Bikes Not Bombs is a Boston-based bike shop that does a lot more than sell bikes. In fact, calling BNB a bike shop is a bit of a misnomer, since it functioned as an international outreach organization long before it started selling bikes locally. Founded in 1984 by Carl Kurtz, BNB started out sending used and recycled bikes to Nicaragua in protest of the US backing of the Contra War during the 1970′s and 80′s. Since then, the bicycle activism of BNB has only multiplied. In their own words:
Who We Are: Bikes Not Bombs promotes bicycle technology as a concrete alternative to war and environmental destruction. For 23 years, BNB has been a nexus of bike recycling and community empowerment both in lower income neighborhoods of Boston and in the nations of the Global South. BNB’s programs involve young people and adults in mutually respectful leadership development and environmental stewardship, while recycling thousands of bicycles.
Aside from international, local community and retail work that BNB does, they also offer bike mechanics training classes to the community at large. I recently signed up to take one of these classes in order to get a little more intimate with my bike, and decided it was about time BNB got recognized on green.mnp. The organization holds ideals near and dear to the heart of green.mnp and the shop staff is always more than helpful when it comes to any bike-related query. I caught up with Matt Coe, a manager of the Jamaica Plain bike shop (and my bike mechanics sensei), and Lee Archung, BNB Board member and Treasurer, after one of my mechanics classes and asked them a few questions about the work that BNB does locally and globally:
Can you tell me a little about the history of BNB and how it has maintained itself and grown over 23 years?
Lee Archung: Bikes Not Bombs started in 1984 during the Nicaraguan Contra War and that whole series of US interventions in Central America; the organization was founded on the logic essentially that, as a country, the United States is sending down all this armament and technical training used by the military causing all this death and destruction, why don’t we send something practical? I think the first shipment was a few hundred bikes that went into Nicaragua, and over the years they went into Nicaragua, El Salvador and as the momentum built, and as the organization got established as a 501c3 non-profit, that program expanded.
Matt Coe: Bikes Not Bombs started in response to US policy in Nicaragua, during the Sandinista period, against the US government support of the [Contra] opposition. It was started around the same time as Food Not Bombs and other “not bombs.” It started off operating out of a bunch of other bike shops, actually, collecting parts and trying to get containers together to send over there. Carl, the founder, spent time over there. That went on for a while and then at one point they realized they had all this programming aimed at overseas, but almost none that had any impact on the surroundings in Boston. At that point there was a big change toward local youth programming, like Earn a Bike, Girls in Action, more social advocacy stuff. My involvement in the retail shop and training center came out of that, in that they started doing vocational training and then started the shop as a fundraising tool. Since I’ve been here, we’ve gone from being open 15 hours a week, to now we’re open up to 75 hours, so it’s been a huge change for the shop.
LA: Some time around 1987, 88, or maybe a little later, we said we’re doing all these things overseas, why don’t we do something domestic, and that’s how the concept for Earn-A-Bike got started, at least in Boston. The basic logic being that we can teach basic mechanics and ride safety to younger people, aged 15-18, get them interested in biking and working. We’ve got about 4 or 5 no-longer-young people who have gone through that process of Earn-A-Bike and vocational training who are now full-fledged mechanics. Two of them work here, and one of them is on our board, Max Lee. Max is now a shop owner, he has his own shop in Hyde Park. There’s a girls program, called Girls In Action; there’s a youth alumni program called YDIP, for Drop-In Time, so anybody who has taken any of the youth programs can come in once a week on Wednesday to hang out and work on their bikes, but we also try to integrate an academic component, so they bring their homework. And there is the Voc-Ed program, which is once a year. It is a 6-hour, very intensive, career-oriented program to get people who are interested in getting their first steps into the bicycle industry. So when they finish that program, they have enough skills to work in a shop, which is enough to make them dangerous.
As Bikes Not Bombs has gotten to be a lot more locally oriented, do you still do all the global outreach work?
MC: Yeah, Bikes Not Bombs has grown in a couple different directions. I don’t have a great grasp on how things were 15 years ago, or 8 years ago, but I think there’s a much greater presence in the community as far as getting people on bikes, getting people riding bikes – and in an affordable manner. But we sill do have a large overseas presence. I think we shipped more bikes overseas last year than we ever have before. It seems to me that recently we’ve had a lot more staff and volunteers overseas assisting in development programs. So, I don’t think we’ve lost our international focus at all, we’ve just diversified with all the local stuff.
