Bicycle Empowerment at Sibley Bike Depot

By Cecelia Watkins

As you may have experienced, the traditional bike shop model goes like this: you, the melancholy owner of a sticky geared, no shifting, wheel-missing, untrue, spoke popped, flat tire, screechy brake broken mess of metal (or who knows, maybe you just want a tune up), enter the shop and drop off your bicycle with the shop mechanics. You wait, maybe leave to take a stroll or run some errands. You come back and voila! Magically, your bike is fixed. You pay up for the services and walk out of the store. Your bike is fixed, yes, but beyond that all you’ve gained is a lighter wallet.

This is how it works at Sibley Bike Depot: You enter the building and roll your bike down a sweet-smelling hallway between a donut shop and a fabric store. Ten feet in you’ve passed these window front stores, and suddenly a colorful world of bikes opens before you. To your right is the sales floor, where Sibley sells used bikes and parts at affordable prices. To your left is the shop floor. You wheel your bike in, sign up on the list, and sit down for a short wait—Sibley is often throbbing with community members eager to work on their bikes—but luckily there are nice couches and stools made of tree stumps for you to wait on. While you wait you chat with the other people there, maybe about bikes, maybe about donuts, maybe about something totally unrelated. Eventually your name is called, and you bring your bike over to a stand. Here an experienced volunteer or staff person helps you figure out what’s wrong with your bike and walks you through the steps in fixing it. Unless you need a replacement part, this service is entirely free (and even the replacement parts are wonderfully cheap). When you leave the shop you’ve gained so much more than a working bike: you’ve gained new knowledge of bike repairs and along with it a sense of personal empowerment. And your wallet feels about the same as when you entered.

(more after the break…read on!)

Sibley Bike Depot is a community run, non-profit bike shop whose mission is to make biking accessible and fun for everyone. On Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday Sibley holds Open Shop, as described above, and Tuesday nights are a special open shop time only for people identifying as women or transgendered. Every Monday night at Sibley volunteers of all ability levels come together to repair donated and abandoned bikes, many of which are then given at no charge to participants in the Earn-A-Bike program, where anyone can volunteer for 20 hours to get their own working bike. Sibley also runs many other programs including many free classes for youth and adults, and a 6 month bike rental program.

But why is biking important? If you’re reading this blog you may already have a sense, but I’ll spout my thoughts anyway, just in case you aren’t yet sold. Biking allows us to move ourselves and whatever we can hook up to our bikes (panniers, backpacks, milk crates full of groceries, furniture or kids or whatever else in a trailer) in a way that is faster than walking but also not reliant on rapidly disappearing fossil fuels. It promotes healthy bodies and healthy spirits, combating obesity and a vast array of other health problems. It promotes connection to and interaction with the neighborhoods one bikes through, thus supporting local business and building community. It provides us with the independence of mobility without the ever-more-expensive costs of gas, car insurance, pollution and environmental degradation.

Why is Sibley’s model of inclusion, empowerment and accessibility important? Because for cycling to be a viable solution to our nation’s massive transportation problems, it needs to be exciting and accessible for every single person, regardless of their background. For me to truly trust my bicycle as a method of transportation in addition to recreation, I needed to have a basic knowledge of how my bike works and a baseline faith that I can flip it and fix it on the side of the road if something goes wrong.

Okay, so what you’ve been waiting for: an update of what Summer of Solutions Twin Cities is doing with Sibley. This summer we have two groups working with Sibley Bike Depot. One group is focused on figuring out how to both improve the volunteer experience at Sibley and better coordinate volunteers. We have compiled a list of almost 400 volunteer emails and phone numbers and have reached out to them to gain their feedback via an online survey. The responses have already been pouring in and we are working to tabulate the data to present recommendations for improvement to the Sibley staff and board of directors. We are also working to completely re-vamp the volunteer interest and hour tracking system to make it functional and useful. In addition to this, our efforts are leading to the first ever volunteer newsletter which will highlight upcoming volunteer opportunities, events, and feature a Volunteer of the Month.

The other Sibley group is working on outreach and visibility. In this group, we are promoting and staffing the Sibley booth at community events such as the Rondo Days celebration and the Como Park Bike Tour. At these events we talked to people about Sibley and bicycling in general, networked with other cycling organizations, taught people how to fix flat tires, and generated excitement by holding speed-based Change-a-Tire competitions. We’ve also worked on a number of new fliers for Sibley and have re-decorated the entry space with better signage. We’ve also been doing community outreach by going door-to-door in the nearby Frogtown neighborhood in St Paul, talking with community members about bicycling and letting them know about all the great opportunities Sibley offers. In recent weeks we have also worked to promote group bike rides with the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, the premier African-American cycling group in the Twin Cities. Last weekend we went on a great ride with them before the Rondo Days Celebration, and then we rode next to them and the Sibley youth apprentices in the Rondo Days Parade!

This Saturday, July 23, we have another group bike ride coming up. With the help of outreach we’re hoping many community members will join us, along with the rest of the Summer of Solutions Twin Cities crowd, to bike down the Mississippi to Fort Snelling and back. We have been working in coordination with our media team to try to get media attention on this ride for the national Summer of Solutions Day of Action—be sure to check back for pictures of us cycling through the streets of downtown St Paul wearing awesome capes: a rolling proclamation and celebration of the work we’re doing this summer.

The ride will leave from Sibley Bike Depot at 712 University Ave at 9:30am Saturday morning, and you are more than welcome to join us. So what are you waiting for? Get on your bike and ride!

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