Cycling for Social Change

Changing Gears

Five days a week, 27-year-old Ebony Smith arrives at Changing Gears Bike Shop at 10:50 a.m., ten minutes before opening. Walking into the large warehouse on the site of a former US Navy Base in the San Francisco Bay Area, she flicks on the lights, fires up the air compressor, opens the register, and reviews the repair orders. For the next several hours she will repair bikes with professional skill and care, and guide customers through bike choices like a seasoned rider, learning about their needs and preferences, and helping them to find the perfect fit.

photo of people working on bike partsphoto Chris BarbalisEbony Smith has worked at at Changing Gears – a “triple-bottom line” business – for nearly a decade now.

Her days resemble those of thousands of bike shop employees around the world. But what is uncommon is that Smith had almost no experience riding a bike when she first came to Changing Gears. Arguably, she didn’t even enjoy riding one. Yet she has thrived in the position for nearly a decade now. She has numerous glowing five-star reviews on Yelp, and regular customers are endeared to her heartfelt assistance. What’s more, many of the shop visitors are youth from formerly homeless families living in low-income housing on the former base, now known as Alameda Point. Ebony lived in this neighborhood throughout her childhood, and to these youngsters and families she is a positive role model, someone determined to succeed in spite of educational and financial struggles.

When she first began at Changing Gears at 19 years old, Smith was living with her parents, who struggled to maintain stable housing. She had failed to earn a high school diploma when she didn’t pass California’s high school exit exam. However, when a three-month job training position opened at the bike shop in 2009, Smith took a chance to, as she says, “turn her life around.” She applied and was quickly hired.

Smith’s continued success at Changing Gears nine years later embodies the shop’s mission to “operate a bicycle-based social enterprise that meets the needs of the underprivileged of our local area.” The shop was founded in 2006, guided loosely by the so-called “triple-bottom line” of social enterprises, which includes social, environmental, and financial considerations.

The social component of this model inspires the shop’s job training and internship programs as well as operation of a work-trade program for youth and low-income adults. The training program emphasizes general employment skills as well as bike-shop-specific skills. It also helps introduce participants to subjects like financial planning and goal setting. The shop tries to have at least one job trainee at any given time. The work-trade program offers merchandise credits in exchange for volunteer time. Youth use these credits to purchase items they normally wouldn’t be able to afford. The time they spend volunteering in the shop through this program can also be used to fulfill school community service requirements or court-mandated community service hours. Dozens of youth take advantage of this program each season.

The shop also has a strong environmental focus, which includes bicycle reuse and recycling. Each year, the shop receives up to 1,000 bike donations from the general public, and a majority of these bikes are refurbished and resold. Since opening, the shop has diverted more 10 tons of material – old bikes in disrepair – from local landfills. Throughout the years Changing Gears has also engaged youth and families in bicycle field trips and provided free valet bicycle parking and maintenance at local farmer’s markets in order to encourage bike riding as a practical and low-impact mode of transportation.

Finally, the shop’s financial focus has inspired a commitment to excellent customer (and bicycle) service, which has kept the shop financially stable since it became an Earth Island project in the summer of 2010. Although grant support was vital during Changing Gears’ early years, the shop is now self-sustaining.

Through its blending of effective small business practices with a social and environmental mission, Changing Gears stays inspired to use bicycles as a vehicle for social change.

Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project:

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