I am a “cook” at the bicycle kitchen, La Bicicocina, an all-volunteer
run nonprofit bicycle repair workshop in central Los Angeles. A “cook”
is a volunteer. We cook bikes. Our mission is to promote the bicycle as a fun,
safe, and accessible form of transportation, to foster healthy urban
communities, and to provide a welcoming space to learn about building
maintaining, and riding bicycles. What began informally in the kitchen
of a studio apartment used for storage at the Los Angeles Eco-Village by
Jimmy Lizama, a downtown bike messenger who wanted a place to work
on bikes has just officially filed for its own 501c3 status. As a longtime
cook and founding board member I want to share how we make decisions
because I think the structure of the Bicicocina while by no means perfect
is at the very least interesting and at best inspiring. It is also constantly
evolving. Interspersed are some fellow cooks’ responses to my call to our
listserve, “What do you think about our decision-making process?”
The bicycle kitchen decision-making process works in the collective.
We deliberate and confer. We use the fact that our mission guides us in and helps us to keep our eye on the ball. A clear statement of purpose and clearly defined objectives guide the process to ends we can work with.
Making choices is aided by the fact that the bicycle is our friend.
Our meetings are above all civil.
We raise our hands, our names are placed in a stack and we go in the order speaking our mind, brainstorm style, no ridicule or judgment, it works well.
Our fundamental organizing principal is: we have no Boss, no owner, and no one person is in charge.
Our process is open and inclusive, all members are encouraged to contribute in our decision making process. One dissenting voice will cause continued discussing – however we do require 100% consensus. One shortfall in our process is that we do not have our cookbook written and as we age, our traditions and settled policy issues are rehashed and need to be kept alive by oral informing. In some ways this is refreshing and in others it hampers our moving on. I am not sure we have to move on our model and mission work. We are putting bicycles on the street in a visible and proactive manner. We advocate the bicycle as a primary transportation choice, and it is working on a weekly basis. We hear five to ten clients each week say, “I do not want to use a car any more” or “I sold my car,” “I am selling my car, gas cost too much” etc. Each bicycle on the street is one less car and that makes incremental changes. We are part of the solution. -Jim Bledsoe
Currently, there are around forty “active” cooks – people who take
approximately one or more wrenching shifts a month or teach a class and/or
work in a committee. Information is passed internally on the listserve, the
forum, a wiki and word of mouth. The forum was generated by a cook; it is an
online posting board for a variety of topics. The forum was created to cut down
on email traffic on the listserve, so that issues and ideas between meetings
can be posted freely there instead. It’s also for information pertaining to
“shadow” cooks. Shadow cooks are potential volunteers, a.k.a. “cookidates.”
They a nswer a questionnaire, go through some training and shadow ten shifts
before the community posts comments on the forum and then votes either on
the forum or in quarterly meetings on their cook-readiness. The wiki, also
created by a cook is an online source for all internal documents, schedules,
cook contacts, meeting agendas and minutes.
Volunteering at the Bicycle Kitchen for 4+ years I have had the pleasure to
watch our organization grow from a handful of friends to a group of thirty including
a hub, a board and committee heads. While these newly created positions offer
responsibility for actions and day-to-day operations, the Kitchen has kept a uniqueslice of co-operative decision making alive. At any point, at any time, anyone in the
collective can bring up an issue, an idea, a concern, a goal and be heard. Anything
big to major that involves a decision is brought up to the group and we vote for it
and for the most part the vote is a go. One key component to making this possible
in my opinion is that everyone is working for our mission. All who come on board
believe in this mission and aim to increase it with whatever time, skill and power
they have. Keeping the mission in focus keeps us all on the same page and allows
freedom to feel ownership in our co-op as we all work towards the same goal. Our
success in this area has been organic, peaceful and progressive.
- Kim Jensen
As part of the 501c3 filing we formed a board of directors which is
currently nine cooks and can be as many as fifteen, but no less than five. Cooks
nominate and vote on the Board with elections every six months. Terms are
one year (although, the first Board had half the board serving eighteen months
to ensure not everyone left at once.) Any active cook can run for the Board.
