He teaches kids to build bikes, giving them power beyond mere locomotion.
The first evening I spent watching and recording Daniel Furbish teaching kids to wind bike chain over greasy gears and sprockets, I was amazed. In the first hour, his eighth-graders were all pinging energy, their laughs and shouts ricocheting wildly off the stone walls of his basement workshop.
And then, something magical happened: by hour two, a dozen teen boys quietly threaded chain over cogs, happily immersed in their work. And more miraculous still was the fact that they’d been doing this for five weeks, starting with a bare frame and a stack of bike parts.
They’d just built themselves their very own bicycle, for keeps.
It’s the lure of a free bike that draws many of these inner-city kids to Furbish’s bike workshop in the basement of Oasis Center, a Nashville nonprofit. But Furbish makes a deal with the kids: Build a bicycle, and it’s yours. There’s a lot of groaning in the beginning. But by the sixth and final week, many of them understand the deeper meaning of the idea, It’s yours—if you create a thing with your own hands, it truly belongs to you, in a way that a bought object never can.
A smallish eighth-grader named LaMarkus summed this up in words so succinctly pure that it made me go all sniffly: “It makes me feel good,” he told me matter-of-factly. “Makes me feel different than a lot of other kids that have bikes because they just went out and bought one. Or some people even steal bikes or whatever. And I like made my own bike from scratch.”
Furbish isn’t the kind of guy who goes all sniffly, even when his students fully get it like LaMarkus did. He’s too practical for that. An art-student turned teacher from a military family, he keeps his students on task with drill-sergeant efficiency.
But the workshop idea emerged from his mind’s artist-lobe. It’s the apex of a resume that seems kind of patchwork at first glance: He studied sculpture, did public art projects with kids, led canoe expeditions for at-risk youth, and counseled misbehaving students after school. But in retrospect, Furbish’s “accidents” look a lot like master plans. His current job grew out of a “summer experiment.” He thought, “What if I get people to donate bike parts, then teach kids to put them together?”
The idea culminated in his current job: full-time bikebuilding guru and mentor for kids who might otherwise never know what a bike path is, or a greenway, or a sprocket. Kids like Ahmed Sharhan, a high school senior who came here from Yemen six years ago. He says his parents didn’t have much schooling, and his mom doesn’t speak English. So he has to figure out a lot of things on his own. Since he built his bike last year, he rides it everywhere, to go play soccer and visit friends. And he’s joined a competitive mountain biking team at his high school.
Sharhan had never heard of mountain biking. Now he races bikes with kids from places like Somalia and Ethiopia. And he wants to pass on that experience of freedom and discovery to other kids. He’s helping Furbish teach other kids to repair a broken chain or a flat tire. ” I want to help people that don’t know how to fix a bike,” he says. “‘Cause a lot of people want to go to different places. But they don’t have the chance.”
Furbish’s students go all sorts of places now. And you won’t find any bikes rusting in their back yards. Because when something breaks, these kids know just what to do.
This is part of an ongoing series called Make Your Own Job, about entrepreneurs and innovators who find ways to employ themselves.
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