In June, with London in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement dominating national conversation, upCYCLE founder Phil Dobson saw a problem that needed fixing – and he had a solution.
When the pandemic struck, young people from ethnically diverse and other disadvantaged communities were hit hardest.
Many found themselves with no choice but to rely on public transport to get to work or care for family, in turn exposing themselves to a virus proven to be more deadly among ethnic minorities.
When the Black Lives Matter movement then sparked a wide-reaching discussion about racial inequality and practical ways to tackle it, Phil Dobson saw a way to not only give young Londoners a safer way to travel, but also empower BAME people in the face of structural inequality: get them on bikes. And so, upCYCLE was born.
The original idea was simple: raise money to buy second-hand or unwanted bikes, service them to a good working condition, and distribute them directly to young people who needed them, but the project quickly took on a life of its own.
“The last couple months really have been an amazing and eye-opening experience,” Dobson said.
“What started as a fundraising campaign to buy and fix second-hand bikes and pass them on to charities that work with young people from ethnic minority groups has turned into something much bigger.
“The support from friends and family has been incredible, it took just 5 days to raise £1000 of the £5000 target.
“I was confident that people would get behind the idea, but it was still heart-warming to see all the donations and support coming in and having conversations with friends and family about race inequality for the first time in my life.”
Far from not having enough donations or demand, upCYCLE faced the opposite problem: “Initially the biggest challenge was finding somewhere to put all the bikes!” Dobson explained.
“There was a period in July where I had a few in my bedroom and a few more locked up on the street outside my flat. I’m now renting a workshop in Brixton where I can store and repair the bikes.”
Getting bikes to owners
To unite bikes and new owners, upCYCLE partnered with VOYAGE Youth, a Hackney-based charity that works to support and empower Black and disadvantaged young people in London.
For the young adults VOYAGE Youth work with, having their own bike is “really, really powerful”, explained their CEO Paul Anderson.
“The response from our young people is just ecstatic,” said Anderson.
“One of them particularly, Isaac [pictured], he’s just over the moon. This is a gift way beyond even what the young people get from their own families.
“It’s really special, it really is. It makes so much difference to their lives. They can be completely independent, not having to be reliant on having money in their pocket to travel somewhere.
“If you could have seen the face of this young man Isaac on the day he got his bike, that would have been enough to capture how it’s going to be so helpful to them.”
The project has since grown from not only providing bicycles to young Londoners, but also running bike maintenance and cycling skills courses to keep young people engaged and confident with their new bikes.
The courses currently run out of The Remakery in Brixton, though Dobson hopes that upCYCLE will one day have its own home where the project can grow even more.
“Longer term, we want to open our own community workshop where members of the public can access tools and advice from mechanics on how to take care of their bike for free.” said Dobson.
“Just as importantly we want to make it easier for young people from ethnic minority groups in London to get into cycling by continuing to campaign for better cycling infrastructure, running group social rides to build confidence on the road and helping with the cost of velodrome and cycling club fees.”
UpCYCLE has also joined forces with the Bike Is Best to raise funds and get behind their campaign to get more people on bikes.
“Bike Is Best is delighted to support the upCYCLE project as we both strive to get more people cycling and show the huge benefits that pedal-powered journeys can have on you, your family, your community and our planet,” said Bike Is Best spokesperson Adam Tranter.
“Lowering the barrier to cycling is key to transforming the way we travel and upCYCLE’s work to restore second-hand bikes before donating them to people that need them most is invaluable work.”
Bikes and Black Lives Matter
At the core of upCYCLE’s mission is the recognition that those barriers into cycling are higher for some than others, a reality much of the cycling world has only recently come to accept. For Phil Dobson, the issue is clear.
“Before the BLM movement I had recognised that the demographic of the cycling community in the UK was leaning towards certain demographics, white, adult men, for example, but the global movement has really highlighted the lack of racial diversity in the sport,” Dobson said.
“It isn’t just ethnic minority groups that are less likely to cycle though.
“Women, the LGBT community and people with disabilities are also significantly underrepresented in both amateur and professional cycling. Apart from a couple of cycling brands, there’s been words but very little action.
“I feel like campaigning, engagement and behavioural changes in the cycling community are needed to make sure it more closely reflects how diverse the UK population really is,” he added.
“It’s also important that there’s a clear pathway for young people from ethnic minority groups to get into the sport as well as role model athletes competing at the top level.”
Though there’s still work to be done, the upCYCLE project may be the first step on that pathway.
Going into 2021, upCYCLE are set to continue working with VOYAGE Youth and their other partners to give bikes, skills and independence to young Londoners who need it most.
To find out more about what upCYCLE are doing and how to support them, visit their website at www.upcycleldn.co.uk.
(Featured image courtesy of Phil Dobson)