Meet the Staff #7: The virtues of bookkeeping and bicycling

By: Halla Dontje Lindell

The names Betsy Raasch-Gilman (she/her) or Merritt McCollum (he/him) might not ring a bell, but these bookkeepers are a fundamental part of what keeps the Cycles for Change (C4C) operation running smoothly. Weekdays find the two of them intently working on side-by-side computers to track the expenses and income of the organization and generate reports that are used for grant writing and tax purposes. As Betsy says, “a nonprofit needs to have the bookkeeping clearly, well, and honestly cared for,” and Betsy and Merritt provide that service for Cycles for Change.

Betsy, a lifelong St. Paulite, keeps the books because of her passion for social change.

“I’ve always worked in social change in one way or another, and I decided some years ago there were at least three things that I was good at,” Betsy recalled. “I’m a good trainer; I can teach people social change skills and I can do it well. I’m also a good organizer; I can organize events and I can also organize people to participate in movements. Finally, I’m a good bookkeeper.

“And I realized that I know lots of good trainers who are not good bookkeepers, and I know lots of good organizers who are not good bookkeepers. That made me think, ‘Ok, well maybe my niche is bookkeeping in order to support social change.’ So that was the point at which I decided that this is what I want to do.”

When Betsy learned bookkeeping, it still actually involved books instead of computers. She performed calculations on large, long pieces of paper with columns, a ten key adding machine, and a pencil. For her, bookkeeping has an appeal that many may not see.

“I’m kind of addicted to murder mysteries,” she says. “And it’s the same kind of thing—looking for little clues that lead to another clue that leads to a big ‘aha.’ Bookkeeping is very much like that; it is a kind of mystery solving.”

Betsy doesn’t limit her sleuthing work to just one social justice organization. Her work at C4C is part-time, and she does bookkeeping for five other major nonprofit clients. She is additionally involved with Showing Up for Racial Justice Minnesota (SURJ MN), another demonstration of her commitment to social change.

“I sometimes joke that if an organization puts “for change” in the title, I’ll work for it because I’ve worked for Appetite for Change, Training for Change, and now Cycles for Change,” she laughed.

She also advocates for the young people involved with C4C to seek out bookkeeping skills.

“It is not only a real skill, but a way to demystify numbers. It allows getting beyond the idea that we can’t afford stuff, but rather that we can afford stuff but simply need to look carefully at our priorities… Practicing those skills and understanding how to approach them in a way that underlines the options, power, and possibilities that organizations have with the resources they have is a piece of understanding the whole picture that makes social change happen.”

For Merritt, it is bikes, rather than books, that thread together his vocational history. He moved to Minnesota from Pennsylvania on a whim 16 years ago because he needed a place to live and had a friend living in Minneapolis. He crashed on his friend’s couch until he found work at the Hub Bicycle Co-op. In his usual wry manner, he explained he “ended up liking it here well enough,” so he stayed.

During his seven years at the Hub, he met Jason Partridge (now C4C’s Executive Director), where they worked together for a few summer seasons. He ran into Jason again in 2016 while volunteering for Tamales y Bicicletas (another local bicycling-related nonprofit), and Jason suggested he apply to an open position at C4C.

Merritt got the job and expressed the practically of the transition away from mechanics.

“I was getting to a point where I felt like I was aging. With bicycle mechanics, you bend over all day long, because no matter how much effort you put into it, you never get the part that you are working on at the proper height… That was hurting, and I was getting arthritis in the wrist and hands. Looking at the long-term future, I was thinking that I needed to move into something that could afford me a roof over my head and I didn’t think bicycle mechanics was going to do that.”

So, Merritt found a middle ground. He puts his mechanic experience to use by assisting with the C4C retail operation when he’s not entering data into Microsoft Excel or Quickbooks. In his free time, he enjoys playing the card game Magic.

Unsurprisingly, Betsy and Merritt both agree on the virtues of bicycling. For Betsy, it’s a choice that leads to greater awareness and physical well-being.

