From the Archives: Helen Ho


From the Archives (Issue #3): Helen Shirley Ho

Interview by Erin Griffith
Photos by Amanda Stosz

Once a government worker living a life straight out of “Parks & Recreation”, Helen Shirley Ho dove head first into the nonprofit sector after she fell in
love with urban biking. In addition to her role as as Development Director of Recycle-A-Bike (RAB), a nonprofit which refurbishes bikes, she’s been a prolific community organizer, working on projects ranging from the art world to youth outreach to political campaigns and landmarking (she’s even co-founded a secret society for the latter). But Shirley Ho rides so fast that, since we did this interview, she’d already rolling up her sleeves on a new project, and it’s equally as crush-worthy: she’s now joined the Hester Street Collaborative, a nonprofit focused on empowering the residents of underserved communities. There she’ll be working on the Queensway, an abandoned railway that community members are in the beginning phases of turning into a greenway. We spoke with her about her work for RAB.

EG: How did you get involved with Recycle-A-Bicycle?

HH: I got involved because I was tricked by our founder and current executive director, Karen Overton. We had previously worked together at the Parks Department. Very slowly and surely she converted me into a bike rider and I think she did that by gifting me with jewelry, since she knew how much I loved jewelry! And I also liked community organizing, and soon enough I was a volunteer for Transportation Alternatives.

I was then part of the founding crew of the Queens committee, and we started the Tour de Queens together. It was very fun for me because I like to fundraise. I organized an 18-mile tour for 500 people that first year and that’s how it all started. That was in 2007. The first Tour de Queens was in 2008, so six years later, here I am, fully sucked into the bike world.

EG: When you met (Overton) you had never ridden a bike in the city before?

HH: I grew up in New York City, so I rode my bike on my block when I  was little. When I was in my early 20’s, I tried riding my bike to work, which was exactly four blocks away. But it was all on highway service roads and like major roads, so I was a little scared. So I put (my bike) away until I met Karen.

And then she made fun of me because my bike was too small for me. Since I met her, I have not only gotten a new bike, but I’ve gotten four bikes.

EG: What do you do day-to-day?

HH: My title is Development Director. But we’re a non-profit, so it’s a little bit “all hands on deck.” Sometimes I’ll tweet, sometimes I’ll do the newsletter, but mostly my job is to look for funding for our youth programs. So we take donated bikes and refurbish the ones we can and we sell them in our shop. We also do full-service bike repair and that covers part of the youth program. So we teach middle school and high school students to be bike mechanics. We do job training programs and take around 1000 students out each year on bike rides. Altogether we ride around 24,000 miles and burn around 1.75 million calories.

EG: Why is that important for kids?

HH: RAB started out as a youth program of Transportation Alternatives in 1994 in Washington Heights, in partnership with a children’s aid society and the Department of Aanitation. We got a little too big for Transpotation Alternatives so we branched out on our own now. We’re turning 19 this year.

EG: What about RAB sucked you in?

HH: What sucks anyone in? Making friends in the movement. Having peers that really enjoy what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. I can say that I love my job, which I think that more people wish they could say that. So it’s really rewarding to be around all the people who are happy and like to do what they’re doing. Which happens to be riding bicycles and fixing bicycles.

EG: There is a confluence of different movement that all overlap at RAB – conserving waste, helping kids, an aspect of health and pollution… All of that comes together and make what you’re doing unique. Are there ever conflicts between those different moving parts?

HH: Not really. You have to choose which foot you’re going in with, depending on who you’re talking to or what grant i’m writing or who I’m approaching. I think they’re all really important issues. Whether its keeping 25 tons of bikes out of landfills each year, or riding bikes, which is obviously no carbon footprint compared to driving a car or taking mass transit. There is also the health aspect, which is mostly about childhood obesity, which is one of the largest chronic disease issues in NYC now. And we’re also making sure we help low-income families get the training they need in order to get a job. It just depends on what the best hat is to wear first,  but there’s not really a conflict.

EG: Are you a bike mechanic?

HH: I actually am the only non-bike mechanic in our entire organization

EG: Is there a reason for that?

HH: I have some injuries that prevent me from doing anything too physically oriented with my wrists. But I like organizing people more than I like fixing things. We each have our own talents. So if I have to, I can fix your flat and do very basic things but I’m not like a bike mechanic by far.

EG: Do you find, with kids you work with, that girls need to be encouraged more? I feel like bike culture has this male-dominated stereotype and I don’t know how true it still is, so i’m curious about your experience there.

HH: I think its true. I think bikes can be really intimidating for women, because there is this perception that’s grounded in reality in a lot of places. Where you go into a bike shop and the mechanics are all men, and mechanics have a reputation that follows them around of being snobby, so if you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, or you bring your bike in and it’s not a fancy or special bike of some sort, people might treat you differently or laugh at you, which is not very nice. But it’s a little bit different at RAB and I think the culture for bike shops is changing as well. We were founded by  woman and all of our executive directors are women. At one time 50 percent of our shop staff was women. So we have a pretty high female-to-male ratio. I think that dynamic shifts things a little bit here at least. There are more female faces.

