Many Vancouverites are unaware of the existence of Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, or SPEC, which is unfortunate. SPEC one of Canada's earliest environmental NGO's, and today we have Greenpeace and blue boxes due in part to their very existence.
Similarly, many have also never heard of another onerously-named organization with a pert acronym — Better Environmentally Sound Transportation, or B.E.S.T., which came into being in 1991.
Cheeying, who moved back to Vancouver from Ontario in 1995 with a Master's in education in hand and a passion for teaching, worked for both organizations. And it's due in part to her contributions with and influence at B.E.S.T. from 1995 through 2000 that the organization was able to cultivate relationships with public and private funding bodies that resulted in a series of programs focused on changing public perception and behaviour around transportation choices and the environment.
Like everything in active transportation, however, it started small, and in those early days, things movd relatively quickly.
B.E.S.T. back then was very grass-rootsy, and very activist focused. It was a very active Board of Directors, and I don't think there was any staff. There might have been a contract person back then.
I started doing projects, and then I was hired as executive director.
She was actually the organization's first executive director, both an auspicious milestone and challenging post. B.E.S.T. needed to attract funding for public programs in order to 'mainstream' the urban cycling and active transportation messages, and Cheeying represented an authoritative and reasonable voice for both the narrative, and the bridge-building to the funders themselves.
But B.E.S.T. also retained a spirit of activist protest — not to mention performance-art-as-protest, a joyfully anarchistic west coast spin on 'traditional' activism — which, as embodied by the working Board, presented the challenges for Cheeying.
And this dynamic presented the earliest, and perhaps most pronounced, expression of friction within the cycling community between activism (outrage, protest, and pushing from the outside) and advocacy (problem statements, meetings, and compromise).
You may or may not agree with the terms of reference, but however you define that friction, it was real, and Cheeying lived it.
I have activism in my heart but I never thought that it was the only way to get things done.
For me B.E.S.T. was my passion and my professional work. I was trying to shift the direction of B.E.S.T. to a little bit less radical and more mainstream.
I thought going more mainstream was the best way to get more people out of their cars, and into alternative transportation. So I was very focused on relationship-building.
It became obvious to all that outrage and protest would not match well with funding requests ("I really loved the idea of Critical Mass [rides] and I thought they were important, but professionally it just didn't make sense be seen blocking traffic."), and so Cheeying began early to try to develop relationships with local, regional and federal governments — including ongoing work to make in-roads with transportation, environment and health departments at all levels — as well as teaming with the Board to lock down an early, partnership with Vancity.
We tried a social enterprise way ahead of its time.
We had space under Main Street Skytrain — half of it was office space, and half of it was a commuter-focused bike store.
I say it was ahead of its time [because] the social enterprise part didn't work out. The idea was it was supposed to make enough money to support our programs, and it was making enough money to support itself, essentially.
It was a good relationship with Vancity, but it just didn't work out as well as we had all hoped.
That was when we started developing strong relationships with major organizations.
Cheeying's discussions with government yielded fruitful discussions on ways to introduce, launch and operate public-facing programs that would encourage people to get out of their cars. And these same strategies began to temper even further some of that protest spirit upon which B.E.S.T. was founded.
We started doing programs that were way more inclusive or mainstream. So that's when we started Bike to Work Week, the Commuter Challenge, and the GoGreen Choices program in partnership with BC Transit.
It was workplace employee-focused education — carpool programs and working with employers trying to get policies in place around end of trip facilities.
So, really trying to shift mainstream so that it's no longer weird for people to want to ride their bike and have a shower before they start work. Back then, it was all volunteers, it was amazing.
Bike to Work Week is probably the most notable of the early programs Cheeying and B.E.S.T. introduced, both the transportation cycling program with the broadest geographic scope to hit the region, and for having the most mainstream public appeal — promotion and encouragement without even a hint of protest or marginalization. It became a program that would eventually spread across BC, eventually becoming the multi-seasonal, well-funded program it is today under the HUB Cycling and Bike to Work BC Society brands, with tens of thousands of annual participants.
And yet, the more B.E.S.T. spread its wings and worked in collaboration with mainstream organizations, the more it became obvious that she was taking it further away from its earliest, activist spirit. And this, in turn, was expressed by the inherent difficulty she faced in trying to rechannel this spirit from the culture and public face of the organization.
It was, perhaps too much change, or it was too quick, or perhaps it was impossible to be an easy shift, no matter what. As is often the case with any evolving organization, enter the conflict.
One of the things that B.E.S.T. did was The Spoke'n Word. Back then we were idealistic, and our ideals were a little bit different. There was a bit of a rift in the Board, and I suggested that the Spoke'n Word go off on its own.
I thought that it alienated people. It wasn't so obvious, it was a feeling in my gut around how I wanted to move B.E.S.T. forward that was growing, and we just had to make a decision.
I remember it was very controversial at the Board meeting. But we continued to fund the magazine for a while.
In researching and interviewing for this project, it became apparent early on that Cheeying's presence and leadership at B.E.S.T. was significant not just in what she achieved, but in what she represented. Because of the reference to conflict, some may assume that, today, this significance has a dark tinge to it. Not the case.
Gavin: Cheeying Ho was a very effective leader in the early years, and in many ways saw the opportunities better than most of us did.
Danelle: she was really really excellent. I thought she was the first person who was really good in her role, because she was willing to listen to what other people's perceptions and needs were. You can't just say, "This is the way it's gotta be, and this is what I want." You have to put yourself in their shoes and see if from their perspective.
Ultimately, in addition to the mainstream-friendly, consensus-building and collaborative approach Cheeying brought, it was also her understanding of the role of cycling within the broader transportation mix — and transportation's role within the broader urban context — that allowed her to steer B.E.S.T. to a new place in its evolution as an advocacy organization.
B.E.S.T. can still be considered a cycling advocacy organization, and on the basis of The Bicycle Valet alone it fills a critical hole in the region's cycling infrastructure inventory.
But thanks to Cheeying, by the start of the new millennium, B.E.S.T. also managed to turn a corner and be the kind of organization that could realistically play a recognized leadership role in addressing broader concerns that go back — way back — to a founding principle of the organization expressed in many ways through its name.
The conscious shift was taking B.E.S.T. away from a cycling focus to more of a transportation and land use focus.
To me, as much of a cyclist as I am, I don't think cycling will be for everyone. It's moving lots of people by public transit and how we design our communities that's going to make the behaviour shift.
Thus the relationship with Translink, our workplace and school programs, and the Commuter Challenge.
We started all these programs to mainstream alternative transportation.