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Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM.
Najari Smith, who founded the bike shop co-op and nonprofit Rich City Rides, stands in front of a mural depicting him on April 9, 2021, in Richmond, California, a town across the bay from San Francisco.

There’s something liberating about riding a bike, as my youngest grandchild learned after taking an REI class in Cranston. She used to be afraid of falling. Now she’s a biking dervish. Today’s post is about another biking enthusiast, who’s been liberating a poor city and making it rich.

Erika Page writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Najari Smith was down in the dumps the night he first heard the bicycles below his window. He was new to California, lonely, and felt he lacked purpose. On the street below, a costumed parade of cyclists rolled by blasting music. By the time Mr. Smith rushed downstairs to join the party, they were gone.

“Mr. Smith’s journey, though, was just beginning. After that night in 2010, he began riding his bike everywhere and joined every community biking event around. Slowly, his spirits lifted.

‘Shoot, bicycles kind of saved my life,’ he says. He became part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of Richmond, California, which improves bicycle infrastructure in the city. During a routine committee meeting, he got his big idea.

“ ‘I thought to myself, “We’re building this infrastructure, but, you know, who are we building it for? Who’s going to use it?” ‘ he recalls. How would he get his community – the Black community – excited about using the bike lanes he was advocating for? And how would he break down the stereotype that Black people don’t bike? He started small – fixing up bikes at the park with local mechanics and giving them out to anyone who wanted one.

“Today, Mr. Smith runs Rich City Rides: a worker-owned cooperative bike shop as well as a bicycle advocacy nonprofit. These two spokes of the organization are distinct, but both serve Mr. Smith’s vision of using bicycles to ‘bring people together for healthy civic change’ in Richmond. Just like the bikes he fixes at the shop, Mr. Smith believes that no one, no matter what they’ve been through, is ever broken beyond repair.

“ ‘He’s the type of leader that seeks out the strength that an individual may have, rather than identifying their weaknesses. … He’ll sit down with folks and try to figure out how to get them involved, no matter what,’ says Robin D. López, who volunteers as a photographer for Rich City Rides and thinks of Richmond as ‘a community of untapped potential.’

“Roshni McGee, the program manager at Rich City Rides and co-founder of the bike shop, agrees. ‘He always tries to, you know, put a little bit of extra pressure on people and make them really be that diamond in the rough,’ he says.

“Rich City Rides is situated on a busy corner of Macdonald Avenue in a neighborhood that locals call the Iron Triangle, notorious for high crime rates and gun violence. Even though they live just across the bay from tony gentrified neighborhoods of San Francisco, many residents struggle to make ends meet. …

“ ‘He leads with love. … He shows that this is what we can do as Black people. We can revitalize our downtown, and we don’t have to be afraid of each other,’ says Jovanka Beckles, a mental health specialist who served on Richmond’s City Council from 2010 to 2018. She says Rich City Rides’ success has inspired other small businesses to open too, helping put the neighborhood on a long-awaited upswing. …

“[The nonprofit arm] plans social and wellness rides, youth programs, and community outreach. Since the nonprofit began in 2012, it has given away more than 1,000 bikes, led hundreds of social bike rides with thousands of participants, and conducted countless youth bicycle workshops. And during the pandemic, Rich City Rides has been distributing grab-and-go meals to families in need – an idea suggested by one of the high schoolers who works at the shop.

“In fact, Mr. Smith says other members of the team, and especially young people, make most of the important decisions. ‘I’m just a connector,’ he says.

“Cameren Howard-Simons is one of those young people who has found purpose through the organization. When he first met the crew at Rich City Rides, he was in middle school, and his mother didn’t want him hanging out in the area because of its reputation.

“Now Cam, a junior in high school, spends most of his free time working at the shop. ‘It’s hard to keep me away from people like this,’ he says with a wide smile, as he tries to get a derailleur to behave on the pink bike that’s hanging from his repair stand. Rich City Rides has kept him out of trouble, he says, adding that it’s one of the few places where kids can be completely themselves, without judgment.

“ ‘You’re wheelieing next to somebody, and they’re clapping, they’re recording you [on their phones], and they’re showing you love – showing you that they actually care about what you do,’ he says. …

“The notion that Richmond is not poor – but rich – guides Rich City Rides. ‘We’re a community that’s really rich in creativity and capacity and ingenuity,’ says Mr. Smith.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Noah Robertson/The Christian Science Monitor.
Kwesi Billups (right) and volunteers at Project Eden hold homegrown Swiss chard at the greenhouse in Southeast Washington, DC, April 17, 2021. Project Eden distributes its produce, along with donations from the Capital Area Food Bank, at a nearby church.

As many people learned during the pandemic, small, hopeful things can make a big difference in how a person feels. The same is true of neighborhoods. Even in areas characterized by blight and despair, a bunch Swiss chard that people grow together can make them believe that better days are ahead.

Noah Robertson writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Three years ago, when Jevael German received his assignment through Washington’s Summer Youth Employment Program, he wanted nothing to do with it. He would be working with Project Eden, a community garden in the city’s troubled Southeast – known for police sirens much more than produce.

“A Washington native himself, Mr. German dreaded the months of labor in the district’s humidity. He didn’t even like vegetables. While meeting his supervisors on his first day, Mr. German laid his head facedown on the desk. 

“ ‘Sir, if you don’t want to be here, you’re welcome to leave,’ he heard back. ‘But you can’t put your head on the desk.’

