Big changes at Open Roads and some big shoes to fill

Open Roads' new home of its own keeps the program moving forward, opens new options.
When I walked up to Riverview Launch this past May for Open Roads' Bike-a-Palooza Fundraiser, I felt like I was walking into the fantasy dreamland we had imagined during the two seasons I worked as Open Roads' Program Manager. Except that, in my imagination, Open Roads "own space" would look more like a dingy old industrial space or an abandoned garage. Instead, the organization, along with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, sits on one of the most well developed and beautified locations along the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail, known as Riverview Launch. I had to rub my arms hard to make the chicken skin go away.

Open Roads' permanent space is a visual manifestation of the organization's metamorphosis, which represents so much more than an aesthetic change. Their staff has grown from three part-time employees to eight staff and a couple dozen regular volunteers. And they need every one of them--Open Roads serves 50 to 60 kids per week in the summertime through its Earn-a-Bike program and drop-in Fixapaloozas. That brings us to the biggest change of all for Open Roads. After founding the organization in 2009, and leading it for nearly seven years, Ethan Alexander is stepping down as the Open Roads executive director.

The transition

Ethan grew up in a family that didn't own a car. Instead, they biked everywhere. In Northern Michigan. Whenever I hear this story, I think of how much I would possibly hate bikes for the rest of my life after shivering in a snowsuit in bitter January winds in a bike cart as a child. But for Ethan it is what catapulted his love for bikes. He sees bikes as more than mere forms of transportation; he views them as symbols of freedom and autonomy and joy.

After many years honing a curious pastime of collecting bikes in his basement, Ethan was awarded a Change Maker grant through the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which allowed him to turn those bikes into a program. One that could not only work to make the bikes rideable but one that could also draw youth together in community to teach them tools for working together and skills for fixing bikes. Considering his work with KRESA as a Positive Behavior Support Specialist, Ethan saw this program as a natural melding of his work and his passion.

At its inception, Ethan carried much of the weight, along with a handful of friends and volunteers. “We were a traveling circus and we moved wherever we could,” he says. “We were in basements and warehouses. We programmed in summer camps and backyards.” And while Open Roads is still committed to going into the schools and neighborhoods where the kids are, the permanent location has afforded them the ability to hold programs and grow into even more areas that were previously unreachable.

Ethan's decision to step down as the ED has been a long time coming. After years of juggling his role at Open Roads, a full-time career, and parenting two small children with his wife, Maura, he recognized the pending crossroads. At some point, Open Roads would need an executive director who could devote his or her time and energy to the organization in a full-time capacity. Ethan recognized the time for that transition is now. After the transition, he will maintain a position on the board of directors.

Elevating the voices of youth

Diversity is a topic Open Roads has given a lot of thought to. Through a grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, several members of Open Roads' board and staff were able to attend ERACCE  anti-racism training. In equal parts enthusiasm and humility, Ethan says there is always more work to be done within the organization and that they are committed to that journey in years to come.

Open Roads' new Youth Advisory Board (YAB) is where Open Roads' commitment to the inclusion of different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities shows most. Of the eight students who sit on the board, half are people of color, and half are girls. The board is a group of kids ages 14 to 17, who partner with and advise Open Roads staff and board members about program curriculum, events, and fundraising. This past summer, they took on organizing an Edison neighborhood program called  “Super Fixapalooza,” which drew in 50 kids, 10 volunteers, and about 15 parents to enjoy food, music, and of course, free bicycle repair. The YAB is also helping to design the new space on Riverview.

While the large, bright, freshly painted red barn, butterfly way-stations, bee condos, gardens, and trails are the first things that catch your eye as you come up to Riverview Launch, it's the building out front that is the most exciting to me.

Within the walls of the renovated industrial building is the concrete space that will hold the scores of bikes that used to be stored--and then caravanned across the city to programs in various locations--in large warehouses, tiny garages, basements, and backyards. We used to make runs to weed through bikes--bikes we didn't have enough time or staff to sort and organize--to pull out enough for the beginning of programs and events. As you walk through the brand new bike storage space (complete with lofts and rolling ladders), you move through a doorway and step into what will be retail space.

Chicken skin, again.

It's in this space where the reality of a mechanic apprenticeship program will begin and flourish. In fact, Open Roads' took on their first apprentice, a young man named Dominique, whom Ethan calls, “awesome.” The apprenticeship program was another dream that was previously stifled by a lack of appropriate space. But now the organization is able to work with kids between the ages of 14 to 17 to teach them what it's like to actually work in a shop.

“They get to work with our team, help with repairs, teach other kids some skills, and assist with customer service,” Ethan says. It's probably the most concrete illustration of Open Roads mission: “to teach young people valuable social and bike mechanic skills in order to better prepare them for their future.”

Working in partnership and community

Open Roads could be called a poster child for what few organizations can master in an entire lifetime of existence--successful and intentional collaboration with other organizations. Ethan says that their partnership with the Land Bank has been a “great learning experience for (Open Roads) about how organizations can truly support each other in this community.” He says that they are looking to further build community partnerships. “We are not the only nonprofit in town. There are some seriously cool people doing great things in Kalamazoo. How can we learn from them?” And he adds with a sheepish grin, “How can we join forces and take over the world?”

I asked Ethan how people could get involved. He said, “There are SO many ways! Come join us on Oct. 3 for the Tweed Ride. Get all fancied up in vintage, turn-of-the-century fashion and take a stroll through town. Come to Fixapalooza and help someone get their bike rolling again! Join our board. Donate a cool bike.” You can check out their website for more information and details about upcoming events and programs.

You could also consider applying for the executive director position. Ethan says they are still considering candidates with a pretty unique set of skills--program development, marketing, grant writing, strategic planning, project management and building partnerships. And of course, someone who has a passion for the Open Roads mission and great people skills. Probably being generally awesome would help, too. It seems to be a prerequisite for employment and volunteering. You can check out the full job description and requirements on their website.

I'm not quite sure if it's Ethan's small frame or huge energy and passion that makes him so approachable, likeable, and relatable to kids and adults of all ages. I do know that his will be some of the biggest little shoes to fill.

Kathi Valeii worked for Open Roads as a Program Manager during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. She is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog,
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