Kevin Hicks has seen, first hand, how cycling can transform young people’s lives. He has watched kids grow in confidence and strength, emotional and physical, over the course of two-week bike trips exploring historic routes. Hicks and his former wife, Suepinda Keith, founded Spoke’n Revolutions, a program of Triangle Bikeworks, in 2010 with just such an aim: to offer transformative experiences for youth with few resources. What began as 30-day cycling trips for youth of color have since become annual two-week trips. “After 10 days, we could see the transformation in these kids,” he says.
The Chapel Hill, NC, nonprofit first took seed when Hicks and Keith watched a Rwandan cycling team competing in the Tour de France in 2009. Struck by how rare it is to see cyclists of color, “My wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take kids from Maine to Florida by bike?’ I said, ‘You’re out of you mind,’” Hicks remembers. But Keith was onto something. That spring, the couple took a handful of kids, including their 10th-grade son and some of his friends, on the Cycle NC spring coastal ride. “Our kids rode 60 miles in one day, but they wondered why ‘old people’ were passing them,” laughs Hicks. “I asked them if they wanted to try a substantial ride, so we decided on the Underground Railroad.”
On that first long tour, nine youth and three adults followed the path of the Underground Railroad from Mobile, AL, to Buffalo, NY. Successive tours have included similar historic sites and lessons. Their 2015 tour included parts of the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor, which extends from Wilmington, NC, through Charleston, SC, to Jacksonville, FL, and celebrates the culture of captive Africans who were brought to the South from West Africa. Joining Hicks and the Spoke’n Revolution youth on “Da Paat ta Freedum Tour” were a group of youth from Atlanta, the BRAG (Bicycle Ride Across Georgia) Dream Team and their coach, Atiba Mbiwan, a member of the East Coast Greenway’s Advisory Board.
Hicks also serves on the East Coast Greenway’s Advisory Board and volunteers at bike events in the Raleigh-Durham area. He presented a talk on the Gullah Geechee tour and collaboration at WHEELS, a regional summit and East Coast Greenway national meeting in Miami in 2015.
“Kevin is a great example of a volunteer ambassador for the Greenway,” says Director of Greenway Programs Niles Barnes. “He has led rides and helped us out at events. Every volunteer brings their interests and abilities. We’re especially inspired by what Kevin has accomplished with area youth.”
As a kid, Hicks grew up riding bikes. “I believe bikes are your first introduction to freedom,” he says. “But I put all that away when I started to drive.” When he moved to Chapel Hill and started working in Research Triangle Park — he serves as a product field engineer at IBM — he realized he could ride to work. So these days he parks at the Southpoint mall and rides eight miles to work, twice a week most of the year and every day in the summer.
He knows that one small nonprofit program in North Carolina may only affect a dozen or so youth every year. But Hicks likes the starfish parable, in which a beachgoer is throwing stranded starfish back into the sea and another person points out how one person can’t possibly save all of the starfish. “But it makes a difference to the ones I threw back,” the beachgoer responds.
“I just plant the seed,” Hicks says. Talking African-American youth into cycling can be as hard as getting them to try ice hockey, he says. Yet some of the kids from the first Spoke’n Revolutions tour, now young adults, are still riding and will be for life, he guesses. And he’ll never forget watching one young man, a junk-food junkie, eat his first salad at the Selma YMCA.
“We all just went, ‘woo,’” he laughs.