Barb Chamberlain, director of the Active Transportation Division at Washington State DOT, shares how her upbringing shaped her desire to advocate for those whose voices are often ignored and to search for commonalities in order to get things accomplished.
Hear more from Josh Cohen in his guide to Leadership Upside Down.
Cohen: Josh Cohen
Jensen: L’erin Jensen
Chamberlain: Barb Chamberlain
Jensen: As the youngest woman ever elected to the Idaho State Legislature, Barb Chamberlain is no stranger to the art of compromise and getting things done. One of her biggest takeaways, when you’re trying to get someone to listen to you, it’s a lot easier if you listen to them. Coming up now on The Movement podcast. Let’s go.
F: The freedom of movement to access jobs, education, and social activities is a fundamental human right, but that freedom is not distributed equitably, undermining our ability to create vibrant and sustainable communities for all. Welcome to The Movement where we talk with the leaders who are reshaping their communities with brave decisions, inspired advocacy, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept the status quo all in an effort to inspire the next generation of leaders. Here are your hosts Josh Cohen and L’erin Jensen.
Cohen: Our guest today, Barb Chamberlain, might have one of the more unique resumes of a guest on The Movement podcast or anywhere. She was the youngest state rep and state senator in Idaho’s history. She has led several education and transportation advocacy groups. And since 2017 she’s led the Active Transportation Division of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Welcome to The Movement, Barb.
Cohen: So I didn’t know this until I was doing a little bit more research on your background, but you were the youngest state rep and state senator in Idaho’s history. I didn’t know that, and that was a number of years ago. What led you to pursue elected office at such a young age?
Chamberlain: My usual sort of flip answer is I wanted to save the world because somebody has to do it. And I would say genuinely that was in my mind. I was young; that was a long time ago. But really the longer answer would give a lot of credit to my mom in particular and really both of my parents. They raised me with a tradition of community involvement. They were always volunteering. They did things; they stepped up. My dad was on the school board, which can be a very thankless job. And kind of coupled with that one of my messages from my mom growing up was that she’d say things like, “You’re a really lucky girl. Not everybody has your advantages.” And that was the term she used. She didn’t know the word privilege or that concept, but, I think, intuitively she really understood that, that not everybody had what I had. And so therefore I had a responsibility to use those gifts to make a difference.
And I think probably the fact that my parents grew up during the Depression and didn’t have a lot played some role there, that they were very conscious of what they’d been able to accomplish then over time. And so I couldn’t just coast; I had to do things. And then I got interested in politics. I subscribed to Ms. magazine in high school, and I would say I was certainly shaped by feminism at that point. And my mom was raising me as a feminist. I don’t know that she used that word. But, again, just that was kind of the principles and values. And then the real catalyst was going to a women’s political conference and saying, “Some day I’d like to run for office.” And then they called and recruited me, and away I went.
Cohen: Wow. So this is like EMILY’s List but 30 years ago, right?
Chamberlain: Yeah, it’s also, “Beware of going to conferences.” You know? Like, you never know what’s going to happen.
Cohen: [LAUGHS] That’s kind of like—what’s the—you know, “If you don’t show up to a meeting, then you get assigned things.” You know?
Chamberlain: It is. Yeah, something like that.
Cohen: Be careful.
Jensen: Yeah. And so, Barb, I’m curious to know what you learned from your experience as an elected official that you’ve applied in your roles as an advocate and as someone who implements policy.
Chamberlain: I really got the chance to learn so much. And, I think, a piece of it really relates to the fact that I was so young when I ran for office. I didn’t realize when I ran that I would be setting a record. That kind of came up later. But I went in, because I was so young, full of zeal and pretty full of the conviction that I was right and, “If I’m right, then you must be wrong if you don’t agree with me.” And, boy, that doesn’t get you very many votes when you’re trying to actually change things. And so I learned pretty quickly a couple of things.
One was that just stepping up to lead gives you a lot of energy, that just when I put myself out there to get signatures to file for office that people said, “I believe in what you’re saying you stand for,” that that’s energizing. So that sort of fed the zeal side of things. But then when you get there and you’re trying to get somebody to listen to you, it’s a lot easier if you listen to them. And so I learned to seek more common ground. And you think it would come naturally. I grew up in a big family. I am the fifth of six kids, so I pretty much never got my way the first time I asked for something. But I got pretty good at getting my way as a kid. So, you know, “What is it that you need, and then what is it that I need, and is there some overlap there?” So we can find a little toehold, and then we can stand together on that little toehold. And it might be pretty small, but if I can describe it in terms that you can relate to, then we can continue to talk.
