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How to build an advocay organization

So, you want to improve conditions for bicycling where you live? You want more respect from motorist while on the road?

By Charlie Gandy

If you answered yes to either question, you should be thinking about getting organized - just as farmers, lawyers, and hunters have done to promote their interests. Why not bicyclists?

Organizing for political power is a time-honored technique capable of creating real change. It is the first, essential step for participating in the political process - and the rewards can be dramatic. Even before ISTEA was passed, the fledgling texas Bicycle Coalition (TBC) persuaded the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation to hire a full-time bicycle coordinator and to designate bicycle contacts in each one of their 24 district offices.

Because of my two and a half years of experience with the TBC, first as a co-founder and then as executive director, the BFA has asked me to write a series of columns in PBN to demystify the process of organizing bicyclists.

From the outset, let me say that organizing people - whether they are bicyclists, anglers or lawyers - is an art, not a science. It is an effort by like-minded people to solve their immediate and long-term problems. Organizing people effectively can empower them to envision a situation perviouslyconsidered impossible. You can help people achieve their own paradign shift!

Organizing people is an art: it's messy and has few hard rules. It is full of different personalities, strong egos, opinions and feelingsof ownership and turf. Ultimately, however, successfully organizing poeple is the most rewarding endeavor you'll ever initiate. You will enrich you own life and those of many others. You'll learn a lot about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses. You'll hone your leadership skills and learn to overcome all of the challenging obstacles in your way.

Bicyclists are an ideal group to organize. We share many common attributes, ideals, and concerns. Demographically, we bicyclists are affluent, college educated, young and active. Most of us are socially well-adjusted! One common denominator we share is our vulnerability to injury or even death. (Some of us are more comfortable with this notion than others and some would deny we are vulnerable at all - this is not the time or place for that particular debate!)

First Steps

The first step to organizing a bicycle coalition in your state (or city) is for you, as an individual, to recognize and accept the premise that as a group, cyclists can do more to improve their lot than you can alone - no matter how talented you may be! Your energy and efforts need to be marshaled towards creating an organization of bicyclists dedicated to dealing with current issues. Win or lose, you want to create a sustainable organization capable of remaining actively involved in advocacy for years to come.

The next step is for you to bring up the idea of a state organization at the next bike club meeting or in the next conversation you have with another cyclist in your area. You won't know all the answers to the questions people have - but you can tell them you know that being organized works. You know you share common interests and problems with bicyclists across the state - and you know that the TBC and other state groups started out just like this.

Go to your library and check out books on community organizing. The same techniques are good whatever the issues you are organizing around. In particular try to find Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, George Brager's Community Organizing, John-Roger and Peter McWilliams' Do It! Let's Get Off Our Butts, and Si Kahn's Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders.

The BFA is developing an advocates action kit and brochure and has grant money available to help new and existing groups get better organized.

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