And he doesn’t know how he feels about that.
Craig Dodson is a hero who is wildly uncomfortable with the term. He doesn’t like spotlight, he likes action–and the action he takes (whether he likes it or not) makes a difference in actual lives.
The organization Craig founded, Richmond Cycling Corps was just singled out as one of CNN’s Heroes–a distinction that CNN bestows regularly on “extraordinary people doing extraordinary things to change the world.”
RCC, in a nutshell, gives at-risk kids in public housing the opportunity to get into competitive cycling. Their Armstrong Cycling team is the first inner-city high school cycling team in the entire country. But programming, as Craig will tell you, is just the foundation. Anyone can put a program together–it’s all of the stuff that fills in the gaps that’ll test your mettle: the calls in the middle of the night, the trauma, the constant struggle to understand and triumph over Richmond public housing’s quicksand cycle of poverty.
That last part is just a pipe dream, and that’s a bitter pill to swallow. “To me, heroes win wars,” says Craig Dodson. “It’s hard to feel like a hero when you’re losing this war.”
It’s a lot of one step forward, two steps back, he says, and remembers the frustration he felt during his first two years on the job. He’d been a competitive cyclist in high school and beyond, so he’s very familiar with that voice in your head that’s always urging you to quit. But seeing what these kids were up against made him realize that all the normal cyclist angst–pain, fatigue, intimidation–was really just peanuts. “Maybe they’ve quit at school or quit at other facets of their life,” he says. “But there’s something there [in the program] that makes them stick around–if they care enough about something, or if there’s some buy-in. They often don’t have that. The trauma they go through on a daily basis…and then to go suffer on a bike? Why do it when there’s no prize?”
Dodson is quick to say that he doesn’t think cycling, necessarily, is the answer. “Cycling is what I know–I’m not smart enough to have any premeditated thoughts about whether or not this was a tool for change.” He just saw something needed to be done and he did it in the best way he knew how. “You could do it with skateboarding, or, hell, pogo-sticking…anything with an element of risk.”
And you can’t just come up with a fun program–that’ll just bring in the good kids who don’t need you as much. You’ve got to be willing to get in the trenches, as Craig puts it. “You can’t put a veneer on a root canal all the time. I just do it because it’s the right thing to do, and it needs to get done.”
Man, he’s going to be so annoyed by this article! I’m sorry, Craig, but there’s simply no way to talk about your organization without giving you some credit for being there for kids who often don’t have anyone else.
Craig grudgingly admitted that his own personal heroes didn’t necessarily win any wars–they were people who worked hard and did the right thing. He sees his role as more of an understander. “That adage of understanding before being understood? I wear that on my sleeve,” he says, recalling his own shift from “Why don’t these kids understand me?” to “That’s not their job. My job is to understand them.” Now he just focuses on getting kids out of public housing, one kid at a time.
So what does being a CNN-vetted “hero” mean for Richmond Cycling Corps?
Exposure. Maybe more funding. But hopefully never, ever an excuse to rest on their laurels and get too comfortable with what they’re doing. It’s that raw emotional attachment that both keeps Craig and the rest of his team up at night but also keeps the right kids coming to the Corps. “They find me, and I find them,” he says of his natural tendency to pick out the most troubled kid in a room.
How you can help
Donating money is an obvious answer, and the Richmond Cycling Corps would be grateful for it. But I have a feeling they’d be just as pleased if you would take some time to think hard about what you can offer to young people who need you, and then take some definitive action. The kids are the real heroes, Craig will insist if you try to congratulate him. Our role is to give them a chance to prove it.