“Mr. German stayed, and the summer surprised him. He enjoyed the outdoor work, which reminded him of childhood gardening with his grandmother. As an older member of the summer group, he began mentoring some of his younger co-workers. He even started eating greens. 

“At the program’s end, Mr. German asked to continue with Project Eden for another summer.

After returning, he learned that a former summer employee at the garden had died in a shooting. Mr. German, who was still living with one foot in the streets at that time, saw in that tragic death a version of himself if he didn’t change.

“ ‘Right then and there, I was like, I’ve got to leave the streets alone,’ he says. …

“Almost 10 years ago, Cheryl Gaines, a local pastor, started the garden as a response to the South Capitol Street massacre, one of Washington’s worst mass shootings in decades. Her idea then, as now, was that no community chooses violence when it has another option. Since then Ms. Gaines, her son Kwesi Billups, and hundreds of local employees and volunteers have sought to offer such an option.

“While simultaneously addressing challenges of health, food insecurity, and unemployment, Project Eden is at its roots an alternative. The work is rarely convenient, and resources are often low. But the garden’s legacy is that seeds can grow on what may seem like rocky soil – if only there’s a sower.

“ ‘This garden gives back to you what you give to it,’ says Mr. Billups. 

“In 2012, Ms. Gaines was Project Eden’s sower, though an unlikely one at that. She grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father in public housing outside New Orleans, only to trade that past for a career in law, and later the ministry. While at seminary in Rochester, New York, she had a persistent vision that God was calling her to live in Southeast Washington, begin a church, and plant a community garden. In 2010, after having lived in the Washington area for years, she felt the time had come.

“Leaving four dead and six more injured, the South Capitol Street massacre rattled Southeast, and brought the community together to mourn. At a vigil, Ms. Gaines met the owner of an apartment building just blocks away from the the shooting. In that conversation, she eventually shared her vision. Before long, the owner told her she could use her building’s backyard.

“On that land two years later, Project Eden (‘EDEN’ stands for Everyone Deserves to Eat Naturally) began as a 10-by-20-foot patch of dirt, with only rows of tilled soil. The next year Ms. Gaines and her team turned that plot into a 28-by-48-foot greenhouse, complete with aquaponics, and have since expanded to another location at nearby Faith Presbyterian Church.

“A community garden may seem like a boutique project in some areas, but not in Southeast, says Caroline Brewer, director of marketing and communications at the Audubon Naturalist Society, which recently named Mr. Billups its yearly Taking Nature Black youth environmental champion. …

“ ‘When people have opportunities to give back … that allows them to grow and develop and mature and make [an] even greater contribution to their families and their communities,’ says Ms. Brewer.

“Project Eden isn’t just resisting material challenges of nutrition and income, says Ms. Brewer. It’s helping the community resist despair. ‘It’s a constant battle,’ she says, ‘and they’re winning that battle.’ “

More at the Monitor, here.

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The Louis D. Brown Peace Walk in Boston has been supporting survivors of violent crime for a quarter century.

The nonprofit’s concern is for the people who are left behind after a violent death — the mothers, the fathers, the children, the siblings, the classmates, the communities. Sometimes the ongoing needs of these survivors get lost. In Boston, some of the bereaved families have banded together to help others heal. They have taken the lead in standing against violence and have invited residents of the Greater Boston area to join them. Nonprofit groups, churches, mosques, synagogues, and individuals arrive from the suburbs in droves.

Here are a few photos from this year’s walk, which is always held on Mother’s Day.

I loved the band that played outside Madison Park High School, where our group joined the walk. Some people carried signs. Lots of people chanted peace slogans. We passed by a mural of the great Frederick Douglass in Roxbury.

If one or two people were to walk down Tremont Street on a rainy Sunday morning, no one would notice. When many hundreds do, it’s an event.

But other than raise funds for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute outreach, which is valuable, does this help prevent violence? There are still homicides in Boston. But the huge gathering seems to generate an indefinable energy and awareness that sometimes leads individuals to wage peace in their own ways throughout the year.

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Dan Holin, who used to run a Concord-Lowell volunteer partnership called the Jericho Road Project, is now director of special projects at UTEC in Lowell. (UTEC doesn’t use the longer title its youth founders originally came up with, but since people ask, it was United Teen Equality Center.)

UTEC describes itself as a nonprofit that “helps young people from Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., trade violence and poverty for social and economic success. It works to remove barriers that confront them when they want to turn their lives around and offers young people paid work experience through its social enterprises: mattress recycling, food services and woodworking.”

On May 15, Acton’s Pedal Power joined members of the Concord-based Monsters in the Basement bicycling club to share their bike-repair expertise with young people who wanted to acquire bikes and learn to maintain them. Holin, a serious biker himself, organized the event to give UTEC young people two things that he said they normally lack: transportation and fun.

At the event, one of them, Sav, recounted his story of change. Before UTEC I never talked to anyone,” he said. “I was a problem child on the streets. I was hanging around with gangs, selling drugs. I don’t do that now. Seven months ago, I moved from a place with nothing positive. Atlantic City. I let my family know I’m ready to live life. It was hard for me to get into something good: I’ve got a lot of tattoos and a record. But I’m in the culinary program here. It’s a family. They make you feel like you are somebody that has a chance. They give me love like a family. They changed my life for the better. There are so many new things to do here. Yesterday I went kayaking.”

More here.

Sav, in sunglasses, got a good bike at UTEC’s bike event in Lowell on May 15. The bike will provide transportation to his job at UTEC. It will also provide some much needed fun.

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