Smile Politely

Keeping the bikes rolling

Any volunteer-run organization struggles to keep up with day-to-day responsibilities — you may have even noticed that around these parts. Committed volunteers balance work or school and family with organizational duties, but it’s a balancing act that can be easily toppled during busy times.

Sometimes, all it takes is one committed person with the time, ability and interest available to keeping everything running smoothly and tip the organization from frustration over to success. For the Bike Project of Urbana-Champaign, such an opportunity arose when the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center was awarded eight year-long AmeriCorps positions to begin in fall 2009.

The Bike Project is a non-profit, member-run cooperative bike shop located in the basement of the IMC. They rehabilitate used bicycles for sale and provide space, assistance, and tools for members who want to learn to repair their bicycles, or just need the facilities to do so.

Emma Barnes, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Philosophy this past spring, decided to consider an AmeriCorps position after graduation. “I was looking for an Americorps job, and I was going by city, and I thought Urbana was a pretty random place,” she noted. “I really like the Bike Project because I like biking, and I thought it was a pretty unique position.”

Barnes was hired as a Volunteer Coordinator for the Bike Project from among more than a dozen applicants, and she got started in early October. You might see Barnes tooling around the streets of Urbana on her black mountain bike, as she practices what she preaches.

While AmeriCorps positions are not very lucrative financially (they are paid an $11,400 living allowance), it appealed to Barnes for other reasons. “I like the idea of serving the community,” she explained. “There’s a million ways to serve the community, but this is a pretty unique way to, because you get to reach out to people with bikes.” The fact that the position offered health coverage was also a plus.

AmeriCorps volunteers are often working in demanding environments where they can feel isolated, but since there are eight AmeriCorps all working under one roof at the UC-IMC, that’s not as much of an issue. Barnes said, “It’s cool [to work with a group of fellow-volunteers] because everyone else has different positions, so you get to learn about the IMC through their experiences. Also, it’s cool because everyone’s starting something new at the same time, so if you’re confused about one thing chances are someone else is, too, even though we have different jobs. And it’s a good way to get to know people, too, because I’m not from here.”

Barnes has big plans for the Bike Project. “One of my goals… is to get more people involved in The Bike Project and explore bike safety more,” she said. That means reaching out to get more volunteers on board, both to help repair bikes and perform other needed tasks at the cooperative. “I’m pretty confident in my volunteer-recruiting skills, because I’ve done it before,” Barnes confirmed.

Her first endeavor is getting a women’s-only night off the ground. The first installment will be Tuesday, November 3 (see the Facebook invite here). “The idea is to promote the Bike Project and get more people involved,” she said, “and one group that isn’t very involved is women or trans-gendered people, or anyone else other than men. For the most part, it’s pretty male-oriented, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone can learn about bikes, and it’s fun.”

When asked about what barriers exist to getting more women involved at the Bike Project, Barnes had this to say: “Well, as a woman [laughs], it was a little intimidating, partially because I just didn’t know anyone, and partially because it was pretty male-dominated, and it was pretty hard to figure out the dynamics — was there someone in charge? Who’s working? Sometimes you just can’t tell. We’re hoping to make it more of an open environment, so people don’t feel like they can’t come or don’t want to come, and spur their curiosity about bikes.”

With her assistance, the Bike Project will strive to be a more welcoming place for all people who want to learn more about maintaining their own bike and using a bicycle as daily transportation.


The other AmeriCorps positions at the UC-IMC are:

  • News Media Coordinator
  • Community Center Support Personel / Property Manager
  • Books to Prisoners Volunteer Coordinator
  • Web/Technical Projects Developer
  • All-Ages Performance Venue Coordinator
  • School for Designing a Society Program Coordinator
  • Gesundheit Institute Program Developer

Mark Laughlin previously profiled Judith Pond, the Books to Prisoners volunteer coordinator. We hope to feature weekly profiles of the rest of the AmeriCorps personnel through the end of the year, so keep an eye out for those.

Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer at the Bike Project; I’m hoping the profiles of the rest of the working groups’ volunteers will make up for this conflict.

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