“I am a commuter and very seldom do I ride my bike just for pleasure. But I notice different things when I am bicycling. I notice more about the neighborhoods that I am going through and I just notice more in general. When I have bicycled, my hips feel better for the rest of the day, as I do have trouble with arthritis. Bicycling really directly benefits my health; I can feel that day by day. And although I am a walker and a bus rider, bicycling satisfies me more in that it gives me more flexibility. I’m not tied to the schedules and the routes of the bus.”

For Merritt, it’s a habit that keeps him and others safe.

“I first started off biking because I disliked cars, but eventually I was forced into driving, and I started to enjoy driving. Then when I moved to Minneapolis, I was broke and couldn’t afford to keep the car, so I got back into biking—the exercise, getting the adrenaline up, seeing the world from that more open point of view.

“It’s just something that I’ve done since high school, so it’s more of a habit for me than driving is for most people in the U.S. It feels safer for me. I’m not in charge of a 4,000-pound vehicle that could kill anybody if I daydream. And I am a daydreamer, so it is safer for other people for me to be on a bicycle than behind the wheel of a vehicle. What do I daydream about? I daydream about a world not like this one.”

And with their skills and passion for social change, Betsy and Merritt are a part of creating a new world for tomorrow.

Meet the Staff #6: Where we come from, where we’re going

By: Halla Dontje Lindell

Magdalena Kaluza (she/her), Youth Programs Manager at Cycles for Change, spoke an impromptu poem with a lilting voice when asked where she is from.

“I was born and raised in Phillips, South Minneapolis,” Magdalena said. “My mom grew up in Columbia Heights, and before that her family is from Kansas and the Iron Range, and before that they’re from French Canada, and Quebec Quay, and Poland.

“My dad’s family is from Guatemala and Honduras, Maya Quiche territory in the Highlands, and plantations in Santa Rosa Copan.

“I’m from my mom’s womb, I’m from gardens, and a house that got broken into a lot as a kid. I’m from activist parents, a political refugee, and an artist.”

After listening to Magdalena, Monica Bryand (she/her), Special Projects Manager at Cycles for Change, said that she might be simpler, or maybe more complicated.

“I was born and raised in St. Paul and lived mostly on the West Side of St. Paul,” Monica explained. “I don’t know a lot about my dad, but my mom’s parents were from Mexico City and her grandpa was from Spain.”

Magdalena and Monica are rooted in their cultural backgrounds and share experiences as social change makers.

When Magdalena was young, her mom did anti-apartheid, South African solidarity work and took Magdalena to anti-war rallies. Her dad did urban organizing on the guerrilla side of the Guatemalan civil war, wrote political songs, listened to Trova (Latin American political music), and regularly attended organizing meetings. Because of these experiences, a natural topic choice for one of Magdalena’s middle school research projects was social movements.

“I got to learn about all sorts of civil rights-era organizations, from the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement to the Symbionese Liberation Army and other radical organizations,” she said. “And I used to fantasize about living in that era because it felt like they were closer to change in that era. They were on the cusp of something. I have since stopped romanticizing it, but have done some human rights work, labor rights work, and counter recruitment work because they used to recruit for the military in my high school.”

Monica’s activism bloomed while she was working as an accountant within corporate America, back when only about ten companies in Minnesota offered domestic partner benefits.

“I became an organizer for LGBT issues when I heard Pat Buchanan spewing hate about gays and lesbians,” she said. “I had to ask myself what I was doing about it. So I started organizing within corporate America, and we actually brought together over 100 different companies and got domestic partner benefits. We didn’t think way back then that [same-sex] marriage would ever be a possibility. But I feel like the work we did 20 years ago had an impact on getting [same-sex] marriage passed.”