And I did that some as a candidate and then got into the role and said, “Okay, so I need to be able to talk to you in ways that you relate to. And then we’ll figure out. Maybe my solution isn’t your solution, but have we at least agreed on the same kind of problem definition or something like that?” And that’s really been then a skillset that I’ve used all along, is, “How do we describe this? How do we tell this story in a relatable way so that we’re both looking for a happy ending to this story?” if you will. I get to run with the metaphor a little bit longer. And that really has worked in advocacy, and that’s worked for me as I’ve worked in large, public agencies as well.
Jensen: How does one stay grounded in that? I’m a big policy person as well. I maybe don’t know that much. I like to think that I do. But I always think, like, people go into politics because they have ideas for how the world should work, and they think that they’re the best person to carry out those ideas. And so I think you going into that, like, with that same notion, that that seems par for the course, but you quickly find out that, like, that’s not what everyone else wants or you hold power that other people don’t, but maybe, like, what you want isn’t always getting accomplished. So how do you stay grounded and not let that all go to your head? Or does it go to most people’s heads, and maybe that’s why you’re not in politics anymore?
Chamberlain: Well, and sometimes it just punches you in the gut too, so there’s that. I guess, one of the stories that sort of comes to mind that, again, then relates to how I’ve learned to work over time is you go in wanting to get everything that you want in one big bite. “I’m going to go from zero to 100 all at once, and I’ll leap over all those steps in between,” but that’s not how the real world works, and it certainly isn’t how the process worked. Most processes have sort of accrued some barnacles over time, and they work to slow down change; they don’t accelerate change. And so you’re not going to get everything you want.
And if you say, “Oh, well, if I can’t have everything, I don’t want anything,” then you just lost, period. So this idea that it’s okay to make some incremental progress and that that is in fact still progress—you’re still heading in the direction you want to go—is not as exciting as winning everything in one big go, but that happen so seldom. So you’re going to set yourself up for disappointment and failure if you say it’s all or nothing. You know, that’s 50/50 on a good day, and I’d rather have some than nothing. The corollary to that, I guess, somebody once told me that I was settling for the lesser of two evils. And I’m like, “Yeah, because the other option would be the greater of two evils. Which evil would you like to have here, the lesser or the greater?” [LAUGHTER]
Jensen: I think that speaks to something that Josh talks about in Leadership Upside Down as well, mindfully prioritizing the short term over the long term or vice versa. Josh, help me out. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: Long term over the short term, yeah.
Chamberlain: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. “Have I burned the bridges here, or can I come back and talk to you tomorrow?”
Cohen: Yeah. I think that’s a really useful perspective. And, you know, I think about that a lot with—and I’m curious to read Obama’s new memoir. I’m sure he’ll get into this about the Affordable Care Act. Right? And I’m sure I’ve talked about this on the podcast. Right? Undoubtedly there’s more people covered now with healthcare than there were before he started that process, and yet there’s still millions of people who do not have adequate healthcare that they can afford. Right? And so, you know, how do you square that? Right? And, I think, probably very similarly to what you just said, which is you’ve got to be pragmatic about it. Right? Let’s take 10 million more people having access to healthcare, and that’s a win. That is undoubtedly a win. It’s not as many as we would like, but it’s still a win. Right?
Chamberlain: Mm-hmm. And I should say in the midst of all of this though that there are some nonnegotiables. And the fact that doesn’t always come up is that the legislative district I represented included the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations compound in its borders.
Chamberlain: And Nazis are not okay. There’s never a day when they’re okay. So there are some nonnegotiables. There are some absolute fundamental human rights that you stand for consistently and that I wouldn’t say, “Oh, let’s go ahead and take a small step in the direction of being a Nazi.” That’s not going to happen. And so I think the being pragmatic and the accepting small wins because eventually those add up to a big win, that’s within a defined boundary of the kinds of things you need to stand for to be able to sleep at night.
