The Spoke Folks: Tackling racism, sexism and classism in Grand Rapids

For The Spoke Folks, the Grand Rapids nonprofit is about far more than bicycles. It's about treating all people with dignity and respect.
Sitting amidst a sea of tires hanging against wooden paneling and tools assorted with the most obvious of care, The Spoke Folks Executive Director Jay Niewiek balances a sleeping baby, his son Amari, in his arms and looks around the nonprofit’s headquarters on Logan Street SW, by Grandville Avenue. There, in a space lit by a chandelier made from bicycle wheels, is a place into which he, for more than four years, has poured his heart and dedicated most of his waking hours to increasing the community’s access to safe, reliable and affordable bikes.

The Spoke Folks, which launched in 2012, has been incredibly successful in connecting residents, particularly individuals in disenfranchised communities that have long been excluded by the mainstream bicycling culture, with bikes, and Niewiek is more than thrilled by that. After all, that connection often translates to affordable bicycles for people who need them to get to work, to the grocery store, to family members’ and friends’ houses -- essentially, to live life.

But, to people like Niewiek, Spoke Folks Community Outreach Director Martel Posey, and Shop Mechanic Morgan Barkley, this space filled with handlebars and seat posts and wheels and frames is about more than just bicycles. It’s about creating a far more inclusive conversation surrounding transportation and community building that listens to the voices that have for so long been marginalized, including those of people of color. It’s about fighting racism and classism and sexism in our communities. It’s about changing people’s worldviews so they start to question what they’ve always known to be "true," whether that means tackling inequities in transportation -- or the city in general. And, for that matter, the country and world.

Sure, that seems big. And it is. But Niewiek, Posey and Barkley have, incrementally, seen positive change happen, and they, like community activists across this globe, understand that for sweeping systemic change to occur, to overturn deeply embedded histories of racism, classism, sexism, and more, there must be people working for transformation at all different levels, constantly.

“This space has never been just about bikes,” says Niewiek. “It’s about people and treating them with dignity and respect.”

“It’s about putting humanity into everything you’re doing,” adds Posey, who has worked diligently to connect communities with the nonprofit and make sure people know that, no, you don’t need to shell out $30 to change your bike tire. Yes, you can buy a bike for $100 to $200 -- and it’s a bike that won’t fall apart on you. That bicycling is not solely for the neon spandex-clad crowd that is hopping on two wheels for fun, but it should be accessible to anyone.

“Thirty dollars to fix a flat tire is ridiculous,” Posey says, sitting at The Spoke Folks’ wooden picnic table where community members regularly gather to chat as employees work on their bicycles. “That’s steep for something that’s fast, easy.”

“Growing up, bike shops were out of the question -- in poorer communities, you don’t have the money to throw around like that,” continues Posey, who recently penned a piece, “Why Poor People Don’t Go To Bike Shops,” on this topic.

This disconnect between disenfranchised communities and bicycling is, in large part, why Niewiek wanted to start The Spoke Folks -- and why it has been so readily embraced, including by area organizations that have jumped to partner with the nonprofit, including Brewery Vivant, Funky Buddha, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, New Belgium Brewery, The Pyramid Scheme, The Meanwhile, and Well House, among others.

“Even if we don’t fix every problem, we can be a beacon to institute change,” Posey says of the nonprofit that has grown from an organization with zero full-time staff and a $6,000 budget to now having four full-time staff and a budget of about $185,000.

Part of that change often means having difficult conversations, including about the racism and sexism plaguing our communities.

“We drink a lot of beer, eat a lot of tacos and talk about what’s wrong with the world,” smiles Posey.

Of course, that’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it does get to the heart of much of the change that radiates from The Spoke Folks: Yes, they want to reshape this world, but they want to do it in a way that’s realistic, that includes everyone and that can be done in an accessible, relatable way. Preferably with beer, food and friends.

“You know you’re doing a good thing because people will come and hang out on the bench for the whole day,” says Alan Lipscomb, another full-time employee at The Spoke Folks.

With this space, of course, comes hard conversations -- and a constant addressing of the inequities, biases and the silencing of voices that can occur in our world, community and in the nonprofit’s space itself.

For example, Niewiek says, it’s important to him and others at the nonprofit to tackle not only the sexism female bicyclists constantly face, from cat calls on the road to male cyclists dismissing female bikers as less serious, but also the sexist behavior that their female shop mechanic, Morgan Barkley, encounters.

“Morgan runs this space, but her credibility gets questioned every day,” Niewiek says. “People will ask if she knows how to do something before they ask her to fix something.”

That individuals will often attribute knowledge and power to someone who’s male, or white, isn’t new, but those repeated interactions, whether as a woman or a person of color (or both), are not only exhausting and degrading for the individual, but they chip away at the community people are trying to build.

The Spoke Folks' Jay Niewiek and his baby, Amari, Martel Posey and Alan Lipscomb
Barkley too stresses this. We weren’t able to interview her for this article because she’s currently on a month-long bicycle trip in Montana and has limited phone access (every full-time employee at The Spoke Folks get a one month sabbatical each year), but she did, however, kindly send us a piece of writing she’s working on about sexism in the workforce.

“Most of the time I completely forget that I’m a woman. Most of the time I feel respected by my peers. Most of the time I love my job,” Barkley writes. “In a perfect world I would never feel inferior because of my gender, respect would be shared and received gracefully and often, and I would not get frustrated because of the position my job occasionally puts me in.”

But, she continues, “our world is not perfect and we are often let to deal with what we are given.”

Morgan Barkley on her month-long bicycling trip in Montana.

As many women understand, that can mean being relegated to second place when there’s a man in the room.

“I am constantly second guessed and doubted,” Barkley writes. “When people walk into the Spoke Folks they are not looking for me. Or someone like me. They are looking for a middle-aged man they can entrust with their questions. They are looking for him because, whether my age or my gender is to be credited, my knowledge is somehow insufficient in comparison to his. They do not wish to show the vulnerability it takes to ask a question to me. I forget I’m a woman until I go to greet someone into the shop, and they simply turn just the corners of their lips up into a shallow, dismissive smile and walk past me to seek out someone who will be able to answer their questions. My answers, answers from a young woman, are useless.”

Still, while some are silencing voices, others are listening to, and projecting, them, Barkley stresses.

“At 20, I am discovering you can be confident, happy, and fully supported by those around you, in and out of work, and still find yourself doubting your abilities because someone subjected you to their own ideas about gender norms,” she writes.

“As the shop operator for the Spoke Folks, my peers at work treat me with the utmost respect. They are, at times, more confident in my abilities that I am myself. I am graced with some of the most freaking rad people to work with in the world. I love them and am proud to call them my coworkers.”

These conversations, everyone at The Spoke Folks stresses, are changing our community -- and, like increasing access to affordable transportation and addressing racial and socio-economic justice in bicycling, they can be difficult. But they are not impossible. They are happening all around us, all the time.

"Let's not dismiss people's narratives; get outside of your bubble," Posey says.

"What becomes vital is learning to listen," Niewiek adds.

For more information about The Spoke Folks, you can visit their website and Facebook page. Or, stop by their workshop at  221 Logan St. SW.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. Connect with her via email ([email protected]) and on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram.
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