Knowledge (and getting greasy) is power

6th December 2012 by

It was about 5 years ago that I decided it was time to end the humiliation of having to take my bicycle to the bike shop each time I had a puncture.  It was time to stop being so ignorant – and so fearful – of how to tinker with my beloved steed myself and fix its simpler ailments. So I signed up for a Level 1 maintenance course over a whole weekend, and got myself schooled in the basics of brakes and inner tubes.

In the years since then I’ve probably saved myself a pretty penny, and earned a smidgeon of self-respect, as a result. But working at Otesha, where people bleed bike lube if they cut themselves, I decided recently it was time to go to the next level. That’s, er, Level 2 – keep up!  I was also fresh from reading The Case for Working With Your Hands by Matthew Crawford and was feeling inspired by its call for ordinary bods to exercise the parts of our brains and personalities that get deep satisfaction from understanding how things are put together and being able to repair them ourselves.

So off I went to Bikeworks, the splendid bike repair and bike shop social enterprise, for a full day of getting intimate with brakes and gears, determined that I’d leave being able to look squarely at (and even touch, maybe even fix) my cassette and my gear cables without feeling like a chimp with a spanner let loose on the Large Hadron Collider.

Our tutor was Jelil, who was really clear and approachable, didn’t mind being asked dumb questions (a teacher’s most important quality) and went at a manageable pace, and he was joined by his dependable and knowledgeable wingman, Raj.

We started with the most thorough M-check I’ve ever seen in my life. That’s the basic roadworthiness check you should be able to do to make sure you’re getting on a bike that’s basically safe before you ride off into the Wild West that is our roads. This was no M-check Lite.  No, we went deep. Not content with warning us about how to recognise dodgy-sounding rattly headsets and so forth, Jelil and Raj showed us exploded cross-sectioned bike components to explain the role of ball bearings and how – if you’re bold enough to do this much disassembly – to recognise when they’re in need of replacing.

Then on to the main business of gears – replacing cables, checking for wear, simple maintenance tips, and then – ulp! – fiddling with the barrel adjuster and the rear derailleur screws, which is how we can deal with some instances of slipping or reluctant gear changes. Yes, I can now say that my derailleur is no longer a terrifying alien landscape but rather somewhere I feel confident I could at least have a go at trying to put things right. I can tell you, that feels good.

We also learned a good deal more than I knew before about changing and adjusting brakes, and we even squeezed in time for a go at wheel tuning, using a spoke wrench, which is an oddly satisfying tool and task.

What really made the session, though, was Jelil’s passion for empowering cyclists to take control and save themselves money – rather than taking the word of a bicycle industry he was surprisingly scathing about, accusing it of routinely putting profit before the needs of cyclists.

Even when you’re faced with a problem you may not be able to fix yourself, you can still arm yourself with enough knowledge to judge whether bike shop staff are pressuring you to have work done on your bike that’s not actually necessary. For example, he said, bike mechanics will often claim that your chain is worn out and needs replacing – but by equipping yourself with a simple chain-checker tool you can verify this for yourself, and potentially save yourself a significant amount of money. But better than money-saving, even, is the feeling you get when you can diagnose, twiddle, tweak and fix all on your own-ee-o.

So get yourself down to your local bike class, get equipped, get greasy, get empowered!

Besides the classes of the kind I went on, Bikeworks has a FYOB (fix-your-own-bike) session on Thursdays, last entry 7pm, where you can bring your own bike, hire a bike stand at £8/hr (minimum £5) and get access to the tools you need – and guidance from expert bike mechanics, so that you can ease your way into bike repairing while knowing you’re in good hands. You can also access Bikeworks’ stock of recycled parts.

If you’re in London and want to check out the kind of class I took at Bikeworks, contact or call Jo on 020 8980 7998 – it’s £60 for a six hour session and the co-op has two sites, one in West and one in East London. Upcoming dates are:


Sunday 17th February – Level 1

Sunday 3rd March – Level 2


Sunday 20th January – Level 1

Sunday 3rd February – Level 1

Sunday 17th February – Level 2

Laying down Roots of Success in East London

30th October 2012 by

99% of the UK is literate. Many of us are financially literate. But how many can claim to be environmentally literate?

Many of you reading this will be well aware of the far-reaching environmental impacts of our everyday actions, from what we choose to eat for breakfast, how we travel to work, how we conduct ourselves in the workspace to how we socialise.  We have become aware of the spaces we find ourselves in and the practices required to maintain or make them ‘green’.  But how many of us had these thoughts in our head when we were 16 or 17, deciding our ‘careers’?

