Shawn Walton believes cycling empowers youth, but he also believes engaging the community comes in cycles as well.
For more than seven years, Walton’s nonprofit, WeCycle, has revolved around sustainable transportation and has evolved into a program that reaches many more youth in West End. The youth learn to cultivate community in a community garden and then earn bikes that will give them the freedom to ride toward more opportunities.
WeCycle’s home base at Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church places the nonprofit at the center of the community. Morehouse College and Spelman College are just blocks away and West End Park is across the street. Head north on Lawton Street and you’ll find Truly Living Well’s Collegetown Farm, head south and you’ll join up with the Atlanta Beltline Westside Trail.
Walton graduated from Morehouse with a degree in early childhood education. Instead of teaching in the classroom, he found his calling while digging in the dirt and repairing bicycles.
WeCycle started when a community neighborhood forum said there were too many kids in the streets with no outlet.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like me at 12,’” Walton recalled. Using his last college refund check, Walton bought bikes and incentivized kids to earn them by working on a .5 acre farm in Ashview Heights. Now that he’s inherited the farm behind Atlanta Good Shepherd Community Church, he’s jumped from .5 acres to 5 acres.
“I’ve seen kids retain information about why growing your own food or riding your own bicycle gives you enough money and time to invest in yourself,” he said. “That’s a key lesson, especially if it ends with investing in yourself.”
Bike traffic around West End has always been WeCycle’s best exposure, but it was nothing in comparison to the exposure that came from being featured on a hit Netflix show.
Atlanta rapper Killer Mike shot a segment of his show “Trigger Warning with Killer Mike” with WeCycle. In the first episode, Killer Mike attempted to support only black-owned businesses and stopped by WeCycle’s former bike.
“To see that ‘living black’ episode and to see how hard it was for Killer Mike to survive three days of shopping exclusively in the black community made me, and should make other people, want to support black led infrastructure so that folks can rise up to another socioeconomic status and better quality of life,” Walton said. “If you have to struggle to thrive, simply depending on your own community, that’s a red flag. All within that community should strive to make it possible. Other communities shouldn’t want to see neighboring communities struggle either, so outside help is warranted for the greater good of all.”
Since “Trigger Warning,” WeCycle has partnered with many bike programs and nonprofits, including JUMP, an Uber bike share program, for community rides.
With Atlanta University Center a quick pedal away, Walton wants to see his WeCycle youth visiting colleges and preparing for their future.
“A lot of kids in this area have not been to the Atlanta University Center. I want to take them one step towards higher education, seeing people who value education, and then take them another step across the ocean to Ghana.”
Ghana is the destination of choice since WeCycle already has a strong relationship with a similar bicycle nonprofit in the country. Walton discovered Ghana Bamboo Bikes in Kumasi, Ghana and admired the nonprofit for having a similar mission, on the other side of the world. “It’s a youth led organization based on sustainability in Africa working with a youth led bicycle sustainability organization in Atlanta.”
Walton’s partner, Jehuti Willis, recently returned from Ghana with two new bamboo bike frames. He now serves as WeCycle’s bicycle engineer, working with the chief engineer of Ghana Bamboo Bikes to create specs and measurements to fit American bike models. The WeCycle team will return to Ghana this summer to fill an order for a full fleet of bamboo bikes.
“This is going to be an everyday, one bite at a time [program] because it’s a cycle we are familiar with,” Walton said. “Now that we have had a cycle of learning – with the community, with myself – this cycle has expanded and the efficiency will be much better. Hopefully, one day it will be my dissertation or my doctoral thesis of being able to create new ecosystems using agriculture and transportation in urban communities, but for now I’ll settle for getting Killer Mike and his wife on a Bamboo Bike!”
For more information about WeCycle, visit wecycleatlanta.org.