The Changing Face of Bike Advocacy

Background Reading



When Jamal Triggs was a kid, his mother wouldn’t let him out of the house much. They lived in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, and she worried he would get caught up in the persistent gang and police violence. His father, a Marine, would take the kids out when he was home on leave, but that was only so often. In his absence, Triggs’ uncle would take the kids out to the Lakefront Trail to ride. Uncle Bobby was a passionate cyclist and when Triggs was 14, he pushed him toward the youth bike programs at Blackstone Bicycle Works, a nonprofit community bike shop and youth education center dedicated to “empowering youth, teaching mechanical skills, job skills and business literacy.”

Triggs had long been mechanically inclined — “I was one of those kids who took everything apart and put it back together,” he says — and he rose rapidly through Blackstone’s programs to become a master mechanic. Along the way, he says his grades improved and his self-confidence grew.

“Blackstone changed my whole mindset of how I view the world,” says Triggs. “You have these positive people telling me I’m the future and that what I do right now will impact my kids and the next generation. I just went along and came hard at it.”

Now 24, Triggs helps run the show at Blackstone as a youth mentor and instructor, a personification of the empowerment and education work at the heart of youth bike programs. He was in Seattle on February 14th — along with 428 people from 28 states and Mexico —for the annual Youth Bike Summit. This was the Summit’s fifth iteration (and first held outside of New York City). The weekend draws bike advocates, educators, industry leaders and, of course, young people. They gather to share ideas and learn from workshops and speeches.

I want to see Mr. Triggs become the owner of Blackstone Bicycle Works. To do that advocacy groups are going to have to change their focus from being conduits of both federal and private monies from weather donors and taxpayers to becoming the launchers of ‘startups‘. At present we have only reached the stage where a colonizing force has dipped into a resource and begun to harvest its resources. The British were very good at this. But they always balked when one of their resources decided to own the franchise. That is in essence what happened when India decided to remove foreign rule.

This need not be a bloody revolution at all. In fact we are far beyond that sort of thing when it comes to folks entering black-and-brown neighborhoods and securing a government teat to suck on for their own benefit. We just want to know that everyone is aware of the potential that the teat will be removed at some future date (i.e. Bikes-n-Roses) so everyone needs to be prepared.

Likewise the people who currently run these advocacy stations in the hinterland should not get too cozy either. What makes more sense if for them to structure themselves as franchisers. Make these small shops satellites that are capable of earning their keep and paying a franchising fee to the Mother Ship. McDonalds has done this for years.

They offer to their franchisees both a recognizable name but also a uniform menu structure and a visibly recognizable logo that people trust. There is no reason that these small shops cannot branch out and grow. If they are not sustainable then they serve as the ‘canaries in the mine‘ for the movement itself. Right now they do not appear to be capable of self-sustained growth. They should be. Lots of these sorts of businesses have been established in urban areas across the country. But they have to grow legs and become capable of supporting themselves.

DreamBikes in Milwaukee has an entire company that stands behind its efforts. And maybe the key to these sorts of businesses is that they form a partnership with larger ones in an effort to provide a tax break for the larger company while establishing the business protocols that can make them truly sustainable. Either way that must happen in order to grow.

It is nice to see ‘feel good‘ stories about Blackstone Bicycle Works. But history is replete with the exploitation of the black-and-brown people of the world who never got a chance to own the businesses that their sweat and energy kept afloat. The days of paternalism are over. Or at least they should be. That will depend on just how willing everyone is to turn loose their tight grips on federal funds and to launch meaningful businesses.