Susie Stephens Tribute

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

Susie Stephens speaks at the Thunderhead Retreat in Montecito CA. From left: Ron Reilly, 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

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] Image by Allan Crawford.



The Power of Asking

To ask is to invite others to do something. It is exercising power and risking failure. My power as a leader in the biking and walking advocacy movements has been to ask people to do things such as volunteer their time, talent, reputation and money to a cause that will benefit themselves and those they value. Not everybody I ask says yes.  What follows is a risk-taking tale from 1996 when they did say yes and another from 1968 where I first learned as a 10 year old the power of asking people to do things.

In September of 1996, twenty years ago this September, I had the honor of playing a key role in the first big national financial ask of the bike industry from bike advocacy.  My good friend Andy Clarke was working for the Rails to Trails conservancy and knew that the federal transportation bill – the first time there had been a dedicated, national budget for biking, walking and public transit projects – was coming up for congressional renewal and the knives were getting prepped to cut it out of the budget.

Andy came up with the brilliant idea of creating a national political outreach campaign to save this dedicated funding, known as ISTEA, but first we’d need to raise the money to get such a campaign launched. For that we needed seed money, and the best place we could think of getting was the bike industry. Andy and I put our heads together over a paper napkin he’d scribbled the original idea on in the middle of the first “Thunderhead Retreat” training I hosted for the Bicycle Federation of America for biking and walking advocates. Shortly after that we convinced Cosi Simon, then Executive Director of the League of American Bicyclists, to join us in the ask.

We decided the best place to launch such a request would be at the Interbike trade show and cajoled our friend Linda DuPriest of Specialized Bicycles to help us make that happen. Linda came through by setting up a special breakfast meeting for us with the power hitters of the bike industry.

Andy’s role was to set the political stage and convince the crowd that without their help funding for biking, walking and public transit projects –funding we’d all started to appreciate and rely on- would completely disappear. Cosi’s job was to convince the bike industry of bike advocacy’s national political reach and competence to make such a campaign succeed.

And my job? I was the closer. I was the one who had to set up the “come to Jesus” moment and make the big ask. So I did. I summarize our case for action and asked the bike industry leaders to join us in our campaign.

There was a dramatic pause in the room, but I had learned that pauses are not to be feared in the art of asking. Nevertheless I held my breath and waited the longest 10 seconds of my life. Standing against the side wall of the room, John Burke , CEO of Trek Bicycles, raised his hand and responded, “I like what I’m hearing. If you can match it two-to-one by the end of this weekend I’ll invest $100,000 into this campaign.”

Some two hundred people in the room exploded with thunderous applause and wildly rejoicing enthusiasm.  Arms started shooting up as others came into the newly birthed campaign. A Chicago bike dealer group at one table pledged $25,000 and challenged their peers to join them. Their challenge inspired Board members of the national bike dealers group sitting at another table to huddle into an impromptu board meeting and in 30 seconds they matched the Chicagoans. Adrenaline filled the room as $10,000, $5,000 and $1,000 pledges of support were announced. Andy, Cosi and I fielded these pledges like fishermen trying to catch fish as they are flying into the boat! By the end of the weekend we’d raised our match and had $300,000 to create what would become the “Bikes Belong Campaign”.

I’m proud to say that it took two years to succeed but in 1998 the federal transportation budget reinstated dedicated funding for biking, walking and public transit. Literally billions of dollars were invested by states and cities because bike advocates proved their political power, and many point to this “breakfast ask” as the crucial turning point in the bike advocacy movement’s capacity to influence their agenda.

We do not have such a fund today in Washington. Maybe we need to have another breakfast.                                                                                

Where I Learned the Power of Asking

I have been asking people to help other people on causes I believe in since 1968, when I was ten years old pulling my wagon door to door, collecting cans of food for poor people in our Denver, Colorado neighborhood. I still remember the pitch. “Hi, I’m Chuck Gandy and I go to College View Elementary School and we are collecting canned food for needy people living in southwest Denver. Would you like to donate a can of food?”

That’s how we started, my brother Mike and I, and we collected about 80 cans of food that year. The attention we got at school for not just raiding our mother’s pantry of canned goods on the last day of the drive was spectacular. Our contribution doubled the school’s total amount collected and the principal held us up as entrepreneurial heroes. That was 5th grade and we were the proverbial first movers with all the strengths and weaknesses that label carries. The next year, 1969, brought competition from other do-gooder kids, so we needed to up our game.

Our first of two brilliant ideas was to recruit others to help us knock on doors. My sister was adorably 8 years old and no one could tell her no. Emotional selling worked really well for us and especially for her, once she got the spiel down. Other neighborhood kids helped also but they didn’t work very hard or long. Anyway we got to knock on lots more doors and were rarely rejected. After all we were not asking for money but for food and everybody in our working class neighborhood had something in the pantry.

Brilliant idea number two was found in the ask. Suggestive selling was born for us when we change the question from, “Would you like to donate a can of food?” to

“Would you like to donate a few cans of food?”

With this small change came big rewards. Our wagon filled up much faster because our average per household shot way up. Almost nobody wanted to disappoint the cute kid at their door and now the kid’s expectation was for multiple cans, not just one. Sacks of cans came to the door and into the wagon. I remember that occasionally someone would ask how many cans they should donate. Our response was, “Well one family gave us ten. That’s the record so far.”

That year our campaign delivered 480 cans of food to our school’s canned food drive setting a record that stood until I stopped paying attention. Again we were hailed as heroes and celebrated at the school wide assembly. *

Door to door asking for help in our working class Denver neighborhood taught me about my personal power. As a child I could set up my own initiative to gather canned goods using my wagon. I could recruit siblings and friends to help. I could get adults to do things I thought was important. And I could get adults and peers to appreciate and value my contributions to the community.

This insight into my personal power by asking for help served me well later in high school ROTC, traveling solo around the world at age 18, participating in political campaigns during college, getting elected to the Texas House of Representatives at age 23, and other exploits as an adult. These stories to follow…

*All this attention didn’t help me win my first campaign for student council president, however. My nominal girlfriend Christie won mostly because she had better graphics - a killer multi-color wall poster complete with her photo and the artful use of glitter that out dazzled mine and all other competitors. So much for community service as a gateway to politics.