Name: Andrea Garcia
Job: Director of Advocacy & Operations at the Toronto Cyclists Union
In 30 seconds or less tell me what you do all day at work.
When I tell people what I do, I usually start off with what the organization does. I say that we’re a member-supported advocacy organization, and that we work with City Hall and other community groups to affect positive change to make Toronto a more bike-friendly city. My role is to be a liaison with city staff, as well as city councillors and other groups interested in the same issues we are. The union also tries to act as a bit of a watchdog when it comes to cycling issues at City Hall; we’re responsible for always having our finger on the pulse and being able to share that information.
What kind of tasks do you do on a day-to-day basis?
It’s a lot of emails! Day to day, it’s a lot of relationship-building, which includes always keeping in touch with councillors and city staff. I also spend a lot of time researching issues and looking at how other cities have addressed a particular issue and the pro-active steps they have taken. I try to make sure I’m up-to-date on all that stuff. When it comes to making sure we know what’s going on at City Hall, I spend a lot of time combing through council and committee agendas, looking for issues that relate to cycling.
When did you first become interested in advocacy work?
My undergraduate degree is in Environmental Science from the University of Florida; I was born in Peru, but my family moved to Canada when I was four, and then to the U.S. Environmental issues were how I got into cycling; I was a bit of a pretentious environmental snob who was trying to do everything I could to lower my carbon emissions, so that’s why I started riding a bike. As I started doing it more, I started thinking about issues around safety, and how streets are really public spaces that should be democratic, yet they tend to be completely occupied by just one mode of transportation. So when I did my Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto, I centered most of my research on cycling issues in the city. My major research paper was on the public bike-sharing program Bixi and, through that, cycling sort of stopped being just an environmental issue for me and became a straight-up safety issue. Once I started thinking about it that way, I got really interested in advocacy.
How did you get involved with the Toronto Cyclists Union?
I actually just got really lucky. A posting for this job went up during the last two weeks of my Master’s, when I was looking for jobs. It was really perfect timing. I had been doing a lot of volunteer work for the City, and I had worked closely with city staff for a lot of my research, so that helped.
When you started this position, was there a steep learning curve?
Definitely. I think the urban-planning degree helps a lot, because in planning school you learn a lot about municipalities and are given the tools to work as an advocate for something. Nerdy things like The Planning Act, provincial policy statements, and the City’s Official Plan all have clear wording about how the city and the province are actively trying to promote more people to bike. These documents are really good tools, as is just knowing the mechanics of how issues are brought from scratch to implementation—the way that council works and the way that city staff relates to council. Still, with advocacy there’s a lot of communications stuff and relationship management that you don’t learn in planning school. I had no media experience whatsoever, so when I got this job I had to go through a lot of media training to come up to speed. Also, coming into a small organization you have to wear a lot of hats; I also do all of the operational stuff, so website and database management, our finances, and things like that. So it was a steep learning curve to learn how all those processes work.
What are some of the issues or areas the Cyclists Union would like city council to address?
Over the last year and a half, one of our main goals has been to build physically separated bike lanes in the city, which are in a lot of North American cities right how and have existed in Europe for decades. Every city that has them has seen a decline in collisions and fatalities, and an increase in the amount of bike riders—which are our main goals: lowering collisions and getting more people to bike. Last year, we did win one on Sherbourne Street, which should be in this year. There’s already a regular bike lane there, so it’s not totally new infrastructure, but it’s an upgrade. We also got an environmental-assessment process approved for separated bike lanes on Richmond and Adelaide, which was proposed 10 years ago. We’re also really interested in Bixi; we played a big role in mobilizing the community to express their support so that it could be adopted by council. Now we’re working with councillors and city staff to see how Bixi can expand. The other big focus for us right now is Jarvis Street—we’re doing everything we can to try and save those bike lanes. We were able to reveal the actual cost of removing the bike lanes, which is just over a quarter of a million dollars—compared to no cost if they are left there.
What advice would you give to someone looking for a job in advocacy work?
Advocacy work is usually for non-profits, which means it isn’t a big moneymaker and so there aren’t so many jobs. My advice would be to volunteer as much as you can, which is what I did with the City. I recognize that not everyone is in a position where they can volunteer, but most non-profits are so under-staffed that they tend to be pretty flexible with how much time you can give. The easiest way to get your foot in the door is to volunteer, so when a job opportunity comes up you’ll be at an advantage, because you’re familiar with the work.
What are your favourite and least favourite parts of your job?
My least favourite part is probably that there are only two of us on staff, not counting Newcomer Cycling Outreach Coordinator Kristin Schwartz, who works in another office, and so there are days when we’re stuck doing data entry all day. It’s something that has to get done, but it can feel like that stuff takes away from what we’re supposed to be concentrating on. My favourite aspect is feeling like I’m part of something bigger than myself. I think it’s cool that we’re member-based, because I feel particularly honoured to get to make depositions and say that I’m representing all these people. We’re all working towards the same goal of trying to build something, and that’s my favourite thing.
Think your job could be somebody’s life? Email Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy.