Bike Works is an organization based in south Seattle that promotes the bicycle as a vehicle for change to empower young people and build resilient communities. Bike Works offers bike repair classes, riding trips, and job training programs for young people, as well as adults.
It only takes a minute talking to Deb Salls, Executive Director of Bike Works, to realize that the youth programs she runs are special.
“Leadership is built into every program,” says Salls, before launching into the incredible number of steps Bike Works takes to empower young people and encourage them to take ownership of the programs and space.
“Here we believe that every youth can succeed… When they first come in here we say ‘Oh yeah, of course you can do it. No reason you can’t do it,’” says Salls. “But some of these youth have been told for a long time that they can’t — they can’t do this, they can’t do that. They can’t really be good at anything. But coming into a new space, a new program where people truly believe in you. It’s a level playing field.”
For years Bike Works has been participating in the Youth Program Quality Initiative (YPQI), a statewide effort funded by the Raikes Foundation that helps expanded learning programs assess and improve their program’s quality. Improvement can take many forms, including creating more welcoming and supportive environments for young people to empowering them to think critically and problem solve.
These days the YPQI is the foundation of the new Sparkwind Movement, a statewide campaign dedicated to ensuring equitable access to expanded learning programs, like Bike Works, for all kids. The Sparkwind Movement is harnessing the collective energy of everyone from advocates to youth development professionals to put expanded learning on the map and develop a state-wide system for quality and improvement.
Bike Works has been there since the beginning, and Salls’ drive to continuously improve their programs shows. “The whole idea behind the YPQI system is that… you make sure your program is set up to be a quality program, so you know the transformation will happen,” says Salls.
Salls and her program staff are dedicated to providing a high-quality experience for young people at Bike Works by focusing on four main areas: maintaining a safe environment, supporting youth as they form and explore their identity, ensuring programs are interactive, and providing opportunities for leadership and engagement.
“The way we set up the classroom is really empowering,” says Salls. “We always say, ‘You don’t have to go to the adults in the room. Go to another youth... Check with the Bicycle Leaders. Check the books out. The adults aren’t there to fix it for you, instead you learn critical problem solving and you can figure it out yourself.’”
Beyond repair classes, Bike Works offers riding clubs and camps, as well as job preparedness programs, and Salls says that allowing young people to choose their path within Bike Works is another unique, and empowering, feature of her programs.
“We ask our participants what opportunity they want next,” says Salls. “We check with them on their journey and path they want to take through Bike Works.”
Bike Works’ Youth Program Coordinator, Martez Rice, echoes Salls’ emphasis on problem solving and leadership. “We start the classes off asking them to use their voice, and we give them these open opportunities to speak freely, to interact with each other, and to get things wrong and then make it right,” says Rice.
Bike Works also empowers youth through the Bicycle Leaders program. Bicycle Leaders are young people who have completed Bike Works repair or riding programs and in turn help other young people with tough mechanical problems or out on the road in camps and biking programs. Bike Works also has a Youth Advisory Committee that can make recommendations for programs and design completely new programs. In addition, two young people serve on the Bike Works Board of Directors.
Ensuring a quality program doesn’t stop once all four standards are met.
“We’re always trying to one up ourselves and do better in all of those areas,” says Salls. “You make an action plan, and it’s a continuous improvement process. We should never really say we’re done now. We continually look at what we’re doing how to improve.”
Research shows that high-quality expanded learning programs can improve student attendance and well-being, as well as help with academics.
But Salls doesn’t need the research to confirm what she sees every day in Bike Works’ classrooms. She says she’s seen Bike Works’ programs turn students who struggled with attendance, out-of-school-suspension, and intermittent homeless into students with nearly perfect attendance records.
“We’ve had several youth who were not on track to graduate, and then after being involved in our Job Skills Training program, they gain success in and out of the classroom, things turn around, and they do graduate,” says Salls.
She says the programs also help kids struggling with difficult situations at home. She describes one young person who moved to Seattle after witnessing violence in his hometown and joined Bike Works’ Job Skills Training program. She says Bike Works allowed him to focus on a different part of his life by getting to know the staff, building skills, and concentrating on quieter, slower moments. He eventually graduated from high school, despite being off track to graduate before Bike Works.
Emmet, a young man in the repair program, and a Youth Board Member, says Bike Work has taught him more than just how to fix a bike.
“I’ve learned how to be a leader,” he says. “[They’ve taught me] how to better myself. How to trust all these people in here. They can relate to me. I can go to them and say ‘Hey how’s it going,’ or say ‘Hey I’ve got this problem in my life can you help me out?’ They’re family.”
Commenting on the youth riding program, Salls says the young people readily apply the resiliency required to take on Washington State’s challenging terrain with life.
“We will hear kids say something like, ‘When I saw the next hill I thought I was going cry. I didn’t think I was going to make it. But the hills are like life, and over time you get more confident and you know that you’re going to make it,’” she said. “You know, the youth themselves make pretty poetic commentary on Bike Works, and we are glad they can be so reflective of their experiences with us.”
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