Interview: Bikes, Bags, and Abolition with Brandale Randolph - Part I

Today on the blog I talk to Brandale Randolph. His new venture, The 1854 Cycling Company, marries high-end design principles with social entrepreneurship. Before moving to Massachusetts and starting the company, Randolph founded Project: Poverty in Lubbock, TX, where his social justice work formed the basis of his 2014 TEDxTalk, “Stop throwing breakfast sandwiches at the poor.” This is the first part of a two-part interview, wherein Randolph and I discuss the intersections of entrepreneurship and social justice; the continuity of social movements across eras; and whether it’s a good idea to make abolition seem “cool.”

Brandale Randolph with "The Garrison," the first model for sale at The 1854 Cycling Company. Photo credit - me.

Brandale Randolph with "The Garrison," the first model for sale at The 1854 Cycling Company. Photo credit - me.

Me: Where did you get the idea to start a bike company rooted in the tradition of abolition?

Randolph: When I first got to Boston like a year ago, I was looking to do non-profit work, but all the spots were taken. The grants were gone, all of the big money non-profits already had them. My wife, who teaches entrepreneurship at Babson, said I should start my own business. So just to clear my head, I wanted to go for a bike ride. Which meant I had to go buy a bike. And all the bikes I saw were either these cheap Walmart, clown colored things, or these hyper expensive triathlon bikes. And there was nothing I liked. I really want to like what I buy. I don’t care if it’s two dollars or a hundred dollars, I need to like it. The only bikes I liked were from Europe, with steel frames, just beautiful. Why do I have to import a bike to get the one I want? So I started playing with design, and I wanted to know how much it would cost to build the one I wanted.

People I know seemed to like the design I put together, and the next thing I knew we were designing other versions. A women’s version, the boy’s version. At some point I realized this could be a whole company. We’re starting with the steel frame, a classic fixed-gear bike. We wanted to make it high end, so that we can attract the crowd that’s used to importing those fixed-gear, steel-frame bikes from Europe.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Me: When did you move to Framingham, Massachusetts?  That’s the source of the name, right?

Randolph. A year ago, last July. I’m a history buff. The part of history I like, is discovering hidden history. Framingham was a major center of the abolitionist movement, in the 1850s through the Civil War, particularly this one place called Harmony Grove.

So I’ll give this whole history lesson. There was a 19-year-old runaway slave named Anthony Burns, who escaped from Virginia. He thought Massachusetts was a free state, but because President Pierce decided to enforce the fugitive slave laws in the free states, nowhere was free. So Burns gets arrested on the streets of Boston, just on suspicion. At trial, they found out he was in fact a runaway. Despite huge protest from the abolitionists of Boston, they arrested him and sent him back to slavery. That was May 1854. Later that month, the Boston police department was formally founded.

On July 4, 1854, a bunch of abolitionists got together – William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau – they got together to talk about America’s hypocrisy, in Framingham. At the end of the meeting, William Lloyd Garrison burns a copy of the United States Constitution.

That’s the Colin Kaepernick kneeling of 1854, Garrison burning the US constitution on the 4th of July. It pissed people off, especially President Pierce, but it attracted people and got more attention to the abolitionist movement not just here, but around the world.

A  portrait  of Anthony Burns, Boston, R.M. Edwards, printer, 129 Congress Street, Boston, c1855.

A portrait of Anthony Burns, Boston, R.M. Edwards, printer, 129 Congress Street, Boston, c1855.

Me: So do you think it’s risky to name a company, a commercial venture, based on this pretty controversial moment in American history?

Randolph: It’s a sign of the times. We have so many people who have revised history to the point that it’s forgotten. We’re living the effects of that erased history. By naming the company #1854Cycling, and connecting it directly to abolition, and connecting that to our current challenges with recidivism and the criminal justice system, it’s a sign of how far we still need to go.

Me: You’ve made an explicit commitment to building this company with a focus on reducing recidivism. How does that work in practice?

Randolph: I come from a background in non-profit and anti-poverty work. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at who is poor. I look at the most affected populations. In Massachusetts, there are a large percentage of ex-offenders who are in poverty. They are poor, and many cannot pass a criminal background check. They seem to have done their time, served their time, and yet they’re snatched back into the prison system, over and over again. From the Justice Department statistics, we know that 76% of all ex-offenders will be arrested within five years of release, and over 30% within the first six months.

Talking about those numbers in the context of the fugitive slave act, we have to wonder, are those people really free? You’ve done your time, you’re a citizen, but you’re treated differently by society. Are you really free? The answer is no. And so when we talk about institutional racism, that’s the institution, the criminal justice system. But on the other side of mass incarceration, how does society treat them?

My idea is to take portions of these proceeds from the company and help ex-offenders reenter society, train for jobs, basically give them the actual freedom. I’m not as hardcore as the abolitionists were in the 1850s. Those guys, they would walk into a courtroom, armed, pull a defendant off the stand, and usher him to freedom. That’s why they had to arrest Anthony Burns at gunpoint, they knew that the abolitionists of the era were that bold.

Me: Have you thought about employing ex-offenders?

Randolph: The long range vision is to generate enough revenue to open a facility where we can employ dozens of ex-offenders. I want to train them not only to be bicycle mechanics and master leather craftsman, but also to engage in design and drafting. Part of the reason ex-offenders are arrested after release is that they are not trained to have skills that the world needs. They’re given minimum wage jobs, which cannot sustain a person. What I want to do is be able to pay living wages. If they leave, I want them to have the skills and background to be gainfully employed somewhere else.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Photo credit - Totsey Bass.

Stay tuned for the second part of my conversation with Brandale Randolph, to be published on Friday, September 30.