As a graduate student in public health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, New York/Boston native Evelyn (Chavi) Rhodes did what many Baltimoreans do to better explore their new home: She got a bicycle. When it needed fixing, she took it to a nearby DIY bike shop for a tune-up.
But she quickly noticed some troubling patterns.
“A lot of young people who tried to use the space were getting kicked out,” says Rhodes, who now lives in Charles Village. “It was actually kind of a toxic environment. And I soon found that the resources for cyclists in Baltimore are distributed unevenly—they tend to cut toward the white, millennial, hipster cyclist. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t cyclists in other demographics.”
Inspired to create a space for those cyclists, Rhodes dove into the city’s long and contentious history with bikes. In a city rocked by class and racial divides, bikes are not immune. Despite dirt bikes being outlawed in the city in 2000, large groups of bikers—mostly young, black men—ride through the city daily, popping wheelies and evading police. Young Baltimoreans, aspiring to join the dirt bikers, often start out on pedal bikes.
“It’s really something that’s uniquely Baltimore and a source of pride,” says Rhodes, 27. “If you sit at the corner of St. Paul and North Avenue for 10 minutes, you’ll see young people riding bicycles everywhere.”
Without a defined space to fix their bikes, young people often ride bikes with no brakes, faulty handlebars or even missing a front wheel. Rhodes, who earned her MPH from the Bloomberg School in 2013, saw an opportunity to provide resources and space for an obvious passion in the community, founding the Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy Collective (BYKE) in 2014.
BYKE is designed to give young people ages 12-17 a safe place to learn bicycle mechanics, practice respectful safe ridership and build community. For the last 18 months, the program has operated a few hours twice a week in a shared space in Station North. Rhodes will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to grow BYKE, opening a dedicated shop in the same, centrally located area, buying new materials and tools and recruiting new members and volunteers, including mechanics from the community.
“The OSI Fellowship allows us to expand to different age groups, expand our hours and become a more stable, established hub for youth cyclists,” Rhodes says. “Having our own space will allow young people to have more responsibilities in the space, store their projects at the shop and really take ownership of long-term work.”
BYKE has three core components. In BYKE Club, youth can attend free bicycle mechanics classes during after-school hours. As they learn, club members are given larger leadership roles around the shop, earning color-coded aprons to indicate their status: helping themselves or helping others. “[The aprons] are kind of like karate belts; you have to gain the skills to help others,” Rhodes says. “And they’ve really become a status symbol. Young people are fighting to rock that blue apron.”
In BYKE Open Shop, members can work on bicycles freely with guidance from mechanics from the community. And on BYKE Rides, members and their families go on rides through Baltimore, learning safe-riding practices and discovering new parts of the city.
Rhodes also hopes to use the OSI Fellowship to train and hire a current BYKE member as a full-time manager.
“The goal is that one of the 17-year-olds working in the shop today will be helping to lead this program by the end of the Fellowship,” Rhodes says. “And they’re already stepping up and asking for more responsibilities.”
Rhodes hopes those leadership skills will follow BYKE members out of the shop.
“A bike is a literal and figurative vehicle for change. And it’s a vehicle that young Baltimoreans have already identified for themselves; I just facilitate and bring the resources together.”
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