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Happy Anniversary, Recycle-A-Bicycle!

Here at the League, we like heritage, whether it’s drawing on our own legacy like we did when we re-introduced the winged wheel as our logo or recognizing particular individuals’ influence. We know that following history helps us understand where we are today, and where we could go tomorrow.

We hope you’ll join us in congratulating Recycle-A-Bicycle in New York City as they celebrate 20 years of turning discarded bikes into opportunities to change young people’s lives. Along with Bikes Not Bombs in Boston, RAB deserves tremendous credit for making community bike shops and earn-a-bike programs a staple of the bike movement across the United States and beyond. 

We recently featured Karen Overton, the remarkable woman behind RAB, in our report on “The New Movement,” and here’s what she had to tell us.

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Karen Overton used to say that bicycling was a social justice issue. But, as her experience deepened over decades in the bike movement, she’s changed her mind: “It’s a human rights issue; mobility should be included as a human right.” Her passion for bicycles started in Mozambique, where, for years, she distributed single-speed bicycles to women who worked on small farms, enabling them to bring their produce to market. When she returned to New York City in 1994 she found herself at a confluence of opportunity: The City had a stockpile of discarded bikes, and the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives was interested in piloting a youth training program. So Overton created Recycle-A-Bicycle, a community space that provided the opportunity for low-income youth to “earn a bike” by learning how to build and maintain one—an effort that was an inspiration and model for scores of similar programs across the country. But it hasn’t been easy. 

OVERCOMING IRRELEVANCE

“We’re developing bike culture in nontraditional communities and many of our young people go on to work in shops and have gone on cross-country tours. They embrace cycling, but if they hadn’t been introduced to it, it would never become part of their life. When we started, the bike industry looked at us as ‘Oh, they’re fixing bikes, so we can’t sell new bikes.’ But many of the kids that stick with us more than their 10-week class say, ‘Now that I have a bike, I want a better one; one that can go 40 miles instead of 10 miles.’ They understand that it’s not about the shiny paint job; it’s about quality. So, while we bring value to the industry, they’ve been slow to recognize that. And advocates look at us as, ‘Well, kids don’t vote. We have a battle to win and they can’t vote.’”

RIDING A BIKE IS NOT THE CONVERSATION

“It’s finding out what issue a community is facing and determining together whether bicycling is a solution, and, if so, working together to make everyone feel like the project design is safe and mutually beneficial to everyone involved. So often advocates come in wanting to convert people and that puts people off. They feel like ‘They’re not listening to me; this is not my priority,’ when, in fact, biking could be a mutual tool to meet mutually beneficial project goals or life goals.”

THE ROLE OF ADVOCATES

“You have to identify champions in the communities you’re working with. For us, it might be a parent or a teacher championing a school project, but it has to come from within. I often feel like the role advocates should play is as a catalyst for change, rather than as a driver of change. Because of political battles that you have to wage in order to make change, a lot of advocates very much come at this from a somewhat aggressive stance—not everyone, but that perspective or approach can alienate people instead of unite them.”

CONNECTING COMMUNITY TO POLICY

“It takes a little extra work. We did a campaign to get Michelle Obama to be a speaker at the Youth Bike Summit and printed postcards to make it easy. We went to schools and did a presentation on why we wanted to invite her, and asked them to write a postcard. After the first session we got one that just said, ‘Yo Ms. President Obama’ and realized we needed to educate them on the proper way to write a letter and what was appropriate. They didn’t mean to be disrespectful; they were writing from their hearts… We’ve also taken young people to events like the Climate March, but it means permission slips—sometimes in other languages—and parents often say they don’t want their child to be there, because, based on their heritage, they know someone who got seriously hurt while protesting.”

THERE’S NO SHORT CUT TO BIKE EQUITY

“Listen first. You can’t just go and say, ‘We need you to show up at a meeting.’ That’s not the way to do it. People may reach out to African American churches and, say, they don’t call us back. But what if you actually go to church and then start talking. You can never assume people are willing to hear your message. To get them to be open to hearing your message, you first have to listen.”

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