BL&D Interview: Joseph Dickerson
Joseph Dickerson, the newest member of BiCi Co's staff, takes a break from the workshop and comes to talk with us about BiCi Co, his new role, and his hopes for the project and Hartford's youth.
BL&D: Very excited to be in a place where this is a full social enterprise. Pretty excited about that. This was a twinkle in our eye at one point and now its becoming a real thing. So if you wouldn't mind , tell us a little bit more about yourself and your role here, what's going on at BiCi Co.
JOE: So I started back with BiCi Co. on February 15th, so I’ve been here for about a month and a half, so not for very long . I think that this program in a nutshell, I really tip my hat off to you and to Tony as well and Yanil, many of the folks who had a lot of vision to see this as being possible in the future out of something that didn't really exist before and then also I think that the volunteer community that has formed around BiCi Co has been incredible. The amount of people that care about this organization and care about the kids in the programs is out of this world. So the numbers, and what the numbers contribute to this organization, is huge. So I think you know this spring a lot of it has been a trial by fire. There was a million things on the plate, just from the jump we had Earn-a-bike that was starting I think like three days after I got started—so we had our first Earn-a-Bike intro session on Thursday and I started on Wednesday.
Since we (BL&D) started working [on BiCi Co.]—and now it's almost like two years—I think there's a lot of people who knew about it back then but there are a ton of new people who are engaged with all the work here. So for the audience, maybe, give us the scoop, like, what is BiCi Co?
BiCi Co. as an entity as organization is a social enterprise bike shop. It is the only bike shop in Hartford. It was organized because there were no other bike shops in Hartford and all the other bike shops were closing for various reasons—lack of profitability being the first one—and, as a social enterprise that's built a lot on a co op community model, we’re able to keep our prices much lower that fit much better with the community and the community needs, and then we are also able to keep our own set of costs down because we are able to use recycled and upcycled donated bikes and a lot of volunteer labor and effort to help us keep our profit margin where it needs to be to keep the doors open. And so, we run a bunch of different programs. We have the Earn-a-Bike program, which is for youth between the ages of 10 and 19, and they learn from tip to tail, top to bottom the process for maintaining and recycling a bike: how you take all the parts off, how you grease and repack hubs, bearings, headsets.—the whole thing top to bottom. So that's an 8 week program, they come in twice a week for two hours at a time. I think that's really one of the gems of our program. Then we have Bicycles Work for Job Access and that provides bikes to adults who are from the community, usually that are in transitional housing of some sort. With a referral and a $20 payment, they're allowed to get a bike which helps them get access to jobs; because in Hartford if you work in one of the towers in Hartford, you drive in from the suburbs and if you are one of the lower wage workers, you commute out of Hartford to the suburbs. So being able to get out to the suburbs, in a cost efficient manner, not having to depend on the Hartford bus system—which is very slow and time consuming and irregular at best—gives people much better job opportunities because of frequency and consistency. How far you can go, and how quickly you can get there is a large determinant of where you can work.
The shop is a shop now? Or is about to be?
The shop is a shop, and, I am the primary shop mechanic, so that will hopefully change soon. We are hiring and want a great shop mechanic; someone who loves the community, loves bikes and works really well with kids. Apply! That's what we are looking for. I can make it as mechanic, but there are people who are a lot better than me. I am much better with managing and organizing things so that everything runs smoothly as much as possible. So now that we are in that phase of being able to take bikes in, do repairs, not everything has to go through our DYI hours.
So how does it function now? Are there set hours that are open?
Yeah so right now our general shop hours are open from 3:30 to 5:30 Monday–Friday and then we also have DYI member hours on Wednesday 5:30–8:30 and Saturday 1:30–5:30. We still have our WTF, our Women Trans Fem night, on Monday night and that's 5:30 to 8:30—so any time that the shop is open for another program. Right now we have an intern that works at the front desk, so he is able to bring people in do basic sales and transactions. I'm teaching him more about how to identify things that are working or not working on a bike so he has a better sense of how to ring people up and give them a sense of what their costs might be at the end of the day, but that is an ongoing process. It takes time to train someone who hasn't been involved in that type of process and—heck—we are learning how to do it ourselves for that matter.
So you have a shop that's open? Hows that going?
There's a built up demand, honestly. People have been waiting on us. If I had a dime for everyone that sort of walks in and says “Yeah! I've been really waiting for you guys to open up”.
So it's great to see people as they're learning about who we are and that we are open about our hours. People are coming in and saying "yeah this is the kind of place I want to spend my money and spend my time". We still have a lot of marketing to do, a lot of stuff to get the word out. It will take a little bit of time, but now that we have the hours, and particularly the shop mechanic, that will treat me up to do a lot more to get the word out and stay focused on who knows about us, if you know about us, have you brought us a bike yet? And if you don't know about us—making sure that you do.
What are the ways that people get involved in BiCi Co. Can you lay them out for us?
