Change Makers

Change Makers Vancouver- Our Community Bikes


As part of a new project called Change Makers I am interviewing people and organisations who are doing things a little differently and are creating positive change in the world. The aim of this is to share some inspiring projects and show that there are alternatives to using unethical corporations, connect people looking to be the change to companies that can help them achieve that goal and maybe even encourage you to start something of your own. Change Makers - Our Community Bikes

Our Community Bikes is based in Vancouver and from the outside looks like a regular bike shop. However things are done a little differently inside. In this bike shop you don't simply pay for someone to fix your bike, you fix your own bike with the guidance of trained bike mechanics. It doesn't stop there either, they offer skills training, employment therapy and bikes for people who could't afford one otherwise.

It is about education, self reliance, getting your hands dirty and as I learned after chatting with Jesse Cooper, who has been with the organisation since 2003, a whole lot more.

Tell me what Our Community Bikes is all about? 

Our Community Bikes is about education, empowerment, empathy, and accessibility. We look to give new life to the hopeless, bringing back the lost, the forgotten, and allow each person and bike to tell their stories through refurbishment, recycling, and reuse.

The new space of Our Community Bikes

How do you differ from a regular bike store?

We allow the interaction of maintenance with the customer. We are encouraging them to hang out and pick up a tool, and learn some technical skills, empower themselves. We also offer a large range of used parts that comes from donations and salvage. This offers a bit more choice in the financial realm. We also specialize in the restoration of obsolete technologies, as we have the skill and parts to refurbish bikes that no longer have after market parts available, or very few. As well, we run different types of social programming, like volunteer training, peer skills, life skills, occupation therapy and job instruction for staff, volunteers and other folks.

What was the inspiration behind starting Our Community Bikes? 

Mostly it was about accessibility. Impoverished or low income families that relied on bikes to move around the city needed a source of inexpensive service and parts. Also, the idea was to create a community hub were many folks of all walks could come together and learn from each other's life stories. Environmental, we were able to create a recycling outlet for all the bikes moving to the landfill, as well as generate revenues from the salvage!

The work stations where you can learn to fix your own bike.

What did those involved with the start up do before this? Were they very experienced in this industry?

The people who helped start up were cyclists themselves, but from different backgrounds and experiences. Only one or two had firm mechanical experience. Many of them though were active in pushing cycling as a transportation alternative. Activists if you will.

Were there any difficulties that the team faced in starting such a unique enterprise?

In the first five years, funding ran dry and the directors were almost sure that we would have to close our doors. But it turned around and through a little luck and some hard work it came back.

At the beginning the lack of experience from a financial, management, and mechanical perspective posed many challenges as well. It took some time to get some experience.

Lot of refurbished and second hand supplies to reduce financial barriers to owning your own bike

Why do you think it is important to have a space where people work on their own bikes rather than pay for someone to fix it for them?

The biggest thing we face today is a separation from out tools and our technologies. We aren't allowed the opportunity to be interactive with our material possession in such a way that we can understand it's basics. The trend of just being an operator isn't conducive to healthy learning. Offering the public a space to understand their tools and their equipment is empowerment. It foster the growth of confidence and curiosity. We needn't be a specialist to understand but only curious, which leads to many more levels of healthy learning and broadening understanding. It's a path to accepting community!

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business or non-profit that contributes to positive change?

Hold fast!!   It's really challenging as any business owner knows to start this sort of thing, but reach out to your community for help! Get many hands on board! Look for volunteers that can bring managerial experience and a dedicated team. Don't let lack of funds be the barrier, because some creative media, and thinking and fundraising can bring that in.

Our Community Bikes open for business

What are the next steps for Our Community Bikes?

We are to settle in to our new space, pay off our loan and pay back into our line credit, start some living wage policy for staff, and start a new round of strategic planning. We want to get that financial buffer back, and acknowledge the staff skill so we are able to retain the skill we help develop, and start spinning up more programming oriented towards people with barriers and other various groups in need.

