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Ethan Alexander

What is your official title?

Executive Director of Open Roads Bike Program.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

An average day looks like this: I wake up and I go through the sweet and exciting storm of getting my two boys ready for daycare and preschool – 2 and 4 year old (Murphy and Otis). It’s either all sweetness and light, or somebody’s sobbing and screaming. We go through that in the first hour of the day; my wife and I tag team that, and manage to divide and conquer.

Then, I go to work at my day job at KRESA. I’m a Positive Behavior Support Specialist, which inspired me to start Open Roads. That job involves me going to planning meetings, observing classrooms around the county, and providing coaching and support to teachers. And then, I usually have one to three appointments scheduled for Open Roads over the lunch hour.

At the noon hour, I do fundraising planning, or maybe set up programs, or meet with a partner to set up a program in the community for Open Roads. After lunch it’s back to KRESA to do a bunch of positive behavioral things, you know, save children from expulsion and suspension, or consult on behavior plans for the students I work with.

After 5:00pm, I go to one or two other Open Roads meetings, or a staff or board meeting, or maybe to sit in at a program. Then I’ll run home for dinner with the family, do the same joyous battle with the kids, which is three stories and two songs, religiously. And then I’ll sit on the couch with my wife and eat chocolate chip cookies – two each – and then get to some more Open Roads tasks. Couch time, though, has become such a ritual; it’s our time to catch up, and it is all because of her. Let me be perfectly clear how lucky I am; I can have two full time jobs, and run around and do all of this crazy stuff. She is a fantastic support and partner.


Can you tell us about the history of Open Roads?

Open Roads is a youth-development program that has the mission of teaching youth social skills and bike mechanic skills to better prepare them for their future.

So, what that looks like: we run various programs in the community, schools, summer camps, and neighborhoods. We get a handful of kids in our programs, and we embark on an eight-week journey together. As a kid in our program, they learn certain sets of skills together, like how to introduce yourself and how to clean your bike. They don’t bring a bike, but they’ll earn a bike if they are a consistent part of our program.

They learn what a wrench is, and what a screw driver is, and they learn how to listen and follow directions along with how to adjust their brakes; there’s always a tandem skill. Within that process, they determine what kind of bike they want – mountain, road, cruiser, etc., so we go to the stock pile, and they pick out their bikes. These bikes aren’t pretty; they’re orphaned, left in the rain or on the side of the road. These kids, their job becomes transformation. They have to transform their bikes into something fantastic and exciting.

We invest in good tools and parts. If they successfully complete their eight-week program, they get their bike.

That’s an Earn A Bike program. Then, we have a neighborhood program called Fixapalooza. We set up shop on a corner in the Edison or Vine neighborhood and we’ll get a bunch of tools and bikes, and kids will come from around the area with their broken bikes and ask us to fix them, and we work with them to fix the bikes, as well as teach them about who we are and what we do.

We also have to teach them the ROADS expectations: Respect, Own your actions, Attitude, Disciple and Safety. This is how we live and work at Open Roads, and this is what we expect out of our participants.

And the third program is an Apprenticeship program, where we take a youth who’s been successful in the other two programs and have a passion for bikes, and have them interview some place like Pedal or Zoo City, where we have partnerships, and they work as an apprentice in the shop to get that professional experience.


What kind of projects are you currently working on?

We are working on moving into our very first headquarters, which is the most exciting thing ever. Through a very fortunate partnership with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, we have been invited to move into a space on Riverview Avenue, which is the old Riverside Greenhouse.


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Over the next year, that space is going to be restored and rehabilitated into a usable, fun, exciting community space. We are going into partnership with Kalamazoo County Land Bank and the Junior Master Gardener Program, to create an awesome facility on six acres of land – one acre of building and five acres of green space.

It’s going to be transformed into this space where there are offices and room for programming, along with little trails and a community garden. There’s a big old barn that we just restored and painted bright red, which is also going to be a community shared space – probably like an information hub. So, the plans are that we’ll be ready to go by summer of 2014.

