Saturday night’s Alice Awards at Lloyd Center Mall were a mix of old and new, in more ways than one.
The annual awards gala and fundraiser for The Street Trust took on a historical note on what was the nonprofit’s 30th anniversary. There was a display of old photographs, and a trove of documents from those fateful first years when a group of activists came together in 1992 as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance with the goal of making bicycling better in Portland.
Actually, I learned Saturday night there was a precursor to the BTA called the Portland Area Bicycle Coalition that formed in spring 1991, “to promote and defend bicycling as a convenient, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly means of transportation.” One of the leaders of the PABC was Rex Burkholder, who would go on to be one of the founders of the BTA (and ultimately a Metro Councilor). “Initially we were going to call it the Bicycle Transportation Authority,” Burkholder shared with me at the event. “I actually liked that better, but we ended up with Alliance.”
The organization Burkholder spearheaded in the early 1990s looked a lot different than one we celebrated Saturday. The Street Trust has moved far beyond its roots as a local, grassroots, bicycle-centric organization.
In a speech Saturday night, with The Street Trust’s first Executive Director Karen Frost sitting right up front, current Executive Director Sarah Iannarone expressed gratitude for the leaders who came before her. “They gave us a lot of tools for organizing. They helped transform Portland into a premier bicycling city. And we’re going to take those tools and really try to transform the greater Portland metro region into a place where you can live without having to own your own car,” Iannarone said. “A lot of the lessons for making Portland a bicycling-forward city, we can carry around the region.”
Among those tools were the good, old-fashioned printed “Cycletter” newsletter that served as the BTA’s main form of communication in the early years. With limited reach and resources, the Cycletter reached a relatively large list of Portlanders (their first big campaign — to get TriMet to allow bikes on transit — garnered 5,000 signatures in just five months). The BTA at that time was laser-focused on central city issues. Their “Bicycle Friendly Portland” campaign launched in March 1992 aimed at making the Willamette River bridges more bike-friendly.
Iannarone said their new strategy since taking the helm in January 2021 has been to broaden the geographic and demographic reach of their work. “If you don’t see The Street Trust busy in central Portland, as we once were, please know, that is very strategic on our part,” she explained. Here’s a longer excerpt from her speech:
“This past year, we have been busy rebuilding trust, innovating partnerships and forging new alliances across the region and beyond. We’ve been educating a wide range of people from elementary students to elected officials on transportation principles and options. And we’re executing an inclusive model of organizing that takes us to the edges, the margins into the communities that for too long have been left out of transportation, decision making and investments. Many of the folks we’re engaging in our work don’t have extra capacity to volunteer at the street trust, and many are not even aware that they have a say in how transportation decisions are made, or how dollars are spent. And we are actively connecting with them to better understand their needs and empowering them so that they can move with autonomy and authority where they live, work, worship and play…
What we’re hearing from this work, though, is there’s a deep trauma in our communities from the lack of safety, intense need for targeted investments, and a sense of frustration that their voices are not heard.”
Washington County Commissioner Nafisa Fai’s presence at the event was evidence of The Street Trust’s new approach. Commissioner Fai, a refugee from Somalia, thanked the group for their help and partnership that led to lighting and transit improvements on Farmington Road, about eight miles from downtown Portland.
Another illustration of The Street Trust’s current direction is Charlene McGee, the winner of the Elizabeth Jennings Graham Award, given to a person who is, “actively championing transportation justice and equity.” McGee is the manager of Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program, whom you might recall was behind a groundbreaking 2021 report on the racial inequities of traffic crashes. In her acceptance speech, McGee was clearly torn between celebrating her accomplishment and the knowledge that there’s so much more work to do.
“The rate of traffic crash deaths among the county’s black population is nearly twice the rate among our non-Hispanic whites and the rate of years of life lost from traffic crashes in east County is double the rate of the west side and inner east Portland,” she reminded the crowd.
“With data going in the wrong direction. The fierce urgency of now is upon us,” McGee continued. “Let’s prioritize immediate and long term policy systems and environmental changes. Let’s co-create better streets… regardless of the mode of transportation.”
The winner of the Alice Award is also working to address systemic problems.
Josh Laurente, who accepted the award on behalf of the Portland Streetcar Ambassador Program in partnership with OPAL Environmental Justice, said in his speech that, “We are a completely new approach to community safety on public transit, an approach that focuses on and prioritizes the needs of people first. When we go to work, we’re not armed with anything else than a backpack full of water, snacks, supplies and knowledge of the supportive services and resources available to people in our city, a helping hand and a desire to just be there for other people.”
“And I think given the flack that our city has gotten in recent years, we can use a little more of that in our community. A little more being there,” Laurente continued over applause from the crowd. “Because this is our city, these are our streets, and the people suffering outside are our people.”
These award winners reflect not just a new approach for The Street Trust, they reflect a new Portland.
The Street Trust was founded in 1992 because one guy (Jim Ferner) couldn’t take his bike on transit. That singular frustration spurred Portland’s vibrant, nation-leading bike advocacy movement. Today that movement is a bit quieter than it was a few years ago — but it’s also broader, deeper, and more diverse than it’s ever been.
As the event ended, the photo booth was the place to be. I fielded a request from TikTok star Jenna Phillips (Jenna Bikes) to take a photo with PBOT Director Chris Warner; a photo that was then bombed by BikePortland’s Taylor Griggs and Bike Loud PDX’s Nic Cota. It was that sort of night! And it didn’t end there. The Street Trust was in cahoots with Secret Roller Disco who hosted a massive skating session a few doors down in the empty shell of a former Marshalls store (see photos in gallery below).
The founders of The Street Trust could never have imagined their passion for better bicycling and the organization to fight for it would be alive and well 30 years later — much less that it would be celebrated with a party organized by people who didn’t even exist in 1992, in a nearly-dead mall, where the post-party ride happened on roller skates.
But there’s been a through-line all these years: The Street Trust. And for a few hours Saturday night there was a tangible bridge between old and new, with smiles and grateful applause on boths ends.
Relive the party and see who was there in the gallery below: