Since the election, I have been talking a lot about the need for all of us, no matter your political persuasion, to find those places and opportunities where we can each learn to better respect and bridge our differences, to recognize our common humanity, and to do what we can to make our communities, our country, and our a world a little better place. As luck would have it, what was intended as strictly a social visit with old friends the Saturday after Thanksgiving resulted in me discovering such a place.
John Anderson is a lifelong friend of mine who lives in New Jersey. While John and I don’t get to see each other as much as either of us would like, somewhat conveniently, he was in southern Vermont right after Thanksgiving, visiting his mother and other family members. So, after spending Thanksgiving at my sister’s house outside Hartford, we decided to swing by en route back home to Boston to pay a visit. After our arrival in Vermont, John’s younger sister Bonnie started telling us about a non-profit organization she started a couple of years ago, the BF Community Bike Project. She wanted to know if we would be interested in a tour. Looking for something to do on a cold, rainy afternoon, we — me, my wife, two daughters, and John — took the short drive with Bonnie up the road to nearby Bellows Falls (population 3,074). As she gave us a tour of BF Community Bike Project, it became clear that this was just the kind of grassroots community building place that we as people — as communities — as a nation — as a world — not only so desperately need, but are right there in front of us, if we look for them.
At its storefront location in downtown Bellows Falls, BF Community Bike Project provides space where community members can repair bikes, and also obtain inexpensive used bicycles. Simple and pretty straightforward right? But there’s a lot more to BF Community Bike Project than initially meets the eye. Some things are obvious — it provides easy access to a form of transportation that is both environmentally friendly and a great way to exercise — and it helps recycle old bikes so they don’t end up as landfill. In addition, if you can’t afford one of the used bikes for sale at BF Community Bike, anyone (child or adult) can earn one through “sweat equity”. This involves learning bike repair, and then using your newly acquired skills to both rehab your soon to be acquired “vehicle”, and maintain it at low cost after you own it. Particularly for those who are poor, earning a bike is a nice alternative to the classic “hand out”, helping them build skills, while providing a feeling of accomplishment, dignity, and self-worth, and meeting one of BF Community Bike’s objectives of providing inexpensive transportation alternatives.
All of these things in and of themselves are wonderful — but here is the real magic of the place. By creating a place in the community where everyone can come together to work on bikes — a seemingly simple and straightforward proposition — BF Community Bike Project provides a community gathering place for people from all walks of life — rich, poor, middle class, children, adults, those with a myriad of life challenges, and those for whom life has been relatively trouble free — to come together and work together on a common task, allowing them to get to know, respect, and support each other, and to also recognize and celebrate each other’s gifts, and the common humanity we all share. This bringing together of community members to work on a level playing field in a very natural way, ensures that those living at life’s margins — the poor, the homeless, and others — have a place they can go to that provides them a sense of dignity, respect, and belonging to the larger community, while just as importantly (and maybe more so) provides a place that people like me (white, privileged, middle class), are forced to get off our high horses and realize we have a lot to learn from those we consider “less fortunate”. And frankly, this somewhat subversive form of community building, is in many ways a much more organic and better way of us bridging our differences then the classic “let’s all get together and talk things out” at a community meeting, which often results in a lot of talk and not much else.
A Different Kind of “Giving Back”
What I also love about BF Community Project is that as a 501©3 nonprofit, it is technically a charity, it provides an experience for many individuals of my ilk that is very different from our typical charity work, which usually consists of us helping those “less privileged”, allowing us to feel good (and yes sometimes a bit smug), give ourselves a pat on our back, and tell ourselves that we are generous and wonderful people while those less fortunate thank us profusely for being so selfless. BF Community Bike Project provides a fundamentally different experience — a place where everyone is equal, everyone contributes on an even playing field, where you develop relationships with people from walks of life you may not typically encounter, and where everyone learns from one another. While there is nothing wrong with helping out those who are traditionally considered “less privileged”, BF Community Project is the kind of place that really and truly can make you a better person, in a way that typical charity work often cannot.
So you’re probably thinking, how did Bonnie and those who joined her in creating the BF Community Bike Project make this happen? They must have raised a lot of money and did a lot of long-term planning, right? Yes they did put together a business plan and got a couple of small grants to get off the ground and have received a few other small grants since then. However, most of this has been done in a very organic way on a financial shoestring — with the vision of Bonnie and a few others, in-kind contributions and volunteering by community members and family members and scraping a few bucks together. Ironically, the lack of cash resources has been one of the strengths of BF Community Bike Project, serving as a catalyst for the community to come together to share their gifts and talents, to build something special, and make Bellows Falls a better place for all. It also doesn’t hurt that Bonnie has one of those wonderfully engaging personalities that you just can’t say no to.
Bonnie is also is an example of someone who has gone down the path less traveled that we can all learn from. Those of us working in social services like myself, think we are so friggin’ wonderful because we’ve made “financial sacrifices” by earning a bit less than we could’ve earned in the private sector. However, Bonnie is the real deal. Throughout her adult life, Bonnie has chosen to live at a basic subsistence level financially. In her case, living such a lifestyle is not a burden, but is instead an asset, allowing her to live a happy and fulfilled life unencumbered by many of the material things and complexities that many of us (including myself) take as a given and essential. Instead, what is important to her is having a life that is rich with friends, family, travel, experiences, and having a positive impact on the world — to the point where she has given up some paid employment so she can devote more time to BF Community Bike Project (from which she receives a small monthly stipend). Now, I admit that with a wife and three kids, and as someone who enjoys significant creature comforts along with a music addiction to support, I personally would have difficulty living a similar lifestyle — but I have to admire Bonnie’s ability to do so. And in her case, Bonnie certainly does not see her lack of financial resources as a cross to bear — you have never met a happier or more upbeat person, I can assure you.
Lessons To Be Learned
BF Community Bike Project is deceptively simply in its approach, while serving as a mechanism for multi-layered complex social change. There many lessons that we can all take from BF Community Bike Project — some obvious, some less so:
· That the most mundane, common and innocuous thing, in this case a relatively simple mechanical object — a bicycle — can serve as a vehicle (pun intended) and rallying point for community building and social change.
· That it doesn’t take a million dollars to make a difference — and in fact instead of having a million dollars, you are much better off having people with vision, energy, and enthusiasm — and a sense of fun.
· That the simplest ideas can result in real change — and do so quickly (think about that the next time someone starts talking about complex long-term strategic plans and massive capital campaigns).
· When putting together community projects, make sure they are fully inclusive of all members of the community.
· As the oft repeated cliché says, but it’s so true, we can all make a difference, each in our own way. We don’t need to have a million dollars, be a national leader, or live in a big city — all it takes is a bit of time, energy, and passion.
So, as we all look for those vehicles to make our communities and our nation more welcoming to all, and that allow us to bridge our own personal divides, keep any eye out for the BF Community Bike Project’s of this world — those wonderful, grassroots organizations that are truly changing the world. Volunteer a bit of your time and give them some of your sweat equity — you’ll find you’ll get a lot more in return than what you’re giving. And also, particularly as you consider end of the year donations, if you’ve got a few bucks to share, send them their way — they will certainly put them to good use.
“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” — Margaret Mead