Cycles of Change

A group of urban kids has a two-wheeled strategy to reduce oil consumption while offering the world a different vision of America.

When Carlos Ortiz gets out of school on Wednesdays, there is no question where he will go. Through the streets of Roxbury, Massachusetts, till he comes to a dreary warehouse block this side of a vacant, rubble-strewn lot and stops in front of a battered brown door. A crudely painted, barely visible sign overhead reads "Bikes Not Bombs." Without any hesitation the 17-year-old rings the buzzer, waits for the door to open, and then steps through the narrow portal into the larger world.

"This place is like my second family," says Carlos, taking in the organized chaos on the other side: The wheel rims and bicycle frames hanging by the dozens from the ceiling, the knobby tires stacked one upon the other like a sleeve of Oreos, the Allen wrenches and sprockets and chains and helmets and seat posts and forks covering every available surface, the trueing stands and the workbenches-the whole picture framed by bicycles, hundreds of them, all used, resting three and four deep along the walls. A 12-speed green Fuji leans on a well-preserved 3-speed Sturmey-Archer, which itself is propped up by a blue Univega mountain bike. A banana bike. A bike that used to be owned by a Harvard student. A girl's bike with purple handlebars and pink streamers and a bell. The gleanings, all of it, from our American horn of plenty.

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"When we said we wanted to do something with bikes, people told us to work with kids. So we did," says Carl Kurz, who helped start Bikes Not Bombs nearly two decades ago to provide material aid-bicycles-to people in Nicaragua during the war with the Contra guerrillas. But over the years, the organization has evolved into a place where young people from the most forgotten streets of Boston spend their afternoons and evenings and summers. The material aid continues, as does the critique of American foreign policy that inspired it, but all of it flows through kids like Carlos learning how to take a bike apart and put it back together again. Sometimes a bike is just a bike, and sometimes it is more. Teens at Bikes Not Bombs learn to true wheels, and when they've mastered that, they also know about bikes as transportation and the politics of oil dependency, and about the capacity of young people with very little to help others with even less.

Carlos negotiates the shop floor as if there were a clear and straight aisle, and to him, perhaps, there is. He has been involved with Bikes Not Bombs since he was 12 and his mother enrolled him in "Earn-A-Bike," a 10-week course in which participants learn mechanics on a used bike that they get to keep upon graduating. Now Carlos is a Bikes Not Bombs employee, staffing its bike shop with other teens, all of whom, on this night at least, wear shirts that say "One Less Car." No longer paid in two-wheelers, they earn upwards of $9 an hour.

That money is self-generating. According to Kurz, the bike shop brings in about $85,000 a year, enough to pay for salaries, parts, and the 100-hour course the teen mechanics are required to complete before they can join the staff. Each year about 200 kids take part in programs run by Bikes Not Bombs, shipping some 1,500 donated bikes abroad.

"What you have to understand," says Kurz, "is that these are, for the most part, kids who have had a lot of trouble in school. At Bikes Not Bombs they've found a place where they can excel and learn new skills and make money. They empower themselves."

When Kurz, a compact Sturmey-Archer of a man, talks, sentences like "Foreign policy becomes a very brutal part of enforcing our energy policy" and "The bicycle could change how politicians are ready to go to war over oil" roll off his tongue in between exhortations like "Watch that spoke" and "It's not going to fit if that's a Schwinn." And just as surely as Carlos Ortiz and his teenage workmates have earned their bikes, Kurz has earned his rhetoric. A bike mechanic by trade, it was his idea, in 1984, to challenge American support of the Contras, person by person, bike by bike. His political analysis-that oil is the basis of American militarism, that bicycles can reduce oil dependency and promote economic self-sufficiency-has been consistent for 20 years. Here is someone who did not awake to Sept. 11 wondering, "Why do they hate us?" Here is someone who did not need to ask, in the aftermath, "What can I do?"

