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Najari Smith / Rich City Rides / ‘Bicycles kind of saved my life.’ Najari Smith spins a community forward

by By Erika Page Staff writer from Richmond, Virginia

"I'm just a connector."

145099Najari Smith, who founded the bike shope co-op and nonprofit Rich City Rides, Stands in front of a mural depicting him on April 9, 2021, in Richmond California. The town is across the bay from San Francisco and several miles north of Berkeley, California Ann Hermes/Staff

May 10, 2021

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.

For Najari Smith, people and communities are a lot like bikes: No matter what they’ve been through, they are never broken beyond repair.

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.”

145103With pandemic precautions, an “Un-Gathering Ride” takes place in Richmond, California, on April 9, 2021. Rich City Rides encourages an easy “party pace” for cyclists of all abilities.Ann Hermes/Staff

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 – stuck in a cycle of poverty that reaches back to the closure of shipyards at the end of World War II.

Local leaders say Mr. Smith and Rich City Rides are just what the city of Richmond needs. “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. They “refuse to give up on the fact that we have a beautiful city ... in spite of the violence,” she says.

Young decision-makers

At first glance, Rich City Rides looks like a typical bike cooperative: Tires hang from the ceiling, gear lines the walls, and a steady flow of customers wheels in bikes for mending. But through the doors at the back, and up a narrow staircase, lies the hodgepodge headquarters of Rich City Rides, the nonprofit. Here, the team 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.

145104High school junior Cameren Howard-Simons is repairing a bike at Rich City Rides in Richmond, California, March 27, 2021. “They showed me that I’m just able to be who I am, without anybody judging me," says Cam about the members of the Rich City Rides community. Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor

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.

Of course, there are challenges. Just two days before Mr. Smith spoke to the Monitor, the Rich City Rides’ storage unit was broken into, and most of the bikes, tools, and equipment used for workshops were stolen. And at times, the workers have had to pay the shop’s rent out of their own pockets to stay afloat.

But members of Rich City Rides stick with it because they know the organization is contributing something good.

“It’s given me a renewed sense of responsibility,” says program manager Mr. McGee. He never thought he could serve as a mentor to young people like Cam. “I want somewhere for someone like me to feel like it’s home,” he says. “I really want people to notice their power.”

Mr. McGee is especially fond of Rich City Rides’ after-school workshops. For the Earn-a-Bike program, a dozen local kids sign up to learn the mechanics of fixing bikes. “I let them build bikes, and I help them along the way,” he says. They’re thrilled when they learn they get to take a bike home. “They’re outside riding it like it’s no tomorrow, no matter how ugly – it’s their bike.”

Mr. Smith knows firsthand the kinds of problems Richmond residents are dealing with, like generational poverty and sparse opportunity. He grew up in the Brooklyn borough of New York at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. As an adult, he faced homelessness for months at a time. His advocacy now is always for those most vulnerable, he says. “Growing up, I always wanted everybody to have enough.”   

Bottom of FoA seed for other co-ops

That’s why he chose to make Rich City Rides a cooperative – to uplift and empower members of the bike shop. “We share the stress, we share the profits, we share the challenges, and we share the victories, all evenly,” says Mr. Smith, who wants to help incubate other cooperative businesses in the area. And, as always, he hopes to bring even more Richmond residents into the biking fold.

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. “[We have] the ability to take what we have, these raw materials, and create something really beautiful from it.

Page created on 8/9/2021 11:32:20 PM

Last edited 9/13/2021 8:13:56 PM

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