Bikes Not Bombs — Lessons about Sustainable Organizing for Progressive Change

A couple months ago Bikes Not Bombs both celebrated its 25th anniversary and announced that the last of the founding organizers, Carl Kurtz, was leaving.  But its core mission of international anti-war solidarity combined with local bicycle and youth services remains.  Still based in Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, BNB is now being run by the next generation — people who have grown up with the organization, or connected through the international network of local bike shops that BNB continues to support, or who were attracted by BNB’s combination of political vision and pragmatic services.

It is of enormous credit to the entire BNB community that the organization has lasted this long.  And it’s of equal credit to Carl that he has been such a steadfast leader and worker for the entire time.  Listening to the speeches, and reflecting on what I know about the organization, helped remind me of what it takes to create sustainable change from the bottom up.  The simplicity of the words hides the enormous skill and art of making them happen:  compelling vision, optimistic faith, coherent mission, operational efficiency, good leadership, and luck.

The first lesson is that you have to have a compelling vision, something that embodies core values and solicits emotional connection.  You have to deeply believe in the value of the better world that you hope to create.  Vision is not the same as goals, which tend to be more short- or median-term and quantifiable.  In contrast, vision is a description of the ideal future state towards which you strive.

In the short term, there are always problems, there are always compromises, and our profit-driven world isn’t always a supportive environment.  But a compelling vision can help pull you through.  It can also convince others to join, which is what both allows you to survive and transforms you from a group to a movement.   Bikes Not Bombs always describes itself as part of the world-wide movement for peace and justice, rejecting violence and engaging those in need who are ready to participate in creating their own solutions.

Second:  you need to have faith in the possibility of progress towards that vision – a kind of irrational optimism even if it’s usually expressed in secular rather than spiritual terms.  This is not the kind of positive thinking that Barbara Ehrenreich condemns in “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World” – pretending to be happy in a bad situation rather than trying to improve it.  Rather, this is a belief that no matter how bad things may seem to be, there is something about human beings that engenders hope, that provides the fuel to start moving forward again.  This is a belief in your personal and collective ability to get things done, to make a worthwhile difference in your own and others’ lives, to stagger towards the vision once again.


Third: you need a coherent mission – a description of the particular role that your organization can play in moving towards some component of the overall vision.  An organization’s mission can evolve or even radically change as the circumstances require.  But it needs to always be tied to the vision and coherent enough to guide day-to-day operations.  An organization’s mission doesn’t have to solve the entire problem or create the entire vision, but is has to be part of the solution.  The wheel of history is huge and heavy — the most realistic organizations see themselves as turning a small gear that helps turn a larger gear, that helps turn an even larger gear….that eventually moves human reality.  BNB’s mission was to help connect peoples, support alternative energies, and fight poverty by creating small-scale bicycle-based organizations both overseas and at home.

Fourth:  vision, faith, and even a coherent mission aren’t enough.  My father used to quote Thoreau who said, “If you have built castles in the air, that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”  You have to be able to operate efficiently and well.

Bikes Not Bombs, for example, is also a business.  It has to pay for supplies, cover salaries, and keep the roof from leaking.  BNB is more than a business, so donations are requested and important.  But so is the grounding discipline of customer service.  If the teens in the bike shop aren’t providing something valuable enough for people to pay for, then the organization will not survive.  The point is not the pursuit of profit; it’s the necessity of creating a functional organization.

Too many nonprofits and community groups are so incompetently run that they squander the value of their good intentions, exhaust volunteer energy, and accomplish very little.  Not every social change organization should be built around a business, or even around a particular service.  But there are many lessons we can learn from the business world about how to manage, how to operate, and how to secure the value of what we do.  These are perhaps the hardest lessons for idealistic and well-meaning leaders to learn – but we ignore them at our own peril.

Participatory democracy is slow and complex.  Everyone has an opinion and even if it’s essentially the same as the previous three speakers, everyone needs a chance to speak for themselves.  Or else, groups end up with endless debates about minor differences.  Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking in public, or don’t have time to spend on endless committee deliberations.  Worst of all, the presence of one obnoxious or dominating person can kill a volunteer organization.

For all our commitment to democratic empowerment, organizations run best when they are able to quickly make decisions, areas of responsibility are clearly demarked, and lines of authority are explicit and short.  From my own experience, many jobs are best done by family-owned small businesses or active partnerships rather than cooperatives.  Family members and hand-on partners are more likely to have the motivation and staying power to put in the endless hours needed to start, build, and grow an operation.

Even on a larger scale, our preference for democratic structures does not always translate into effective organizations.  A friend recently compared the reality of a local food coop with a national chain – the chain’s CEO was vocally anti-union and opposed to public social support programs while the coop was locally controlled by a board filled with progressives.  On the other hand, the chain hired many more low-income workers, paid them better, had more locally produced food, carried a wider selection, was often cheaper, contributed more to local nonprofits, and was a much more pleasant shopping experience.  So…which was better?

There are exceptions:  Cooperatives seem to work better if they start with a powerful and shared vision, and when it is organized around something that is vital to the essential day-to-day needs of its members – as were the old Kibbutzim in Israel, the Mondragon worker coops in the Basque part of Spain, and in some of today’s co-housing developments.  And Bikes Not Bombs has found a way to combine an empowering community with a reasonably efficient operational structure.

Fifth:  an organization has to have good leadership.  Perhaps everyone has the potential of being a good leader or skilled manager, but few achieve it.  Almost every organization I’ve ever worked in or with – public and private, non-profit and for-profit – has suffered from bad leaders and managers.  Good leaders are not always nice people or easy to work with.  They are role players and their value depends on how well they perform that specific function rather than how much they are liked.  In fact, one of the hardest realities of leadership is realizing that it is more important to have the respect of your subordinates than their friendship.  But the vaguer an organization’s “bottom line” – the more its vision and mission are about social change rather than quarterly profits – the more important is the moral example set by leadership.  Gandhi was inspirational not only because of his strategic brilliance but because of his personal actions.

Finally, success requires luck.  We have to act as if we are the creators of our own lives and the world.  But wisdom requires that we also face the reality that the universe is large and mostly unknown, that uncertainty is at the core of existence, that earthquakes happen and accidents occur.  Sometimes the dice roll our way.  Sometimes the skidding car misses the pedestrian.  Sometimes we can muddle through; sometimes we can’t.  And sometimes which of those happens has nothing to do with ourselves.  My father used to quote Louis Pasteur that “chance comes to the prepared mind.”  But sometimes it doesn’t.  Surviving for 25 years shows not only that Bikes Not Bombs has done a lot of things right, not only that they have created many chances for themselves, but that they’ve been lucky as well.

My brother once told me the difference between dreams and fantasies.  Fantasies are what we think we’ll do if we win the lottery.  They are flights of imagination that will only happen if some magic fairy godmother waves her wand over our head.  Dreams can be no less fantastical, but the difference is that they are something towards which we are actually working – something that we have a strategy, however sketchy, for attaining through our own personal or combined efforts.

I wish Carl and his family a wonderful vacation.  And he should neither look back nor worry.  Bikes Not Bombs is a dream.  Actually, it is better than a dream because it is already coming true – a little more every morning that the staff wakes up at work.

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