Category: community

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?

What is an Activist

When I began Sustainable Life in Action back in 2013 the Grassroots Leadership College had only been closed for a year and I was trying to find enough work to keep my rent paid and figuring out how to keep doing community organizing. My dreams were of starting a new Grassroots Leadership College maybe statewide or maybe in northern Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Superior. It wasn’t too much later that I left Madison. Life didn’t take me to northern Wisconsin, but to Minnesota.

In those days, for me, being an activist still meant organizing people, coordinating trainings, taking part in protests, speaking at rallies, being a force, and fighting out loud in a non-violent yet intense way. While my work was for a better world most of my actions still landed in the realm of working against the evils. I loved my work. I loved getting to know people, making connections, supporting others in achieving their dreams, creating positive social change. We did create change. Every time we people connected and came to know each other, to see each other as valuable human beings we were creating change, not to mention all the battles won.

Despite my love for my life work I was burning out. That’s why I started Sustainable Life in Action. It was a tool to encourage my own self care as well as to support others in caring for themselves. It has been a helpful tool for me. I hope it has been for others as well.

My journey as an activist has reached a new stage. It is an interesting one for me. After seven years in Minnesota and one in Poynette, Wisconsin, I have returned to Madison where Sustainable Life in Action began. When I left this place I was deeply involved in the activist scene. My name was known for work I’d done, nine years running the Grassroots Leadership College, coordinating the non-violence trainings for the capitol take-over during the Walker administration, Green Party stuff, Labor Radio and board leadership at WORT 89.9fm, and more. Now, I am coming back in quietly to a place where there are many new leaders and much of the old guard seems to have disappeared or maybe just is quiet in these times of COVID. It is coming back to a place where I’ve never been before.

It’s good to stand and watch this new place as I too am in a new place internally. After looking for jobs in the nonprofit realm and at the university and colleges to no avail, feeling my stomach churn a bit as I considered roles in organizing again, I decided to go back to another of my earlier careers. I accepted a position as an infant/toddler teacher in a large local child care. I’ve been intrigued by the reaction of old friends who seem to believe that going into teaching early childhood is leaving the world of activism. These people tell me how I’ve “done my time” and that it’s okay for me to do something else.

How can there be anything that is more about social justice than caring for our children? Being an activist isn’t all about holding up signs and shouting slogans. Being an activist is about how we live our lives. At this phase of my being, much of my time will be dedicated to holding the little ones and showing them love. I’ve also chosen to commit my time to being creative, telling my stories, and playing with art. All these things are important. I haven’t done my time, none of us has. We all have a duty to care for this place and for each other each day for the remainder of our time. How we do it is up to us.

Take good care of yourselves. That’s where it all begins.

Thoughts on Making Schools Safe

While sitting in the laundromat earlier today waiting for my clothes to dry, I was paging through the news on my phone. I saw an article from WPR that said Wisconsin schools are calling the police on students at nearly twice the national rate. Kids with disabilities, Latinx, Black, and Native students are the victims of most of the calls with Native kids at the top of the list closely followed by Blacks. The article made me ask again what it is that I love so much about my home state, maybe it’s my love of wanting to make things better.

While calling the cops on these kids might simply mean a referral for a child in crisis or a warning for some teenage action like yelling at teacher and aren’t by any means all arrests, it’s still hugely problematic that kids with disabilities and BIPOC youth are being referred to law enforcement at twice the rate as the overall student population and Native kids are three times as likely to be referred as white kids. It’s 2021 and we’re still operating as if it’s against the law in Wisconsin to have brown skin or to have a disability! Come on folks we can do better than this!

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I do think there are a few things that put together are worth considering.

