The Bike Shed
  • This is Sadaf’s Kashfi’s first contribution to Organization Unbound. She recently dropped us a line to tell us about an intriguing specimen of an organization she stumbled across in her travels and proposed writing a reflection on her experience there. It is a beautiful example of an organization that is deeply grounded in human experience. 


    This is an account of my experience volunteering with the Bike Shed during my stay in Melbourne, Australia. I wrote this piece with the help of my fellow Bike Shed volunteers who supported me and corrected me along the writing process. I like to thank them for taking me in, showing me the ways of The Shed, and for teaching me that behind the success of an organization is genuine relationships.


    The Bike Shed, known affectionately as simply ‘The Shed’, is a small non-profit organization located inside 11 acres of a redeveloped landfill in Melbourne, Australia. The Shed is set-up inside a now picturesque community environmental park filled with solar panels, community vegetable gardens, barefoot children, and chickens.

    When approaching The Shed you will see a crudely organized junkyard of bikes stripped of all usable parts; high piles of tires and wheel rims stacked with some obscure algorithmic disorder; another pile of better looking bicycles, some with vital organs missing; all of this overshadowed by a two-story shed made from roofing iron and overfilled with more bicycles and parts.

    Clustered around The Shed’s crude infrastructure, underneath a large eucalyptus tree (which threatens to drop on the entire operation) toils a greasy, dirty, and at times dehydrated group of people, working on whatever surface available. For most onlookers it seems like an overcrowded and ill-lit communal garage of strange tools and parts that people have casually picked up and for one reason or another could not disengage from.

    However, if you were to take a second look, you would realize that within the seeming chaos there is a small group of individuals who are more heavily covered in grease, incisively carrying parts and tools. More importantly, they are not working on a single bicycle but assisting others with repairs. This is truly the only way to distinguish a member (a patron of the organization working on a personal bicycle) and a volunteer (a person helping and teaching others bicycle mechanics). Although even this distinction can at times fail the observer, as everyone at The Shed within their own capacity assists those around them.

    At any given time, there is likely to be an unordered line of people waiting outside the entrance of The Shed looking confused, intimidated and slightly concerned. They are all waiting for a sign, a greeting one would expect from any usual store or organization. However, in this ‘disorganization’ (as it’s often referred to), one quickly learns to forego such expectations and to practice the art of patience and humility. With time, persistent eye contact, and perhaps a certain look of despair, eventually a volunteer will give into guilt, put the other members they are assisting on hold, and speak with these newly arrived patrons. If the volunteer stops and initiates conversation, that lucky patron has a brief window to prove the worthiness of their cause and ultimately establish whether they will receive assistance. Respect and patience are the ultimate variables that will determine the likelihood of a patron riding away with a bicycle. Despite the seeming egocentric behavior of the volunteers, it is certainly not to make members subservient to them. The aim is to initiate them into the workings of The Shed and to encourage members to take the lead and experiment with fixing their bicycles.

    Now, this may seem like a harsh environment to spend precious weekends, especially given that there are several bike stores surrounding The Shed. Yet every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday a slew of people arrive with either their bikes for repair or with a vague idea of a bicycle they hope to ride home.

    The unexpected popularity of The Shed can be attributed to a few factors: pricing is unbeatable (at times people wait for long periods of time for someone to even collect their money), the process of refurbishing a bicycle can be quite a meditative and creative experience (although volunteers remind members that it’s not about esthetics here), and The Shed is a hub of tacit knowledge acquired from years of working on obscure bicycles. As such, volunteers take a great amount of pride in helping others overcome the obstacles of fixing a bicycle using primarily recycled pieces. And, they engage in this sharing in an unconditional way. As one volunteer stated, “the giving feels like the getting”.

    Once members get past the initial challenge of putting together a jigsaw puzzle of missing parts, they quickly realize that something greater than bike repair and the inhalation of kerosene is happening here; a sense of purpose and community is beaming through the interaction of those involved in the repair. As one volunteer stated, “at The Shed each journey of fixing a bicycle creates an anecdote of the individual person you work with…although The Shed creates a big picture of providing people with the skills and tools to maintain a bicycle, the smaller picture is the interaction between two people facing a challenge”. And the sweat, tears and potential screams are all worthwhile when the toughest volunteer gives a new bicycle rider a push up the hill for that final test ride.

    Unlike other volunteer organizations, The Shed only passively recruits volunteers. Members seem drawn to finishing their own projects only to return and assist others with their newfound knowledge (regardless of how limited it is). The usual strategy is to just keep showing up and hope that someone will pass on the volunteer registration form. With this initial step, the new volunteer has access to lunch, a very special and important time at The Shed. Lunch is the halfway point where all volunteers are compulsorily collected to sit down and share a meal, to laugh or rant about the absurdities of the morning. The Shed activity usually contracts for that time, and members find a place to hydrate, deliberate or simply disappear.