The Board can nominate and elect a member from outside the cook’s community.
Board meetings are monthly and all cooks are welcome to attend, but voting
on matters at the board meetings are limited to board members only. Built
into the bylaws is the ability of any cook who disagrees with a board decision
to overturn that decision with a referendum. There is an Executive Committee
(affectionately still called the Hub in a nod to the term used for the five people
who were the main decision-making stakeholders from the early days at the Eco-
Village space and our first two years at Heliotrope) that is made up of the Chairperson
of the Board, the Vice-chair, the Secretary and the Treasurer. These
positions are legal names from nonprofit filing, required on State and Federal
documents. The board members holding these positions are voted on by their
fellow boardies. We have a schedule of three or four cooks meetings a year
and one retreat. The agenda for the board meetings and cooks meetings are
compiled by the chair and secretary, but any cook can suggest an agenda item.
There are also committees. Current active committees are Operations,
(orders parts and oversees the functionality of the physical space); Volunteer
(recruits and trains new cooks); Programs (oversees Bitchen – ladies/transgender
only evening, Earn-a-Bike youth program that’s on hiatus, and schedules
workshops); 501c3 Application and Bylaws, both ad hoc and concluded; Space
Exploration (looking into moving/acquiring a bigger location, but is now
dealing with a CRRA/Metro opportunity at Hollywood and Western); PR (fields media requests from corporate and independent media and students); and
finally Development, a more recently formed committee tasked to be more proactive
about fundraising, pushing instead the idea of generating project-specific
funds rather than rooting out large beholden-to-the-government sums. There
are also the standing committees of the Hub, Finance and IT (self-explanatory).
All cooks are welcome and encouraged to participate in a committee.
Finally, there are the cooks meetings – scheduled and emergency meetings.
The emergency meetings are generally called when a time-sensitive,
community-affecting situation comes up. Although we don’t technically
operate under consensus (voting at cooks meetings is 2/3 majority,) and the
Board is empowered to make decisions for the cooks, in these cases the
emergency meetings are called because no BIG decisions are made without
the participation and opinion of as many of the cooks who want to be involved.
We’ve self-moderated meetings for the past year and a half and maintain
a stack, implementing a one-two minute go around to hear from everyone
present before taking a straw poll and finally, a vote on all big decisions.
Oh, ok, I actually think it’s pretty good. It’s annoying sometimes at the meetings
having to listen to everyone, and it seems a little tedious but it seems to work
really well, the “right choice” always seems to be made in the end. People can be
involved or not involved as much as they like.
And I like how the board meets about general stuff but when something big
happens everyone is notified and special meetings take place.
I would be the first to complain about something like this, but can’t find much
to complain about. I imagine that is why you didn’t get many responses. It works!
The way that i have outlined our infrastructure, on paper seems so
formal, so structured and methodical, but I want to emphasize that mostly
we operate organically and with great intention. There is deep mutual respect.
It’s a testament to the strength of the organization that most of the people who
were cookin’ at the eco-village space are still greasy four years out. It seems
to me that the main reason for this is that we serve the bicycle. It is a tangible
need that we are serving, providing a space for people to fix their bike. Riding
a bicycle in Los Angeles is almost a political act and in addition to being excited
to be in a room with other cyclists, we are all united around the potential
of the bicycle as a force for social and political change. It’s everyone’s hidden
agenda! One thing that came up at a retreat in 2007 was the fact that we get
asked to participate in advocacy and the conclusion that we came to guided
the mission statement that what we do really well is educate people about how
the bicycle functions. The by-product of handing someone a tool and the
guidance on what to do with it, is they come away with enthusiasm and
knowledge for the bicycle and cycling and the more we can get that, the less
people will be driving their cars – a kind of organic advocacy.
What I find uniquely effective in the decision making model that has evolved
at the Bicycle Kitchen, is that once a person has become a cook, their voice is
considered in the process, no matter what their background or social status is. The
consensus based approach is not always fast or easy, but it ensures that all possible
options are evaluated before one is pursued. It also ensures that all interested
voices are heard on an equal platform, no matter what the majority decides. Thus,
cronyism and entitlement are snuffed out and equality is created.