How many countries do you supply bikes to?
MC: I think right now there’s 5 or so main recipients. There’s Village Bikes in Ghana, there’s a bike project in South Africa, there’s Maya Pedal in Guatemala, there’s an Earn A Bike program on Nevis Island in the Caribbean. It’s always changing, there are 25 to 40 different groups through the history of BNB. Pine Ridge Reservation 15 to 20 years ago, lots of places, New Orleans right after Katrina.
Is Boston the main hub for Bikes Not Bombs in the US, or are there other locations?
MC: Carl had done a lot of work mostly overseas and had been successful at it, and then he decided to try and get other people involved and at that point there were 10 or 15 Bikes Not Bombs throughout the US. There’s still a small inactive one in New Hampshire and another small inactive one in Austin, Texas. Which is why we have a sign at the Hub that says “Bikes Not Bombs: World Headquarters,” which is kind of silly now. So there were a lot of other ones in the US, and then most of them sort of died out or turned into other projects. There are, however, a lot of other good groups doing pretty similar work to what we do, like Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago, for example.
In terms of US bike culture, what do you think about the US, compared to other countries, in terms of using bikes as a means of transportation?
MC: There’s places where bikes aren’t used at all for transportation, and there’s places where bikes are used really effectively, like Amsterdam. I love riding my bike – it’s fun, get to be outside, there’s a lot of reasons – it’s not soul-killing and boring, like a lot of other transportation options. But, it’s also difficult because to really make change a lot more people would have to ride bikes, but because of conditions, how streets are set up, and all these other things, it’s not at all reality like it is in other countries. In Europe for example, where you see old folks riding bikes, people riding bikes in high heels.
Yeah, it seems like there are cities where they’ve done a lot of infrastructure changes to make it friendlier for bicyclists
MC: Yeah, Chicago is a good example where the mayor sort of made a statement that he wanted this to happen – and now Chicago is a very bike-able city, there’s bike highways going through it, there’s lots of places that are easy to navigate, lots of bike paths. There’s lots of places in California like that too. And then there’s places that aren’t at all like that.
What do you think about Mayor Menino’s Bike Summit?
MC: Yeah, I don’t know. Bikes Not Bombs got a late invitation to get involved…I went to a bike shop owners’ meeting talking about our involvement in it, but it wasn’t especially interesting. Some of the other meetings other BNB staff went to they found fruitful and useful and had a lot of good energy. I don’t know the history of this in Boston, but I don’t know if there’s been a time before when the mayor has put funding into anything, like bike lanes or attention for traffic issues; there’s no place to park your bike in Back Bay, or half of Boston. There seems to be a lot of good energy – it will be interesting to see what comes out of it, and how much changes.
You guys have these programs overseas and support biking overseas; do you think that if the US did more to make bicycling friendly it would influence other countries, especially developing countries?
MC: Western culture in general is very car-oriented. It seems like the US has a lot more to learn from some other first world countries who we would try to emulate or catch up to. We definitely have a lot to learn from developing countries, as well.
How long have you been riding bikes?
MC: Since I was a little kid. It’s funny, the kids who work here, who are in high school, ride bikes over and talk about bikes all the time, and it’s a part of their lifestyle. Definitely in my high school, kids didn’t ride bikes. I had a friend who rode a BMX bike, but you didn’t ride your bike to school. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, around when I went to college and moved away from home, that I started taking it seriously again. Then I went on a long bike trip and started gaining some confidence in mechanics.
How many high school students get involved in the programs here at BNB?
MC: There are a lot of kids who are in high school who work here and at the Hub, maybe 15 or 20.
LA: Elijah is our success story. He spoke at [a cycling] conference yesterday. He started in Earn-A-Bike, completed two Earn-A-Bikes, volunteered and worked in the shop and now he’s the second Earn-A-Bike instructor.
How can people volunteer or get involved in the different programs?
MC: The way to get involved is at the Hub, every Wednesday night from 7-10 is volunteer night. Bikes get sorted and prepped for shipment overseas. There’s also fairly regular container loadings. Then from there volunteers who are interested in more responsibilities get recruited into doing more.