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Isa Hopkins' Posts


Red, Bike & Green wants to shift the color balance in bicycling

Jenna Burton
Red, Bike & Green
Jenna Burton.

If I asked you to picture a prototypical cyclist, you'd probably conjure an image of a lean white guy rocking a snug, Spandex-Lycra blend racing suit. You know, this guy, or maybe this one. It's exactly this sort of image that inspired Jenna Burton to create Red, Bike & Green -- a group that sets out to break the stereotype and get more African Americans riding bicycles.

It was 2007, and Burton -- a Connecticut native and a graduate of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C. -- had moved to Oakland, drawn to the city's history, diversity, and activist culture. Although she hadn't been on a bike since she was 9 years old, Burton was inspired by the cyclists she saw hitting the streets each day, so she decided to join them.

"Being a recent grad, I wasn't making a whole lot of money. It was nice not to have to worry about gas or car payments," she says. "In this region, where the culture is already there, I didn't feel like the oddball riding the bike."

Among her family and her former college classmates, however, her decision to two-wheel it was seen as, well, different. Even in the bike-friendly Bay Area, a black cyclist was a bit of an aberration. This led Burton to start an all-black cycling group, simply because "I wanted other black people to be just as excited about bike riding as I was."

For the group's first ride, Burton called up friends with bikes, largely drawn from the activist community. Although there was enthusiasm among the 20 or so invitees, only a small handful actually showed up -- but even as part of a group of three, Burton felt much more empowered than when she pedaled the streets alone. Red, Bike & Green was born.

Read more: Cities, Living


‘Peer-to-peer’ lending cuts out the Wall Street middlemen

Christina launched San Francisco's first "fashion truck" with help from a loan from the Mission Asset Fund.
Luca Sartoni
Christina Ruiz launched San Francisco's first "fashion truck" with help from a loan from the Mission Asset Fund.

Christina Ruiz and Helen Ochoa don't seem to have much in common. Ruiz is a stylish, photogenic fashion school grad who owns and operates TopShelf Boutique, San Francisco's first fashion truck. Ochoa is a single mother of three, an immigrant from Guatemala who lacked a credit score and struggled for years to find a decent apartment for herself and her children. But their differences are not so vast as they seem. Before she opened TopShelf, Ruiz, too, was financially flailing, suffering from a bad credit score that prevented her from financing her mobile shop. Without access to traditional loans or credit, both women turned to the same place to realize their dreams: San Francisco's Mission Asset Fund.

The Mission Asset Fund is like a financial version of a potluck dinner: Everyone contributes something of their own, but each individual also benefits from what everyone else brings to the table. Its most popular financial product, "lending circles," formalize the peer-to-peer lending practices common in low-income and immigrant communities. Members of a lending circle contribute small monthly amounts to a common pot, which is then loaned to a member in need. The borrower makes payments on the loan just like he or she would a bank loan, only there's no interest or fees.

Borrowers are held accountable by the community -- lending circles often include friends and even family members, so the power of peer pressure ensures timely payments. Mission Asset Fund reports the payments to credit bureaus, allowing borrowers to build credit histories and win access to traditional loans. According to the fund, the credit scores of lending circle participants have increased by an average of 49 points through the program.

sharing-economy-detailAnd if someone doesn't pay it back? Well, it doesn't happen. When a borrower is struggling with payments, Mission Asset Fund sets him or her up with intensive one-on-one financial counseling and resets their payment schedule. So far, the approach has worked every time: Spokesperson Tara Robinson says the lending circles’ repayment rate stands at 100 percent.

The program is similar in philosophy to Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and a pioneer of offering microcredit to the poor, as well as recent American peer-to-peer lending programs like Prosper and Lending Club. While the latter two for-profit companies charge interest and require borrowers to meet certain credit standards, the basic goals -- cutting out the Wall Street middlemen and leveraging the power of human interconnectivity to promote broad financial health -- is shared by all.


Couchsurfing the continents: On the road with the sharing economy


"She's gone," the voice on the intercom said of my would-be landlady, the woman from whom I thought I’d rented an apartment for the next month. "You're too late."

I stood outside the building with my suitcase, so new to Buenos Aires, Argentina, that I had no idea of where the hell I even was. Two hours earlier, I'd arrived at the flat I’d arranged via the website Airbnb, which allows people to rent out their vacant guest rooms, living rooms, and apartments, and found the place locked and gated.