"Bikes Not Bombs started as a solidarity movement to counteract efforts to stop and destroy self-liberation movements in South America," Kurz says, referring to the organization's beginnings, when he and fellow bike mechanic Mira Brown gave away the unwanted bikes of Americans, Canadians, and Europeans to teachers and health workers in Nicaragua. "Our goal was not just to help with redevelopment, but to plant a seed for bicycles to be part of the transportation system there. At the same time we were also attempting to reach North Americans, to enlist them to change the foreign policy of the United States government and employ them in creating the foundation for peace and more sustainable development."

"It was Don Quixote-ish," he laughs.

Still, if the "not bombs" part of the mission did not exactly change the course of American foreign policy, the "bikes" part was wildly more successful than Kurz or Brown ever envisioned. The 40 bikes they distributed in 1984 grew to 13,000 by 1990 and approached a total of 20,000 by the end of the century. They stopped shipping the bikes for free-charity, they came to see, devalued both the bikes and their recipients-and they stopped refurbishing the bikes themselves, instead training local mechanics who could then parlay their skills into capital. Self-supporting bike shops opened all over Nicaragua, and then in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador.

That work continues. In 2000, nearly a thousand bikes were sent from Boston to Central America, some to a cooperative bike shop in Rama, Nicaragua, and some to the El Salvadoran Appropriate Technology Center in San Salvador. In 2001, hundreds of bikes were sent to Maya Pedal in Guatemala, some of which were converted into pedal-powered machines for small farmers to shell corn and pump water and depulp coffee. It is direct action, but of a subtle and practical sort. "We help create community, which is the total opposite of creating the tools of destruction," says Rick Jarvis, who recently replaced Mira Brown as the director of Bikes Not Bombs.

"We're doing what we've always done," adds Brown, who is now the group's community organizer. "Promoting economic development and a political movement necessary to have environmental sustainability. The magic is that we do all of it at the same time."

Wednesday evening is volunteer night at Bikes Not Bombs, and while Carlos Ortiz and Jose Santiago and his brother Luis lubricate chains and wait on customers in the part of the room devoted to the teen bike shop, a sizable crew of people start wandering in by ones and twos, gravitating toward the strata of donated bicycles along the walls. One by one they pick up wrenches and mallets and get to work "breaking down" bikes that are slated to go abroad. There is nothing obviously similar about these individuals except that they are here together. Young and old, black and Asian, white and Hispanic, male and female, neighborhood residents, people from the suburbs.

"We want to create situations where people from different race, age, and class backgrounds can work together," Brown says, and on this night, at least, that could be counted as one of the group's successes.

And so could this: Shortly after 7 o'clock, Max Lee pushes his bike through the door, singing out greetings to everyone. Lee is 24, African American, and a high school drop-out. But that's not the whole of it. He also happens to be a graduate of Bikes Not Bombs. For six years now he has worked at a bike shop in nearby Jamaica Plain-evidence enough, it would seem, of the program's ability to impart a marketable skill in a person the marketplace might otherwise have left behind. But it was never the idea of Bikes Not Bombs to stop there. Jobs are good; skills are good; bikes are good; but they are better when they are brought together to pave, in Mira Brown's words, "the road to peace and justice."

So consider Max Lee one of the pavers. In addition to working as a bike mechanic, he is a bike commuter. He is a leader in his community, working as a peer counselor in the Bikes Not Bombs youth group, which itself is working on transportation issues in Roxbury. And Lee is a regular Wednesday-night volunteer, helping to send bikes abroad, and a member of the organization's board of directors. It's been more than a decade since he first heard Carl Kurz talk about how "people need to see a different America, an America that doesn't just work for us, but for other people and other cultures, too." A decade in which Mira Brown declared, "I will become a peace activist by organizing cyclists."

"I didn't understand that stuff when I was younger," Lee says, "but now it is a reason to keep coming back. This is a way of life to me."