A formidable group of young women travels the streets of Columbus. Helmet clad, they roll through town on their bikes, searching for sidewalks and bike lanes and assessing street lighting. They know the names of the city council members who represent them, and you may find them behind a microphone at a town hall meeting advocating for the local bicycling movement. They also help cyclists themselves; they can fix a flat bike tire without giving it a second thought.
They are an impressive group. Oh, and they’re in middle school!
These young women are graduates of Girls in Gear, an eight-week bicycle training and empowerment program for females ages 9 to 15. Since the program began two years ago, it has had a major impact; so far, 21 girls have completed the course and earned a bike upon graduation.
The crew’s leader is Jessica Mathews, Safe Routes to School program manager for the Columbus-based bike advocacy organization Consider Biking. According to Mathews, the idea for Girls in Gear came to her several years ago while she was performing walking audits for middle schools throughout Columbus. On those outings, she noticed how the students reacted, or didn’t react, to the surrounding marginalized neighborhoods, characterized by vacant houses, trash-lined streets and landscapes dominated by blight.
“What I sensed from the kids was that they were immune to that environment,” Mathews says. “They felt like it was OK to be surrounded by those things—that that’s just the way it was going to be.”
This inspired Mathews to take action, and Girls in Gear was born. The goal: to build confidence, self-esteem and self-reliance in participants, while showing them that they could have a voice in how their streets and neighborhoods were designed and cared for. “I wanted to expand their thinking about their role in the community and give them tools to change it for the better,” Mathews says.
She initially focused on three topics: bike safety, bike mechanics and urban design. But as Girls in Gear evolved, she added two more sections, nutrition education and public speaking, to incorporate personal development into the curriculum.
The female focus of the program was motivated by Mathews’ own experiences working in a male-dominated field. She points out that when it comes to bicycling, the gender gap goes much further than the bike shop—to engineering and regional planning and many other professions that impact the streetscape. “I want to show these girls that they can be the ones to redesign the streets,” she states.
Mathews says most of the course concepts are new to the girls, and she loves “watching the light bulbs go off” as they discover new skills. Some girls thrive with the hands-on, bike mechanics segment. Others find their niche in urban design or public speaking. “I watch their confidence grow through the program. The hesitation that they bring with them on day one dissipates week by week.”
The transformation is powerful, and Girls in Gear has generated quite a few success stories. Last summer, for example, three program alumni showed up at a neighborhood meeting after Mathews told them that street design was on the agenda. That small prompt was all they needed to take action and share their voices in a public platform.
“I just let them know about it,” Mathews says. “They showed up on their own accord. I’d call that a pretty major success.”