A native of Evanston, Illinois, Sarah came to Vancouver in 2013, fresh from three years of sociopolitical inculcation at McGill, and a year in the Czech Republic.
I try to use big words when talking about Sarah, just so I can keep up. She's smart, passionate and resolute.
In many ways, she's a throwback to Vancouver's days of post-Expo social activism, similar in spirit and intent as many of the same people, twenty or thirty years her senior, who helped bring about real change.
The language is the same.
I started taking environmental economics courses and learning that our economic system is literally in conflict our natural environment. They literally are opposing and do not make sense together.
I got really concerned. I was learning about how literally we're destroying the habitat of the globe that we live on. Now I have a deeper awareness, where I think about oppression and colonization.
But at the time, I was learning about all these policy options that governments can use to 'deal with' these environmental issues, that weren't being implemented for political reasons, and I became very scared.
I was like, wait, nobody is dealing with this. That's terrifying.
I suddenly felt this actual personal responsibility, like, "wow, the government is supposed to deal with these issues. They're not dealing with it. Who's dealing with this on all of our behalves? This is actually all of our responsibility, and nobody's fixing this."
That was really frightening. It's still frightening.
A job and the presence of her sister brought Sarah to Vancouver.
And then, she almost literally burst upon the advocacy scene. Like a light, like a breath of fresh air, and maybe also like a bucket of water. Hydrating, and occasionally shocking to the system.
What brought about this personal investment in advocacy? After years thinking about transportation through a lens of walking and transit, she rediscovered her bike.
When I was originally looking at how to get to Richmond, it was either I could take transit for an hour, or I could bike for an hour.
And I was like, wow that's pretty cool, biking takes the same amount of time? I've never biked that far on a regular basis.
It made a lot of sense. I was already using bicycling as my main mode of transportation in Vancouver. I still believe it's the most convenient way to get around the city. It's not in every city, but in this city I feel it really works.
I was super into it, and started volunteering at Kickstand, and I started really caring about doing maintenance on my own bicycle.
As we talked, Sarah sketched her environment in a notebook. We talked over coffee and Commercial Drive traffic, slowly sinking into the summer afternoon heat baking the sidewalks and blacktop. Lines and shapes filled her sketchbook, capturing many of the details around us.
Throughout our conversation, themes of social justice also wafted up. It's what you learn about Sarah very early on — endlessly interesting, very opinionated, but also open enough to engage in a free-flowing conversation with potentially contrary viewpoints. She's not stone. She's actually a people person, with a desire to add knowledge to her passions.
And so it's no surprise she found a home in Vancouver, a contrarian place, one with many viewpoints and a spirit that welcomes debate, and perhaps also a little humility.
I devoted my time to learning advocacy. Of course it takes privilege to do that, it takes privilege to not have to earn an income, not everyone can do that and I totally recognize that.
I like that people are formally coming together to push for things that they want to see. Because I was so passionate about transportation and cycling, and mobility and autonomy and all that stuff, I decided to invest time in building those skills.
You could probably drop Sarah into any situation where there is inequity, where there's potential to shine a light on it and bring about positive change, and she will not only find it, but take a leadership role. Whether she's aware of it or not.
On Commercial Drive, her timing could not have been better. Sure, not much has changed since 2013. But conversations have started, change is afoot, and making the neighbourhood more friendly and safe for walking, cycling and transit access remains on the City's priority list.
It's due in no small part to Sarah recognizing the possible. And taking the talk to the people.
I was living on Commercial Drive, all my friends live around here, and I was looking at all of these commercial streets where people are spending money and accessing these places to live.
You need to buy groceries, you need to go to the pharmacy, you need to go to the post office, whatever you do...
I was starting to feel a strong desire to advocate for commercial streets destination streets that were actually designed to be safely accessed by all users.
People were saying all businesses hate bikes, all businesses hate bike lanes. I was reading this, people were telling me this. And I was like, that doesn't make sense. How could all businesses hate bikes? All these businesses are benefiting.
All my friends ride bikes to go shopping. I ride a bike to go shopping. So many people around me are riding bikes to go shopping. So many people in Vancouver bike. There's no way that all businesses hate bikes. So I started having conversations with businesses owners....talking to the business owners and learning who the voices are amongst them who actually support these changes.
Because I knew that there were people who did. And sure enough, that was the approach that Streets for Everyone ended up taking.
You could be excused for not knowing about Streets for Everyone. It's pretty localized in a particular part of Vancouver, a little wonk-ish, not much of a budget for self-promotion over the years.
It's more of a campaign than an organization. It's part of a larger story about how everyday citizens organize, give a voice to the change they want to see, share it with their community, and use that local, political capital to apply gentle but firm pressure on the powers-that-be to begin the process of change. Sarah created it. And it worked, bringing together youth, local business owners, advocates and the City to one table, to discuss the art of the possible in this very tight community.
I wasn't necessarily thinking about it as like a new movement. I think I was thinking of it like formalizing these desires and intentions that people already had, and taking them to the next stage of 'let's make it happen'.
For me, that's what organizing is about. It's not like, hey I have all the ideas, come follow me. It's about being like, hey everyone that has these ideas, let's all meet up.
So that's the way I see it more. There's a desire.
And as we know, change is hard. Bikes lanes on Commercial Drive have been on the city books for many years. And thus, advocacy can sometimes be eminently unsatisfying, often forcing people to take a step back and re-assess the nature and trajectory of change before committing to it. It can actually be very frustrating, even in the success of shining a light and creating dialogue.
I think for me the not-being-able-to-do-it-anymore was really just about the approach to change.
To me, I was just like, I'm spending too much time having conversations with powerful people, I want to be having conversations with people in the community that I live in.
The people I was having conversations with weren't the people I wanted to be having conversations with.
Sometimes the best way to get the power is to deal with the people holding the power. Sometimes the best way to get the power is to organize everyone outside of that and be like, yo, listen to us.
The 'yo' is very Sarah. It could be said that one of the blind spots within the advocacy community has been that when you gain awareness and acknowledgement from the powers that be, you must begin to collaborate. Perhaps capitulate. Sleep with the enemy, so to speak. Either way, you can lose your 'yo'.
She might be the first person to admit that doing things her way could have been a blind spot at times, perhaps resulting in working at cross-purpose with other advocates
But you could just as easily say, for someone with her intellect, energy and influence, that those groups may have been working at cross-purpose with Sarah.
Still connected with the Streets for Everyone group and campaigns, Sarah is now deeply involved with community bike shops, working in education at Our Community Bikes, and as a volunteer at Kickstand. Working with these organizations and others to expand the influence of the community bike shop movement, Sarah could once again be at the forefront of a new group that is not interested in working alongside the powers-that-be.
Sarah, alongside others in this small but vibrant corner of the cycling advocacy community, are interested in defining and supporting theories of change untethered from many of the norms that today find themselves expressed by advocates, which themselves sometimes appear to be arms of government.
My approach has switched from infrastructure to bicycle access. We can have as much infrastructure as we want, but if people don't have access to bicycles, then only rich people and people who already have bikes are going to use the infrastructure.
We see our ability to do things in a way that's slightly different from HUB. Because there are really radical politics interwoven in the community bike shop movement.
Young people, giving people access to bikes, making the bike movement more inclusive, giving people the ability to be mobile, regardless of what bureaucrats and elected people are deciding what infrastructure they think they're going to give you.
I'm just like, that's where it's at.