I am truly speechless. It turns out that Janel Sterbentz, one of the organizers of last Friday’s protest at the Fell/ Divisadero Arco station, and whose “Women who Ride” interview for the Bike NOPA blog was suppressed because she said that “cars leave destruction and unpleasantness in their path” has been forced to resign from her position as Bike to Work Day Coordinator at the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition (BABC), following SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell’s condemnation of her comments made on this blog as well as her role helping to organize Friday’s protest.
Many months ago, after being nearly knocked off her bike in front of the Arco station on Fell St., Janel asked the SFBC what was being done to improve safety along this critical thoroughfare. Marc told her that she should “take on a Fell street campaign because the SFBC ‘doesn’t have time’ to work on it.”
So she takes it on as a volunteer. After a year of rallying the neighborhood associations, speaking with the SFMTA and working with the SFBC, the city came up with a proposal and brought it before transportation engineers at a public hearing. Several residents in the neighborhood voiced their disapproval of removing a few parking spaces to make a left turn lane and the proposal was stalled. The SFMTA came back a month later with a watered down plan for a 7am to 7pm tow zone- a half measure that will not come close to fixing the dangerous condition at the Arco station.
Someone please explain to me why it is acceptable to sacrifice the safety of thousands of vulnerable road users every day so a handful of people can continue to enjoy city-subsidized free private vehicle storage along the public right of way. I just don’t get it.
So, seeing that the system had totally failed, Janel plans to help mobilize a protest last Friday that captures widespread media attention and galvanizes the support of motorists and cyclists alike to finally close the dangerous gas station entrances on Fell, and what does she get? Fired from her bicycle advocacy job. You heard me right.
Now you might say- well the bicycle coalitions don’t want to be associated with a direct action protest. But hold on just a second. It wasn’t too long ago that the SFBC coordinated a series of direct actions in the Panhandle with their volunteer crossing guard program (started by yours truly when I was Program Director) that put pressure on the city and now- even though the intersection at Masonic and the Panhandle isn’t perfect- we do have a dedicated phase for non-motorized traffic. It seems that the new SFBC staff has a very short memory.
Now, I don’t expect the bike coalitions to participate in every protest (even though the public would never have known who Janel was employed by) but I do expect them not to undermine grassroots efforts by their members and off-duty employees to draw attention to one of the most dangerous stretches of roadway in the city for bicyclists.
As program director at the SFBC for almost three years, I understand the importance of public image. But this latest incident is a disturbing example of the coalition actually going against their base- acting in a way that undermines the very cause they are meant to be promoting. This is one of a series of recent events that is raising concern about the Coalition amongst longtime members.
Janel’s general comments several weeks ago on my blog about environmental organizations are absolutely right on:
“@onthelevel: I agree, a sentiment often develops that the organizations who speak for and represent the movement are on top of the issues and are working in our best interest. That they know what they are doing so we don’t need to get involved unless we are told what to do……”
These comments- made as a private individual- were seized upon by SFBC Program Manager Marc Caswell, who immediately sent an e-mail to Andrew Casteel, Executive Director of the BABC, essentially suggesting that Andrew reassess whether Janel should continue working at the BABC:
“As BABC Board, I’m a bit concerned by Janel’s public comments criticizing, ostensibly, the SFBC. While I can understand the frustration regarding not having comments published– and don’t really care to get involved in that discussion– the later blog comment by Janel is a direct criticism of not only an allied organization, but a member organization(!) of BABC.”
Marc goes on to say:
“Of course, anyone is free to say what they want– but, as a BABC staff person, comments and public statements criticizing allies isn’t a positive way to move the movement forward. And comments like this do, in fact, reflect upon the employer.”
Nowhere did Janel indicate that she was talking about any specific organization. But that didn’t stop Marc (who is also on the board of the BABC) from leaping to the conclusion that she was referring to the SFBC.
Marc also took issue with the fact that Janel helped organize the successful protest last Friday. Note that the SFBC has not breathed a word about the oil spill or why people should ride a bike in response to it in almost two months. A month ago, a number of people (including Marc) were invited by e-mail to take part in planning this protest. However, the SFBC refused to take part, instead choosing to target Janel for her role in organizing peaceful action at a location where cyclists’ lives are daily put at risk and only half-measures have been supported by the Board of Supervisors.
Marc continues in his e-mail to Andrew:
“Beyond that smaller concern, I’ve been CC’ed on the email threads about the Fell Street Arco station protest in the coming month—and I’ve noticed that Janel is the *creator* of the event on Facebook…. as a Board member of the organization, my top job is to ‘ensure the health’ of the organization– and I think these recent public actions are undermining that. I’m not sure what we can do to fix it– but I want to at least express my concern as BABC Board with you both as staff. I’d welcome any further discussion on this topic and am available if you need me.“
Andrew’s response to Marc was:
“Janel has not run any of those blog posts or events by me for approval”
As if he controls every activity a part-time employee engages in outside of work. I’m sorry but that is the logic of the corporation, not of a grassroots bicycle advocacy organization.
So to try and put all of this into some perspective, you have Janel Sterbentz- a passionate and productive employee of the BABC– forced to resign because:
a) She made a general comment about the state of environmental organizations on a blog.
b) She helped to organize a protest against the Gulf Oil Spill, the worst environmental disaster in US history and against the continued obstruction of one of the most important bike lanes in San Francisco.
c) She made a (very reasonable and timely) documentary about the need for a bike path on the west span of the Bay Bridge and gave it to Senator Boxer’s aid at the National Bike Summit as an individual constituent and got flack from her boss who said it was not appropriate to share the video without approval from her superiors in the California Bicycle Delegation.
It is indeed a sad state of affairs when a committed activist such as Sterbentz is terminated from her official role in bicycle advocacy for speaking out against car culture. And all that much worse because it came from a fellow colleague. This is not what I pay my membership dues for. And though I don’t relish criticizing my friends at the SFBC, I do strongly suggest that if people are disturbed by this series of events, that they express their discontent to the acting ED Renee Rivera and the Bay Area Bicycle Coalition Board.
The region’s bicycle coalitions need to seriously check themselves about this incident. There’s a real world out here and people are getting hurt by car dependence. Silence is no longer an option.