We also ran a “women in transit” volunteer night, because it does make a difference when there are no men in the room. I think women learn differently. We’re less competitive. We’re more social learners and it benefits us sometimes to be alone, working learning in a safe environment.

EG: What is the biggest day-to-day challenge that you deal with?

HH: Ask me a month ago and I would have said the lack of air conditioning! But I think (answer is) a struggle that a lot of non-profits have, which is just finding enough resources for your organization, and everyone wearing five hats and trying to keep afloat. So we really perform miracles with the small budget we have. The challenge is to keep that momentum and those miracles going without burning out, and trying to be sustainable at the same time.

EG: Let’s talk about your myriad of side projects. You’ve been involved in an art club, Transportation Alternatives, you founded the tour de queens and you also co-founded a secret society.

HH: I’m not as involved in the Jackson Heights Art Club any more. The Tour de Queens, we started it and now Transportation Alternatives produces it. I also used to run Queens Green Drinks, a once-a-month environmental gathering, but I don’t do that anymore. Now my side projects include the Biking Public Project, which emerged from the Youth Bike Summit. It’s a project-based group trying to engage more women, minorities and delivery cyclists into the advocacy world.

EG: The inclusion of delivery cyclists is huge.

HH: Nobody is organizing or talking to delivery cyclists at all. When we started, we talked to unions to see if they’d tried to engage or unionize the cyclists, and no one really has. So we’re doing two things based around Corona, Queens, which is taking portraits of normal everyday cyclists that are different from what we see in most cycling magazines, which is white men in spandex. So we’ve been doing that and we’ve also been surveying folks to find out what other peoples’ interests and concerns are.

We don’t want to be presumptuous and say, “Oh we need more bike lanes, that’s why no one’s cycling.”  Because maybe that’s not the issue. Maybe the issue is that people want bikes, but can’t afford them. Or maybe there’s no parking spaces. Or maybe you have a bike but you can’t afford a lock. So we’re trying to have conversations with folks to find out what their issues are and pull out the emerging leaders from that pack.

EG: And what about your other side project, StreetsPAC?

HH: That’s also cycling related, but very separate from RAB because we’re a political action committee. We’re the “all-powerful bike lobby.” Dorothy Rabinowitz is a Wall Street Journal writer who was on Fox News talking badly about Citi Bike. She was the one who coined the term “all-powerful bike lobby,” which we all love to use now.

I’m on the board there and I feel like I’m the token everything. The token women, the token minority, the token person from Queens. Although I don’t think they’d appreciate if I said that but it’s true. So we just endorsed Bill de Blasio for Mayor. This group just formed in April. We met with Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio two weeks before the Democratic primaries. We’re gaining a lot of steam and momentum and We’re super excited.

EG: And tell me about the secret society?

HH: Our official name is The Roberta Moses Happy Hour Club and we’re a secret group on Facebook. There are around 250 members. It’s a women-only club and we meet once a month in a different location to power broke. We like to make ladies-only back-room deals. Sometimes actually in back rooms, sometimes we’re in public spaces. The group is pretty heavily comprised of urban planners, so Robert Moses is our big joke here.

EG: So what kinds of back-room deals do you guys make?

HH: We’re like the nuns of the city. We believe in equity and access for all, and so it could be about getting a building that we think should be historically landmarked, getting that going, building committees and finding people working on aspects around an issue in the same room and deciding they should partner and build a coalition to do things together.

EG: Have any of the deals seen results yet?

HH: Everything is still in progress right now. It started a little over a year ago.

EG: How many people usually show up?

HH: It depends on the event. Some of our Robertas work in fun places, so I think the next one will be a special tour of the Highline, or maybe a behind-the-scenes tour of Five Points before it gets torn down.

EG: It seems like you’re the kind of person who likes to have new projects all the time.

HH: I think we all have great ideas. I’m the type of person who can’t just think the idea, I have to do my idea also, which is both a blessing and a curse.

EG: Why a blessing and a curse?

HH: Because it makes me very busy. I have less time to go to the movies and to recreate in normal ways, but I think it’s awesome because it opens all these new doors and allows me to meet really amazing people that I might not have met before.

EG: Do you have a favorite person you’ve met as a result?

HH: Six years ago I was in the world of parks, and it was all about the environment and trees and community organizing parks and parkland. Then I discovered bikes and it was like, “This is what I should be doing. I love traveling by bike.” And then I found a community of women in bikes, and I was like, “Oh yeah I should be hanging out with women in bikes.” And then it was like, “Hey, there’s no minorities here, and I should create something about minorities and bikes.” And I realized that for my entire career, working in the environmental world, I had never had any Asian-American peers. All of a sudden this year, after starting the biking public project, now I have like six other Asian women who are urban planners in the transportation world, which is like more Asian women in this world than I’ve ever met before in my entire career. I think its amazing. It sounds a little silly, because it’s like we’re like unicorns, but so now it’s like, us asian women should caucus together. So I feel like each door opens another door.

EG: One last question: was your time in the Parks Department anything like “Parks & Recreation”?

HH: It was exactly like the first season of Parks & Rec. I think the show is now more about the characters, but I didn’t think the show needed any writing in the first season. Those are all real life scenarios, especially the community meetings. It is exactly like that.