“How did you come to be a bike advocate?”
To answer that question as one of the opening speakers at the first-ever Future Bike when we held an “Inside the Advocate’s Studio” session, I had to back up to how I came to be an advocate of any kind.
I thank my mother for raising me in a way that shaped me into an advocate.
While she wouldn’t have used the word “feminist” to describe herself, she absolutely raised me to be one.
When she married my father she had already been an independent woman with a job and a car (which was hard to come by during World War II). She used stories about her mother and herself to illustrate why I needed to ensure that I could take care of myself as an adult before getting married. (She definitely assumed I would marry.)
She was pro-choice in an era when abortion was illegal, understood that to be a complex position, and answered honestly with good explanations of the various facets of the issue when I asked her position as a young teenager.
She raised me to look at others with empathy. If we saw someone who was morbidly obese, for example, instead of responding with criticism of their size she would say with compassion, “Just think how hard it must be for her to go to the movies or ride a bus when the seats are so small.”
Mom had never heard of privilege, but she inherently understood the concept. She told me I was a lucky kid: I had two parents who loved each other, a safe home, plenty of food, a good education, and lots of opportunity. Therefore I needed to use that education and opportunity to help people who weren’t as fortunate as I was.
I know calling it “luck” doesn’t unpack the invisible knapsack or dig into multi-generational and structural advantages and disadvantages. But Mom—born in 1921—prepared me well to understand it, and to want to address it. She explained pieces and parts of the world’s problems as being rooted in other people not having the advantages I’d had.
She had watched her own father, whom she described as a proud man, go door to door during the depths of the Depression asking if he could rake leaves or shovel snow to try to earn a little money so he could give his three children a birthday or Christmas present. She knew what it meant that she had been able to attend a two-year teachers’ college to earn a degree and what a difference access to an education made.
She knew how far my father had come from his humble beginnings, how hard he had worked to rise through the ranks at the lumber company he worked for, and how much it meant to him that every one of his six children earned a college degree.
Mom told me a story that has always stuck with me, perhaps more than almost anything else she ever said.
One summer she and Dad and the four older kids in the family (I and my younger sister not yet having made our appearance) went to Chicago for several weeks. Determined to make the most of this opportunity in the big city, every day she got on the city bus with the kids, a map, and plans for some cultural or educational destination.
On one of these outings as she stood waiting at a corner for the light to change, a funny feeling crept over her. When she looked around to figure out why, she realized she was only the white adult in sight. The only other white people were her four children.
This woman, born and raised in lily-white Lewiston, Idaho, could have told me about her anxiety, even fear, at these unfamiliar circumstances. What she told me, though, was this: “I realized this must be what it feels like to be in the minority.”
As an adult I understand that in that moment she still carried with her all the advantages American society gives those who are white. She certainly spent the vast majority of her time in a world that didn’t expose her to that feeling, let alone cripple her access to what she wanted in life because of her skin color.
But as a child, I heard her tell me that there was something wrong with our world if being a minority made you feel funny, feel different, feel left out.
She reinforced this with other stories (quite a storyteller, my mom), like the one about a friend whose bitterest regret later in life was that he refused to attend his daughter’s wedding when she married a man from Hawaii who was of Japanese descent. Mom’s friend did this because of his experiences during World War II, but he came to appreciate his son-in-law and thanked him for being such a good husband. She credited him with overcoming his discrimination.
Or the one about a white family in Lewiston whose son married an African woman he met while serving as a missionary, how wonderful Mom thought it was that the mother-in-law welcomed her new daughter-in-law with open arms, and how there were others in town who would not have done so. Her disapproval of those who would criticize or reject a loving couple was clear.
Raised an Episcopalian and later a Lutheran, she didn’t bat an eye when one of my brothers married a Jewish woman from Brazil; rather, she read up on the significance of the bris ceremony her first grandson would have. She chose a formal departure from the Lutheran church because she couldn’t accept that being a good Muslim or follower of Australian aboriginal beliefs or anything else meant you couldn’t go to whatever reward might await after death, modeling religious openness and justice. I know this because she told us so--her values were there for me to learn from.
When the message from your mom is that you’re lucky, you should use what you have to give back, lots of people are unfairly discriminated against for who and what they are and what they believe, and good people don’t do that, you grow up to be an advocate.
And as soon as you bicycle on almost any street in the U.S., you become a bike advocate because you see how critical is that we change our streets so that everyone from age 8 to 80 can feel comfortable riding. Mom's dementia meant that she never really knew this became my job, but I know she'd approve.