Open Society Institute Impact Series
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Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy Collective (BYKE)

Photos by Colby Ware

September 7, 2016

As a graduate student in public health at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, when Evelyn (Chavi) Rhodes’ bicycle needed fixing, she took it to a nearby DIY bike shop for repair.

But she quickly noticed that many of the city’s young people who tried to use the space were getting kicked out. Rhodes, who earned her MPH from the Bloomberg School in 2013, was disheartened, but saw an opportunity to provide resources and space for an obvious passion in the community. So in 2014, she founded the Baltimore Youth Kinetic Energy Collective (BYKE).

BYKE is designed to give young people ages 12-17 a safe place to learn bicycle mechanics, practice respectful safe ridership and build community. Initially operating a few hours twice a week in a shared space in Station North, Rhodes used her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to grow BYKE and extend its mission. She now operates a dedicated bike repair and training shop in Oliver, where youth can learn bicycle repair skills, or even earn a bike of their own by working eight hours or more on others’ bicycles.

“A bike is a literal and figurative vehicle for change,” she says. “And it’s a vehicle that young Baltimoreans have already identified for themselves; I just facilitate and bring the resources together.”

Rhodes estimates that about 150 Baltimore City youth have come through BYKE’s doors. Some come once, fix their bikes and never return. Others, such as 15-year-old Anthony Curbeam stick around for one reason or another.

When Rhodes sees something special in a cyclist – maturity, drive, passion, growth – she encourages him or her to stretch beyond just their own bike, and become an intern, a mentor or a youth mechanic.

“This isn’t just about bike repair. It’s also about workforce development,” she says. “And we’re not just teaching them vocational skills, but also about how to be an employee.”

At the Oliver shop, Rhodes employs part-time mechanics and five youth interns and manages a slew of volunteers. She runs the shop four days a week.

At BYKE, youth can attend free bicycle mechanics classes after-school or during the summer. As they learn, club members are given larger leadership roles as they progress in their skill or show deftness at helping others. Members also can work on bicycles freely with guidance from mechanics from the community. As a side benefit – one that seems to keep many youth coming back – Rhodes is a firm, but compassionate friend and trusted adult to the youth.

Rhodes, who grew up in the Boston area, quickly noticed when she arrived that bike-riding was a part of the culture in the city. Using the shared language of bike-love, Rhodes connects with young people. They tell her their problems, their secrets and their hopes for the future.

“It’s really something that’s uniquely Baltimore and a source of pride,” she said, about bike-riding. “If you sit at the corner of St. Paul and North Avenue for 10 minutes, you’ll see young people riding bicycles everywhere.”

(Pictured: Rhodes coaches Tisean Muhammad, 12, on how to be an effective tour guide to a shop visitor.)

Jonathan “Jon-Jon” Hart, 16, is a junior at Friendship Academy. Two years ago, when the gear box on his bike was broken, a friend told him about BYKE. “I came here so I could fix it. And then I started learning how to fix bikes so I kept coming back. I guess I wanted to give my knowledge to other people.”

Rhodes has seen a change in Jon-Jon in the last year – and she tapped him to be a mechanic intern, earning $10 an hour. “I asked him to look out for the younger ones and be a mentor – to talk to them and help them figure out life, since he was once where they were. And he has really stepped up.”

Jon-Jon said working at BYKE “helps me stay out of trouble.”

“When I come here I gotta do good stuff,” he says. “I got people counting on me not to do anything bad.”

BYKE members learn how to use, store and care for expensive tools. Pictured, Tisean Muhammad, 12.

The youth participate in regular meetings where they discuss what happened in the shop, what’s going well and what could be going better. “What was your rose today?” leaders will ask the youth. “What was your thorn?”

As a little boy, Anthony Curbeam watched the men around him as they repaired and built bicycles from old parts. Before too long, he was pretty good at fixing bikes. But as a teen, he started messing up in school and hanging with the wrong group of boys. “They was robbing people,” he said. “I got caught, and I got in trouble.”

Trying to change his life, Curbeam, 15, turned back to bicycles.

“In the streets, people getting’ in trouble. But in the shop people trying to stay out of trouble,” he said. “So I just come here to help people.”

Many of BYKE’s visitors are boys and young men. But not all. Here, Alicia Patterson, 12, (center) shares her wisdom about bicycle repairs with shop visitors.

Four days a week, Rhodes and the shop’s mechanics teach youth in the city about repairing, building and caring for bikes. But the youth also have many things to impart.

Here, instructor Davin Jones and other youth members show off a few of the bike-riding styles Rhodes admires, but has yet to master. The physics-defying tricks on the bike include names such as Superman, One-Hand, Knee-Knock, Touch the Ground and No Hands.

Davin Jones, 23, earns his living working in housekeeping at Johns Hopkins University. But he spends nearly all his free time working as a mechanic instructor at BYKE.

“I like sharing the knowledge that I got with the kids, trying to prevent them from doing the stuff that I did as far as making the wrong decisions,” he says. “A lot of these kids, they are just misunderstood.”

Jones, who taught himself much of what he knows about bike repair, owns five bikes: a road bike, a trail bike, a “wheelie” bike, a bike for fun and an “ugly bike” -- for riding into places where theft is a high possibility.

“When you get on the bike,” he says, “you’re free. All your troubles go away.”