Cohen: Yeah, for sure. So I want to maybe transition a little bit more towards some of the work that you’re doing now. And obviously, you know, L’erin and I believe that no one should die on our roads, that we should design our roads in a way that people can use them safely, and that we should have more equitable access to transportation and that our funding is still prioritizing car ownership. I know you agree with those things, and I’m sure many of your DOT colleagues do as well. And so I want to maybe understand a little bit. And I think you maybe touched on this a little bit earlier when you were talking about the political process. But I’d like for you to maybe help us understand why it takes so long for some of those things to change and what we can do to help them go faster.
Chamberlain: Well, some things need to go slower because that’ll save lives, but that’s a—
Cohen: Well, yes.
Chamberlain: —speed-management analogy, but I guess one of the things that, again, is an evolution out of having started so early in politics is I saw myself then and still do as speaking for folks who don’t traditionally have access to power. So what can I do to amplify their voices? As my mom would have said, “How can you use what you’ve been given to help people who didn’t get those same gifts, whatever they are?” And I think that also sort of underpins the problem, is that people who traditionally have had access to power are the ones whose interests are really fully represented, and so the deck has been stacked for a long, long time. There’s a lot of cards in that deck. And so there’s so many things that already would rig the system to slow down change because change is painful and change costs money, and in these days in particular I think people would say, “We don’t have enough money for everything we need.” And so you’re trying to fix the problems with the existing system at the same time you’re trying to transition to a new system, if you’re in fact trying to transition to a new system. There’s a price tag on all of this that I think is problematic. For transportation in particular, you know, talk about something that’s set in stone. You know? “Yep, poured some cement right there.”
And then there are so many players for transportation. If you or I set off on a bike ride or a walk, we don’t necessarily know that we just crossed the boundary between an incorporated city and now we’re in the unincorporated county, and now we’re on state DOT right-of-way, and now we’re on a trail that’s managed by a local set of volunteers who step up and do the maintenance twice a year. Like, there are all these players. And so if you want to change something, who do you talk to and where do you start is another layer of complexity for advocates and even, honestly, for people inside agencies. Did somebody keep a good map of where that boundary is, can be challenging. So, I think, there’s not enough money to do what we need to do, things built-in to slow down change, complicated processes that accumulated over time, and many of these are processes that you or I might really think are important ones too. We’re going to take some time for a public comment period because people have the opportunity to provide input. We are going to take time for environmental review because it’s important that we understand the environmental impact of something we’re about to do. And so it’s not that all that process is bad; it just adds up.
And then I would say particularly for transportation, if you think about traffic safety that there is a fear-of-lawsuits element there, that, “If I say something isn’t great, are you going to sue me because I just said it’s not great?” And I would say I don’t—that doesn’t show up in my work every day. I don’t have people saying, “Oh, don’t say that there are crashes, because we’ll get sued.” There are crashes. We have the data. We report the data regularly. But I think there’s a risk management element as well that can make it harder to work together constructively. So that’s a lot. Money, time, process, lawsuits, I’m sure I could think of some more.
Jensen: I wonder if, like, another missing element of that is that, like, I really do feel like our elected officials, our government have—they hold a big piece of the pie when it comes to, like, changing the tides when it comes to what we consider important issues. I think, once the government gets behind a cause, people tend to get behind it as well. Like, we saw the same thing with marriage equality; we see the same thing with, like, racial justice things. Once the government is like, “Oh, hey. No, actually this is important. We need to do this,” then everyday people are like, “You know what? Maybe it is.” And maybe we just don’t have enough elected officials, politicians speaking up and saying, “Hey, this is something we should care about.”
Chamberlain: Well, and they will be responsive to what they hear from their constituents, and so it’s a little chicken-and-egg, and, you know, like, we’re all chickens and eggs in that scenario because they need to know that they have the support of their constituents. They need to know bluntly that this is a winning position. If you want them to be there the next time to do more of the same, they have to win both the issue and the election then. So there’s that piece as well.
And then I didn’t mention and should have just the fundamental experience that most people bring to it when you’re talking about transportation, is that because we built a system for driving, most people drive, so most people have that experience to relate to. And if they haven’t walked or biked somewhere and they haven’t realized how hard it is to cross that road, they don’t know how important it is to have more crossings. And so that lived experience piece, it’s like me as a White woman not encountering racial bias because I’m White, so I can walk through the world and not have the same experiences that a Black colleague would have or a Native American colleague or whatever.