We also have a fundraiser in our space (a party) on Friday the 30th of October, and that we are also looking for one time and monthly donors through our donate button from our website. It goes through Canada Helps, which automatically issues tax receipts.

What is the change you want to see in the world?

It would be great see social equity take the stage, bringing about empathy and understand, community, which would in turn trump personal gain and greed.

Thanks to Jesse and the team at Our Community Bikes

Give a little thought to the next time your bike needs some love and see if you could perhaps support a great organisation while learning a new set of skills in the process.

Change Makers Vancouver - The Homesteaders Emporium


As part of a new project called Change Makers I am interviewing people and organisations who are doing things a little differently and are creating positive change in the world. The aim of this is to showcase some inspiring projects, connect people looking to be the change to companies that can help them achieve that goal and maybe even encourage you to start something of your own. Change Makers - The Homesteaders Emporium

The Homesteaders Emporium is a store that I have visited a lot since I first discovered it. In their words they are 'a one-stop-shop for urban homesteading'. If you aren't familiar with homesteading, it is anything related to living a self sufficient lifestyle. Growing, preserving and making your own food, raising animals, foraging... it's a long list that comes under the homesteading umbrella. So for me The Homesteaders Emporium is like being a kid in a candy store. It is empowering to know that there is an alternative to simply relying on paying other people to make things for you and that with a little bit of patience, practice and mindfulness you can take a lot more responsibility for the things you consume.

Tell me about The Homesteaders Emporium what is it all about?

Homesteader’s Emporium is a small brick-and-mortar shop located in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Our goal is to make it more accessible for folks to gain skills, tools, and materials to move toward more self-sufficient lifestyles. Living in a pretty unique period of time where it’s almost impossible to ignore how our interactions, behaviours and ways of life affect not only our own immediate environments, but the global climate as well, this shop is an effort to offer access and opportunity for urbanites to develop skills in self-sufficiency for more sustainable living practices. We sell and rent supplies, create community to learn with, and are also a bridge for folks to access mentors and teachers to learn news skills through our workshop programs.

Homesteader’s Emporium is one tiny window folks in the city can look into to find connection to the everyday basics of life - things our fast-paced city lives can miss entirely. I was listening to an elder share about his last train ride when a little boy pointed to some animals outside and said “what are those?”. His mom answered “cows.” The elder was shocked. My roommate had a similar story working with kids on a small farm called Southlands. Recently she told me of a group of kids who were super excited about helping out on the farm because it was like being in Mine Craft. They moved around the farm walking like pixelated square avatars, moving bales around and feeding the chickens in robotic motion. A part of living in the city means prioritizing efficiency and productivity, which sometimes means not being able to, or forgetting to prioritize the basics of life, such as food. What is ground beef? What is soap? Where does my fried chicken come from? WHAT?!?! A real chicken?? But they’re so cute!

Learn about bees at the Homesteaders Emporium

What was the inspiration behind starting The Homesteaders Emporium?

Our store was born of necessity. In 2012 if you lived in the Lower Mainland and wanted to get into beekeeping, cheese making, fermenting, etc, there wasn’t really an easy way for you to do that. You had to track down a club, mail order supplies you’d never seen before, fiddle around and jerry-rig your own equipment, and generally work pretty hard to be successful. We wanted to make DIY just a little bit more accessible, and our own experiences indicated the best way to do that was to make supplies and education available in a brick-and-mortar space.

What did those involved with the start-up do before this? Were they very experienced in this industry?

Our starting team was drawn together by our hobbies and passion for making from scratch, but none of us really had professional experience with running a store. We just were trying to create something we felt was really important. The owner (Rick) worked a bit at Mountain Equipment Co-op, and that really coloured the type of shopping experience and work environment we wanted to create. He also tutored kids in an after school program, and dabbled in IT consulting. The other early hires were a hair stylist, off-duty school teacher, and a young mother re-entering the workforce. We were and are a bit of a ragtag crew, but we make it work!

