As part of our Citizen Placemaker series, (where we chat with amazing and inspiring people from outside the architecture, planning, and government worlds – more natural haunts of Placemakers) we were fortunate to chat with Julie Mallis, Active Health Program Coordinator at MGR Youth Empowerment, and Program Director of the Positive Spin program. Julie, much like Positive Spin, is an inspiring individual. Trained as an artist, with an interest for art programming, cycling, and connecting youth with the environment, Julie has worked with MGR for the past 5 years.

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Some of the students in the Positive Spin Youth Cycling Program | Photo courtesy Julie Mallis

The Marilyn G. Rabb Youth Empowerment (MGR) is dedicated to helping youth overcome ‘social and economic barriers’. MGR prides itself in developing innovative programs that can help positively reshape communities around the country. An outstanding example of their work is the Positive Spin initiative, which partners with Pittsburgh Public Schools to provide kids access to bicycles. The program empowers over 300 students to learn cycling and provides valuable skills in bike mechanics so that by the program’s end, kids are not only riding, building, and fixing bikes, but have an overwhelming sense of independence and newfound confidence that translates into their daily lives.

At Project for Public Spaces we found MGR’s commitment to fostering active transportation for their community to be inspiring. And as added bonus, the program is based in Pittsburgh – one of the most livable cities in America, and home to this year’s Pro Walk/Pro Bike/Pro Place Conference! Naturally we knew we had to learn more about the program, and so we set out to see what Positive Spin was all about.

What is Positive Spin and what is its relationship to Pittsburgh public schools?

To give you sense of the program, 15% of our kids have never ridden a bike; prior to the program none of the children had access to a functional bicycle; and after ten weeks every student comes home with a working bike that they can ride and fix.

MGR, located in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, has been working with schools more generally for eight years. We have a great partnership, and have gone through the Pittsburgh Public School system. When school is not in session, we’ve worked with Pittsburgh’s Summer Dreamer’s Academy [a no-cost, summer learning camp hosted by the Public School system], and have been a provider for that program that students rate very highly.

ZeanaWarriorPrincessCan you describe the educational component of the Positive Spin Youth Cycling Program?

Along with cycling we advocate access to fun ways to exercise and understand how cycling can benefit not only ourselves but also the environment. Our program looks to conceptualize how it impacts our community, family, and greater region. So when we’re not cycling we look at why we’re cycling and what we’re interested in doing. As part of the program, we create multimedia videos that feature students. [For example,] we had a big focus on the environment and created raps and songs about the subject, which the kids shot and directed themselves.

Another component of our program is to highlight different strengths students have and highlight their personal goals so that the work we’re doing is relevant to the work they want to do. So for the multimedia story, [I look for] who’s interested in this?—does anyone speak another language? have talents, etc.? So we can utilize all of [our students’] skill sets.

How has your program made an impact on your students’ general education in Pittsburgh’s public schools?

In general, many of our students don’t do well in the classroom and can’t come because they have an in-school suspension. Our program is a positive outlet for students who don’t necessarily fit in. This gives students a chance to be appreciated and be on the same level [as their peers] and be liked. One student who was in the program and had behavioral issues was taken out, but wanted to get back because he wanted to go to Positive Spin.

Another student who had numerous behavioral issues started the program, which gave him an outlet to make friends and connect with people. He actually transferred schools but is still in the program. We were able to help him complete community service and complete the program as well. He felt safe here, and in a position to have the freedom he deserves. We even had a group of students who loved Positive Spin so much that they returned to work with the staff.

Previously, you mentioned empowerment, fostering greater equity, and giving kids more freedom through bike education. Could you elaborate on this, and speak about a particular success story you had with one of your students that really stands out?

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Julie Mallis of MGR’s Positive Spin | Photo courtesy Julie Mallis

One of our greater goals is that by teaching our students to bike safely they can have greater access to transportation. Adam* has been a part of Positive Spin for two years along with his sister and has thrived in our program. Adam lives on the northside, which is hard to access due to socioeconomics of the region and a lack of public transport, so it’s very difficult for him to get around. Since he has been able to bike home, with a new helmet and lock, he was given a burst of new energy, freedom, and independence.

One of the reasons I stayed here for 5 years is I felt a sense of community here. We try to make education and advocacy fun and something the kids want to do.

*Adam’s name has been changed for this article.