When one thinks of pressing issues in social justice, car repair does not immediately come to mind. It really should, though. America isn't exactly a paradise of public transportation, and in many places, having a running car is essential to having a job. And while nearly everyone drives—only a dismal 5 percent of Americans report using public transit every day, compared to over 50 percent of Russians—not everyone is represented in or welcomed by the auto repair industry, where bro culture still reigns.
Enter Repair Revolution, a small auto repair shop in Seattle's industrial district that is a beacon of hope amidst the maddeningly macho auto industry: It's run and staffed by women, queer people, trans people, and allies, and its mission is to offer those same populations an alternative to traditional auto repair shops, where they are all too often taken for a ride.
"The majority of our clients are LGBTQ or allies," says Eli Allison, the shop's owner. "That's 100 percent my target market. In general, most people get taken advantage of in this industry—it's just worse for women and queers. I want to serve people that are going to be taken advantage of in a really real way." We're sitting on the roof with his staff as they knock back a couple of beers after work. and talk shop. Interestingly enough, both Allison and Les Fino-Fugate, one of his techs, came to the auto repair industry from social work, which apparently involves a lot of impromptu auto repair, too.
"I was working in social work for a really long time, primarily with homeless women and low-income families," says Allison. "I would watch them have a car breakdown and it'd be something really simple and easy to fix and they'd miss work that day and not get their kids to childcare and lose their job—it was just a downward spiral. I did a lot of helping my clients in the parking lot." Fino-Fugate's experience working with refugee families in Dallas and Austin was distressingly similar. The only jobs they could find for recent immigrants, they say, were often in warehouses far outside the city, where public transportation wasn't available.
"They would need to buy a super cheap car," Fino-Fugate says. "Normally this car would last about a month or two and break down and they wouldn't have a way to get to work and they'd get fired. I saw that as a huge barrier to getting them employment." Their desire to help underserved populations—combined with massive burnout from 60-family caseloads and a deep enjoyment of the literal nuts and bolts of the work—drove both Allison and Fino-Fugate to the auto repair industry.
Most people get taken advantage of in this industry—it's just worse for women and queers.
"Once I entered the industry, there were so many things I felt passionate about changing," Allison told me. "Seeing how people were taken advantage of—seeing how women or queer people that worked in the industry were treated and wanting them to have a safe space to work. I exist as much for my employees to have a safe place to work as I do for my customers to come and have a safe place to get their car repaired." Indeed, price gouging based on sex, sexual orientation, and other stereotypes is kind of an open secret in the industry, according to Allison.
"I've seen people do it," says Fino-Fugate. "I've worked in dealerships where I've seen service advisors say, 'I wouldn't put my kids in that car,' to manipulate women. That was constant—I would see that all the time."
Graves, one of the two cis straight men in the crew, had the unique opportunity of being uncomfortably included in this type of exploitation. He came to Repair Revolution fresh off a stint in Tucson as a service manager at a Midas, where he says the shop's general manager tacitly instructed him to overcharge women, saying, "You have to explain things to women, and you can usually charge them more because they don't have the cards in their hands." Indeed, Graves's behind-enemy-lines reports pretty much confirmed the worst stereotypes of the auto industry.
"There's a lot of homophobia, there's a lot of sexism, there's a lot of racial slurs," he tells me. "There was a lot of crude joking and objectifying anytime a female customer who was perceived to be attractive was seen from the service area." Allison said that at one shop he'd previously worked at, it was common practice for the service advisors to add a note to an attractive woman's work order so that the techs could make sure to check her out before she left. The fact that this was done casually in front of a female coworker—Allison was female-presenting at that point—speaks to the pervasiveness of misogyny in the industry. That casual misogyny, he adds, doesn't work out very well for LGBTQ people either.
"[LGBTQ] people are targets the second they walk in the door at a lot of places," Allison says. "If there is any sort of assumption that you are not tough enough or masculine enough, or you don't walk in the door and mansplain what the fuck is going on with your car, like, chances are you're gonna get targeted." When you consider how economically disadvantaged women and LGBTQ people are to begin with, says Allison, the importance of a progressive auto shop becomes pretty clear.
Repair Revolution's focus doesn't just affect their clientele—it impacts the kinds of jobs they take on as well. "Our clients are either queer and/or female, and you know how many cents women make on the dollar compared to dudes," Allison says. "In general, our population is lower-income than your average shop. Therefore, their cars are bigger pieces of shit and harder to work on in a lot of ways. The reason that I work on all makes and models is because I want to be accessible to my community."
In addition to working on all cars, the shop's policies are designed to ensure maximum transparency, and to provide the most affordable repair possible. Beyond the enormous rainbow flag out front and the "We Love Gay Love" posters on the wall, Repair Revolution does a few things differently. For one, they make a habit of bringing customers onto the service floor to show them exactly what's going on with their cars, which is taboo at most shops. And instead of telling customers that repairs are immediately necessary, Allison and his crew try to give them a to-the-day timeline of how long they can go without making a certain fix, to help people in tight financial situations who need to prioritize. There's definitely no "I wouldn't put my kids in that car" going on at Repair Revolution.
