Boston, 2050: Diverse, mixed-income neighborhoods are critical parts of a bicycle throughway that traverses the entire city, thriving bike shops are staples of every community, and bike racks are proudly featured outside of every business across the region.
Thanks to a group of high school students in Beantown, this future is not so far-fetched. Chain Reaction, an initiative of Bikes Not Bombs and one of ioby’s first projects outside of New York City, is grounded in the notion that the future of social justice in Boston lies in a comprehensive, citywide bicycle infrastructure.
Since 1984, Bikes Not Bombs has been training and employing local high school students to refurbish old bicycles and send them to high-need communities, both at home in Boston and abroad. The Jamaica Plain, or more commonly referred to as “J.P.,” neighborhood of Boston has long been the focal point of Bikes Not Bombs’ operations and public programs. With a bike shop that offers repairs and services, and educational programs for youth and other members of the community, the organization has become a fixture in the neighborhood.
Bikes Not Bombs’ Youth Development Specialist and Grant Writer, Sarah Braunstein, chatted with ioby last week to discuss how Chain Reaction got its start. “We’re driven by youth,” said Braunstein. “They’re the ones who were motivated to say, ‘How can we take what we do in J.P. and take it out to more people?’”
Braunstein knew that scaling up community outreach programs in J.P. to include neighborhoods citywide would take resources beyond the relatively small reach of a single organization. She recalls wondering how to open up retail bike shops in high-need neighborhoods—low-income areas of Boston that lack adequate bicycle infrastructure—with the limited resources available to them as a nonprofit. In particular, Braunstein remembered asking the group, “How do we get space for free?”
Neil Leifer, who Braunstein lauds as an “almost full-time volunteer,” helped secure a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of Boston earlier this year. Thanks in part to his proactive outreach to Clubs across the city, Chain Reaction has been able to open up shop in neighborhoods far beyond the borders of Jamaica Plain. Since starting up the initiative in March, six clubs across the city have taken an interest in bringing Bikes Not Bombs’ youth employees into their communities.
For a few days each week, Braunstein and a team of youth employees—all in high school, all ages 16 and 17, and all alumni of other Bikes Not Bombs programs—come to a Boys and Girls Club and offer their bike repair services to members of the community. “They do all the work, all the mechanics, and all the exchanging of money,” said Braunstein. “I’m really just there to supervise or help out if they need me.” As they work, the team also teaches repair skills to local kids and residents.
Braunstein and her group have found that they have stumbled upon a demand for youth-driven bicycle infrastructure that is far beyond their wildest expectations. “We’re at our second club now,” Braunstein told ioby. In these neighborhoods, there are “basically no bike shops, so we’re totally bombarded with work. The first club we worked at already wants us to come back.”
She continued, “There are youth in these neighborhoods who haven’t been reached because there hasn’t been a program that has worked with their type of knowledge acquisition.” Braunstein added that the youth she has encountered at these clubs “are focused, excited, and reliable. We are offering an opportunity to work with their hands.”
Chain Reaction was born out of a simple hypothesis. Braunstein and her team of teenaged bicycle entrepreneurs believed that a common assumption—that people in lower-income neighborhoods don’t bike or don’t want to bike—is simply not true. Indeed, said Braunstein, Chain Reaction’s mission is predicated on a theory that the problem “is just that there’s a lack of access.”
“On its own,” continued Braunstein, “the bike is an affordable mode of transportation and it makes a lot of sense for these neighborhoods.” For families and individual who struggle to make ends meet, the bike is an inexpensive and low-maintenance transit alternative to driving, and even public transportation. The success of the initiative in the month or so since its launch indicates that Braunstein’s reasoning may in fact be justified.
“The communities’ responses have been amazing. Every possible reason for someone coming to us has happened,” she told us proudly. “This is the beginning of something bigger.”
Just one month into its life, Chain Reaction is already living up to its name. The project is pushing bicycle activism to the limit, showing us all that there is profound power in pairing wheels with pure, unadulterated passion.
You can give to Chain Reaction on ioby by clicking here: https://www.ioby.org/project/chain-reaction.