Financial reward, professional development, qualifications needed… these were key factors to consider when ‘deciding our future’ as one career advisor put it.  I remember clearly taking a ‘career test’ when I was 15, a series of questions covering academic, personal and lifestyle preferences.   The result; I should look into becoming a telephone pylon erector; I didn’t mind heights, liked the outdoors and wanted variety in my job.   There was no mention of the environmental impact of this career choice- the resource intensive, carbon polluting energy sector I’d be working in, no mention of renewable energy, no mention of the vehicle I would inevitably be driving around in to erect these pylons.

11 years on, with the impacts of climate change being felt world-over, with resource wars a real or threatened phenomena on every continent- you’d expect environmental impact and sustainability to play a large part in career choice for today’s young people making the transition to work, right? Wrong.  A few months ago we were contacted by a careers advisor from a local connexions service in a bit of a panic- she’d had young people coming in asking about how to get a green job, some wanted to work in renewable energy.  They had no resources or knowledge to deal with it.  This is madness.

We know that to address the global challenges facing our economy and climate, we must transform society within a single generation.   The need to transition to a green economy is urgent if we are to meet the national target of 80% carbon emissions cuts by 2050.  And this transition requires green jobs. We know there are policy barriers to the creation of green jobs.  We also know that those making the transition to employment, both young and old, need to understand, want and demand green jobs.

That’s why, as part of our green jobs programme here at The Otesha Project UK, we’ve spent the last 10 months adapting the successful US environmental literacy and job readiness curriculum ‘Roots of Success’ for a UK audience.  It’s a 9-module curriculum, each one themed and aimed at raising awareness of local and global environmental issues whilst improving essential job market skills.  At the end of each module there are case studies on relevant green jobs, how to access them and career pathways.  It’s interactive and dynamic, using videos and discussion to engage and give participants a solid understanding of environmental literacy.

We’ve started piloting our UK version with groups here in east London.  We worked with a group of young people on the Princes-Trust Team Programme who took the introductory ‘Fundamentals’ module and the ‘Community Organising’ module which was used to help plan their community project.  We’ve also worked with trainee bike mechanics on Bikework’s ‘Cycle into Work’ scheme, running the fundamentals, transport and community organising modules.  We’ve had really positive feedback from participants, some learning “the importance of not wasting stuff”, another saying he would “Look into how [he] could incorporate eco friendly ideas in [his] business plan.”  The course aims to inspire and empower; one trainee left saying “I definitely want to have a green job!! I knew that already, but this class opened my eyes.”

And we’re planning more; we’ll soon be delivering the training with volunteers at Hackney City Farm, with trainee construction workers and homeless people at Crisis Skylight to help broker people facing barriers to employment into green and decent work;  helping to tackle massive youth unemployment and climate change.

 Tamsin Robertson, Otesha’s green jobs caseworker

Goodbye Gear Up.. Hello East London Green Jobs Alliance!

15th March 2011 by

How time flies. It is March already, and that means our Gear Up programme is wrapping up. As coordinator of the programme, I have had such a fun time meeting all the young people we have worked with, mentoring them, helping them to gain more experience and start their journey towards green and meaningful employment.

We have worked with 18 young people in total, connecting them in internships and training in ethical fashion, waste management, green woodwork, green enterprise, and bike mechanics. They have also received training in local food production, money management, cv-writing, and cycling proficiency – Ozlem (above) loved her cycling training at Bikeworks so much that she is planning on giving up her car and buying a bike! I said goodbye to Ozlem earlier this week, sending her off with a reusable coffee cup and a copy of the Otesha handbook. But this isn’t the last we’ll see of her, or any of our Gear Up participants, as they will all be added to our alumni network, and continue to hear of job and volunteer opportunities, and other exciting things, through our weekly update. You can’t get rid of us that easily! Once you’re in, you’re in.

We’d like to say a big, heartfelt thank you to the Youth of Today for supporting this project.

And now, to pastures new! Our Gear Up programme might be winding down, but we have been squirrelling away in the background making even bigger plans for the coming year. Last November, we held our first roundtable discussion for organisations interested in local green job creation in East London, and we’ve had two more since then. Some very exciting people have been a part of the conversation – TUC, Friends of the Earth, Hackney City Farm, Bikeworks, Friends of the Earth, IPPR, UK Youth Climate Coalition, Aspire, London Development Agency, Tower Hamlets council, Tower Hamlets College, Young Foundation, Capacity Global, Fairbridge – I get excited just writing it out! Together, we have established the East London Green Jobs Alliance.

We have looked to the example of projects in the States, who have successfully created pathways into green jobs for young, unemployed people. We want to take that model and see how to make it work here in the UK. It’s all still early days – our mission statement is getting final touches to it as we speak – but we will be very excited to make it public in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about the alliance, and how we plan to learn from projects in the US, please look at my blog entry below and sign up for updates from my learning trip to San Francisco!