And so that lived experience then shapes what you think is important and what you think is possible, and that’s really, I think, a deeper system issue for all of us, is more representative officials and agency staff will bring a broader diversity of perspectives and lived experience and say, “You know, my folks had to live really far from their jobs, and they had to walk to a bus stop, and that’s why this is important to me to have good first and last-mile connections to transit service.” That’s a different lived experience than, “I drove everywhere.”
Cohen: For sure. I think I heard your cat in the background. Do you want to introduce your cat?
Chamberlain: You probably did hear. That’s Tiggs. Tiggs is hanging out with me today and helping. He likes to get on my desk and help touch the screen too, so if I move the mouse it’s pretty entertaining. [LAUGHS]
Cohen: How old is Tiggs?
Chamberlain: He is—let’s see. He was born in about May, so he’s still officially a kitten.
Cohen: Oh, wow.
Chamberlain: Yeah. He’s a COVID kitten.
Cohen: Oh, my gosh. Wow. Well, welcome, Tiggs. I think we’ve had dogs on the podcast before. I don’t know if we’ve had cats, so this might be—you’re breaking new ground here. Yet again, Barb, breaking new ground.
Chamberlain: That’s an important constituency to represent. [LAUGHTER]
Cohen: So I want to dig back into this a little bit though. So as it relates to—you know, you’ve listed some of those barriers that are making it harder to bring about some of the needed change. So, I guess, as I think about it from your perspective as a implementer now working on the agency side, what are you doing to help these things go faster? Because every day or every month or every year that, you know, it takes to get a project done, that’s unfortunately people that are dying or getting seriously hurt in crashes. So how do you get that moving as fast as possible, these projects and these changes so that we can have some safe roads?
Chamberlain: Some people are more numbers people, so having data is one piece of it, can I tell you in numbers why this important. So I will do—for example, we do an equity analysis of our crash data, and I can go to the Census block level, and I can say to you, “We have more fatal and serious injury crashes in Census blocks where we have more people living in poverty. We have more of those crashes where we have more Black and Indigenous and people of color living.” So I’ve just made an equity case, but I made it with numbers. If you’re a numbers person, it’s very clear. And that’s a legacy of the decisions around transportation and land use over time that add up. So you have faster, wider, busier roads in those locations. So that’s both numbers and then there’s the story of redlining or where we put reservations and what kinds of roads serve them and who is reliant on active transportation. There are those stories you can tell too. So, I think, both numbers and storytelling become an important part of it.
When I do the storytelling too and use numbers for that matter, part of what I try to do every single time is say, “This isn’t just for the people who need to walk or bike. This isn’t just for people who can choose to walk or bike. That when you make changes that prioritize safety, you actually are making the road function better for everyone, including people who would define themselves as drivers. You need to see a win in this for you.” Back to that, you know, search for common ground, “It works better for you, if we have a compact roundabout instead of a four-way stop. There are fewer T-bone collisions for drivers, and it actually also will slow drivers coming into that, so the crossing is a bit safer for somebody who is walking or rolling through that, what would have been an intersection.” So trying to make it really a win for everybody, I think, is a piece of that.
Another element that I think we probably haven’t done as good a job at is really talking about the economic benefits and the payoff from active transportation investments. And I think about this in the time of COVID in particular. If you think about a tool like bike tourism, which is onesie-twosie scale tourism, if I have a nice trail and you can ride on that trail and come to my town, you are a manageable, bite-sized piece of tourism. Nobody’s tourism industry is coming back anytime soon from large-scale conferences with hundreds of people in the same room. And so could we talk about investing in trail systems to support small-scale, sustainable, manageable tourism? At the same time, those are going to serve transportation purposes and provide safe, separated facilities—great—for everyday transportation.
So I think there’s some additional nuances around economic benefits that we could talk about as well.
And then another piece of this is just relate to, for any transportation agency you’re dealing with, what is their biggest cost that they can’t currently deal with. And it’s going to be maintenance. We’ve built more and more and bigger and bigger, and we cannot maintain what we already own because we’re not funded to do that. So can we talk about the importance of maintenance investments and not expanding something that we can’t afford, because those large-scale transportation projects are so hard to pay for? Small-scale projects, on the other hand, a small trail, much more affordable. What you can get for the cost of one urban interchange, you can get miles and miles of trail for the cost of one urban interchange.
