(Photo courtesy of Laura Wilburn)
Laura Wilburn chose the cycling life when she was just a teenager trying to reduce her carbon footprint. Nowadays, she still seeks a cleaner environment, but with a greater emphasis on teaching younger Delawareans how riding your bike can be fun, and also a way of life.
Growing up, Wilburn’s parents fostered a love for volunteer work and community initiatives. Together, they cleaned up trash along Red Clay Creek, did arts and crafts with children living in group homes and planted trees with the Delaware Nature Society. Wilburn later earned a Environmental Science and Policy degree from the University of Maryland, where she also volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and an AmeriCorps VISTA leadership program in Montana that teaches teenagers how to start their own community service projects. After working for Americorps, Wilburn realized that her true passion was working with children.
"I think that bicycling brings people closer to their world."
Currently, Wilburn is the executive director at the Urban Bike Project, a Wilmington-based organization that uses bicycle repair and maintenance as educational tools for local youth and residents.
As a lifetime bicyclist (she started riding at age 10, and has not owned a car once in her life), Wilburn loves how riding a bike engages the senses, the community, and an overall state of wellbeing.
“In one week, I get to work as a bicycle mechanic, a teacher, and an administrator,” Wilburn told Technical.ly Delaware. “I never get bored, and always feel challenged by the work.”
Here’s how Laura Wilburn keeps it moving.
What made you decide to stick with a biking-only lifestyle?
I first made the decision when I was still a teenager. Originally my decision was motivated by the desire to do my part to reduce pollution and fossil fuel dependency. Over the years, though, it’s taken on a more personal meaning for me.
I think that bicycling brings people closer to their world. When I ride my bicycle, I see details of the built environment, interact with neighbors, and experience the topography and climate of an area in ways that I’d miss if I was traveling by car. Communities that are bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly are physically closer together — bicycles can’t traverse the space of suburban sprawl in a reasonable amount of time.
I’ve always felt that sprawling, parking lot-dominated places like the Christiana Mall are less enjoyable to spend time in than a vibrant downtown. Choosing to ride my bicycle is part of a commitment to spend my time in spaces that make me feel good. I hope that by riding my bicycle, I can contribute to a happier, healthier community.
Why do you think biking is so crucial for Delaware’s transportation system?
Delaware is one of the most densely populated states in the country, and its largest city has a high percentage of commuters. Our transportation system struggles to keep up with demand, and congestion is a constantly nagging problem. Making bicycling a viable alternative will ease the congestion on our roadways and encourage people to move back into urban areas, which lowers total miles travelled in an area.
"Delaware is the perfect size. It’s small enough that it’s easy to network and work collaboratively."
We’ve been hearing a lot about the crime in Wilmington lately; a better populated city, with a stronger tax base and more people walking and biking in the streets, will go a long way towards reducing crime. And as is true for any place, bicycling offers a more socially-just option. Folks who might not be able to afford other forms of transportation can use a bicycle to get to work reliably.
How did you discover your passion for volunteer work and eco-friendly alternatives?
I grew up with volunteerism and a conservation ethic. My parents were always mindful of their impact on their surroundings, and were careful to remind me as well. We volunteered as a family cleaning up trash along the Red Clay Creek, doing crafts with kids living in group homes, and planting trees with the Delaware Nature Society. In college, I studied environmental policy and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. After that I volunteered as an AmeriCorps VISTA for a year running a leadership program for teenagers in Montana, which is when I realized how much I enjoy working with youth.
It’s been an ongoing process of discovery for me. I still don’t feel settled with how I direct my passion — I know there’s a lot more for me to discover with my career.
How is living and working in Delaware different than in other states?
Delaware is the perfect size. It’s small enough that it’s easy to network and work collaboratively. Everywhere I go in Wilmington, I run into people that I work with, or would like to be working with. I love that sense of community. At the same time, Delaware is big enough and economically robust enough to provide a ton of resources to non-profits operating in the area.
What is your favorite part of working with Urban Bike Project?
My favorite part of working with Urban Bike Project is the variety of work. In one week, I get to work as a bicycle mechanic, a teacher, and an administrator. I get to work with my hands, I get to interact with the public, and I get to apply my mind to writing grants, creating programs, and developing strategies for volunteer recruitment, fundraising, just about every aspect of organizational development. I never get bored, and always feel challenged by the work.
How often do you check your email?
I check email every day, as often as I can, but I don’t have a smartphone so on days when I am not near a computer I might only check in the morning before leaving the house and in the evening when I get home.
What is the most gratifying part of your job?
Working directly with the kids is the most gratifying part of my job.
It’s very inspiring to watch the kids working on a problem with their bikes, and that moment when the answer clicks for them. I’m not sure how many opportunities a lot of the kids have to apply problem solving in other areas of their lives, but you can definitely see those abilities grow in the kids as they spend more time with their bikes.
On Wednesday nights, we have a youth only night at the shop. It’s chaos with all the kids, but they love it. They can work on their bikes, take mechanics classes, or volunteer for us in exchange for shop credit. They derive a lot of meaning and satisfaction from buying things for their bikes from shop credit that they earned themselves. They brag about how they “work” for Urban Bike Project.
When you need to take a break, what are you turning to?
Anything outside. That gives me a chance to breathe deeply and relax and pay attention to my surroundings. I’ll go running through the city or in Alapocas Run State Park, or I’ll go mountain biking in Brandywine Creek and Woodlawn. I just bought a pair of cross country skis, so I’m hoping for some snow this winter. When it’s the right season, I like watching baseball and football games, too. If the Eagles hadn’t totally imploded this year and missed the playoffs, I’d be following that right now.
What’s your design/computer gear and/or bike gear (program preference/ones you use the most, Mac or PC)?
My work laptop is an Asus running Windows 8. We’re a nonprofit operating on a pretty limited budget, which we like to direct towards programming as much as possible, so we generally use open source programs wherever we can. Scribus instead of Publisher, that sort of thing. We do use Quickbooks for bookkeeping.
My bike gear is very practical, commuter oriented stuff. I don’t run clipless pedals or carbon frames or any of the things that make bikes really fast. But I’ve got a 680 lumens headlight so that I can ride after dark and still see the road, and really warm winter gear like neoprene boots to wear over my shoes so that I can ride throughout the winter.
And I always wear a helmet.
What bike do you prefer to ride?
I love my mountain bike and road bike, but my go-to bicycle is my Trek FX7.2 hybrid. It’s sturdier than my road bike but faster than my mountain bike, I can carry all of my work, equipment, or groceries on it, and it has enough gears to climb any hill. It has over 20,000 miles on it, and has ridden with me through 19 states and two countries.
What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been in the past? Is there something you do now (or don’t do) that has made a big difference?
In the past, I’ve worked desk jobs. I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency as an economic research assistant for a year, and spent a couple years doing mostly desk work for a small nonprofit in Montana. They were really interesting and fulfilling jobs, but I love all of the opportunities that I have to get away from the computer with this job.-30-
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