The challenges international bike collectives and co-ops are facing when it comes to Earn-a-Bike programmes are universal. Here are some of my notes from Bike!Bike! 2016 from the workshop about Youth Earn-a-Bike programmes.
Remember that feeling when you first learned to ride a bike? Remember your first flat tyre? Remember the sense of independence you lost when you stopped riding your bike as a teen or young adult and learned to drive a car? Earn-a-Bike programmes are built to give young adults and youth their independence back. Some kids don’t have access to bikes (as well as many adults) so it’s common practice for a bicycle co-op to create a programme suited to get kids back on bikes. It also is key when searching for funding from local foundations and grant makers. But what does it mean to earn a bike?
Typically, bike collectives host a group of students over the course of several weeks (depending on when school terms are) and teach them how to maintain and repair their bike in a group setting. Various programmes offer a bike upfront while some encourage them to build from scratch. Some classes cost money and others are subsidized by various projects at the co-op. Some offer 1-on-1 coaching and open hours just for youth while other collectives only do group classes. Some have been doing it for years while others (like RAD Bikes, where I volunteer) are only just getting off the ground. It all varies city to city but we gathered to discuss the common challenges and brainstorm ways to address those.
The biggest challenge bike collectives face is getting a level of commitment from a student that would deem their time worthy of an ‘earned’ bike. Enthusiasm for putting a bike together or learning bike maintenance and repair wanes quickly after the first week of any workshop series. Attention spans are short and mechanics are competing with things like online games, social media, and smartphones. Even worse, some kids get a sense of entitlement because they’ve showed up to a workshop (and paid little to no money).
One way to fix that is to really get an idea why a young adult cares in the first place. What’s their motivation for being in the class? Do they desperately need a bike because Mum and Dad can’t take them to school? Or do they want to show off a new bike to their mates? Do they have ambitions of becoming a mechanic one day? All awesome reasons but you need to get that clear from the beginning.
It’s also important students have buy-in to the space you’ve created. Show them the importance of hands-on work and failure. Keep a consistent structure (it helps EVERYONE!) and have open, honest conversations. Talk to them like you would an adult. One particular collective in Baton Rouge creates a sharing circle at the beginning and end of every session and celebrates with snacks. Snacks go a LONG way!
You need everyone to understand that this isn’t charity work and they aren’t charity cases.
How many workshops is too much for a young person? Consensus at Bike!Bike! 2016 was that 8–10 session (over 5–7 weeks) is plenty! Hours for payment of a bike comes out about equal depending on what type of material you cover in each workshop.
So that brings up the question about what to cover. With youth engagement, it’s very important to design a programme that the students want. So ask. Co-design it. Start the first workshop facilitating a conversation about what they want to get out of the upcoming weeks and what to expect. Don’t even put your hands on a bike before this is covered.
Do they want to fix a flat or build a frame? Do they want to paint a frame or change the pedals? All varying levels of information so it’s important they know what to expect in 10 or so sessions. We often explain that at the end, you will ride away with a bike. Unfortunately, it sometimes sets us up for a big failure: Doing the work for them.
The school term goes by so fast (it’s almost like it picks up pace sometimes!) and students are left with a bike in pieces at the end and can’t ride away (let along walk away with all the parts in their hand). Then the mechanics are left putting it together for them. Big NO-NO!
Emphasizing again that this isn’t charity work and they need to earn the bike means putting in the hard work and hours to make it happen. Never finish the bike for them. Ever! Extend the deadline or buy new parts but never do the work. Never take a tool out of their hand and never make them feel like they aren’t earning it.
And lastly, have a prize wall. If all else fails, you can give a young person the accessories they need to be safe and confident on the road/trail. This also gives youth an incentive to aim for besides a complete bike (or if they already have a ready-to-ride bike). You can award cool helmets, fancy locks, lights and awesome reflective gear that makes for extra special prizes.
If you are interested in getting involved as a volunteer or know a young person who wants to earn a bike, please reach out to RAD Bikes in Christchurch or I can help you find the local co-op in your area.