Rex Burkholder truly embodies the idea of being a practical visionary. A UEP ’89 Alum, he recently published an updated version of his successful book, The Activist’s Toolkit. Chock full of advice for “people who care about people,” The Toolkit is built off of Rex’s 40+ years of civic engagement.
Trained as a biologist, Rex has worked as a science teacher in the northwest. He helped catalyze the bicycle revolution in Portland, Oregon as a founder and policy director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. He continues to be an active member of the community, and his latest project is an effort to get kids outside to learn. We asked Rex a few questions about The Activist’s Toolkit to learn more about the book and how it ties into Rex’s life!
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your career and what led to the writing of the Toolkit?
A. It’s hard to say that I’ve had a “career.” I’ve followed my interests and passions and built a set of skills and competencies along the way. I would say that my motivations haven’t changed: social justice, instilled by a mother who took me along when she volunteered in the settlement house and years of service work with the Boy Scouts; and a profound love and concern for nature. I find a lot of joy out in the woods or on the water where you can’t avoid the huge impact we humans have on the earth. In my life, I’ve been a recycler, science teacher, bicycle advocate, elected official and campaigner. My latest success was leading the effort to establish the first statewide, universal outdoor education program in the country: Outdoor School for All (a case study of this is the epilogue of my book).
Q. Why did you write The Activist’s Toolkit in the first place?
A. At the end of 12 years on the Metro Council (the only directly elected regional government in the country), a friend said that I should write a book. And I replied, who needs another book on climate change and transportation (my focus at Metro)? No, he said, write about what has made you a successful activist. We were in a cabin near Joseph, Oregon, 7000 feet up in the Wallowa Mountains in the dead of winter, skiing in wood and water through the snow. We took a bunch of sticky notes and brainstormed the whole book that weekend.
Q. Did you have a particular audience in mind?
A. Everyone I’ve ever met wants to make this world a better place– safer, cleaner, more just and full of joy. Too often they just need some help figuring out how to start or to take their concern to the next level. I wrote The Activist’s Toolkit to take away some of the myths around activism, especially that it takes some kind of super power or genius to make a difference. Incredible things have been accomplished by “ordinary” people who took the risk and just did something.
Q. In your opinion, what should be the biggest take-away from the book?
A. You can do it!
But there are some key steps that will make you more effective and the work much easier:
1. Understanding your own strengths and abilities as well as what drives you through purposeful self reflection. Some simple exercises can remove a lot of the self-doubt and increase your confidence in your ability to make change happen.
2. Understanding that nothing gets done by one person working alone. We make change best when we collaborate and share. Plus it’s a hell of lot more fun!
3. Understanding that change takes time and sustained effort means paying attention to relationships, managing our own time and energy smartly and building the necessary organizational structures so our movements will be here as long as they are needed.
To learn more about Rex, check out his blog, “Getting to 2100,” which focuses on ideas, inspirations and discussions on creating better, smarter cities. A copy of The Activist’s Toolkit can be found in the UEP Brown House.