Ponderings on Race in Madison Today

Ah the wonders of returning to the “thirty square miles surrounded by reality!” Yes, that is what many know Madison as because it is a community unlike any other in the state of Wisconsin. Its hyper-political, ultra-educated, super-liberal personality makes it a strange juxtaposition to the grounded-ness of the surrounding counties in their simply seeking to work hard and live right style of being.

I was reminded of where I am by several interactions this week. One was on my bus ride to work. The driver had just stopped for three teenaged girls, but wasn’t opening the door. Instead, he was shouting at them to put on their masks, telling them he’d open the door when they were masked. Two already had their masks on, the third was putting hers on as she prepared to board. I saw no reason to shout or prevent them from boarding. It seemed their behavior was much like my own had been, still getting my mask on as the bus stopped. The difference was stark though. I’m a middle-aged white woman and they’re teenaged black girls.

I am impressed by these girls, despite the rude and cruel behavior of the driver they moved forward as they seem to each day. They get on the bus, find seats by a woman who I think works at their school, and start to share stories of their day with her. They’re good kids, well behaved, and take good care of each other. I find myself wondering how long they can withstand the expectation that they are something other than good kids? How long until they meet the driver’s expectations because they are told through such actions that they are supposed to be trouble makers or somehow less than?

I found myself too in a conversation about race with a group of white folks from a predominately white group this week. The discussion was about welcoming people of color into the organization. I appreciated the openness and honesty of the group talking. Despite not knowing each other well, or maybe because they didn’t know each other well they took some risks in what they were willing to say. The conversation was interesting and unusual. Instead of focusing on the evils of racism it centered more on the question of being with people of like experience. Asking why would the organization want to increase the number of people of color involved? Do we seek to engage more people of color simply to make ourselves feel better? What does that mean? What value do we bring to the relationship? What are we willing to change in order to share ownership? Are we willing to change?

The conversation was both valuable and ugly. While there were no words spoken in anger and everyone seemed to be taking pause to think deeply, processing ideas and feelings fully, being open to learning still the conversation brought such ideas to light that I could almost imagine the hoods. The questions, the ideas; asking if “they” might not just want to be in “their” own group, if “they” might not want to be with “us”, if “they” might want to have “their” own kinds of celebrations, music, and ceremonies, if “they” might somehow be different than “us.”

These are well educated people. Yet, the world created dividers and told them who the other was. It was so much like the bus driver and the girls. Expectations are set, regardless of reality. I can only hope that we can change ourselves and become like the school staff person on the bus who each morning greets the girls with a smile and a kind word, who sees who they really are.

Protests Don’t Work

Protests don’t work. Yes, I’ve said it. I’ve been an activist for over 30 years, spending a whole lot of time shouting slogans and waving signs, but I’ve been known to say it and will say it again. Protests don’t work. But, let me go a little deeper here and share what’s inspired this post.

On August 18th, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed giving women in the US the right to vote. (We could get into the discussion of who exactly got the right to vote, but that’s another post for another time.) Historical societies and museums across the country are celebrating the 100th anniversary of this amazing victory right now with exhibits, documentaries, and educational events. Yesterday, a friend and I went to visit the Wisconsin Historical Museum in Madison to view their exhibit on suffrage. It was an excellent display and I would encourage anyone in the area to check it out.

As we wandered and viewed the images my friend questioned whether some of the tactics used by the suffragettes might provide lessons for organizers today. Could we use any of the same tools? She lamented that protests and rallies no longer work because of the fact that we live in a world of social media in which messages move so quickly and can so easily be modified. I proposed that protests have never worked and never will, at least not on their own.

Protests are only a tool. It is the actions between the protests and behind the scenes that make the work successful or not. Protesting remains important, if well used. It is a tool that can draw public attention and influence decision makers. However, it is important not to expect that protesting on its own is going to bring change. A large portion of the museum display was dedicated to the banners, signs, buttons, sashes, and tunics worn and used during fight for the vote and later fight for the ERA. This makes sense as they are very visual pieces of history. Still, it only shows us the highlights of what was really a much more complex history.

In the 1820’s, one hundred years before the amendment was to pass, white men had gained the right to vote in most states and discussions had begun about this right for women. By 1948, the movement solidified through the Seneca Falls convention. For nearly one hundred years women met, discussed, strategized, argued. They built partnerships and alliances. They wrote letters, created newspapers, handed out pamphlets, spoke to handfuls and to huge crowds of people. They coordinated conferences. Women, and some men, committed their lives to this issue of justice. Some would never see the results of their work as they would die before the passage of the amendment.

We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that social change is some sort of fast food where we head up to the capitol or wherever to protest and come home with our win. There is much more. The struggles are long and hard, but the victories and the loves found along the way are well worth it. Take good care of yourselves my friends and keep on moving forward.

What Happened Next? Looking at the History of Underrepresented Peoples

I was watching a documentary on PBS last night about the life of Helen Keller. It was an interesting show that focused primarily on her adult years rather than the childhood picture that so many of us were introduced to as children. It made me wonder about how often we cheat ourselves by contenting ourselves with stories of history that are meant for children and that usually are missing major pieces that really make the story. I wonder how often we cheat the children in our lives by minimizing their education with these simple stories like that of the little deaf and blind girl and fail to tell them of the woman who was a prominent socialist, a skilled writer, an actor, public speaker, ambassador for US, and so much more?