"Empowering people around the process takes away from that fear tactic that shops use," says Fino-Fugate. And empowering is certainly the name of the game at Repair Revolution. They offer low-rate bay rentals to help people who do know how to work on their cars find a spot to do it, which is often difficult for low-income folks, who tend to rent their homes and may not have the luxury of a driveway. Allison also hosts occasional repair workshops for those interested in learning to do it themselves. That might seem counterintuitive, as it could cut into the shop's revenue, but Allison sees it as about more than revenue. That's also why they service all makes and models: Specializing in working on a certain make of car is often more lucrative, but it limits your customer base (often to those privileged enough to have foreign cars).
"I am a certified Volkswagen technician," Allison says. "That is my specialty. I could work on only Volkswagens, but I wouldn't be serving my community."
Unfortunately, as wonderful as Repair Revolution is, it's only one shop. While they're doing Seattle's queer community a great service, and providing its queer and queer-friendly mechanics a fun, open, and safe workplace, the situation is still bad in most other places. And opening a small shop isn't easy, especially if you're a low-income genderqueer auto mechanic.
Allison, who started with zero seed money, was rejected for six different loans before eventually getting one from a local non-profit economic development fund, Community Capital Development (CCD). CCD actually rejected his initial application, but he made a crucial connection at Seattle's Office of Economic Development, who went back to the fund and said, in so many words, "You've got to fund this." Until recently, Allison spent ten hours a week for a year reporting back to the program's directors to prove that his business was viable.
If you don't walk in the door and mansplain what the fuck is going on with your car, chances are you're gonna get targeted.
"After six months of me jumping through 500 million crazy hoops, they funded me," he says. "I continued to jump through hoops through the first year of business in order to report how I was spending my money. It took away from me actually being able to fix cars."
While the entire staff agreed that Repair Revolution was a godsend, none of them sees an explosion of socially conscious auto shops as the ultimate solution. The only way to put out the tire fire of misogyny and homophobia in the industry, the crew agrees, is to change the overall gender balance in shops today.
"The idea of diversity is very real," says Morgan Mentzer, another tech. "It's not quotas, it's that you gotta have people in the industry that are not expected to be there, because that's how you open the industry up. People have got to open their doors."
But the current gatekeepers of the industry aren't exactly holding those doors open to let women and LGBTQ people in. Mentzer actually started her career at a pretty progressive auto shop in Seattle's gay-friendly Capitol Hill neighborhood. But even there, she says, she faced discrimination.
"I did have a fucked-up mentor when I was an apprentice," she says. "He was a douchebag motherfucker. He was so unhelpful. He was just so insecure in his own abilities that he wouldn't share his knowledge." Eventually, that mentor quit, and Mentzer found herself working under a female shop forewoman.
After that, she "excelled," she says. But she still hadn't gotten her actual degree, so she decided to pursue an automotive tech program at a local community college, which she described as another appalling experience.
"It was fucked up," she says. "It was bullshit. The fucking professor would use examples of rape as a way to memorize things. It was all men, they were all awful, and women would drop out."
Allison reported similar difficulties in the workplace. After graduating from an automotive technician certification program, he applied at no fewer than 16 places before finding a job.
"At least three shops were like, 'We are not hiring for a receptionist right now,'" he says. Again, he was still female-presenting at the time, although it's unlikely being a trans man would have helped him much. After an arduous search, he finally stumbled across a shop with a female service manager who was willing to give him a shot. However, finding success in the auto repair industry wasn't exactly as simple as getting his foot in the door.
"I had to work twice as hard to prove my shit," he says, a statement that elicits knowing nods from the other techs.
"I think pretty much every shop that I've worked at," says tech MJ Montgomery, "you kind of get looked at differently when you first start. They're like, 'Ohhhh no, a girl's coming in. We've gotta watch our mouths,' or, 'We're gonna have to help her out so much.' But once you prove yourself, all of a sudden their whole perspective changes. Even [the way they] deal with customers, it's changed at shops I've worked at. You're basically educating them."
While the idea that women need to put up with harassment and work extra hard to "prove themselves"—and teach other people how to act—is inherently sexist, as the crew sees it, it's just how the game goes. If you're really dedicated to changing the industry, they say, you deal with it.
"You don't feel like it's a very safe environment," says Fino-Fugate. "But you get through it. Or you don't." Perhaps the most important thing the jockish, hetero-bro segment of the auto industry could learn from Repair Revolution is that, in addition to being a safe environment, it's still an extremely fun one. They don't have sexy pinup-girl calendars from auto parts manufacturers on the wall, but they do have a blast. And while they don't tolerate sexism, homophobia, and racism, they do swill IPA, host weekend shows by local queer musicians, and take tons of goofy photos for their Instagram.
"I've definitely described this as being like, we're the lost boys and we're just trying to find a place that's our own," jokes Fino-Fugate. "And Eli's like our Peter Pan. It's Neverland."
"Do I have to wear tights?" Allison shoots back, laughing. "It is totally allowable here. It'd be totally chill!"