All dreams start somewhere and this one started in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The year was 1998 and I’d just started working as an organizer for SOCM (Save Our Cumberland Mountains). Before coming to Tennessee I’d been a student and organizer in Wisconsin working on a variety of issues one of the largest of which was the Crandon Mine fight. It was the Crandon fight that caused my path to cross with that of Walt Bresette, a long time activist and community leader who had dedicated his life to protecting the water. Walt had traveled down to Tennessee to visit and to learn about mining fights that I was working on with the SOCM folks. While in Appalachia he took my advice and to made a trip to the Highlander Center.
That trip to Highlander gave Walt a new understanding of his work. He came back to my apartment glowing with excitement and told me he understood what his work was. He did Popular Education. He and I talked that night and agreed to start a community organizing school in the spirit of Highlander in Wisconsin.
That was in 1998. In 1999 Walt made the trip to the spirit world and the idea of an organizing training school took a pause until the early 2000’s.
In February of 2003 I was hired to coordinate the Grassroots Leadership College in Madison, Wisconsin. The College began with the idea “everyone a learner, everyone a teacher, everyone a leader” and brought together a community to learn about leadership and community organizing.
We began with a semester program that utilized a coach and developing leader project based model. Coaches and developing leaders attended a series of volunteer taught sessions together. Each developing leader took on a project in the community of their own design. Some projects were new and some were years old and simply needing to move to the next level. Our leaders and coaches came from all walks of life. Some were retirees. Others were students or workers. Some had been through prison or were homeless or immigrants or any of many other backgrounds and experiences.
As we grew we added other programs. We did individual workshops, forums, briefly coordinated an activist support program, and even offered a semester for Latino immigrants for two years. Over the nine years that the GLC operated we provided training to more than 500 people in the greater Madison area and supported more than 120 community projects, many of which continue to prosper.
The GLC closed in 2012. Now, the next phase is beginning. The idea is to begin that Wisconsin based community organizing school. For now it continues in a thinking phase, but those thoughts are here online and waiting for your input. We are, after all, all learners, all teachers, and all leaders in this journey of building a movement.