Because of it’s egalitarian nature, this is a model I am trying to lend to another
organizing project, Dyke Day LA, a new free pride event for dykes and allies of
all ages, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Since the goal of this event is
to bring together people of different backgrounds, the Kitchen’s model has been
wonderful in ensuring that no one class of person gets to have a bigger say in the
planning than another. This model is actually working to bring together the masses.
There is also pure bike enthusiasm. We ride together. We play bike polo.
We walk across the street to drink a beer and talk about bikes. We ride our
bikes to eat tacos. We ride our bikes to see each other play music or each
other’s art or even, sadly, visit each other in the hospital. And, yes, we ride
our bikes on dates. With each other! I’ve been trying to nail it (pardon the
pun) that what makes our organization’s structure not fraught with infighting
is like the action of pedals moving wheels. There’s no time in this
motion for fighting.
In the past, I have worked with a number of organizations. The importance of
this for me is not so much the actual number, but rather their diversity – which
includes everything from radical marxist organizations seeking paradigmatic change
to institutionalized nonprofit organizations with narrow objectives. Every one of these
organizations varied in terms of their particular organizational structure and culture.
And yet despite this variety, which should have also produced a variety of feelings
on my part, none of them have impressed me the way that the Kitchen did when
I first became a cook. If I had to summarize what in fact this was, I think I could say
that it included the following:
1) an ethic of volunteerism (I know some of us prefer other terms, such as “punk-rock-attitude,” etc., but I think you know what I mean);
2) an expression mutual respect and value; and
3) a sincere and explicit effort for consensus and democratic decision-making.
I think what has made me appreciate this so much is that when we as an organization have had to face tough decisions, I feel that we have cultivated and, to a certain extent although it is not so explicit, institutionalized a way of dealing with challenges that makes us unique and special and which has resulted in positive steps forward. This in turn has given me a confidence that I am pleased to share and express when asked about my experience at the Kitchen.
With this said, I must also share a concern. With our growth and success, which I have only been minimally a part of, I have felt that our increasing bureaucraticness is challenging the three qualities that I listed earlier and which I think we owe our success to. I don’t doubt that these will be dealt with, but I also realize that dealing with them may also change the Kitchen in ways that may send the organization down new paths that are different than what some of the current – and past – cooks feel is appropriate. -Revel Sims
I share revel’s concerns, but from the standpoint that as we’re
recruiting a lot of new cooks and get further away from the cozy group roots
I wonder how will the respectful, joyful and intentional collective feeling hold
up against the formal structure? How will we ensure that the story of the
Bicycle Kitchen’s beginnings be kept alive, as I think it’s important that new
folks know how careful of an insistent GROUP effort this place has been.
Every major turn of growth has undeniably been through the enthusiastic
participation and support of multiple talented, thoughtful people working in
collaboration. The core of the Kitchen has always been people who are
interested in community-building models that encourage and insist upon
direct participation. Part of this reflection of mine comes from a realization
that almost six years along now, the Bicycle Kitchen is an institution.
Creating a solid infrastructure is about ensuring longevity of this institution.
While I can acknowledge the transparent staidness of becoming a nonprofit,
I also think that the DIT-ness of the spirit of our volunteerism and enthusiasm
for all things bicycle undermines the boredom of bureaucracy. However, I think
it takes reminders – how will we maintain the importance of access through
the continuance of programs like Bicycle Bitchen if we continually have to
shoo our own male cooks away every Monday? I think implementing annual
training on consensus-building and anti-sexist and anti-racist workshops
should be considered. Lastly, having been involved in community and activist
endeavors for a large part of my adult life I’ve come to realize that while I
have no problem speaking up and out in a group situation, or taking a
leadership role, it’s not so easy for others. There’s a great deal to be gained in
leaving room for other people to speak or take space that’s left if you just let
go and go along for the ride and listen to one another.
Bicycle Kitchen is presently located at 706 Heliotrope, Los Angeles , CA 90029 www .bicycle kitchen.com