The emotional challenges of advocacy.

I was having a hard time last summer and fall with getting back to riding my bike more, and with doing advocacy and encouragement work for bicycling. I didn’t — don’t — feel safe riding anymore, and I felt frustrated about the barriers to bicycling, so I didn’t feel comfortable encouraging people, and I didn’t feel that advocacy work was providing much return for the effort I was putting in. Everything seems stuck to me, like nothing is changing. Cycling is still dangerous and stressful in too many places. There’s a lack of vision within many parts of the city transportation staff; there’s stiff political opposition to policies and projects that advance bicycling and urbanism.

I am still in the midst of dealing with those feelings, but slowly, different experiences have inspired the return of the slow burn of conviction I’ve had for years: that the transportation menu for our future cannot mostly contain cars and the wide roads, highways, and freeways that we desire for such powerful beasts. And that because I believe that so strongly, I must, in the end, find the inner resources to go on working for it.

The first was this simple line, posted by a member of an online community I belong to, about something else entirely:

Nobody feels like they are doing a good job in advocating. Nobody.

That was the moment when I stopped feeling guilty for feeling that I was doing a terrible job, guilty for thinking that my job was hard. Advocacy is actually difficult. By its nature, you are almost always working against the status quo and for the underdog. You almost never get everything you want, and you have to work very hard to get what you do get.

Second: last week we watched Lincoln at a friend’s house. It’s an inspiring movie for any number of reasons, but for me, at this moment in my life, it’s best summed up with:

The greatest measure of the nineteenth century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.

The process of moving the law forward is a messy one (laws and sausages are things you don’t want to see made). Even if we achieve great things, they may have been achieved in not-so-nice ways. I love and hate the process of moving from the crystalline clarity of the idea to the real details of how to achieve it in the current political climate. My mind is an engineering mind, and it likes that which is Correct and Effective. Politics is usually neither. But my heart believes in community input; it believes in consensus; it believes in the wisdom of crowds: that ideas are made better by more people examining them, that achieving something that people don’t buy into isn’t forward progress, that winning hearts and minds is as important as meeting budget needs and drawing lanes of the correct widths.

Finally, today I was reminded, in the person of Gabby Giffords, that there are a large number of people who share my devotion to the slow but determined method of achieving progress. Whatever issue they hold dear, they will go on pushing it forward:

Our fight is a lot more like my rehab. Every day, we must wake up resolved and determined. We’ll pay attention to the details; look for opportunities for progress, even when the pace is slow. Some progress may seem small, and we might wonder if the impact is enough, when the need is so urgent.

But every day we will recruit a few more allies, talk to a few more elected officials, convince a few more voters. Some days the steps will come easily; we’ll feel the wind at our backs. Other times our knees will buckle. We’ll tire of the burden. I know this feeling. But we’ll persist.

We can get tough and win elections. We’ll support our allies. And those who stood in the way will face a powerful advocacy community standing between them and re-election….

We will seize on consensus where it exists, on solutions big or small. We will fight for every inch, because that means saving lives. I’ve seen grit overcome paralysis. My resolution today is that Congress achieve the same. How? Step by step…

A politician to admire, and to emulate. (She likes bikes, too.)

Finally, riding home last night (it was chilly, and raining lightly) I saw the beauty of the quiet night and the slight fog, felt the strength of self-sufficiency, of resisting the cold and rain. These increasingly rare (for me) moments of joy and freedom are inevitably connected with all the ones that have gone before, and remind me of what I love, have always loved, about riding. Bicycling shouldn’t have to be a black diamond endeavor, and you don’t have to resist the rain and cold to be legit (there’s far too much mythology about toughness as it is) but as long as those barriers exist, I might as well make that work for me, make it part of my strength, not part of my fear, or part of the hassle. Because that feeling of freedom is worth it. It’s what I want everyone to have.


Leave a Reply

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required.