Serious Cycling Play in Seattle



Cycling is Serious Play, and Bike Works proves it!

Based in Columbia City, Seattle, Bike Works’ cycling programs are creating ways to get kids playing outdoors, even though their neighborhoods lack safe play spaces. From their all-girl bike mechanics training program to their leadership programs and guided cycling rides and tours, Bike Works is shaking things up in Seattle.

Bike Works is a not-for-profit bike shop that uses its programming to get kids playing, to teach bike mechanics and leadership skills, to foster mentoring relations and a strong sense of community, and help raise awareness for sustainability issues.

Until Bike Works opened, there wasn’t a single bike shop in Southeast Seattle. Columbia City (in Southeast Seattle) had the highest rate of transit users, the highest level of poverty, and lacked affordable access to cycling services. From the Threats to Girlhood Report, we know that growing up in an impoverished community decreases the likelihood that girls will play sports- even though playing sports has been shown to help reduce the factors that perpetuate the cycle of female poverty. Being engaged in some form of athletics, having mentors, building confidence in concrete skills and abilities, and helping girls feel confident exploring more technical professions helps girls overcome the cycle of female poverty (it reduces pregnancy and STD rates, which reduce the likelihood that girls will drop out of high school; it reduces drug & alcohol use; and it helps girls feel confident speaking up, advocating for themselves, asking for help, and navigating the world around them.).

While Bike Works isn’t focused on just girls, their work is still using Serious Play to tackle Threats to Girlhood. They’re working hard to create relevant and valuable programs and partnerships that support young people, regardless of gender, throughout Columbia City.

To find out more about the impact Bike Works is having on girls and in their community, we arranged a Q&A with Bike Works’ Youth Outreach Coordinator: Naomi Salinas-Burton…


Bike Works’ goals are just outstanding- tell me a bit about your goal to empower young people to lead healthy and productive lives? 

Just the simple act of getting outside and riding a bicycle is empowering for youth. It enables them to explore their neighborhood and city, get fresh air and exercise, and build positive relationships. There is a lot of freedom that comes from owning your own bike when you are young, and at Bike Works we want all youth to experience that freedom, regardless of whether their families can afford to buy them a new bike.

Our flagship program is the Earn-a-Bike class, an eight week bicycle repair class for 9-17 year olds. In the class, youth are practicing their skills on bikes that will be donated to others, and they get community service hours for this good work. Once they have completed 18 hours, students get to fix up a bike to keep for themselves. We believe youth will really value the bicycle that they had to earn through hard work, and this introduces them to the ideas of “sweat equity” and community service.


Does helping kids lead “productive” lives mean contributing to their community, reducing youth crime rates, staying in school…?

All of the above. At Bike Works, students are contributing to the community by fixing bikes that will get donated to other youth at social service organizations. Not only do students get community service hours for the work they do, but we have seen how this experience can positively affect other parts of a youth’s lives.


You’re helping kids play and exercise and explore outdoors when their neighborhoods lack safe outdoor spaces- how are you creating safe outdoor play opportunities and addressing safety issues?

There is safety in numbers, especially while riding bikes on the road. We teach youth how to ride together, in a straight line with one bike’s length between them.  We teach them safety skills like signaling, scanning, riding in traffic, and generally how to be aware of their surroundings. These skills can help youth understand how to navigate the larger world around them, take responsibility for their own safety, and to make good decisions. In our summer bike camping trips we expand on this, and youth learn about wilderness safety.


When you talk about unsafe outdoor spaces, does this mean crime or rundown playgrounds?

Crime and rundown playgrounds are both an issue in Southeast Seattle, where Bike Works has been located for over 15 years. But we are also talking about unsafe road conditions. Our neighborhood has high rates of poverty and the highest public transit ridership in the city, but fewer bike lanes. We are trying to cultivate a visible, diverse bike culture here. In all neighborhoods, there has been a loss of community in the traditional sense, where people really looked out for each other and for youth.


I love that your website addresses the issue of self-worth in a positive community.  Can you tell me a bit about what this means to you, how it affects lifelong wellness, and how you’re fostering positive communities within Seattle?

I think giving youth opportunities to see themselves as leaders increases their sense of self-worth. At Bike Works we teach leadership skills along with bike repair, and in all our programs youth are empowered to teach and learn from each other. Bike Works sees diversity and cross-cultural learning as essential to fostering positive communities, so we strive to bring together diverse groups of young people and provide them opportunities to build relationships across socio-economic and race divisions. Over half of our participants are youth of color, and half receive scholarships for our programs.


How are you reaching young people that wouldn’t ordinarily participate in enrichment activities?  And how is this impacting the neighborhood where you’re reaching these kids?

Bike Works does a lot of outreach at schools, and organizations to reach youth who are not usually attracted to traditional sports or after school activities. We are offering unique activities, including time-intensive mentoring programs during the school year and innovative summer bike touring and riding opportunities.


