Sheldon Mains – Shameless agitator now on wheels with Seward’s SPOKES bike-walk center

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Those who have worked with Sheldon Mains – and most people have, it seems – know that, true to the title on his business card, Sheldon is an unabashed “shameless agitator.” They also know that Sheldon defines “agitator” as one who works tirelessly to make his community – and the world at large – a better place.

Decades ago Sheldon marshaled his engineering background for the public good by promoting access to emerging information and communications technology. Working with MAP for Nonprofits he turned his entrepreneurial bent to development of the circuit rider program which for the past fifteen years has continued to provide IT assistance to area nonprofits. As usual, Sheldon was pre-peak.

Once elected to serve as a member of the Minneapolis Pubic Library Board Sheldon fought hard to preserve the city’s libraries with financial support and an independent elected governance structure. More recently, Sheldon shared the vision of those who founded the Twin Cities Media Alliance and the Twin Cities Daily Planet. At this writing, he continues to serve as chair of the TCMA Board.

If there is a geographic center to Sheldon’s ‘agitation,’ it is the Seward Neighborhood where he is a tireless volunteer. He’s worked on everything from his unstinting efforts to turn around the finances of the neighborhood to promoting a wide array of neighborhood projects, all with an emphasis on community development and sustainability.

Last week Sheldon slowed his pace ever so slightly for a chance to meet at the Eastside Food Co-op in Northeast, a site selected because it’s the site of Recovery Bikes – the food co-op/bike shop environment set the tone for a rambling conversation.

Zeroing in on a moving target, Sheldon’s focus these days is on a very specific Seward initiative, a major effort to create a sustainable model for an ambitious program aptly named “SPOKES – Bike Walk Connect.” (officially that’s Seward People Operated Kinetic Energy, but don’t expect the full name to catch on.) The launch of SPOKES marks an harmonic convergence of community organizations working in collaboration with a host of funders including a mix of contracts and direct support from organizations including the Non-Motorized Transportation Pilot Project of the Federal Highway Administration, MnDOT, the City of Minneapolis, and Bike Walk Twin Cities, a program of Transit for Livable Communities, with much support from countless local nonprofits.

Sheldon speaks of some of the roots of SPOKES, with special mention of the local promoters, Seward Café and DERO, a local bike equipment provider. He also speaks of related predecessors and colleagues including Cycles of Change, a multi-purpose community project with a local site near University and Dale in St. Paul.

Sheldon lights up with enthusiasm about the ways in which the community at large has embraced biking and walking for health and the environment. SPOKES rides a wave that’s buoyed by Nice Ride, Bike Walk Twin Cities, and Transit for Livable Communities, all part of the scenario in which SPOKES plays a unique role.

The physical locus of SPOKES is its home at 1915 East 22nd Street, just one block off the LRT tracks and bike trail. The demographics of the neighborhood are primarily East African and American Indian. The target population for SPOKES is Somali and American Indian women and men, with special attention to youth.

The programs and presence of SPOKES are ubiquitous, embedded in the very fabric of the Seward community. Sheldon envisions tangible components such as bike racks, free helmets and loaned bikes. And there are and will be services, including a 24/7 bike repair service, classes on how to ride a bike, training on bike maintenance skills, an opportunity to earn a bike, “subscriptions: to Nice Ride”, and more

An overarching emphasis of the SPOKES program is the discipline of biking – the rules of the road, the importance of bike care and repair and etiquette. Above all, Sheldon underscores, the hallmark of SPOKES is a commitment to teaching others.

There will be a grand celebration of the launch of SPOKES, of course. That involves rounding up all of the public, nonprofit and neighborhood organizations that have had a hand in the planning stages – a challenge in its own right.

Meanwhile, SPOKES is up and rolling rolling and the community is sharing the load. Nice Ride provided free bike checkout for a first learn-to-ride class last week – fifteen East African men and women showed up to face the challenge. During the month of July SPOKES will be the beneficiary of the SEED Project funding from Seward Coop customers. And Sheldon is promoting a “Used Bike Drive” scheduled for late July.

For just a moment, Sheldon beams as he ruminates on the future of SPOKES and his beloved Seward community. While others might take a breath to rest on their laurels, Sheldon shamelessly ponders his next agitation for the public good.

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