challenge." With all the confidence I can muster, I repeated his challenge and asked the audience, "So who here will join John and help us get this campaign started?” Hands go up around the room simultaneously so I start on the right and work left.

“I’m inspired!” shouts a multi-store owner from Portland, “put me down for $10,000.” Spontaneously another dealer responds, “Well, I’m not that inspired but I will pledge $5,000!” Cheers fill the room.

One of Burke’s business rivals congratulates him and makes his own of $25,000 pledge. The audience applauds. Each pledge inspires bursts of enthusiasm, which triggers more pledges. The momentum is real, and the joy in the room is contagious.

Andy and Cosi are keeping up with the staccato pace of pledges as I recognize another man with his hand in the air. He stands and says, “On behalf of the Chicagoland Bicycle Dealers Association, who just held a board meeting at this table, we pledge $25,000 to the Campaign.”

After a few more pledges I ask Andy for an accounting. After some addition, Andy reports that of the $300,000 goal, the campaign has just secured pledges totaling $210,000.

Not a bad start for a 20 minute-old campaign.

Two days later we met our fundraising goal and the Bikes Belong Campaign was real, and ultimately successful. Since 1998 we can trace two big outcomes back to the Big Ask.

We are currently benefitting from literally billions of public dollars invested in new bicycling infrastructure across the country because bike advocates and the bike industry joined forces, worked hard and were fearless.

And today, Bikes Belong has evolved into People for Bikes and we bike advocates have more respect and wheal more power in city halls and state capitals than ever before. I’m proud of our political movement’s accomplishments to date.

However, signals from Washington indicate new battles for bike infrastructure are on the horizon. The question for us today is whether or not bicyclists will be heard and respected in this conversation.

Maybe it’s time for a new Big Ask?

Susie Stephens speaks at the Thunderhead Retreat in Montecito CA. From left: Randy Neufeld, Tim Young, John Kaehny, Susie Stephens, and Chris Morfas.

Susie Stephens speaks at the Thunderhead Retreat in Montecito CA. From left: Randy Neufeld, Tim Young, John Kaehny, Susie Stephens, and Chris Morfas.

Pioneers in Bike Advocacy

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.