“Use whatever you can to make way for not only yourself, but a lot of other people”
This week on #CCIspotlight, meet #CCIsuperstar Shawn Walton! Shawn is an Atlanta native, Morehouse alum, founder of WeCycle Atlanta, and a Westside Innovation Fellow. Throughout our interview at his storefront in Historic Westside Atlanta, kids, cyclists and neighbors greeted Shawn enthusiastically as he helped them fix their bikes or advised them on the best bike routes nearby. Witnessing Shawn in his element allowed us to see firsthand the integral role he plays in the community.
Tell us a little more about yourself. Where did the idea come from for the work you do? How did you get to where you are today?
First and foremost, I am not supposed to be here. Because of Atlanta’s income inequality and social immobility issues, I am not supposed to have had the opportunities and access that I do. I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunities because they have allowed me to make my own decisions based on my interests in life.
WeCycle Atlanta is all about providing a roadmap for getting from point A to point B with the resources and assets you have available to you. Over the years, I have internalized this philosophy through cycling. Cycling was my way to gain access to opportunity. It has been my vehicle to getting my own place in the neighborhood and creating high impact relationships with the youth. I use it to provide guidance that communities can utilize to stabilize, stimulate and sustain their communities. It’s definitely bigger than the bikes. It’s about providing access.
This can become complicated because people want to see complexity. They want to see you accomplish a lot, and they want you to have millions of dollars to solve problems, but we don’t work like that. My mom taught me that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Half of the battle is just being willing to do the work. Once you have willingness, small steps and persistence will allow you to make your way and accomplish your goal.
I had a vision of the concept of fairness first. I grew up as a the youngest child and my siblings excluded me from a lot of activities. I thought to myself, that’s not fair. This concept and understanding of fairness translated into a lot of social settings and spurred my involvement in activism from a young age.
My interest in social advocacy and fairness grew and expanded as I learned how to navigate poverty with sports and recreation, and then got involved with youth movements that promoted social equality at Morehouse College. I learned a lot in my youth, and decided to study early childhood education because I wanted to give back what I had gotten.
Throughout college, I was always riding a bike. I biked back and forth to different schools for my student teaching. At these schools I began to realize that the social setting was not fair: 25 kids with one teacher isn’t fair for the students or for the teachers. I thought to myself, I love the kids, but I don’t love this setting where the teacher is fighting to teach with a hand tied behind their back. How do I find a way to teach kids the life lessons I had learned? Riding my bike one day, I was trying to figure this out. And then summertime hit and we had to figure out what to do with all of these kids. I decided that I would teach them about the life lessons I have learned through cycling: work ethic, health, environment, economics, leadership, and sustainability. These were all things that help me to navigate poverty.
I took my last refund check and started a little bike shop community center in my garage, and I haven’t looked back. Despite all of my hard work, I haven’t risen out of poverty yet. I’m not supposed to be here either. But whether you’re a kid or a student in college or an adult, you can make it through this.
Tell us about the venture you are working on. Where did the idea for your venture come from? How are you driving impact?
WeCycle Atlanta is like a home, and our day to day activities look like what kids would do at home. We look out for the kids when they come here. We have games, snack time, movie time, soccer, basketball...you name it. Aunties and uncles come in all the time to teach different things. I’m the bike uncle: I teach kids how to fix their bicycles and how to ride safely. In addition to our daily programming, we try to expose the kids to colleges, farms, and other institutions that they don’t usually get access to.
Abbey Henderson (another Westside Innovation Fellow) is the garden aunt: she founded Gangstas to Growers and teaches the kids and formerly incarcerated youth about agriculture. WeCycle is about bringing different people together to use their strengths to move the community forward. Even when there is no teaching or programming happening, the doors are open. We want to make sure the kids are engaged and have something productive to do. There was a time when we focused heavily on programming, but it wasn’t enough for the amount of kids we wanted to engage. The kids know that they can always come in here and be a part of this community. Youth engagement isn’t difficult: open some doors up to kids and simply be present.
Do you feel like you get the right support from the community?
I do. My work is not glamorous- it is attempting to mitigate and solve problems that are rooted in systematic racism. Articulating this can be uncomfortable in certain settings, particularly for donors. So we don’t always get the help we need, but we get enough to stay open. I know that I can always call some kid’s mom right now and say hey send them down, we need some help and the kids will come help out.
There’s a lot of work to do, but not a lot of people want to do the work. I’ve had the pleasure of learning to value the people who are there and are supportive, and I've learned not to care about the people who aren’t. Don’t waste your time with that. Grow and listen, because some criticism is empty. You have to keep doing the work.
Any unexpected challenges you’ve faced or advice for Atlanta’s newest social entrepreneurs?
Focus on the people who are there and what you can do. Don’t worry about what you can’t control and what other people are thinking.
You’re going to have to get numb to no and the feelings that come with this answer. How you react to no is probably the greatest determining factor of your success. Because no comes can create the most devalued feeling, especially if you’ve put your heart into your work. You could spiral into why that person doesn’t care, but that’s not that important. The question is: why do you care and what are you going to do to make sure that people are being cared for? The only thing that matters is finding that joy and deciding how you are going to use it to keep you doing the work.
Don’t harbor over no because some no becomes yes. The owner of the building who’s giving us our contract, said no at first. I didn’t berate her, say oh you don’t care about the kids. I thought - I’m going to keep doing this work...I can do it under a tree but it needs to be done. Three years later, I called her back and she said yes. Why yes now? She said, “I kept up with you and you’re doing the work.”
What keeps you going in this line of work? What inspires you?
I can’t escape why I do this. I live in the same environment that I am a product of, an environment that can be improved to create a better quality of life for people. What keeps me going is opening my eyes....walking the streets, knowing my neighbors, knowing the kids and what they’re going through, and knowing what I’m going through. I’m still navigating poverty. We are all in this thing trying to figure it out. Because I’m passionate about it and because people have believed in me, I want to continue to do what is on my heart and make sure that they’re proud.
I want to make sure that we’re creating new paradigms and institutions that are more responsive to our community’s needs. Because we need them. It’s safe to say that a lot of the institutions have failed. Not wanting things to stay the same drives me.
WeCycle, which started as a community center in Shawn’s garage and then moved to a prime storefront in the Westside, will soon be expanding to a new space! The WAY, or Westside Activity & Youth Center, will be a space for community members and organizations to help engage youth through programming and presence. Check out this incredible initiative here. Shawn’s TEDxYouth@TheBeltline talk is here.
Atlanta is filled with incredible people and organizations doing meaningful work throughout this city. Their efforts change the way our city designs solutions for the challenges we face in education, art and culture preservation, criminal justice and reform, workforce development, and food security.
The Center for Civic Innovation aims to be a place that supports and showcases these community leaders to the world. This blog series will highlight one entrepreneur or organization from Atlanta every week. We hope their stories will inform and inspire.