Cycle Works

14th March 2011 by

Hey I’m Sammie, I’m on a work placement at Otesha to gain some experience to put on to my CV and open my mind up to the different opportunities the I could do as my profession.  And this is what the job center turned up with for me!

Liz from the office offered me the chance for me to do some cycle training sessions at Bike Works down Bethnal Green in East London with a guy called Jo.

For the total of 3hrs that I was with Jo. He taught me the basics in Victoria Park like signaling, how to mount the bike properly, the importance of keeping two fingers on the right hand break at all times, making sure your aware of your surroundings, emergency breaking, gears, tight u-turns and how to control the bike with constant peddling of which is a lot harder to do then to say! But is one of the most important skills to learn if you want to cycle on the road, which is the main reason why I decided to take up this opportunity.

The last time I was on the road on a bike, I managed to get stuck on the inside of Old Street round-about, for those that know of it you can see why I was scared off from cycling, but this was not to keep me off the road forever!

To be honest I did almost kill myself within the first 5mins because I didn’t realise that there was a mini-round about (something about me and round-about’s!) but once we were past that I found the enjoyment of being on the road not in a car or on a packed bus, and it was quite a nice day as well which made it even more enjoyable.

After I had mastered the basics, he took me off on to a road, which is where it all started to get a little more technical, with junctions, buses, rude white van drivers, u-turns, moving across lanes and…. the giant round about!!

I stuck to the main rule while cycling on the road (cycle in the lane, not the gutter!) and I felt confident and safe enough to lead the way back to Bike Works, when we returned I was safe, sound, informed and ready to go and get a bike with my level 2 in cycling.

Green jobs – what are they? WHERE ARE THEY?

25th November 2010 by

Here at Otesha, we have been doing quite a lot of work recently on the concept of Green Jobs, as we want to be able to hook up those unemployed young people in our area of East London with good, green and decent work. If it doesn’t sound easy, that’s because it isn’t.

The world of Green Jobs is a minefield, being a relatively new concept. Some people think a green job is manual labour in energy efficient industries – so stuff like insulating houses, installing solar panels and the like. Others think it is high-tech stuff, that can only be done by engineers and computer scientists. Others think it is much broader and could potentially include almost every job out there, so you could have a green teacher, or a green postman, or a green retail manager, because they had successfully made their roles more sustainable by changing the equipment, products or buildings they use or changing their modes of transport.

On top of all that, a lot of the rhetoric around green jobs out there has been around social justice issues, arguing that these jobs should be an opportunity to create pathways out of poverty for those who are chronically unemployed or underemployed, and provide career progression. We totally agree, but some people don’t! So as you can see, the conversation about green jobs at the moment is wide-ranging and sometimes confusing. Just what kind of a beast are we dealing with here?

More to the point, just where are they? Green jobs get talked about a lot in the media, and by politicians, but when we’re trying to find opportunities here for our volunteers in East London, sometimes they can feel a bit mythical (hence the unicorn). There aren’t many jobs out there for young people full stop, let alone green jobs, so if they aren’t there, how can we create them? It’s not as if the work of greening our economy doesn’t need to be done, and sharpish.

These are questions that we’ll be trying to answer over the next few months. We’re piloting our Gear Up programme with some fab young people who we’re helping to set up their own projects, or mentoring through internships at great organisations like Bikeworks and Hackney City Farm. We’re also getting our research on to map out opportunities in the area and hopefully kickstart some training and job creation. We hosted a really successful roundtable last week with lots of amazing organisations and council representatives to see how we can work together, so outcomes of that meeting and exciting developments will be posted here soon. Exciting!

Cycling Without The Fall

22nd June 2010 by

At the moment I would describe myself as a new cycle enthusiast. Still learning how to cycle, getting to grips with the bike and hopefully, sooner than anticipated, a cycling star.

One of the main issues I face is cycling on the road on my own, building that confidence to become a good cyclist. So to overcome that, I have registered and took part in my first session of cycle training with Bike Works.
Read the rest of this entry »

What does green job creation look like?

9th June 2010 by

Awhile ago, the BBC ran a piece questioning whether the UK was missing out on green jobs. So far, all signs point to ‘yes’. Without delving too deep into the government politics behind the decision whether or not to invest in green manufacturing sectors and, in turn, create thousands of green-collar jobs in the UK, it’s fair to say that it doesn’t seem to be a government priority. And I wonder why. If green job creation can pull local communities out of recession, help the UK become a world leader in new and innovative markets, and meet our international and domestic climate change commitments at the same time, then why isn’t everyone clamouring for more green jobs? Read the rest of this entry »

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