Misty Todisco guides customers through rows of bicycles, confidently rattling off the merits of cruisers and fixed-gears, road and mountain, folding, recumbent and tandem. Until she took a sales clerk job at Good Karma Bikes—a nonprofit that repairs bikes for free on weekends, largely for homeless clients, and sells them secondhand during the week—she never paid the hobby much thought.
“I didn’t really grow up with it,” says Todisco, 24, her thin frame clad in a kelly green Good Karma sweatshirt, boot-cut jeans and sensible black shoes. “No one took me out and taught me how to ride. Once in a while someone, like through a charity on Christmas, would donate a bike. But it never lasted.”
In foster care, anything valuable disappears.
“You move so often, things get lost—or stolen,” says Todisco, who spent the bulk of her childhood, from ages 3 to 19, bouncing from group home to foster parents up to eight times a year. That meant no cellphone, no computer. Music was censored, even top 40 radio stations. Friends were a struggle to keep, as group homes require background checks on guests. Physical contact was discouraged—no hugs, even among peers.
“My social skills were at a minimum,” she says. “It all kind of hindered my ability to make friends.”
In isolation, her confidence faltered. But none of that comes across in the way she greets customers coming into the 8,000-square-foot Sunol Street warehouse, warm and welcoming. There’s a lot to look forward to now. After two years living out of an old sedan, unable to afford a place even while working two jobs, Todisco in April found a room to rent until she finds her own studio and a full-time job.
“I’ve gotten more done in two weeks here than I did in two years when I was homeless,” she says. “I would find tons of housing, but no one wanted to rent to a single mom.”
Eventually, she turned to The Hub, a Santa Clara County-run resource center for foster youth, which connected her to a transitional housing program and a part-time job at Good Karma. Through the the combined help of social services and stable work at the bike nonprofit, she secured a place for her 2-year-old daughter to sleep every night, at a consistent time. Instead of just the McDonald’s playground, her little girl can play with her own toys in her own room. A place where Todisco can safely store a bike of her own, a purple Trek she fixed up herself.
Todisco is among the first crop in a pilot program at Good Karma that offers technical training and job placement for former foster youth, who age out of the public support system at midnight on their 18th birthday. Often, they have no one to turn to, leaving them prone to homelessness, drug use and crippling anxiety.
More than half suffer moderate to severe mental illness, according to California-based nonprofit Cities, Counties and Schools Partnership. Worse, they experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at twice the rate of combat veterans. Within the first two years of emancipation, as it’s called in bureaucratic parlance, 25 percent end up in jail. Within the first 18 months, more than half become homeless. Only 40 percent finish high school. While 70 percent say they want to go to college, fewer than 1 percent graduate with a degree. Most live below the federal poverty line for the first five years of adulthood.
“This is a group of young folks who have been failed by the system,” Good Karma’s Vice President of Operations Cindy Ahola says. “And we are that system. They’ve been taken in by us, by the county, the state. We are the parents, and we have a responsibility for these young folks. I feel like they’ve been forgotten enough already.”
The nascent program teaches former foster youth how to build, fix and appraise bikes, draw new customers and sell online, a mixture of marketing and technical know-how along with college and career mentoring. Jim Gardner, the optoelectronics PhD and former engineer who founded the nonprofit in 2009, hopes to scale the program up and out, from San Jose to East Palo Alto and, eventually, in other communities as a path to upward mobility for vulnerable young adults.
“Bicycles are the medium in which we work,” Gardner says. “But this isn’t about bikes. Really it’s about people, about offering them a path to change the trajectory of their life.”
Good Karma is part of a growing number of groups in Silicon Valley to link cycling with social justice, or treat them as though they were never apart. As the cost of living climbs, bicycles have become increasingly branded as a vehicle for social change, grassroots activism and personal autonomy the poor and marginalized.
While working for Americorps at Fisher Middle School in San Jose’s predominantly working-class East Side, Cassidy Kakin was struck by the number of students whose lives seemed confined by their immediate surroundings.
“A lot of these kids had never been outside their own neighborhood,” says Kakin, a 23-year-old political science grad of University of California, Santa Cruz. “We’d ask what college they wanted to go to and they would almost always say San Jose State—that was the only one they knew.”
When he teamed up with college buddy Adrian Baker-Kang, 22, to start the East San Jose Bicycle Cooperative, a free after-school bike clinic for some of those same students, the pair made a point of getting their mentees to explore the city. They took them on group rides, riding past public parks and stopping at various bike shops, showing them the safest routes through the heart of the city.
“Having access to your community in that way has a huge psychological impact,” Kakin says. “On young people, especially. If they’re seeing so little of the world, I think it does limit their dreams.”
The treks also underscored the dangers of cycling through an underserved swath of the city—inadequate infrastructure and incomplete bike lanes along busy roadways. San Jose as a whole claims one of the highest rates of bicycle fatalities of any city in the Bay Area. Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in San Jose reached a two-decade high in 2013 with 26 deaths, according to the San Jose Police Department. In 2015, citywide traffic deaths—most of them involving cyclists and pedestrians—exceeded the number of homicides in San Jose. Overwhelmingly, those deaths and injuries are concentrated in the East Side, partly because of auto-centric infrastructure that crowds out bikes and other forms of transportation.
“That’s a big priority for us,” Kakin says. “We teach kids how to build and fix bikes, but also how to safely navigate an urban environment.”
Largely because of a groundswell of advocacy from the cycling community, the city has drawn up plans to build more connected bikeways past schools and community centers along major thoroughfares like King and Story roads. Paul Smith, San Jose’s deputy director of transportation, has made the eastern half of the city a priority, making a point to ride in Bike Party’s East Side offshoot led by bike activist Justin Triano.