    The confused and haphazard acquisition of the volunteer registration form is the first hurdle to entry to The Shed’s community of volunteers. It is through this mechanism that The Shed selectively obtains volunteers who fit within the unwritten, undefined, and unexpressed ethos, which I daringly summed up as having the purest motives of wanting to teach people about bicycles for its own sake, and nothing else. Indeed it is not uncommon for volunteers to grill an aspiring volunteer by asking them “Are you into bikes or just into volunteering?” Core volunteers care deeply about the motives of aspiring volunteers and in this way protect the ethos and organizational culture of The Shed.

    Once a volunteer jumps through this initial gateway, they receive no formalized training. In fact most of the orientation energy is spent on speaking with them about the abilities and temperaments of other volunteers. Through this discussion, the trainee draws a blue-print of strengths and weaknesses of fellow volunteers, focusing on relationship-building rather than skill acquisition. Upon establishing such relationships they will effectively know who to ask for assistance and begin to learn by witnessing. This process should not be misinterpreted as being formal or indeed a predictable and sequential process. This blue-print building develops while the novice is assisting members or over a couple of drinks at the end of a shift. It would appear that within The Shed the knowledge of the physical layout and social landscape is functionally more important than technical skills.

    The second hurdle is the invitation to the exclusive monthly meetings. At these meetings all the issues of the month are formally raised and collectively discussed. What appears at first to be a system of anarchy suddenly manifests as being organized by tradition. There is a ritual for initiating new volunteers, formalized by speeches, procedures and a much respected system of trust. Invited volunteers stand before the Committee and ask to be officially accepted. Once the request is presented, at least one Committee member has to vouch for that volunteer. As one Committee member stated, “this system of trust enables the volunteer to become a decision maker; when one has to make a judgment call without consulting the rest of the crew”.

    The final hurdle is that volunteers are not permitted to vote on motions unless they are elected to the Committee, the core governance body of The Shed. They are also not allowed to make operational decisions without being accepted as a Key Holder. Key Holders are volunteers who have earned the responsibility to manage the day-to-day running of The Shed during their scheduled volunteer shift. Whereas the rest of the volunteers roam free and appear at The Shed when they are up for it.

    The Shed meetings are somewhat curious in that the Committee members too comfortably admit that despite the careful recording of the meeting notes with the passage of every motion, no one is formally or informally responsible for enforcing the resolutions (with the exception of a few crucial issues). Thus, the extent to which any motion gets put into practice depends largely on the initiator’s ability to garner enough collective support and their degree of persistence in applying the motion themselves. Despite the seeming rigidity of the Committee and Key holder status, the entire process appears to be amorphous and anarchic. This is best illustrated by the fact that while having no recognized voting rights or duties, a volunteer has the ability to initiate a project, lead a committee and indeed receive a budget from The Shed’s funds.

    The volunteer who persists through The Shed’s spoken and unspoken rituals and rites of passage will eventually have the ability to launch side-ventures and, with persistence, shape the structure of the organization. And most importantly, they come to feel part of a greater social unit. Birthdays, major life events, and departures are celebrated or grieved among the volunteers, and the barrier between Shed-related events and personal events fades and eventually ceases to exist. The general interaction between volunteers feels more like a large communal family than an organization.

    The Shed engages in a delicate dance. A disguised order twists and turns within an open structure creating a ‘no suppression zone’. Volunteers openly express their likes and dislikes about practices without friction or any inclination towards conformity, while at the same time preserving a very inclusive social circle where differences and temperaments are not just tolerated but embraced. Ultimately debate and dissent tend to dissolve into oblivion, with someone always anchoring the discussion back to the core of the issue. While displaying all the entrenched practices that characterize an almost tribal culture, these same practices and processes are constantly evolving. In the end, the one thread that runs constantly through the weave that constitutes The Shed is untainted and continuous dialogue.

    June 27th, 2012 | Sadaf Kashfi | 10 Comments

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10 Responses and Counting...

  • Craig Newcombe 06.27.2012

    As one of the papers so-called Shed Illuminati, I certainly recognise the experience of the Shed Sadaf Kashfi describes. Although, as a Key Holder, helping provide a basically free service for the public, my personal feelings are usually that of being overwhelmed.

    I strongly agree that the core of Shed’s success is ‘untainted and continuous dialogue’ (but with this being Australia mixed with large amounts of alcohol – a cultural thing) This gives the Shed the resilience and rough equality needed to operate, and to continually recreate itself in its own image. This has not always been so and has always seemed a close run thing. I believe this paper is now be part of that continuous dialogue.

    Craig Newcombe.

  • Hi Craig, so great to hear from you. I was hoping that Sadaf’s piece would generate a conversation here. The “overwhelmed” feeling you speak of is one that I’ve grappled with quite a lot over the years. I’ve noticed that the quality of this overwhelmedness is very different in an organization that is deeply engaging and coherent with its mission, in comparison to an organization that is relationally toxic and incoherent. However, I think that such a state of organizational franticness is unhealthy and is huge barrier to social transformation. I’m reminded of these words of Thomas Merton:

    “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by non-violent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of the activist neutralizes one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful.”

