The Power of the Listserv
I am a big fan of email listservs. They can be a great tool to bring together people virtually who will not cross paths in life.
My first experiment with online networking was creating the Bicicultures list in 2012 with Sarah Rebolloso McCullough, a fellow graduate student researching bicycling as a social practice. We’d been participants in the Cycling in Society Research Group’s listserv, which has become an international network connecting bicycle researchers. We found that the list wasn’t exactly what we were looking for, so we came up with Bicicultures as a network of scholars who study bicycling as a social and cultural phenomenon. I had felt isolated because academic work regarding bicycles is usually conducted in engineering discipline and methodology, not qualitative research. Bicicultures has 165 members now; Sarah and I still moderate the group.
From Online to Offline
After about a year of hosting an active listserv, and hoping to do more to connect researchers with community bike activists, Sarah and I decided to get people together in person. In April 2013, we put on what we called the “Bicicultures Roadshow,” which included participation in an academic conference and our own special events in Los Angeles and Davis with people we’d met during our dissertation research. We presented with colleagues at the Association of American Geographers conference in L.A., facilitated an oral history night about the L.A. bike movement, took people on bike tours of L.A. and Davis, and wrapped up with our own symposium at the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis. We wanted the stories to live online, so we created Los Angeles Bike Movement History to host those histories and materials. We were also fortunate to have Davis Community Television record our symposium panels, which they then posted online.
We wanted to use in-person time as an ongoing resource for people online.
Then Sarah and I got busy with our dissertations, and then I took a job with the League of American Bicyclists in Washington, D.C. My position involved building momentum around equity, diversity, and inclusion in bicycling, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a way to ask more people for advice?” I knew that the Bicicultures listserv had a lot of social justice-oriented participants, but there needed to be something else that was less academic-y, that instead provided the ability to ask people what was happening in their local movements.
From my years as a researcher/activist, I already knew a lot of people doing cutting-edge community bike projects, and then I asked the League’s Equity Advisory Council to reach to others who would be good to have in-network. The Bike Equity Network was born in November 2013 and has grown to over 360 members.
My approach to convening is being as open as possible. A listserv should solidify or expand human infrastructure, so this network was a way to operationalize the idea of making visible the people who are working to build bicycle advocacy in their communities.
It’s been a good question and answer space, and a great place to open to a discussion on topics that are emerging (e.g., representation of people of color on bicycle advisory committees, policing issues, etc.)
The Biggest SNAFU I ran into was how to set limits on who can join. Should it be a list open only to bikey people of color, or with some other experience-based criteria for participation? Or would it be open to everyone interested? I went with the latter, hoping it would lead to new connections across different groups. On the downside, that’s meant that some people joined the list who are very uncomfortable with certain topics that are everyday realities for oppressed groups. That discomfort is real and something to be discussed, but bringing it into the listserv space can be undermining. To date, only one person has been removed, due to concerns about that individual occupying a position of power in a relevant organization while engaging in tone policing on the list.
The Bike Equity Network explores what it is to mingle in an online space that people don’t have access to in the real world; it’s important to validate people’s experiences. The ongoing question is, whose experiences will be centered when you’ve got a mixed group? I am very aware that, as a moderator, I might have to intervene and ask people to step back, because I want to ensure that people who are used to being silenced have a chance to speak up. One issue is that people find each other online, but that doesn’t mean everyone agrees on what they’re working towards. Bike advocacy is the official voice of the bike world, and while social justice may motivate individual advocates, few organizations have placed it front and center in their work. But in other communities, social justice is central to the bicycle movement. This network is trying to create a bridge between professionals and activists. This is tricky because there are people in bike advocacy who are deeply uncomfortable with confronting racism, etc. which is the foundation of social justice work.
What Is an Organization’s Responsibility to the Online Community?
This is an important question. Any organization that convenes an online community needs to consider what they are going to do with the information gathered from the listserv space. What is the listening process? How do we use this information? The Bike Equity Network is now an independent entity, but when I was an employee of the League of American Bicyclists, I used it as a reality check and a place to look for project resources. That was my personal choice as a worker, because I appreciate incorporating feedback into my production process.
But there is a whole host of ways that national efforts can exploit local projects, if we’re not attentive to things like who is getting paid and who isn’t. A lot of national advocacy is based on what has worked well locally. We need to be transparent and compensate people and local communities for their work as stakeholders in order to develop a good, inclusive effort that builds diverse concerns into a bigger project.