  1. Take cops out of our schools. I’m not going to say that police are bad. I am saying that they have a role and that role is to uphold the law. By having them in schools that presumes that the law is not being upheld or is in danger of not being upheld. It tells kids that our expectation is that they will behave as criminals and that their space isn’t safe. Kids getting the message every day that they are criminals in an unsafe environment are more likely to act as criminals in an unsafe space.
  2. Support the support systems. A few generations ago black and brown children were stolen from their families to be sold in slavery or handed over to the boarding schools. Still, family systems remained and adjusted to care for these children. These family systems are under great stress as the dominant white culture continues to steal their children away through foster care, prison, drugs, and other tools. It’s important to recognize that families don’t look the same, nor should they, across all cultural groups. We need to see these systems and simply stop threatening them and stealing their children.
  3. Care for the educators. This is a simple one that we’ve all heard many times. Our teachers and school staff need the physical resources, time, and classroom support to do their jobs. They also need to be compensated for the work that they do. That’s it.
  4. Honor the bodies and spirits of our children. We are all impacted by what we take in. Our kids today are taking in a lot of junk. They’re fed junk on their plates in the form of processed foods filled with sugars and chemicals. They’re fed junk on the screens of their phones and computers all day long. They fed junk in stories about themselves as they’re forced to digest the history of the powerful that doesn’t represent them. All junk. How can we expect anything other than anger and frustration? Feed them goodness. Feed them good food. Feed them the stories of their own peoples. Tell them their histories of strength and courage. Feed them beauty. Give them the opportunity to run and play and explore the world or just the backyard. Feed their souls. Let them stretch their creative selves and find other ways of being beyond angry.
  5. Look at ourselves. These kids weren’t born angry or trouble makers. They were born cute and cuddly, adorable and sweet. We made them who they are. It is us who need to deal with our stuff. It is us who need to look at ourselves each day and ask ourselves how our actions are impacting the world. It is us who need to act.

Growing Friendships, Changing the World

The satisfaction, success, and joy in our lives is not defined so much by what we do, as it is by the connections that we make and the friendships and relationships that we build along the way. I was reminded of this again recently by someone I met about 15 years ago.

His name is Ben Schumaker. At the time he was dating my dear friend Abha and had started a small nonprofit called The Memory Project about a year and a half earlier. The Memory Project had been inspired by Ben’s travels while a student at UW Madison. Like many young travelers, Ben wanted to engage in the world and make an impact. He started by making friends. He asked one of those friends what he might do to help the poor and struggling. The friend told him that while many people shared food and clothes, obviously important, the children had nothing to show themselves their own value, to reflect on their own beauty. It was with that idea that The Memory Project was born.

By the time we met Ben was already attracting national attention with this incredibly simple and beautiful project in which he or others take photos of participating children in countries around the world and share those photos with art classes in high schools in the US, along with a bit of information shared by the children including things like favorite colors, life goals, and of course their names. The students in the US then take those photos and stories to create portraits of these beautiful children. The portraits are then given as gifts to the children who’d had their pictures taken months before. It’s so simple, yet so profound.

I’ve been able to help out with the Memory Project more closely since January, working mostly on preparing portraits to be sent to their owners, but also a bit on outreach to classrooms in the US, and other projects. It’s been a powerful experience sorting through the artwork, looking at the faces of the young children from India, Cameroon, and Afghanistan.

Given the events of the past few months including the withdrawal of American troops and the actions of the Taliban, I am most struck right now by those pictures of the children from Afghanistan and the simple reality of it all. Feeling those drawings and paintings passing through my hands has made those kids so much more real to me. They are no longer just a news story. They are little ones to be held and sung to.

That brings me back to the creation of the Memory Project. It began with conversation and the development of friendships. Over 17 years it seems that has never changed. Ben and the Memory Project have worked with people in Afghanistan for several years now and he built friendships. When it became clear that friends were in danger because of the situation in their country this little group stepped up to help them escape. The story is told more deeply in this New York Times Article. You can be a part of supporting this ongoing work by clicking here to support the Memory Project’s work to help the people struggling both within Afghanistan and the refugees today. Thank you!