Written by Luke Fortier | Photography by Jeremiah Bulkowski
Turning onto Logan Street in the Southwest side of Grand Rapids, my photographer and I parked in a line of cars on the side of the road—all mounted with bike racks hanging o the back end—and walked toward the open door of The Spoke Folks bike shop. Martel Posey was talking with a co-worker when we came in, and he invited us to sit at the wooden picnic table near the garage door pulled open.
“This is where we usually do it,” he said. The non-profit co-op bike shop, founded by executive director Jay Niewiek, has found both success and popularity in Grand Rapids since they started out five years ago. In September 2016, Posey published an article in The Rapidian titled, “Why Poor People Don’t Go to Bike Shops.” He wrote, “Communities living in poverty know that there are barriers when it comes to getting what they truly need…The cause of the disconnect comes from the charitable-industrial complex and the organizations who think that they are helping.”
I asked him to elaborate on what he meant by the charitable-industrial complex. “I’m not an expert on that,” he said, “but it’s like when you have the best intentions to do good, but you’re not actually helping people. Say, in like the black community, if you wanted them to eat healthy and live active lifestyles, and the way you did that was like giving them hundred dollar gift cards to McDonald’s—it’s just like, yeah, you’re giving them food, but it’s not actually helping them.”
In 2013, Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, wrote a piece in The New York Times discussing his experience with what he called “Philanthropic Colonialism.” He mentions that in any important discussion regarding the philanthropy of the rich, “you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to ‘give back.’” The article triggered widespread response—a defense of the accused was quickly provided, but critique of this institution continues, and it should be well recognized when those such as Spoke Folks take initiative to reach the underserved in a more direct fashion, locally, face to face.
“The charitable-industrial complex,” Posey said, “when it comes to bikes and stuff like that—we know that there are organizations who give people free bikes, but they’re trash bikes and stuff that’ll fall apart.”
He said one of the main ethical standards of the shop is to not sell people bikes that they themselves would not ride. The Spoke Folks understand there are those in our community who need a bike, rather than want a bike, and the shop provides them a place where they can afford them, and where it will not cost a fortune to repair them as well.
“A bike here generally costs about $150 to $200 for just a basic entry-level or nicer old bike. They just don’t sell bikes that cheap. Generally, if you go to a bike shop, you’re at least spending five hundred dollars and up.”
Both kinds of shops, he said, have their own markets—there are those willing and able to pay over $500 for a new bike, but for those that are not so willing—or more often, less able—the Spoke Folks’ door is open.
I asked Posey if he had any advice or any opinions when it came to operating in community organizations. He told me that after he came to be the Community Outreach Coordinator, he set up the Spoke Folks mobile repair truck at Duthler’s Family Foods, on Madison and Hall.
“We always kind of assume we know these communities aren’t getting the service they need,” he said. “So going out there and actually doing it, you see a lot of people in different situations in life where bike maintenance may not be that important.”
He said that doing work that makes this kind of an impact weighs on a person emotionally. They must be able to have an outlet for that frustration, both to stay healthy and sane.
“A bigger goal of the Spoke Folks has always been to service those communities who have been left out of the conversation, as far as cycling goes, because they don’t cycle in the same way. They don’t cycle for fun for the most part. Maybe they need to get to work, or maybe they just don’t have a car.”
The work and the impact of the Spoke Folks are specific, identifiable, and effective. As Posey wrote in his article, “Our work is by no means the sole solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.”