Another big project for me is hiring our first full time staff position. We have a Program Manager position we are hiring for currently. Along with that, we are doing training sessions, and setting up programs for 2014. Lastly, we’re planning our first fundraiser, which is very exciting – more on that to come in the near future.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

There are a zillion things to love about Kalamazoo. I think it’s the sense of community and connection that you feel. I really believe that there is a spirit of collective good and shared success in Kalamazoo, so that it’s not just about one person or one organization making it big; it’s about everyone – from big companies to small non-profits or start up businesses. There’s a sense of support and connection that’s just powerful, and I’ve felt that a tremendous amount with the Open Roads project.


What can be done to improve our beloved Kalamazoo?

I have a very clear answer for this one. We can have a better supported bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. It’s clear we have an emerging bike and non-motorized movement in Kalamazoo, but we are far behind cities like Portland or Seattle; there are people in this community who would rather ride their bike or walk.

Right now I think we are doing OK, but we’re sitting on a stretch of land where there’s no clear bike pathway from one end of a well developed trail to the other. When we begin to believe that bike and pedestrian infrastructure can be improved, we see things change for the better; it’s exactly what I was just talking about with the support of this community. I think it’s getting better; we just have to keep pushing for it.


What have you been jammin’ to recently? What’s on the iPod?

I like old soul music, like Al Green, Otis Redding, Etta James, and James Brown. I’ve always had an appreciation for that type of music; Pandora Al Green station is always on.


How do you take your coffee…or do you?

I do drink coffee, but not a lot. I probably have two cups a week. I tend to do a mocha if I’m out, or it’s homemade. I bought an espresso machine from a garage sale this summer, and I use Hershey’s syrup and hot soy milk for my homemade creation.


What is your favorite app to use?

Evernote. My brain is going in a thousand directions at any one time – between my children and Open Roads, and KRESA and Christmas shopping and my mom’s window that she broke in July that she just told me about – I need the organization. I need Evernote to keep my sanity and my stability. How did people survive before it!? I love the check boxes; helps to cross things off of my list.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Yeah I guess I do, and that’d be the People’s Food Co-op; it’s where I feel most at home and most grounded. It’s an amazing store with a powerfully good spirit; great slice of life in there. It’s my grocery store “Cheers”. Also, people who are in there tend to believe in bikes and kids and community, so it is helpful to head in there when we are needing to do some recruiting. It’s just a great spot.


How can people get involved in Open Roads?

The best way is through our contact information on the website; to email through the website is best. We need people to be social skills super stars. We are always looking for board members, members of a fundraising team, graphic designers, people to help write grants, among other things. We invite people to be involved in many aspects of the program, so they are using their talents for the things that mean the most to them.


Where did you get your passion for bikes?

This is a pretty easy question for me because it was injected in me from a very early age. When I was two-years old and growing up in Traverse City, my father thought it’d be a good idea to sell our car. He was a single parent in 1974, and decided his kids didn’t need a car, so he got a tandem bicycle.

We moved for the next 10 years on that bike through town, regardless of the weather. It was the only way we could move, and the way we learned was best to move through the snow and the rain and the hot summer. He was a fierce advocate for bikes in small towns, and still is. He was passionate about it; he wrote in the paper, he talked to anyone he met, he wore ridiculously bright clothing while biking around town.


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He was and always has been an advocate for bicycles being the best way to move through a community. He is 74-years old, and still doesn’t have a car today.


If you could have any bike, with all the fixings in the world, what would it be?

My bike right now is about 15 years old; I’ve had it since college, and it’s fine, but not great. If I were to dream up a new bike it would be a road / mountain / cruiser bike that you could switch the tires to make them chunky fat for rough riding, then thin, sleek road tires for speed, and I could just set it on a machine, push a button and make all of this happen.

I’d also need bars that would be extendable from narrow short bars to navigate through traffic, to bars that could extend and roll out for cruising around.

And of course it’d have the same kind of seat – the light road seat that you could stretch out to make into an extended banana seat so my wife could ride with me to keep me company. And it would be orange; not like neon orange, but a nice clementine color.


Ethan, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Ethan and Open Roads on facebook and twitter. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.