Thursday, April 28, 2011

a question of clarity: what is the BTA for, really?

This past week, the Bicycle Transportation Alliance held its annual Alice B. Toeclips Awards Banquet and Auction. Admission was $100 a plate. Needless to say, I wasn't there.

Comments following's coverage of the event range from congratulatory to dubious. As has been the case since the BTA's organizational woes began to snowball a couple of years ago, those who remain dubious are waiting for a clear mission statement from the BTA, and feel that they haven't yet seen one. I must admit that I remain in that camp as well. Rather than offer a reply at Bikeportland, I thought I'd give myself more room and flesh out a larger argument here.

I think the reason that the BTA's Alice B. Toeclips Awards Banquet continues to raise hackles among some bike activists is because of how it relates to the BTA's current lack of clarity about its mission and methodology.

The challenge of remaining committed to the BTA is, as I see it, a matter of how individuals relate to that mission and methodology.

The BTA began as a grass-roots organization in a time when much of bicycle activism was still underground and grass roots, and activities were person-to-person, street-level, and often run on a shoestring budget with lots of sweat funding the work. In the ensuing decades, the entire world has become more professionalized. People running non-profits now have multiple advanced degrees, a corporate business background and very often an upper-middle class salary history that early organizers either didn't have, couldn't have or didn't need at the time. But we have all grown up, and grown older; our needs have evolved. More than a few of us have felt it necessary to earn more money not only as a way of securing a more stable personal future for ourselves, but also as a way of growing our influence in the parts of the world we care most about.

As someone who encountered a glass ceiling early and often in my efforts to join the ranks of the professionalized, I realize that at its heart, the issues swirling around the BTA and that still-dissatisfied portion of its constituency remain, first and foremost, class issues. Class issues are about power and access to that power. Class issues are about keeping people divided into smaller groups, by manipulation, fear and mistrust, in order to prevent bigger groups of people from uniting and organizing around larger issues that threaten the status quo of those with money and power. The professionalization of certain segments of the non-profit workforce at the expense of more grass-roots activism is a symptom of this division; while parts of the process of professionalization feel haphazard and even accidental, the overall effect is no real accident at all.

The BTA, long ago a realm of grass-roots activists who simply wanted to make the roads safer for bicyclists – by reducing automobile use and even eliminating it outright – has become a venue for power-sharing by a professionalized minority. These “Transportation Professionals” understand that the rules of the game have evolved to more greatly favor those with power (i.e., money and political connections) and that only the most pragmatic will ever have a hope of succeeding in this more professionalized (read: white-collar) landscape.

What does this mean for someone like me, whose access to money and therefore power are sharply limited by forces I have little control over? It means that the BTA membership I allowed to lapse two years ago is unlikely to be renewed anytime soon.

What might change my stance?

-- Returning the “Living Lightly” membership fee to something that is acknowledged on paper rather than a thing you have to know about in order to ask for;

--Creating Alice-type events of celebration and honor for bike activists that don't cost an arm and a leg to attend;

--Reaching out to the bike-riding public who aren't part of the “Bicycle Community”, people who ride bikes because they can't afford anything else, and helping them to see the benefits of commuting by bike on a larger scale;

--Issuing a truly honest and clear statement of the BTA's raison d'etre, even if it means that the BTA admits it is little more than a professionalized lobbying organization which exists to make pragmatic deals with state and local lawmakers in order to maintain the delicate – and precarious – balance of power in the world of Transportation Demand Management.

Two words of caution to the BTA leadership: in politics, as in casinos, the house always wins. Also, the most radical members of any activist community are pretty good at smelling bullsh*t. Remember that if you decide to try and be both grass-roots and pragmatic at the same time, you will probably fail; better to pick a constituency and stick to it, even if you lose some people along the way. Clarity should always be the order of the day, especially when we're talking about a non-profit organization with an annual budget exceeding six figures.

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