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How Blackstone Bicycle Works Opens Doors for Black Youth

5:55 PM CDT on August 13, 2018

AD, a veteran of Blackstone Bicycle Works youth programs who now works as a mechanic, at Blackstone Summer. Photo: James Porter

On Sunday, youth of color gathered at Woodlawn's Experimental Station community projects incubator for Blackstone Summer, a block party and teach-in, featuring bike repair lessons and other information designed to "[shape] their capacities for artistic expression, self-love, and advocating for themselves and their community,” according to the organizers. The event was hosted by Youth for Black Lives, a teen femme-led organization associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, along with Blackstone Bike Works (the nonprofit bike shop at Experimental Station), event planner Porscha James, and Fortune management.

The festival started out with educational exhibits primarily aimed at the young people. Topics included "street medics," civilians who provide medical and emotional support at trauma scenes; reproductive justice; audio production; and natural body care.  Later in the afternoon the booths closed down as everyone gathered for live performances by soul singers Christian Jalon, Aaliyah Allah and Kari.

Aliyah Allah performs. Photo: James Porter
Aaliyah Allah. Photo: James Porter

Blackstone Bike Works isn't just a hub for area youth who are into cycling and bike mechanics, but has also teaches these young people life skills that will help them achieve self-sufficiency. As such, Supreme Hinton, a University of Chicago student who is also an arts and administration intern at Experimental Station, said he feels that the the teach-in meshed perfectly with the shop's mission. “The Bicycle Works program gives youth a great opportunity not only to cultivate different trade skills, but also business skills," he said. "I’ve been seeing not only the social development, but the emotional development of the youth in the program." He noted that one graduate of the program now owns his own bike drop-shipping business in Seattle.

Supreme Hinton, Photo: James Porter
Supreme Hinton, Photo: James Porter

"If I had a program like this growing up, I’d consider it a reprieve," Hinton added. "It’s like a home away from home where everybody knows each other.” He said the youth from the shop also know everyone else who works out of Experimental Station. Cultural horizons are being expanded as well. “We have a racing team,” Hinton explained. “Not many Black youth are exposed to cycle racing. It’s like a really white-dominated thing. Last year, someone from our bicycle shop won the entire thing." He was referring to Maxwell Montagano who won the category 4/5 race at the Illinois State Cyclocross Championships last December. "It’s really important to have things like this when everywhere you look, there are people who deliberately try to bring down the Black youth experience.”

Jalen Jiang. Photo: James Porter
Jalen Jiang. Photo: James Porter

“Bicycles are a huge thing for the kids,” added fellow U. of C. student and Blackstone Bicycle Works staffer Jalen Jiang. “It kind of gives them the freedom to roam around the city and explore.” Basketball superstar LeBron James talked about this very phenomenon when he discussed his youthful adventures on bikes in a recent interview.  “Some of the older kids say it helps them relax,” Jiang said. “They go on bike rides with their families and their friends, and generally use it as a way to hang out. So when they come to the bike shop, the bicycle is the common interest that brings them together. It’s all an equal exchange. We learn from the kids, the kids learn from each other and us.”

AD, a five-year veteran of Blackstone Bicycle Works programs, told me his involvement has opened up other opportunities for him. "I am now working in multiple shops across the city, and I manage [the Bronzeville Bike Box pop-up] as well," he said. "Being here got me up to that level. It’s like a safe haven for a bunch of us. This is like ‘the community house’ for a lot of people who, overall, don’t have a place to go. They could always feel free to come here and chill out [while learning] bike mechanics and so forth.” Noting that nearby Hyde Park is one of Chicago's true integrated neighborhoods, AD mused, “A lot of people really 'sleep on' [Blackstone Bicycle Works]. It’s just unusual for a lot of different color people to come to one place as one. That’s what we’re really focused on here.”

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