    What does creating more spaciousness in daily organizational life look like in practice? That’s a question I’d love to dig into…

  • What a lovely article! I’m pleased that I live in Melbourne and have been able to visit the Bike Shed, and am proud my bicycle comes from one of the core volunteers.

  • I resonate greatly with the quote by Thomas Merton that you shared above, Tana. I am actually starting to recognize that this feeling of overwhelm that Craig has described and that I think many of us are familiar with is more than just slightly annoying, or a barrier to good work or merely a symptom of our times. I am beginning to see how, more and more, this sense of craziness is an illness that keeps me from being able to be who I am called to be in the world. I am right now starting a new practice now of taking nothing new on at this time and of cutting back what I am currently doing. Because I have realized that the best thing for the world is for me to be a healthy and happy participant in it. I am neither of these things when I carry the load I currently have … so, the best thing that I can do at this time is practice saying “No” and “Not any more” … and at times saying nothing at all.

  • Nice, me too : )

  • Now, a week or so ago, I noted that Ms. Kashfi’s paper had become part of the Bike Shed’s continuing dialogue. Talk about causing a little revolution – it immediately became ‘the’ dialogue. Although, in usual Shed fashion no one much discussed the paper or the revolution. The general reaction was that the paper was too rosy; Pollyanna visits the Bike Shed. However, the paper broadly acted to alter the moral high ground toward a user oriented focus, rather than the service orientated focus the Shed has always previously held.

    In usual Bike Shed tradition, this is a revolution un-minuted and as yet even un-discuss by the formal committee who, including myself, area all rather nonplussed, in an enthusiastic sort of way. That said, direct criticism would bring change to a halt. Our Dante and Robespierre are acting with little other than Kashfi’s status of Trusted Volunteers. Yet, informally, have mobilised access to the considerable material, man-power, finances and skills within the Shed. So two non-committee members have, in Bike Shed terms, orchestrated the fall of the Bastille. Neither has been actively involved for more than a year, although we are talking skilled successful middle aged men here.

    Our Bastille is the layout of the Shed in terms of access to tools and recycled bike parts for the public. Roughly, this involves Volunteers having a monopoly of access and so relative power. Now tools are being wheeled out on a trolley and key parts moved down-stairs (from the forbidden second-story inner sanctum) and into the unmediated grasping hands of the general public re: well laid out and labeled containers. This subtlety refocuses Volunteers away from being gate-keepers toward being demonstrators. Conceptually, the Shed is currently being turned inside out. A long standing plan for its architectural redesign is also now being informally discuss in terms of a rethink.

    I believe another key change related to Kashfi’s paper has been the obvious but institutionally overlooked point that most people have a whale of a time at the Shed. They are, in fact, not a problem to be managed. We had become overly defensive in the face of continuous high demand, perceived technical failures with bikes, managing Members with psychological issues or dealing with aggression and our own perceived organisational failures. Indeed, from Kashfi’s paper, and even my own musings, one might never guess that the Recycle Bike Shed at CERES (its legal nomenclature), to the best of my knowledge, is likely the largest and most successful community bike shed in the world. I’m told 1 failure cancels out twelve successes and we usually have had some pretty difficult people, including ourselves.

    A laminated copy of all five pages of Ms Kashfi’s work is now cable-tied to our iconic dome. It provides interest, amusement and a social map for the public and ourselves to negotiate a way through the Bike Shed.

    Now, all the changes I have associated with Kashfi’s paper have been mooted ever since I have been involved with the Shed. In this sense they are nothing new and have been gestating for a long time. What I think the paper provided was look at ourselves that we had been unable to get because we were too busy tinkering with bikes, and to focus us outwards toward the members as uses. Her paper came at an opportune time, providing a coherent outsider viewpoint that both coalesced the impetus for change and neutralised potential opposition. Crucially, it provided optimism for a different future to the one assumed. So Pollyanna did indeed visit the Bike Shed at CERES.

    Craig Newcombe

  • Awesome Craig. I love that Sadaf’s reflection has been such a helpful mirror to The Shed. I guess that’s the idea of a ‘reflection’ if you take the word literally : )

    (Sorry for the delayed response…for some reason, your comment slipped through our comment system and so we’re just reading it now. I’ll forward it to Sadaf in case the automatic forwarding system didn’t work for her either)

  • Dear Craig,

    Thank you for the lovely comment, I’m so happy to hear that there has been a revolutions in the parts department! I’m glad that the few months that I volunteered at the Shed, my observations helped it grow, but I believe this is more of a testament to the structure and the people at the Shed. You kid, but there within lies a great community of people who bounce off each other, and through their values of selflessly helping the organization, they allow it to move in whatever shape necessary to facilitate its goals. I wish was still there to witness all the changes, but I’m glad to hear it described from you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • Thanks Tana!

  • Thank you Theresa!

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