So if you’re going to spend some money, spend it on something that’s lower cost. Spend it on something that’s smaller to maintain and has less wear and tear, that kind of thing. I haven’t really tested that as a set of messages, I would say, but the maintenance backlog is a very real, very large problem for every agency. And so how do we reduce the maintenance impacts and support that mode shift?
Cohen: So I want to build on this storytelling piece there, because I actually think that’s a really interesting kind of piece of this and one that I don’t know if we talk enough about. Are there any compelling stories that have resonated from your time either working at the Department of Transportation or in some of your advocacy work that really just kind of stuck with you and that you’ve continued to come back to over and over again because they share the message in such a compelling way?
Chamberlain: You know, I think sometimes you want a story to have an individual face on it. If you look at how a reporter writes something, they will typically start with the individual anecdote of the one human being. So I think there’s always that kind of story, but there’s also the more macro story. So, for example, the deep decline in the number of kids who walk or bike to school. We have all these children who used to be able to go out and roll on their way to school. Their parents didn’t have to build in time to drive them to school. Their parents weren’t contributing extra traffic congestion morning and afternoon. And that’s something we lost fundamentally when we made it harder and made it feel less safe to those parents to say, “Yeah, Johnny. Go out the door and go to school. Get yourself there with sneaker power. I don’t have time to take you.” We lost something that I certainly had in my childhood. I lived out in the country, but I could ride my bike to school, and my parents felt perfectly comfortable letting me do that.
And so I think there is a story there around something that used to be a fundamental of childhood that has been lost and that that’s one that older decision-makers might have memories of and say, “Yeah, you’re right. I used to be able to play in the street, and that’s gone now.” So that’s not an individual story, but it’s certainly very, very true. And then in the work I do in Washington State in particular we have an active transportation safety council named for Cooper Jones. And Cooper lived in Spokane, and I used to live in Spokane, and I know Cooper’s mom and dad. And they continue to be active in working for safer roads because Cooper was killed while he was in a bike race. And so Cooper’s story is one that I carry with me that I’m, you know, doing this so there—he was a great kid. There should not be more great kids lost to a driver hitting and killing them.
Jensen: So, Barb, being a leader can be pretty challenging. How do you fill up your proverbial cup?
Chamberlain: It’s pretty obvious to figure that somebody who works in active transportation would say she goes for a walk or a bike ride, but that’s true actually. And I just recently moved so that I live really close to a beautiful, beautiful park. I’m a 15-minute walk from the entrance into a park that has mossy trees and birdcalls and peace and quiet. And so I go looking for some of that. And I also love to cook, so a Saturday spent doing a ton of cooking is pretty fun and relaxing for me, so I do that as well.
Cohen: Well, good. Well, let’s wrap up with this. Where can folks learn more about you and the work that you’re doing?
Chamberlain: Well, I’m on Twitter a fair amount at @BarbChamberlain. I have a personal bike blog. I would say I didn’t blog actively in 2020 past really March. 2020 got kind of weird there, but BikeStyleLife.com is where my bikey thoughts are from the past, and I will be back there again. And then folks who are interested in what we’re doing at WSDOT and just generally active transportation news like trainings and webinars and things like that, I put out an e-news that people can subscribe to. And if you’re able to link in the show notes or I can drop it on Twitter, that’s another spot. It’s the WSDOT Walk and Roll e-news.
Cohen: Well, Barb, this has been a great introduction into both your history all the way from your childhood and the community involvement from that, to your experience as an elected official and the energy you received from doing that, all the way to your current work at WSDOT where you’re really trying to speak for those who don’t have access to the same power and privilege. So I really appreciate you sharing some of these perspectives with us and sharing those with our listeners.
Chamberlain: Thanks so much for having me.
F: Thanks for listening. If you like what you hear, head to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. You can find out more at TransLoc.com or follow Josh Cohen on Twitter at @CohenJP. Be sure to join us next week for another episode of The Movement.
Hear more from Josh Cohen in his guide to Leadership Upside Down.