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Report: From Groupthink to Democracy in Bike Advocacy
I made a mistake.
It was the waning days of 2014, and I was working on the Winter 2015 issue of the League magazine, American Bicyclist. With a theme centered on Big Ideas, I was compiling and interviewing folks who represented the leading edge of bicycle advocacy in the United States. To help identify and lift up ideas from around the country I had reached out to a number of different listservs and groups — and folks had shared a wealth of inspiring people and programs.
One of them was Bicyclists Organizing for Community Action (BOCA) — a program out of Bikes Not Bombs, a community bike space in Boston. One of the adult staff members at BNB had shared a brief introduction to the impressive, youth-led effort, and I included it in a piece I wrote about the Youth Bike movement.
I didn't realize the significant oversight in the story until about a month later.
After the piece was published, the BNB staff member shared some friendly criticism. It was the policy of their organization, she said, that youth speak for themselves, not through the proxy of an adult. It was then that it hit me: While I had praised the work of youth leaders, like BOCA, in the abstract I hadn't included their direct input or insight — it was written from the perspective of and included only the voices of adults.
How had I overlooked such a central flaw? Well, sure, I was on a deadline and managing a lot of projects simultaneously. And, yes, the articles were just brief snippets of bold ideas, not full stories that got into the substance of the issue. But, honestly, the biggest reason was my own blindspot: The inherent necessity of including youth voices just didn't occur to me in the moment. I was able to compartmentalize my commitment to bike equity from the task at hand and tokenize, rather than genuinely reflect, the power of the Youth Bike movement.
A few weeks later, I had the chance to attend the Youth Bike Summit, where my former colleagues, Dr. Adonia Lugo and Hamzat Sani, were facilitating a workshop. I had attended the YBS in the past and it was truly the most exciting, inclusive and inspiring bicycle gathering I had ever attended. And this time, at the 2015 event in Seattle, the leaders from BOCA were presenting.
Of course, I attended and, wow, talk about Big Ideas. These young men and women, many of them still in high school, were making connections between bicycling and community organizing, between street safety and social justice that were light years ahead of the just-emerging rhetoric about bike equity in the wider (adult-led) movement. And they weren't just talking about it at a conference — they were taking action.
After their presentation, I stuck around to talk with Abdul Hussein, one of the main BOCA organizers and a freshman in college. As I talked to Abdul it was so clear that, for him, issues of police brutality, gentrification and safe bicycling are so interconnected that it's just... well, obvious. Wearing his Black Lives Matter t-shirt for the presentation, the intersectional nature of the work, for Abdul, was intuitive. He just smiled when I told him — and many of the other youth I met at the YBS — that his view on bicycling was the type of leadership the bike movement needed.
Which raised two questions for me: How do we ensure we don't overlook the voices of leaders, like Abdul, as important but not imperative (like I had in the magazine)? And, perhaps more importantly, how do we make sure traditional advocacy organizations value and genuinely incorporate their perspectives — even when it exposes our blindspots or runs counter to our experiences? And those are exactly the questions Dr. Lugo examines in Who Participates in What Processes: From groupthink to democracy in bicycle policy advocacy — a report based on Lugo's academic expertise, personal experience and participation in the 2015 Youth Bike Summit.
"Groupthink is an impediment to new voices reaching leadership levels in bicycle advocacy." Dr. Adonia Lugo
In her time at the League, Lugo observed an important disconnect between the desire to make bicycle policy advocacy more inclusive and the processes that set the agenda for that advocacy. In investing significant resources and creating a youth-led space, the Youth Bike Summit provided an alternative model to the unexamined groupthink and insulated decision-making that often exists in traditional bike advocacy organizations.
"At the same time that trust should be a central focus for bicycle organizations committed to inclusion, we also need to make an intentional commitment to move past groupthink," Lugo writes. "Changing bicycle advocacy will mean taking a broader set of needs into account... The intersectional perspectives on display at YBS should be welcome in bicycle advocacy because they shed light on a broader range of concerns. It would be a shame to see the relationships of trust being cultivated in community bike shops across the United States lead young people into accepting bicycle advocacy norms where their insights are overlooked while their diverse bodies are reduced to token status. Groupthink is an impediment to new voices reaching leadership levels in bicycle advocacy."
What can we do to break down those barriers? Based on her experience, Lugo suggested several action steps bicycle advocacy organizations can take:
- Use positional authority in a positive way by leveraging institutional resources to further inclusion.
- Open policy advocacy to new ideas and innovation by clarifying the agenda-setting process.
- Learn more about who currently participates in bicycle policy advocacy agenda setting.
- Learn more about what bicycling populations do not participate in policy advocacy agenda setting and invest in them.
- Set meaningful internal benchmarks for inclusion.
While changing the way we do business as bicycle advocates will certainly take time and resources, Lugo suggests the effort will have dramatic payoffs — if we're willing to be self-aware of our own perspectives and embrace, rather than pull back from, those moments when local leaders point out a different route from what we see as the obvious course of action.
"The overlap of issue areas that characterizes life in communities of color should be seen as a strength for bicycle advocacy — not a threat to its efficacy — but it is crucial to accept that including new voices will mean pausing to reconsider the national bike policy advocacy agenda," Lugo writes. "Perhaps the biggest step forward that professional advocates can take toward inclusion is coming to understand their own perspectives better so that they can recognize their strengths and limitations. Being allies means accepting differences without getting defensive."