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Nashville Youth Gain Freedom By Learning How to Rebuild Bicycles

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Kim Green
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Daniel Furbish at work helping a student.

Thirty-year-old Daniel Furbish has found his calling: working to change kids’ lives, one sprocket at a time. He teaches inner-city kids to build bicycles, but Furbish aims to give his students power beyond mere locomotion.

In a cave-like basement stacked high with rickety old bicycles, stripped-down frames, handlebars and tires, Daniel Furbish barks orders at a churning maelstrom of middle-schoolers. With a close-cropped beard and a pen behind his ear, Furbish is an art student-turned-teacher from a military family, a mix of creativity and discipline.

At first glance, his resume seems kind of patchwork, and a bit nomadic. He studied sculpture in New Orleans, led public art projects with kids in New York, guided youth canoe trips in Florida, and counseled misbehaving students in Nashville. In retrospect, it seems Furbish’s wanderings have led him here, as if there were a master plan at play. “Here” is his current job, which started as a summer experiment in 2009. On a whim, he wondered, “What if I asked people for a bunch of donated bike parts and then taught kids to put them together?”

Less than three years later, he’s taught hundreds of kids to build bicycles and created a full-time job for himself, one that he loves.

Pride of Ownership

On a wintry Thursday evening, Furbish is marshalling his troops to put the finishing touches on their bicycles. A month ago, each kid started with a frame and some greasy bicycle parts. Some actually selected a working bike from the pile. Furbish says that when they found out they had to strip it down and start from zero, their disbelief was priceless. “I love seeing the expression on their face when we tell them, ‘Okay! Now take the whole thing apart!’” he says. “And they’re like, ‘What?! This is gonna take forever!’”

Within the hour, order emerges from chaos—the energetic students have settled in and focused on threading bike chain over gears and cogs. An eighth-grader named Markus says he’s excited to take home his new-old bike, and he’s proud of his hard work. He and Furbish met in an after-school program that Furbish taught for kids who struggled in class.

At the time, Markus kept getting in trouble because it was hard for him to sit still and focus for hours at a time. But in smaller groups, doing hands-on work, he shined. He started writing poetry with a spoken-word group. And today, he’s just built himself a bicycle. “Makes me feel different than a lot of kids that have bikes ‘cause they just went out and bought one,” he says. “Or some people even steal bikes or whatever. And I like made my own bike from scratch.”

A Taste of Freedom

On the final night of the six-week class, Furbish teaches the kids how to take what they’ve built and navigate their world. He briefs them about traffic laws, bike safety, general practicalities: It’s illegal to ride on the sidewalk. Storm drains can send you over the handlebars. Cars will ignore bike lanes.

The kids watch, rapt, as Furbish unfurls a cyclist’s map of Nashville—seemingly, an ordinary object. But it’s actually much more. It’s a golden ticket to places they’ve glimpsed but couldn’t reach on their own. He points out bike lanes that run from their neighborhood to a park with miles of greenways—paved paths for walkers and bikers.

His point is, these bikes aren’t just toys for popping wheelies. They’re tools that can impart freedom to go places and explore. “They can see the Capitol from their driveways,” says Furbish. “Takes us not even 10 minutes to get over there. And once they’re over there and seeing where they’re at and saying, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know this was so close! I’m gonna come here all the time now!’ That’s it for me. That’s why I started the program.”