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By Jamie Felton · On August 11, 2015
photos (c) Parvaneh Angus

Long May You Run: Auto Repair Revolution Aims to Empower Drivers

Down in SODO, there exists the auto repair shop of your dreams.

Every time my car breaks down, I have this feeling of exhaustion and fear that is a prelude to the horror that characterizes the experience of dealing with mechanics. I walk in and immediately feel like what little money I have is going to dissolve into a flurry of  “you need to fix this and this and this”. I never feel as though I can ask questions. Reaching an understanding of what’s going with my car is not even achievable or conceivable. I’m talked down to, I’m ripped off, and I leave feeling violated and anxious. The power dynamic is skewed always, always in the favor of men who know more than I do.

Enter Auto Repair Revolution. What Eli Allison and crew are offering is more than just a place to get your car fixed. It’s a place where you can walk in and be greeted with respect and a hand outstretched to guide you towards empowerment and understanding. They offer super affordable workshops on basic car maintenance as well as DIY space so that you can come and learn by doing. Eli emphasized during the interview that, “Empowering people around automotive-repair maintenance is one of our driving missions and even if you don’t want to get your hands dirty, [you can feel] like you can make an informed decision because you know how it works.” I wanted to interview Eli and get their words about what kind of revolution they are creating.

J: I’m really curious about how you got started repairing cars?

E: I had an old hot rod as my first car, and all of my friends had crappy cars. We broke down on the side of the road a lot and had to do our own troubleshooting and fix stuff to get back on the road. My first car repair education was the school of hard knocks. We fixed a lot of stuff; it was just really fun. When we could make the car start again, it felt really empowering. My best friend’s dad owned a diesel truck repair shop where he fixed 18-wheelers. When we were young, we’d hang out there all the time, play and put oil on our faces and run around pretending like we were fixing cars. I think from a young age I was really fascinated by machines and how stuff works.

J: So did you have someone who was older who was willing to show you the basics or did you figure it out as you went along?

E: I guess in the beginning I figured it out as I went along, asked a lot of questions, asked my friend’s dad and brother who worked on cars a lot of questions. My dad worked a little on his own cars when he could and always fixed stuff around the house. I always enjoyed helping him with these projects, and I think this is another place where I gained confidence [in my ability to] fix things. When I moved to Seattle, I went into social work and got burned out after 5 years or so. I worked with homeless and low-income families, and I saw a lot of women whose cars would break down and it was like a downward spiral. They would lose their job, they would lose their childcare. All of these things would happen over a really easy repair that I knew people could do themselves. I was always trying to help folks in the parking lot, putting air in people’s tires, did stuff that people who came in didn’t know how to do. It wasn’t my job at all; I ran a childcare facility. But I identified those things as needs within the community.

J: You had the skills and could help…

E: It’s really scary to go into a mechanic shop and not know what you’re doing. So when I got burned out, I decided to go to school to learn about cars and I got my degree in Applied Automotive Science.

J: What school was that?

E: Renton Technical College. It’s a two-year degree program, associate’s degree. Part of that program was that I had to be working in the industry [for the course of the program] in a sponsor shop. Getting the industry experience hands on, but also getting the hands-on classroom experience where you’re getting a little more detail about what you’re doing. I worked in a dealership for several years while I was in school and after. I thought it was a really fucked up industry. I saw a lot of people getting taken advantage of, and I worked with a lot of people who were sexist, misogynistic, homophobic, you name it. That was really hard. I was at a crossroads where I decided I was either going to quit the industry and do something different altogether or try to start my own shop.

J: Yeah, I love that because what you said about working with low-income families because having a car is so essential especially in Seattle. If you don’t have a car you’re taking a two-hour bus ride to work and back and you have kids…it can really destroy your life so it’s very cool that you connected that. It seems like everything you’re doing ties really intimately into your politics; it seems like you’re very queer-focused and trying to help queers feel comfortable in this environment…

E: It’s the heart and soul of who I am in the world. Everything has meaning; everything I do is with intention. It’s what inspires me. I take what I learned from my own experience feeling disempowered, as someone who was socialized female going into shops with my own car and as someone who was socialized female working in this industry, being treated like I was less than because I wasn’t born with a penis. I see so many other people struggle with it. I watch so many people being taken advantage of and lose money. I also feel like queers are especially vulnerable in this industry. Walking into an old boys’ club mechanic shop is pretty intimidating, and people feel like they have to walk in and front, pretend like they know what they are talking about in order to not be taken advantage of. That’s just not how [Repair Revolution] is at all.

J: I’ve always been mechanically-oriented, I always wanted to learn how to fix my bicycle and how to fix my car, but I’ve never been part of those worlds; I always felt intimidated and mystified by it. What kind of advice do you have for people who are drawn to that?

E: That’s actually one of the things we offer here. We offer workshops and have DIY space and if you bring your car in to get repaired by us we love taking people out to their car and showing them what we did, giving them a more in-depth understanding of what does it mean if your caliper gets stuck on the brake and showing them.

J: My girlfriend and I came during Pride to see the show you had here with Sassyblack, Aeon Fux, S, and Mandate, and I just thought that was a neat side thing that you’re doing here. This is such a great venue for music, really unconventional, but I loved it. So why did you decide to do live music?

E: It’s just another thing that’s important in our community. Music is so important. Having space to perform music. Musicians are totally undervalued. Slaven does the booking and the behind the curtains stuff, I just provide the space. Bands don’t usually get paid or if they do, it’s not a lot of money. Primarily we have queer-bands or marginalized folx that perform, not completely but primarily.

J: Yeah, I noticed that all of the musicians that were performing were queer-identifying people. Was that intentional for Pride or an overarching goal of the shop?

E: This is a gay-rage so that just happens. Queer community is what supports my business and so it makes sense that queer folx know about us and want to play shows with us. Part of it is very intentional, but it also just happens that way.

I had a chance to meet some of the other mechanics as well: Les, Nell, and Graves; in addition, Auto Repair Revolution staffs four other mechanics: Zach, Mo, Ross, and Gerard. Eli has been the face of the shop thus far, but Eli emphasized that his staff are the ones who build it up. What’s going on here is revolutionary in the sense that it’s not about money or image or power; it’s about love. Examining the way things are done and how it’s NOT working for certain demographics, and then putting your energy into changing it, is a supreme act of community-building and of love in a true sense of the word.