Owner Rick Havlak showing how to make soap

Were there any difficulties you faced in starting such a unique business?

There were and are. The biggest challenge is education - after all, we’re not really in the product business, we’re in the skill business. The products just happen to be where we get our revenue, but they aren’t what keeps us in business. That means we spend more of our time coordinating workshops, compiling resources, and writing instructions than we do selling product - even though we don’t earn money on those things!

Most stores selling specialty goods end up charging a high premium, but our whole aim is to make the activities we cater to accessible. That means we’re trying to juggle a large number of suppliers and many, many different products, without applying a higher markup than a larger chain store might. To do this, we use inventory tracking that is much more complex than the average store our size, and spend a lot of time sweet-talking suppliers to work with us on our orders.

Why should people try homesteading instead of just buying things from a store?

  1. It’s way more expensive to buy ready-made products from a store. For example, sauerkraut takes about 30mins of effort to make, but costs $5-10/litre in stores and farmer’s markets. If you made it at home it would cost you about buck or two at most and I’d bet you’d like it more!
  2. It’s gratifying to make things. People are creators. We’re agents of change. We like to move things around and transform them. Growing your own food from seed, making your own cheese, composting your own scraps then turning it into nutrient-rich soil for your garden - doing these things not only FEELS satisfying, but it creates a special connection between you and your self. Learning these skills shifts where your source of life comes from - your source of life being food, water, shelter, clothing, community, etc. It is extremely empowering to be very closely connected to your source of life. When you make something from scratch, you become attached to every aspect of the process. When you buy something, you’re only attached to the outcome. Can you imagine what kind of impact this can have in our lives?

Some of the educational books sold in the store

What tips would you offer someone looking to start being more self sufficient?

Start small or go all in. Whatever works best for you, but don’t be too attached to the outcomes of your experiments. The other day I wanted to make no-knead sourdough bread, which was a first for me. I had seen some folks do this at different stages of the Tartine-style process but I had never seen the whole process through. I also have a short attention span for multi-stepped instructions, so I skimmed the process and went for it. At the end of the day, I had messed up every possible step either in timing or in technique, but decided to bake my loaves anyway. They weren’t the perfectly chewy crusted, soft and airy loaves my partner and friends make, but they were excellent toasted with butter and I was happy to share them with my friends and family. Most importantly, I learned a bunch from the million mistakes I made (turning and shaping are different things for example!), so I am really excited to apply those lessons to my next batch! I imagine, like with most things, these projects get better with time, as long as we stay open enough to keep learning.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own business that contributes to positive change?

Your greatest challenge will likely be to find a balance between pursuing your mission and making enough money to keep operating. Remember that while you may not be in business to make money, you need to make money to be in business. Watch your cash flow and keep on top of your books. Find a good bookkeeper before you do anything else. The values-based for-profit has not yet gained broad acceptance in our economy, so get ready to be pulled in both directions. Good luck!

One of many workshops taking place in the store

What are the next steps for Homesteader’s Emporium?

We’re working on providing more resources for home-learning, as a way to complement the in-store experience. For example, our rentals program is really popular, and our staff can give some advice on how to use a rented item (e.g. a honey extractor or a pasta maker). Soon though, we’ll have instructional videos to go with most of them!

What is the change you want to see in the world?

We want to live in a world where people are connected again to how things are made and where things come from. Obviously everyone can’t do everything, but we think by making it easier to engage with products by making them, we can encourage more conscientious consumer behavior. It starts with food - learn to make cheese, learn about dairy cow welfare! But it doesn’t stop there. Making soap leads to learning about all the miscellaneous additives that go into modern consumer cosmetics. Learning to repair a cell phone reminds you that fixing electronics is possible - and if enough people do it, or even if enough people hear about it, we can drive demand for easily-fixable devices that don’t wind up in landfills. It can create benefits for society AND the planet on many different levels.

Thank you so much to all the team at keep up the good work.

The next time you are in the supermarket maybe just stop and consider how many of the products you are are about to buy could you try making yourself...