Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington, surprisingly, is home to not one but two nonprofits that donate bicycles to the underprivileged in Africa and elsewhere.

Our 26-square-mile county, however, may not be big enough for both – the two groups do not ride alongside each other smoothly.

Wheels to Africa, founded in 2005 by then-10-year-old student Winston Duncan, is captained by his mother Dixie, with six or seven volunteers. It has racked up impressive publicity on national television and news write-ups. It has donated some 5,000 bikes and drawn hundreds of teen volunteers to walk-a-thon fundraisers who spend their leisure hours at collection events in Pizza Hut parking lots in service of others.

Bikes for the World was founded also in 2005, by international development specialist Keith Oberg as a project of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. With a staff and board of 12, it has donated more than 82,656 bikes, or 9,000 annually, to needy recipients in countries such as Honduras, the Philippines and Namibia. With partners such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, it bills itself as “the nation’s largest bicycle reuse program,” has 501©3 tax-exempt status and is part of the Combined Federal Campaign.

The tension comes from Oberg’s belief that Dixie Duncan, a tax accountant, is more adept at working the media than at managing the financing required to actually deliver bikes in underdeveloped nations.

Duncan believes Oberg tells inaccurate stories about her because their earlier efforts at cooperation ended over differences about the role of commercial transactions in volunteer activism.

My talks with both activists produced no solomonic verdict.

“Everyone loves the story of the young boy” who founded the charity, Oberg told me, “but where have the bikes actually gone?” In Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, he says, there are political and economic obstacles that Duncan doesn’t acknowledge, and “she never addresses costs,” he says. “Dumping bikes on groups is not professional. Everyone loves the thought, but it has to be done responsibly.”

Duncan says she quit working with Oberg in 2007 after being told that his group sells some of the bikes. She says he “got angry because some teens at the collection sites were talking rather than working. But kids go to collections to enjoy themselves too. He makes up things about us without knowing what we do,” she says.

“I’m sure there are some things I’ve done right and some things I’ve done wrong,” adds Duncan, who runs Wheels for Africa herself now that her son is off at college. “But when you’re a parent, you do whatever you must for your child. It doesn’t make sense to be attack other nonprofits,” she says. Wheels for Africa is out to create a “civics education for young people, and the negativity damages the passion to help others.”

Both groups plan a busy autumn raising money and collecting discard bicycles for shipping overseas. Wheels for Africa on Oct. 20 will stage its annual barefoot walk from Alexandria across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to National Harbor, Md., to raise $10,000. On Dec. 20, its eight area collection sites will be receiving bike donations.

Bikes for the World, which hopes to go national with partners in such cities as St. Louis and Charleston, S.C., will receive bikes on Oct. 12 at Thomas Jefferson Middle School at the Arlington Environmental Collection and Recycling Event.

Perhaps the county can handle both?