Speaker: Anthony Siracusa

Revolutions and the Politics of Being: One Cycle at a Time

Anthony Siracusa arrived at First Congregational UCC in Memphis in 2002 as a tattooed, legally emancipated 17-year-old high-school dropout, seeking to establish a free community bike repair shop at the church. He could hardly have imagined then that he would – over the course of the next two decades – help transform the lives of countless youth and community members; spark a sustained community movement to transform Tennessee into one of the most bike-friendly (and clean transportation) states in the US South; go on to college and complete a master’s and doctorate degree; write a pre-eminent intellectual history tracing the origins of nonviolence in the American civil rights movement; and create curriculum and strategies for helping students and organizations recognize their inherent transformative power.

And yet that's how his trajectory as a change agent unfolded. Author of Nonviolence before King: The Politics of Being and the Black Freedom Struggle (2021), Siracusa studies the power of successful and enduring social movements from the grist of deep life experience. He has spent his life practicing – and then studying and teaching – how ordinary people find courage and the “in-dwelling light” that compels them to assert their power and humanity in the face of deprivation, dehumanization and injustice – not principally as a form of protest, advocacy or activism, but first and foremost as a way of being and living in the world with integrity, of asserting their full humanity. The “politics of being” – rather than strategy or activist tactics – has, according to Siracusa, animated the most enduring and transformative social movements in history.

Siracusa’s focus on ordinary people simply asserting their humanity to live according to their inner light – rather than setting out to change the world – is true to his deeply rooted life experience. “We have to be careful not to get focused on the big things,” he says. “That was not my ambition when I started. As things evolve, your imagination expands.”

The way he started was as a 15-year-old bike enthusiast walking into a repair shop, excited by the vibrant community scene and people assembled there. He soon got a job at the shop to be part of it, but felt the limits of having to charge kids, watching them have to turn away. He realized there must be a better way to support people in pursuing their passion and to further the community’s health. He happened to come across a how-to guide for starting a community bicycle program, and realized he could do it: all he would need would be “free space, a bunch of bikes and parts, and someone who is silly enough to work on all bikes for free.”

Once First Congregational Church offered him the free space, he opened Revolutions Community Bicycle Shop in June 2002. Living in an anarchist commune when he started the shop (and later above the shop at the church), Siracusa imagined his bike shop as a place to bring diverse groups of people together. He saw cycling as one way to help people take care of themselves and the environment. And because cycling had inspired within him a deep passion and connected him to supportive relationships, he wanted to connect with local kids, teaching them about cycling and bike maintenance and giving them a place to belong. He didn’t simply want to repair bikes in a transactional way; he wanted to build deep 1:1 community relationships where people took the time to learn from and teach one another how to do their own repairs. Siracusa called his work a kind of radical reciprocity. “Generous giving is a challenge; receiving out of life’s abundance is also a challenge. Giving and receiving freely – it’s the way we all grow together into the best self, the best community, we can be.”

The policy at Revolutions was simple: just come. And come they did. Within months there was a steady stream of visitors entering the church basement to repair and build bikes together. The shop remains open to this day under new leadership, and while it has donated more than 4,000 bikes since it opened, its primary purpose is to provide opportunities, education, and support for the cycling community. As one writer recently observed, “Walking down the concrete stairs to the basement shop is walking into a world where potential cyclists can get more than a good bike: they can improve their skills, learn new ones, and become a part of a community.”

While Siracusa initially felt no draw to the spiritual mission of the church, he eventually decided to give it a chance, and soon the church community became his life. With the pastor’s encouragement and support, he earned his GED, set goals for his life, and applied for admission to college. In 2009, Siracusa graduated with honors from Rhodes College and was awarded the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which allowed him to travel over four continents to study the ways cycling serves as a catalyst for building community.

As his traveling fellowship was winding up, Memphis elected a new mayor, and the cycling community mobilized to ensure the city would use available federal funds to create bike lanes, including connecting to low-income parts of the community. Siracusa returned to help mobilize the community, successfully engaging in direct action to convince city, state, and national actors to turn Memphis into one of the most bike-friendly and environment-friendly transportation cities in the nation.

Intrigued by Memphis’s role in the history of the civil rights movement (including being the place where Dr. King was assassinated), Siracusa went on to receive a master’s and doctorate in history, focusing especially on the history of the American civil rights movement. He came to distinguish the tactics and strategies of nonviolent direct action from the theological underpinnings of nonviolence as a philosophy, or the “politics of being,” as he termed it. What led individuals to pursue nonviolence at great personal risk to themselves, Siracusa pondered, when it was not at all clear that their efforts would change laws, policies, or customs? He concluded that “for a critical cohort of activists and intellectuals, this decision to take nonviolent direct action was a choice about how to be in the world.” Refusing cooperation with the disfiguring demands of a racist and sexist society, these choices were made not as a form of protest, but to stand for the basic humanity of Black Americans. This assertion of the simple “right to be” often provoked violence from white bystanders. “But in responding to this violence with mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, nonviolent demonstrators patented a method designed carefully to contrast with and transform the cruel structure of domestic American politics.”

Siracusa now is a teacher, facilitator, researcher, author and university administrator with years of experience envisioning, developing, implementing and evaluating programs for students, staff, faculty, and community partners. He is Senior Director of Inclusive Culture and Initiatives at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and lives in Colorado with his wife and their two dogs.

Join us in conversation with this ordinary hero bringing about various revolutions, one cycle (and bicycle) at a time.

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