Since then, her organizing work has expanded to include the Transition Town movement and countering fossil fuel dependency. Additionally, Monica is a birder who loves to spend time outdoors and has worked with Audubon Minnesota to document Minnesota birds threatened or endangered by climate change in Minnesota.

Fast forward to the present, where both Magdalena and Monica are working hard to carry out Cycles for Change’s mission of building a diverse and self-empowered community of bicyclists. For Magdalena, that means direct contact with the youth apprentices hired by Cycles for Change—a job that contains joys and struggles alike.

“I think youth can bring a bluntness to our work that I really like,” she said. “They demand honesty, truth, and authenticity. Kids are great bullshit detectors, right? And they don’t have a filter sometimes. What I value about that is that it keeps us on our toes and it keeps us reevaluating, so we don’t get stagnant or beat around the bush. There’s so much value in telling it how it is, and I think the youth contribute that to Cycles for Change.

“What can be hard is complicated lives. They’re in high school, have hormonal changes, have family things going on, want or need money, sometimes have different communication styles than I do, have limited access to internet or printers, or don’t have the best organizational skills. It can be hard to coordinate everything.”

Her current community work is centered around art and personal healing.

“I have come to find that I carry a lot of patterns based on the trauma that was passed down to me from my parents. My dad regularly carries weapons because he grew up during the [Guatemalan] civil war and couldn’t trust anyone. Your neighbor might turn you over to the military. People were killed and people disappeared left and right. And fear is something that can hold me back. Fear, pain, and wounds can hold a lot of people back if we don’t recognize them. So lately I have been doing cultural work—art and sharing meals with people. I’m a poet and have been doing puppetry—performing, putting myself out there, being vulnerable.”

For Monica, fulfilling Cycles for Change’s mission means making sure that Magdalena and other staff members have the financial support they need to carry out their programming. After working as an accountant, Monica spent over 20 years working for Headwaters Foundation for Justice, distributing money through grants—the “other side” of the nonprofit world. When she transitioned to Cycles for Change, she discovered what it was like to be a grant writer, instead of a grant reader.

“I’ve served on nonprofit boards for forever, and I know that part of being on a board is fundraising, which I did,” Monica said. “But I had never been on the staff of a nonprofit. The first thing I learned was that it’s really hard to write grants. It’s hard to succinctly convey everything that [the organization] is doing. And I think that relationships matter when you are doing individual fundraising, so I think that’s one of the things that I brought to Cycles for Change. I love events; I think they are fun. They can engage people, so that’s one thing I like to work on when I am helping to fundraise for Cycles for Change.”

Monica also appreciates her current work because it allows her to be present in her own neighborhood.

“One of the things that I realized as I was working on transition stuff was that I had to go back to my own community. I had been organizing in greater Minnesota; I would leave my West Side home and didn’t come back until late at night. So I started saying, ‘What can I do to impact the West Side?’ That was when I came back, started working with my community, and I’m still here working on environmental and economic justice issues. I’ll continue to organize. But I also know I want to create spaces for the new voices that are coming in—sharing what I might know but also listening to what they have to say and just being really open to that.”

The past and present leave Magdalena and Monica imagining future possibilities.

“I don’t work with youth directly,” Monica said, “but being exposed to them and the complications that they have in life, knowing where I came from as someone who was poor and didn’t have a lot of resources, and seeing that this is a safe space for them is something that I want to continue to grow. I want to keep making a safe space for not only the people who work here and the youth, but for community that comes in.”

Magdalena adds upon Monica’s vision of a safe space, and emphasizes the inclusivity that Cycles for Change strives toward.

“I believe in a world where people are exercising, laughing, and moving their bodies— bikes lend themselves to that,” Magdalena said. “Cycles for Change is strategically poised to bring outdoor education and environmental justice education to communities that are traditionally left out of that sphere. We have a long way to go in being as effective as we could be, but C4C is poised in an interesting space, and I really think there is no time to waste. We need to cherish this earth if we want any of this human species to survive… I want the best for our children, and our children’s children.”