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.