Tell us a bit about your community programs: How has donating refurbished & recycled bikes to community-based programs serving the homeless and disadvantaged positively impacted these organizations?

We have long standing partnerships with social service agencies we donate bikes to, including Treehouse, a service for youth in foster care, and FareStart, a job training organization for homeless adults who are trying to turn their lives around. Organizations can use the bikes as incentives or for clients with transportation needs. The Orion Center, which works with street involved youth, have recently started their own Earn-a-Bike program using bikes and parts from Bike Works. The youth in this program are required to do something positive for their community, such as cooking or cleaning for the homeless shelter, before they can earn a bike.


You’ve been tackling these issues for more than 10 years- how have you seen the lives of the people you’re touching change? Do any of the children from your program stay in touch after they’ve grown up and moved on?

Because we serve youth ages 9-17 and offer a continuum of programs to retain participants over time, we often get to see youth grow up at Bike Works. For example, this past summer we had a Leadership Camp to teach youth ages 14-17 to be ride leaders, and 5 of the 9 participants had been coming to Bike Works for 5 years or more.

We offer internships for older youth, and several interns have transitioned into paying jobs in the Bike Works shop.  This year, we have an Americorps member Sterling Quinn, assisting with programs. Sterling graduated high school last year, and has been involved with Bike Works off and on since he took the Earn-a-Bike class when he was nine years old.


Tell us a bit about your all-girl programs- why have you chosen to give girls a single-gendered option? Have you seen girls respond differently to biking than boys?

Historically, it has been easier to fill our classes with boys. It’s not just that more boys tend to gravitate toward biking and mechanics (which is becoming less and less true), but often teachers, youth workers, and families are more likely to refer boys to our programs. We offer an all-girls Earn-a-Bike class so we can increase the number of girls in our programs and inspire more female identified bicycle mechanics.

We also work with a local all-girls middle school, teaching bike repair, going on rides, and being part of their bike camping trip every June.

I do notice that girls tend to be more hesitant riders, perhaps not as used to being forced out of their comfort zone. I think building self confidence for girls is key. Bike riding and mechanics are worlds often dominated by men, so I am constantly inspired when I see girls thrive at Bike Works and want to keep coming back. Last year 49% of youth served in our programs were girls. Here they can get the opportunity to get greasy, to break things, and to put them back together. At Bike Works, we strive to treat boys and girls the same and hold both to the same high expectations.


What are a few of the biggest life changes and improvements you’ve seen in the lives of girls that participate in your programs?

Witnessing girls overcome their fears- fears of the unknown, of getting hurt, or of just looking silly- and finishing challenging rides is a powerful moment. I’ve seen girls push themselves physically and emotionally on our bike trips, to the point of tears. But instead of hating bike riding (or us for making them do it), several girls have told us that it was a life changing experience. They build self- confidence, which positively affects other aspects of their lives.

Also, youth that have been here longer are stepping up and becoming mentors, and I think it’s really a result of our leadership training- which helps foster leadership


In addition to the bike shop, what type of fundraising or additional funding streams are helping support your youth and community programs?

The bike shop accounts for just over half of our total revenue. The rest of our funding comes primarily from special events like our annual auction or from individual contributions. A smaller portion comes from foundations and corporate sponsorship.

Of course we couldn’t operate at all if it wasn’t for bicycle donations that come from all over Seattle. Last year we had over 2,300 bikes donated, and we are hoping for even more this year!

Recycling is an important part of what we do- without donated bikes and parts that we’re able to refurbish and reuse, we wouldn’t be able to afford to build the bikes we donate.


How did Bike Works originally get started?

Bike Works started in 1996 with the idea that we’d be a bike share program. Kind of the idea of the yellow bike program- like in Barcelona & Paris. Bike share programs weren’t as big in the US and we realized that there actually already a lot of bikes in the area, so we began exploring bike refurbishing and cycling training instead.  We picked our location based on the area with the highest level of poverty and greatest opportunity for impact. Over the years we’ve added new programs to keep youth coming back and create a continuum of services. Our mission has been to create a community for youth in bike cultures.


How many paid staff members and volunteers do you have now?

12 full time staff, and our volunteers are in the hundreds, some people just come in once or twice a year to help out, other people volunteer every week to help kids work on their bikes- most of the bikes they work on are for the Kids Bike Swap where kids can trade in a bike that’s too small for them. We host the Kids bike Swap every year in May.


Are you seeing changes in community acceptance of cyclists?

Yeah, I think so. Seattle is known for a strong bike culture, but historically it’s really been a bike culture that isn’t as diverse as we’d like it or as accepting as we’d want it, so we’re really trying to open it up.


 If you’re in the Columbia City area and you’re interesting in participating in Bike Works’ programs, you’ll find their program info here:


If you’re interested in volunteering your time, or donating resources to the project, or in finding out more info on Bike Works, check their website:

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