Sure, so why don't I start with membership. There's a membership levels. Some people chose to be an equity member which is when someone says “hey, I'm going to put a pretty significant dollar amount behind the organization”. There's a year long membership which is someone who says “Hey I'm going to put in a $100 for the whole year “. As a member you get access to the shop, you get access to member discounts, you're able to come in and take care of your own bike. And then there’s a day membership for people that aren't quite ready to do a full year. If it is too much of an investment, they can come in for a day, pay $5, get access to the mechanic, get access to some of the shop tools, and guidance on how to make their repairs on their own bike.
So thats one level. Then I'd say the next level are folks who chose to earn their membership through volunteering or just that want to come in and volunteer in general. People who put in 10 hours of said equity time/volunteer time, they become members after 10 hours and they can get the same access to the shop that other members do. So we have a lot of people who take that option and are not ready to make the full $100 commitment but they're willing and able to come in and volunteer their time. And that helps us out a lot, as well. We have them work on bikes, that will eventually be put up for sale. Those bikes that we're able to put up for sale obviously help the profitability of the shop, and that helps to keep the overall cost of each repair cycle down on each bike—so it keeps us sustainable in that sense. Then we have the Bikes for Job Access program, that's one layer, but then I really would focus next on our youth program with Earn-a-Bike and our Bike-Life program.
What kind of age group or grade level are those kids from?
So we do some recruiting at schools. We also reach out to community partners in middle school and high school: 10–12 to 19. So the reason I say 10–12 is because I think for next the year we are going to slightly morph the program a bit. (Earn-a-Bike) because it's somewhat of an intense program for those 8 weeks, we want to focus it more on a slightly older cohort of kids. Kids that are probably in the 14–19 range, who are looking at gaining employable skills, gaining access to jobs and job centers. Training them in those skills is important so we think that's better first for that group of kids. For our Bike-Life program, which is a two hour safety course, kids get a bike light and a helmet for $20. That program will be focused on kids probably 8-14 years old. So we will shift that down in age and then shift our Earn-a-Bike up a little bit and I think that's going to be a better mix for our overall set of options.
I love Earn-a-Bike, I think it's a great program. It does a ton to train you in, I think, a really employable skill. Whether they become bike mechanics is neither here nor there, but the process and the meticulousness around mechanical skills and learning how to manipulate tools and how to manipulate bearings, etc., that type of thinking applies really well when you're talking about working at Pratt and Whitney or you're talking about working in some of the other main factories in the area that are real staples of the CT economy. But then also I'm a person who races, I carry around a lot of scars because of it. We've got the bike team, Ride & Race Club, which is starting up this spring. Our first semi-ride-out was last Thursday at the end of Earn-a-Bike, so all the kids that got their bikes rode them for the first time last Thursday, And this upcoming Thursday May 4th I am doing a takeover of the Hartford Instagram feed, so we are doing our first ride out, Spring Rollout on May 4th. I've already sent out invitations to 150 kids so we will see how that turns out. I am excited and a little scared about that idea, I did ask they have to have a helmet and a parental waiver but we’ll see. I have faith.
What else do we have to look forward to with BiCi Co in 2017—or maybe even beyond?
So I think that a big opportunity thats opening up for BiCi Co. is that we are expanding our space significantly. Right now we are sort of wedged into maybe 600 sq. feet of space and we are probably going to triple that, maybe even quadruple it, because we are opening up the back room of space for the shop, and that's going to allow us more space because we will be able to focus the storefront on being just a storefront. When you guys came through, you probably saw that we had a bunch of bikes that were sort of cluttered and mashed up in there. Those are not bikes that we are repairing for customers or for sale; some of those bikes are project bikes. All of that energy will shift back one layer and at the front of the shop will be repairs and storefront. So that's the first next big step for us. The storefront was one, expanding our space is two. Then third, I think is over the course of the next two or three years. I would really like to see us start making some more strategic investments around partnerships for building frames here, because we have the infrastructure, we've got the space, and we've got the kind of building that makes it possible; someone who is building frames and then also someone who is doing some painting or has some other sort of bicycle related businesses that we are able to bring into the space. Because I think that would provide some revenue for us as an organization and also provide some really valuable learning experiences for our youth; whether that was with welding, with painting, or with other sorts of bike manufacturing types of work. And so I think that's what really makes BiCi Co unique; that our kids are here by choice, they're here regularly, they're here on time, and they're excited about learning about what we are teaching. Particularly in Hartford where you've got a whole lot of teens—I think Hartford has 33% teens under the age of 18 or some humongous number—so you're looking at this huge teen population that is often times under-employed and under-programmed. And so, what are some options for them? Particularly with young men and boys who are out roaming the streets. Can we give the something that they're interested in already? I think BiCi Co. provides a really great structure for those types of kids to get involved.
A lot of exciting stuff. I'm thrilled to witness this change and appreciate you being here today. Please keep in touch so we know what's going on.