Clearly, stories designed for children whether written or video or some other form are often less complex than those created for adults. But, how do we take that first story and make into a series? When we look at something like “The Miracle Worker” it seems like the story ends with the miracle of Helen learning to communicate, but in reality that’s only the beginning. We do much the same thing when we talk about many other figures in history, particularly those from historically underrepresented groups. Rosa Parks is a great example. We largely get the story that this individual woman was tired, sat down, and refused to give up her seat on the bus. Not only is that historically inaccurate, but it’s incomplete. Mrs. Parks was a trained community activist who had a history in the Civil Rights Movement. She was part of a much larger strategy to integrate the busses in Montgomery. She also remained active working for social justice through the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, as a staff person to US Representative John Conyers, and working to support political prisoners in the US among other issues until her death in 2005.

People like Ms. Keller and Mrs. Parks are so much more than what we often give them credit for. By failing to recognize the breadth of their contributions and those of others like them we fail to fully support and encourage the next generations of those who share pieces of their realities, whether those be young women, people with disabilities, people of color, Indigenous peoples, or others. Reading the children’s books and watching kids movies about these historical figures is great, by all means do it! Don’t forget the next step though. Dig a little deeper. Ask “what happened next?”

Thinking About an Old Mentor

I met him 23 years ago in a McDonald’s in East Tennessee. I was a twenty-something community organizer embarking on my first “real job” after college. I’d only just arrived in Tennessee from Wisconsin a few weeks before full of brilliant ideas and energy, ready to save the world. He was a middle-aged factory worker who’d grown up and lived his whole life in Appalachia. My young and oh so wise self was sure I’d have so much to teach him from my infinite stores of knowledge. It didn’t take long for me to see just how wrong I was.

My co-organizer Gil and I had just arrived. Gil would be introducing me and starting to hand over the work of coordinating the strip-mining issues committee. We were meeting Landon Medley, the committee chair, at McDonald’s that day. Gil and I had spent a lot of time discussing the Fall Creek Falls campaign, a major campaign to protect more than 60,000 acres of land surround the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains from strip-mining. He’d told me a great deal about the strategy so far and where it was headed as well as about each of the committee members and allies involved. He told me quite a bit about Landon and who he was. I don’t remember if he ever mentioned the crutches though. I remember not quite knowing what to do when this short middle-aged man using Loftstrand crutches walked toward us and Gil greeted him. Should I help him? How could I assist?

It was only a moment. Then as quickly as those crutches were set aside, I began to learn. Landon was one of the children of the 1940’s in Appalachia who survived polio. While the illness left him with a disability that impacted his life and health, it never stopped him and maybe even made him stronger. He had a love for his Appalachian home that ran deep in his soul. I still have a painting on my bookshelf that he made for me of those beautiful mountains. There is no place on earth like it. He was a gifted historian and author. He was also a great leader of the fight to protect his mountain homeland from multinational mining corporations and others who have sought to destroy it in so many ways. It was a gift to call him my friend and mentor.

Today I learned that because he’d had polio as a child he wasn’t able to receive the COVID vaccine. A little boy who won the fight against one the most devastating diseases of the 20th century thanks to medical advances and much struggle, lost the fight against COVID. It hurts to think that he didn’t have to lose this struggle. He lost because of all the people who’ve opted not to get vaccinated, who’ve chosen not to wear masks, who’ve taken unnecessary risks, thinking that their actions only impact themselves. We aren’t separate beings. We are connected. I ask that each person who reads this act not only for yourself, but for the love of others. I wish you all wellness and joy. Take good care.

Riding the Bus in Madison

I gave up my driver’s license two months ago after I had a seizure on my way home from the grocery store. Since then I’ve been using my old license just for identification until getting settled in my new apartment. I moved at the beginning of the month and today I was finally able to head to the DMV to replace the no longer valid license with a new state ID card.

The exercise of getting a state ID was a good reminder of what I have to be thankful for and a great look at how class and ability impact our lives. My seizure in August meant leaving the small town where I was living to return to Madison. Madison has public transportation. It is, at least in theory, an accessible community in which to live.

My trip to the DMV today was via the bus. Taking a cab could have been an option, but it cost more than I cared to spend for a trip to just get a new ID. It began by needing to schedule my day according to when the best route options were available. Then waiting at the stop to ride the half hour on what would have been a ten minute car trip. Along the trip I read the information about how the busses are being cleaned during COVID and the rules riders need to follow and pondered how much each ride increased my risk of disease.

Thanks to being given the wrong form and a mildly confused elderly man in the line front of me, my visit to the DMV took a bit longer than expected. That meant walking out the door just as the ideal bus to take home pulled away. So, I walked about a half mile to catch another bus. My trip that would have taken probably about an hour or maybe less if I were driving took about three hours on the bus.

I don’t ride the bus often, but when I do it is clear who the busses serve. The vast majority of people I see are BIPOC, low income, homeless, students, and people with mental health issues. If my experience today is typical and it takes three times as long to complete a task via bus or even just twice as long as it does for someone using a car, I wonder how we can expect people to get ahead? How does someone win when a bus that is a few minutes late makes you late for your transfer or your job? How do you hold control in your own life when you are living by the bus schedule and others set their own times?

The busses are a place where social and environmental justice come together. There are many who care about climate change and clean water and clean air and all those things. Many who know that public transportation is environmentally more sound than private cars, but yet they don’t ride. Why not? I suspect a few things, first there is that issue of timeliness, being able to get to the places they want to go, and get tasks done and secondly there is the issue of the other riders of the bus– those who are BIPC, low income, homeless, and those with mental health issues. Could it be possible if bus service were improved and these individuals were able to begin to bridge the gap, able to access the services they need, get to work, school, and able to run their errands in a more timely way that the busses would become a more welcoming service for all while also making life just a bit better for those who need it? Sometimes we just need to draw the connections. Make it possible for folks to do the work they need to do and life gets better for us all.

Just some ponderings from today’s and a couple of other recent trips on Madison’s busses. What do others think?