It’s not unusual for a trip to a far-flung place to enliven one’s philanthropic senses. What is unusual, however, is to rally your bicycle gang to build a socially-driven campaign that hits your fundraising goal in nine hours, which is exactly what Jesse Israel did this past fall after visiting rural Tanzania.
Israel, a music industry wunderkind and the co-founder of Brooklyn's Cantora records, moonlights as the leader of the Cyclones, a social bicycling club named for the Coney Island roller coaster. The club is open to everyone but has one catch: No one, except the route leader, knows the day’s outcome, which can range from an abandoned fort to a backyard BBQ.
This adventurous mentality has gained the Cyclones an ardent following among young professionals in the music, fashion, media, and tech fields—attracting over 1,300 members with chapters in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“Our rides are not exclusive but they are self-selecting…the people that show up tend to be more courageous and more vulnerable, and as a result, those people tend to be doing really cool things. They tend to be very active in their lives, very connected, very open, and often very entrepreneurial and creative. So it became clear to me over the summer that this bike club was a collection of really special people.”
Israel had only fleeting thoughts about the group’s collective force until he went on a volunteer trip to Moshi, a rural village in Tanzania. While working as a teaching assistant in a first grade classroom, Israel discovered that children often have to walk 10 miles each way to school, leading them to miss class or not get home until it’s dark out, which means most can’t complete their homework, as many don’t have electricity.
Israel realized the Cyclones could provide something that would move the needle for this community.
“I asked [the school's headmaster], if I got you a bicycle, would it help? He said, 'One bike could benefit a whole grade, because it could be shared…' ‘Well, what if we gave you five bikes?’ He said, ‘Five bikes would change the entire community.’”
After returning to the U.S., Israel began uniting the Cyclones around the project, leveraging the group’s connections and talents to create a charitable video campaign. The Cyclones gave themselves 30 days to reach their initial goal of $20,000. They ended up raising over $47,000, mostly from social sharing from the group’s members. To avoid a lengthy and expensive logistical process and help with execution on the ground, the group partnered with Mama Hope and Tanzania Children’s Concern, both NGOs with a history of charitable work in Africa. Israel also consulted with two bicycle implementation organizations, World Bike Relief and Global Bike, which do work in other parts of Africa, to determine the best roll out process.
A few days before Valentine’s Day 2015, the first set of bicycles were delivered to Moshi. Five rural schools received five bicycles each for the pilot program. If all goes well, in three months, the group will fund 10 additional schools with the specialty bicycles, which are designed specifically for rural villages. The bikes, called Buffalo Bicycles, have thick tires, cargo space for books, and last more than three times longer than regular bikes, with less required maintenance. The Cyclones’ goal is to eventually expand the bicycle sharing program to other parts of rural Africa, establishing a cadence for scale, sustainability and most of all, independence.
“These are some of the brightest, happiest kids I know and this is part of their lives,” Israel said. “But if we’re able to provide these students with bicycles, their ability to be better students becomes a reality.”