Inspirational Youth Bike Summit in New York City

By Alison Graves, Executive Director of the Community Cycling Center

“This can’t be a bike event!” exclaimed my colleague, Keith Holt, of Milwaukee Bike Works, at last weekend’s Youth Bike Summit in New York City. He was right. Bicycle industry events are typically white, male and middle-aged. This event, attended by more than 200 community bicycle organizations from around the country, was mostly women, youth and people of color. The keynote speaker was 15 year-old African immigrant, Alpha Barry, who has blossomed as a local advocate for bicycles in New York City. He was an inspiration to all of us, including his Congresswoman, Nydia Velasquez, evident as she beamed at him during his remarks.

“I had no idea where bikes would take me,” Alpha admitted. As a youth ambassador with Recycle-a-Bicycle, he received a newfound feeling of freedom. With it, he and other youth ambassadors worked to advocate for the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative during his 10-month internship. He knew it was not going to be easy, which he related to learning how to ride a bike. “You haven’t learned to ride until you fall at least once.” Alpha and his teammates were undeterred and optimistic. “Things will not happen unless you demand it,” he knew, so they continued meeting with representatives from the initiative and the New York Department of Transportation, while helping to shape the future and the vision of the Brooklyn Greenway.

The program Alpha participated in is a keystone of Recycle-a-Bicycle , which is an organization in New York City that is similar to the Community Cycling Center in many ways. They are also a community bike organization that runs a bike shop selling used bikes and offers earn-a-bike and other programs with a focus on low-income and communities of color. Other organizations from around the country attended, too. West Town Bikes in Chicago brought their Girls Bike Club, whose energy and enthusiasm lit up the entire room. Bikes Not Bombs from Boston and Seattle BikeWorks attended in force. Most organizations present were well established, but some, like Milwaukee Bike Works were in the early stages of development. We all came seeking connection or as Recycle-a-Bicycle’s Executive Director Pasqualina Azzarello described, “We’re in a circle of inspiration.”

I met Pasqualina and Keith Holt at the national bike summit in 2010 following my presentation of the Understanding Barriers to Bicycling project, along with Anthony Taylor from Minneapolis talking about their Major Taylor Cycling Club and Allison Mannos, who presented the Los Angeles-based City of Lights project. Together, we represented the recognition among traditional advocates that organizations like ours were having success reaching women, youth, and people of color. Pasqualina had brought two youth, including Alpha, to the summit and on the way home they decided a youth summit was the natural next step. We have stayed connected since then, seeking advice, support, and inspiration.

I saw Pasqualina again last summer when we were invited to attend the Alliance for Biking and Walking’s Leadership Retreat in Wyoming. With inspiration encircling us, we dreamed of a national network of bicycling organizations. The idea is not new, so there is much to learn from and build on. We now have new energy to define our collective impact in terms of numbers of youth reached, tons of metal recycled, jobs created, workers trained, numbers of volunteers, and projects completed. As Jeff Miller, Executive Director for the Alliance for Biking and Walking, declares, “If you don’t count it, it doesn’t count.”

We recognize that our organizations play a unique role in helping build healthy communities. We are on the “people” side of the spectrum, helping individuals and groups develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to ride bicycles and work together to create new kinds of programs and projects that address the needs of neighborhoods and communities that may be marginalized, or worse, shut out of the process.

Together we hope to strengthen our collective voice and support the work of advocates and others working on creative and compelling projects that build a healthy, connected community.

Meeting these other leaders has been an inspiration and has helped our team imagine how to strengthen our own programs. As we develop our strategic plan, which is shifting us from a direct service organization to one seeking lasting community change, we are encouraged to feel a part of something innovative and important. We will continue our excellent programs, but seek ways to cultivate community champions and support their visions for a healthy community.

I will attend the National Bike Summit again this year. It will be held March 20-22nd in Washington, DC. I will be proud to share our successes and challenges, seek counsel and support from others, and reconnect with my colleagues from the Youth Bike Summit.

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