I hadn't known what to do until a man ran from the doorway of the next building, repeating my host's name and firing questions at me in a slurry of Argentine Spanish. I was overwhelmed from 30 hours of bus travel and could only nod as he stuffed an address into my hand and packed me into a quickly-hailed cab. I arrived at this mystery location, pressed the intercom button next to the door, and got a thorough dressing-down from the unseen stranger who, fortunately or unfortunately, spoke perfect English.


It would go down as one of the highlights (or is it lowlights?) of a three-month trek across South America in which I sampled all manner of websites and resources that facilitate sharing – and learned (often the hard way) the true value of human generosity.


Giving thanks for public transit — weirdos and all


We said farewell to Nadine on an unassuming August morning, my brother and I, standing there on the curb as the tow truck hauled away the little blue Toyota that had taken me across the country to California in 2005. I thought I'd be sad to give up the car that I've driven for the better part of a decade, but the truth was, I was really excited to start taking the bus again.

Most of the press about public transportation focuses on its efficiency, its reduced cost, and its reduced environmental footprint. But that's not why I love it. Nope, the reason I prefer public transit to just about any other motorized way around is one that, to my mind, doesn't get nearly enough play: Riding the bus or the train is fun as hell, you guys.

I know, I sound like I've lost my mind.

Read more: Cities


America’s silent housing crisis calls for a fresh, greener approach

Image by Dzm1try / Shutterstock.

I just finished 11 months of barely paid work as an AmeriCorps member with the Oakland, Calif.-affiliate of Rebuilding Together -- a nonprofit service organization that, when I describe it to people, invariably elicits the reply: "Oh, it's just like Habitat for Humanity."

Well, yes -- and not so much …

See, this wasn't my first stint working on low-income housing. Six years ago, I worked as an AmeriCorps member with Habitat for Humanity. My days were devoted to everything from setting rebar and pouring concrete to nailing shingles on rooftops. We built houses from the ground up, leading teams in sunshine and in fog to turn bare patches of land into mini-developments for low-income homeowners.

Rebuilding Together is a little different. Founded in 1973 as Christmas in April and renamed a decade ago to reflect its year-round, secular programming, it renovates and repairs existing structures for low-income homeowners. My work with Rebuilding Together was harder to spot than Habitat’s, and took less time to execute, but in many ways I suspect I made a more lasting impact, while taking less of a toll on the planet -- and therein lies an important lesson for everyone who works on housing for those in need.

Read more: Cities


Tightening the Rust Belt: How a Clevelander fell in love with Pittsburgh

Old buildings get a fresh look during the Pittsburgh Festival of Lights. (Photo by Richard Dudley.)

Last month, I spent a glamorous, fun-filled, sawdust-flavored week in the city I know best as my hometown's rival: Pittsburgh, enemy of Clevelanders everywhere. As an AmeriCorps member with Rebuilding Together -- a national nonprofit that renovates and repairs owner-occupied homes for low-income homeowners -- I was obligated to attend a workweek celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and his commitment to service. I expected to end the week with great memories and a sense of accomplishment; I didn't expect to fall in love with the city of Pittsburgh along the way.

Our work was in the Homewood neighborhood, separated from wealthy areas like Shadyside and Squirrel Hill by an elevated busway. Cut off from the rest of the city, the early-20th-century houses dotting Homewood's genteel streets have blighted and declined in value as residents who could afford to leave moved out. Pittsburgh has shared the Rust Belt's general population loss, and impoverished neighborhoods like Homewood have been hit especially hard.

Read more: Cities


Forget about San Francisco: Second-tier towns are where the action is

The view from Oakland.Photo: Sharat GanapatiI grew up in Cleveland. Yeah, Cleveland. I know, hailing from a less-than-premiere address leaves me open to a certain amount of disdain from urban elitists. Being from the city that is widely regarded as the "Mistake on the Lake" is urbanism's equivalent to being the fat kid in gym class, and it can leave one just as scarred as too many dodgeball hits to the face. I don't live in Cleveland anymore, but I didn't leave because I wanted to be one of the cool kids. I was stricken with the burning need to …

Read more: Cities