Hard Knox Bikes is a specialty bike shop based in Oakland, California, that provides workshops and clinics on topics like bike safety and maintenance. Founder, owner, and mechanic Binky Brown explains how she built her offerings for, in her words, “all those who identify as women, people of color, trans, and all other gender rebels and allies.” As told to Kathryn E. Styer.
In 2012, I was taking business classes in the Bay Area at the Renaissance Center, through the now-canceled Women’s Initiative program. At the time, I wanted to open an auto mechanic shop. Coincidentally, I didn’t have a car, because mine had just been totaled, and my girlfriend rode a bike everywhere. I have a physical condition that makes walking difficult and increasingly painful, yet when I began bicycling, the pain became less of an issue. I had a newfound physicality and the ability to self-transport. So I switched gears and began to focus my business plan on creating a bike repair shop instead.
Hard Knox Bikes is a mobile workshop that has been around, in some form or another, since 2012. It is an education resource for women, people of color, and different marginalized groups who might not have the same access or feel comfortable going to bike shops. I know so many people who were ignored or dealt with elitist attitudes by bike shop employees. That shouldn’t be the environment. You should be treated kindly, no matter what level you’re at. If you have a negative experience every place you go, you’re going to run out of places to go.
There aren’t too many shops that focus on serving women, femme folks, nonbinary folks, people who aren’t super masculine. Somebody asked me why I wouldn’t have an “everybody” space. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. Right now, I want to be able to provide an alternative to the male-dominated shops.
Kitty Knox is the namesake of the business. She was a black biracial woman who lived during the late 1800s. She raced bicycles and wore men’s clothes because it made bicycling easier. Back then, you had to have so much courage to do that. Her experience seemed like my own, being a black biracial woman trying to do things in the bike industry. I am a light-skinned black woman, and the logo that I use is a more melanated black woman. People don’t realize how colorism affects everyone’s experience. People consciously or unconsciously treat those with more melanin differently, usually more negatively. As a light skinned person, I will have more access to certain things, which is messed up. The intentional use of a darker skinned image for my business was to create a feeling of welcomeness for black people right off the bat. The term “people of color” does not always create space for black people or especially more melanin rich black folk. My mother is a dark skinned black woman and I’m first generation light skinned on that side. I did not want to mislead anyone into thinking this business was only for light skinned people of color. I want all black people to feel comfortable in the space Hard Knox Bikes creates. Representation is important, and I wanted the image to reflect whom I wish to serve, not who I am.
I like to use the tagline, “It’s a hard-knock bike,” because this work is not easy. It takes a lot to be the one chick in a dude shop. I’ve had men come up to me when I’m doing workshops and ask, “What’s this tool called? What’s this part?” to try and test me. Sometimes I’ll lead a workshop in a skirt or a dress because I want to set the example that clothing shouldn’t be a hindrance. As long as it’s okay to get grease on it, wrench in it, and it’s not gonna get caught in your bike, it’s okay to wear. And I don’t want to have to dress masculine in order to be taken seriously. I’ve found this problem in the bike industry, where people prefer a more masculine-looking mechanic, no matter the gender, and I don’t like that. I want it to be okay if one day you’re presenting in a masculine way and the next you’re presenting in a feminine way and then the next day, you’re a mixture of both. It’s all good, and it doesn’t lessen your ability.
I’ve met a lot of people who just want to know basic bike maintenance. Some people don’t ride because they’re afraid of getting a flat tire, having no idea how to fix it. Simple things like that are a real barrier that can keep someone from riding. I also think it’s important to help people know how to ride safely on the road by teaching them road skills and traffic laws. Some people have never driven a car or taken a course on how to ride in the street. If we all know how to flow together, we can all be safe.
I also want Hard Knox to be able to help people of color, women, queer folks, femme folks become certified mechanics through places like United Bicycle Institute. I was able to become certified by the UBI in 2015 with the help of the Quality Bicycle Products Women’s Bike Mechanic Scholarship, because I worked at a bike shop called the Bikery at the time. When I attended UBI, I was surrounded by white men, except for seven other women who’d won a scholarship to attend the UBI Professional Repair and Shop Operation class and one woman who paid her own way. Even all the instructors were dudes.
Before, you could apply for the scholarship if you worked in the bike industry, but now you have to work at a bicycle shop that sells bikes and parts. This creates a pattern that makes it hard for people without the certification to get hired, but the only way you can get certified now is by working in a shop. Women and women of color are already less likely to be hired as mechanics. I would love to be able to lessen some of those barriers.
Eventually I would love to have a permanent shop. I would love Hard Knox to be a collective that can sustain itself. We live in a capitalist, consumer-driven society, which makes it hard to convince owners to do things “for the people.” That’s what Hard Knox workshops are: for the people. It’s not as financially viable as a traditional shop. I don’t like charging for workshops, and I often undercharge. Marginalized people are already struggling with finding stable housing, a good-paying job, child care, or elder care for family members.
I’m currently looking for a fiscal sponsor so I can turn Hard Knox into a nonprofit and apply for grants to help put on free workshops and classes. I hear of some people starting nonprofits like they just snap their fingers and it’s done; most of the time, I notice, they’re either white or they have a ton of backup and people power. I’ve been doing this alone since 2012. It’s not easy to get programs like this off the ground. I don’t want to say Hard Knox isn’t working, but it’s difficult to grow sustainably due to the economic pressure of the Bay Area.
As a queer black woman and mother in the Bay, I also struggle with secure housing, with having enough money and food. While I’ve gotten more attention from the media this year, I’ve also considered quitting. I want to continue because I don’t see this model being replicated anywhere else, and I think it’s really important.
It takes a lot of intention and training before you can provide what Hard Knox Bikes does. It starts with intentional trainings for staff to recognize hurtful jokes, assess staff’s desire to teach, and create space for people to feel welcome.
Racism is more often subtle than overt. As Robin DiAngelo states, most white people think racism is an individual, conscious, and intentional act. Racism is as often, societal and unconscious. You can do or say something racist without being aware of the impact of your action or inaction. To be inclusive, you must see what others see without being told to see it. One training doesn’t solve the problem, but it can open your eyes and ears to the things you were missing before. To be effective, trainings must be mandatory and ongoing. They must be led by people from the communities you intend to serve and include, and you must be willing to remove high-level and long-term employees who refuse to get with the program. If you continue to employ people who are racist, sexist, or transphobic, you will never have equity.
Courtney Williams of Brown Bike Girl provides consultation for organizations seeking to improve their racial relations. Fakequity does the same, and there are more. But you have to seek them out. Do your own legwork, or compensate others for their time doing it for you.
And simply hiring a woman or a person of color is not enough. We need more spaces that are equitable—shops that are affordable and accessible, that pay their staff enough money to live and not struggle. Shops that have as diverse a staff as they do customers, so that any type of body can walk in and feel comfortable. It’s difficult to include everybody, but you should.
Hard Knox Bikes is what I am doing to better the world. I would love for people to come and learn and then build their own bike shops in their own way. I would love to see more shops owned and operated by people of color! I believe in raising up the most marginalized people, everybody who is struggling and shouldn’t be, using bicycles as the catalyst.