Last Friday morning began for me at, of all places, the Daly City BART station, where at 10 a.m., I found myself tying decorative little strips of shiny fabric to the handlebars of my bike.

I was under-slept and consequently grumpy and surrounded by 20-plus people I had never met but with whom I was about to embark on a three-day bike trip, where I would be biking over 100 miles and tent camping outdoors in what the weather forecast was saying would be rain. I wanted to lie down in the Daly City BART station parking lot and take a nap.

By Sunday night, after successfully biking over 100 miles along the coast and tent camping in rain with the 20-plus people I had come to call new friends, my life felt changed – changed in that vaguely not-yet-processed kind of way where you can feel that the vibrations of the experience are still to come, like a series of waves just forming on the horizon.

What can I say about the bike tour, sitting here three days later? First, we biked from Daly City to Watsonville (25 miles south of Santa Cruz) as a benefit for Cycles of Change – an Oakland-based nonprofit that seeks to improve the health of our youth and our communities through promoting the use of bicycles as transportation.

Second, it was a wildly and beautifully diverse crew of bikers that included both Cycles of Change support staff and those of us, like myself, who had fundraised on behalf of Cycles of Change. Two of the bikers were 12- and 13-year-old middle schoolers who had gotten bike education at school via Cycles of Change. Of the 24 of us on the tour, only one of us was a white male, in an activity that is generally dominated by white people. We were an all-ages all-genders all-ethnicities all-nationalities fleet of pedalers, clad in everything from a full bike racing outfit to sequined skirts and giraffe ears.

Finally, it was one of the best ways imaginable to spend a weekend – camping at sustainable community farms, visiting fellow bike collectives, picknicking on roadsides, picking wildflowers, spotting whales in the ocean, having dance parties in kitchens and yoga sessions in yurts. Over three days, 24 people took onto the road a two-wheeled exercise in community-building and self-actualization, and reaped all of the benefits such an exercise might bestow.

Building community empowerment, in its simplest terms, means ensuring that the people within a community have a say about what happens in their community; that people are active participants in the creation of the external conditions that shape their own lives, ranging from policies and legislation to community-built resources and ways to enact and distribute those resources. Community empowerment is an active and dynamic process that emerges from the inside out, rather than from the outside in or from the top down.

As communities are comprised of individuals, the same concept extends to self-empowerment. The process of finding one’s own voice, building one’s own strengths and creating the conditions necessary to actualize the things in life that one wants – all of these are necessarily self-directed, though never without outside support and teamwork to create a larger context where self-empowerment can happen. I’ve been gardening a lot lately, so here’s a garden analogy: A plant needs to grow on its own, but the soil and fertilizer and sunlight need to be there for the possibility of growth.

Cycles of Change has a hand in nearly every aspect of what it means to grow community, empowerment and self-reliance through bicycling. Its programs include the BikeMobile and bike rodeos, roaming resources that pop up at schools and community events to help youth fix their bikes and learn bike safety. It also runs the Bikery, a community bike shop and space in East Oakland. Additionally, it runs an earn-a-bike program, in which youth learn bike mechanics and how to build bikes, which they then get to call their own.

There are Cycles of Change after-school bike clubs, which provide youth the opportunity to engage in pedal-powered adventures after school lets out. There’s Safe Routes to Schools, in which Cycles of Change instructors lead elementary school kids in learning safe biking skills so that they can confidently bike to school. There’s the Watershed Stewardship program, which connects students with their environment by teaching them about Oakland’s watersheds and helping students conduct field studies and personal stewardship projects.

And there’s the Bike-Go-Round program, which since 2009 has given more than 750 refurbished commuter bicycles to low-income adults, along with road safety training, helmets and U-locks – everything a person might need to pursue a self-reliant, physically active and low-cost form of transportation.

According to Cycles of Change, the Bike-Go-Round program means that “more people can access the opportunities, resources, and many other benefits that biking offers and inspires, helping build more healthy, vibrant communities.”

The Bike-Go-Round program is in danger of getting cut if Cycles of Change doesn’t reach the $15,000 fundraising goal necessary to keep it running. Hence an urgent fundraising effort through, naturally, biking.

The bike tour, organized primarily by Cycles of Change board member Nora Dye, became for me a microcosm of that which Cycles of Change does on a daily basis. It challenged me to do something I had never before done: a multi-day bike trip. I was encouraged to have fun with it, starting with tying shiny streamers to my bike and making my own snack bag of trail mix. We were, each of us, given the opportunity to negotiate a biking pace that suited 24 bikers of varying levels of experience – and with the framework of teamwork as default, there was space for cohesiveness rather than resentment. At every turn, we were presented with snacks and water. We were nourished with meals cooked at organic farms like Potrero Nuevo, Pie Ranch and Freewheelin’ Farms.

And in meeting and speaking with people from farms and bike shops all along the way, we connected with the greater context of community-builders and cooperatives working to make change in their own communities all up and down the coast, and by extension the greater scope of change-making and conscientiousness we each have the opportunity to participate in on a daily basis in small and large ways.

Three days isn’t a long time, but on a bike tour, time stretches in strange ways. Three days was enough time for us to become a motley bike tribe. I watched the middle schoolers come into their own and different people stepping up to take leadership in different ways. The sun and rain, as I flew through the landscape on my two wheels, filled up the part of my soul reserved for the expanses of the great outdoors. I felt myself expanding to accommodate new challenges and new people, and thus I grew.

It started in small ways. Filling my water bottle. Putting on my helmet. Admiring the sweep of the Pacific coast. Passing around some trail mix. Starting the rotations of the pedals. Biking my heart out.

 

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Cycles of Change is still accepting donations to keep the Bike-Go-Round up and running. Please consider donating anything that you can at cyclesofchange.org.

 

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

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