Cycling has long been used to address social issues, says Colin Heyne, deputy director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition. Leading up to the 20th century, he notes, bicycles drove the women’s suffrage and liberation movement, giving previously homebound women physical freedom, enabling them to organize more effectively.
More recently, as fears about income inequality and gentrification heighten in post-recession Silicon Valley, there’s been a renewed focus on cycling as a political tool rather than just a hobby for the Lance Armstrong-wannabe “Lycra crowd.”
“Bicycles have deep roots in social activism,” Heyne says. “But these past three years have seen a much bigger push to broaden the cycling movement to downtrodden communities instead of just recreational riders.”
Free fix-it clinics like Bike Church in Santa Cruz or the San Jose Bike Clinic in Silicon Valley have always focused on serving the poor and homeless, some of whom struggle to afford public transportation.
Cycling often intersects with strikes, political movements and community causes, says Andrew Boone, who founded I Walk, I Bike, I Vote to hold public officials accountable on transportation and access issues. When the 49ers began blocking off the public St. Thomas Aquinas Trail in Santa Clara on game days, Boone rallied cyclists to protest at City Council meetings. Last year, he staged demonstrations against San Jose’s new sidewalk-cycling ban, which he feared would open the door to racial profiling and unnecessarily criminalize a practice that might be more effectively curtailed with more bike lanes or a public education campaign.
“There’s a natural extension there, between biking and community involvement,” agrees Baker-Kang of the East San Jose Bike Co-op.” When you’re out riding, you see the lack of infrastructure in these neighborhoods, especially where we work in the East Side. You see firsthand the city you’re living in, the cross-section of class and culture and political influence and how that affects the way we get around.”
Chris Lepe, a planner for the transportation advocacy nonprofit TransForm, also sees cycling as a way to address the yawning gap between rich and poor in Silicon Valley.
“We’re trying to help people reduce the cost of living,” says Lepe, an East Side native who for years relied on a $60 garage sale road bike as his primary vehicle. “Housing and transportation are the two biggest sources of spending for families. For many households, those combined costs can take up to 75 percent or more of their income. At least in the meantime, while we work on ways to address the affordable housing crisis, we can help them cut those transportation costs and give them efficient, cost-effective ways to get around.”
Bay Area-based Red, Bike and Green launched in 2007 to get more African Americans to opt for bicycles over cars. The group’s manifesto points out that biking gives black communities a way to rally against environmental injustice, as minorities tend to bear the brunt of public health problems like asthma and other chronic diseases endemic to poor neighborhoods. The nonprofit drew a strong following of community and political activists. Cycling groups, ironically, weren’t entirely supportive because the rides tend to be slower, along less challenging routes and some of the cyclists don’t wear helmets.
“On the one hand, cycling is just a way to get around,” says Allison Mannos, 30, who co-founded Multicultural Communities for Mobility, a bike advocacy group that offers legal workshops, lights and helmets to hundreds of low-income cyclists in Los Angeles. “But by focusing on communities of color, on underserved populations, you start to see how bike advocacy connects to the environment, to safety, to economic mobility and to a bigger social movement.”
More than the diploma awarded at the end of Good Karma’s bike certification course, Isaac Barro-Deleal marked his moment of achievement with a rose-colored Sakae Ringyo, which he built from the steel frame up.
“There’s no better feeling than building and fixing up something yourself,” says Barro-Deleal, 20, who, like Todisco, grew up in Santa Clara County’s foster care system. “The brakes took me forever. I wasn’t good with them. So when I finally figured it out, I was pretty proud of myself.”
Since switching from public transit to biking, he’s lost 80 pounds.
“For anybody in transition, a bicycle can be a powerful tool to get around,” Ahola says, not to mention the impact on someone’s mental and physical health. “It can be free or cheap, you don’t need a license and you control your schedule so you can get to work, to the unemployment office, to get medical care, to run errands and live independently.”
Hopefully, Ahola says, that physical freedom translates to economic mobility.
“The other part of this for me is that it’s now part of my job to help other people,” adds Barro-Deleal. “That feels good, knowing you make a difference that way.”
According to a survey of clients who rely on Good Karma’s first-come-first-served weekend bike clinic, more than half rely on a bike to make money recycling, fewer than 15 percent have a reliable job and 89 percent are homeless. Nearly half bike more than 25 miles a week, putting wear and tear on bikes they otherwise couldn’t afford to fix. Fourteen percent are military veterans.
Gardner founded Good Karma after seeing a homeless man on a rickety bike, which inspired him to launch a free fix-it clinic for anyone who needed a hand in St. James Park. He eventually expanded operations to a warehouse headquartered on Sunol Street in downtown San Jose. In launching the program for foster youth, Gardner says, he feels like he’s brought the charity full circle.
“All we do is fix bikes,” he says. “We don’t have case management, we don’t have addiction services, we don’t have housing—even though those are all services many of our clients need. So working on the cure side, we’re always at a disadvantage. That’s what got us to focus on prevention.”
About a quarter of foster youth aging out of the system become homeless, he says, citing a figure from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“We could intercept that trajectory,” Gardner says. “When a lot of young people come to us, they’re convinced from their experiences that they have nothing of value to add. … It really took me just a few weeks [after starting Good Karma] to see that this whole thing is about self-esteem and reparation. When you fix something that’s broken, there’s an intrinsic reaction. You don’t need anyone to tell you, ‘Good job.’ You feel it.”