Category: political activism

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 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!

Save A Walleye, An Ongoing Lie

It was in 1974 that two brothers went fishing. Mike and Fred Tribble, two Anishanabe men from the La Court Oreille reservation in Wisconsin had called the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to inform them of the fishing trip and then went out on Chief Lake, crossed the imaginary reservation line, cut a hole in the ice, and speared a fish off the reservation.

This small action would lead to more than decade in the courts resulting in the historic Voigt decision which acknowledged the Chippewa’s (name used for Anishanabe in legal records) right to 1) harvest fish, game, and plants off-reservation on public lands (and on private lands if proven necessary to provide a modest living); 2) use both traditional and modern methods in the hunting and gathering; and 3) barter or sell the harvest.

The decision took the hood off a long simmering Klan-like hatred in the Northwoods. The boat landings were filled with protesters like those in the photo above. Still, despite threats to their lives the Anishanabe stood strong and fished. Over four years, a Witness for Nonviolence made of allies from around the state grew to stand a peaceful guard along the landings.

Over time, the protestors drew their Klan hood back over their being and things quieted. Many who weren’t Anishanabe started to believe that the struggle was over, that it had become safe again. That wasn’t the reality. Whether the protests are small and quiet, not magnified by the media or loud and in the light of the cameras, they are there and they are threatening.

Just yesterday I learned of a family who were out spearfishing and attacked by white men. The men threw things and harassed the family with racial slurs and threats and one of the white men pulled down his pants exposing himself to the children who were fishing with their father and other family. This is nothing new. Some fishers can tell stories of being shot at every year. Yet they continue because they are Anishanabe and they must be who they are.

When will we learn? The Anishanabe have hunted, fished, and gathered here since the great spirit guided them to this place. Their harvest is miniscule in comparison to that of those who sports fish and the tribes work hard to care for the environment and replenish the fishing stock. This isn’t an issue about fish. This is Wisconsin’s version of the Klan and it is simply wrong and needs to stop.

Want to really save a walleye? Support Native spear fishers and keep the racist freaks off the water.

Looking Back at the Grassroots Leadership College

From 2003 to 2012 I ran a small nonprofit in Madison, Wisconsin called the Grassroots Leadership College. Our work was based in the idea that everyone is a learner, everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a leader. Starting with that idea in mind we created a coach/leader/ project based leadership education program for adults.

Over the nine years that the GLC operated we provided training to more than 500 people through our core program, workshops, and our Spanish language series. Those program participants led more than 120 different community organizing projects in the Madison area. Many of those efforts continue today.

The GLC was an amazing experience, not only for the projects that our participants led, but because of who our participants were and the community that they created by coming together to learn from each other. Madison has historically been a very liberal community. However, like many liberal towns, it has always been very much divided by race and class as well as other differences. Through very intentional work the Grassroots Leadership College was able to break down those barriers, even if only just for a moment, and bring people together. Our class groups would typically include homeless individuals, former felons, retirees, university faculty and staff, students, and professionals. The groups would often have an age range of thirty or more years. We simply created a space in which all voices were heard and honored for the knowledge and experience that they carried.

One of the people who had a great impact on me was a woman in our first class group. I’d only just begun as the director a few weeks before receiving her application. In that application she acknowledge that she had schizophrenia. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but our vision statement “everyone a learner, everyone a teacher, everyone a leader” played through my mind. Did we really mean everyone? I took the issue to my executive committee and we agreed that I would meet with her to learn more and determine whether she’d be a good fit for the program. Mona and I met at the Yahara House, a clubhouse for individuals seeking support with mental health issues. We discussed the program and her health. She explained to me her illness and told me about the others in the room that I couldn’t see, but she could. It was a wonderful conversation. She was a gifted teacher. My decision was easy and she joined the program, helping break down the fear of mental illnesses for many of our participants that semester.

After nine years of successful teaching coupled with financial struggles, it became clear that the Grassroots Leadership College wasn’t economically sustainable regardless of the good we did or the love we had for the program and we had to close the doors.

Now, it’s almost nine years later and so much has changed politically, socially, and economically both locally and on the grander scale. Still, I see good energy out there to do great things and some really good organizing going on. I think about the GLC and believe that what we did almost a decade ago could serve those doing the good work today. I don’t think that it’s up to us who led it then to rebuild it, but I wonder about how we might share the stories? What tools might be of value? How can we or should we hand on what we learned? We are in a different time with new leaders rising from the grassroots, but many of the needs remain the same and it seems there is little need to start over completely when there are models to build from. Still, one must also honor the new leaders and allow them their space to grow. It’s a delicate balance and one that I am trying to figure out.

White Folks and Fires: Thoughts on the Minneapolis Protests

In the last numbers I saw more than 30 fires had been set in Minneapolis. I don’t know how many businesses had been looted. Some would say that all of this is in reaction to the recent murder by Minneapolis police of Mr. George Floyd just a few days ago. That’s partially true. His death was a spark, but only one of thousands of sparks over the last 500 years.

If we want the looting to stop, if we want the arson to stop, if we want the violence to stop, we have a responsibility. I speak those words as a White ally.

When that Black baby comes into the world, it is our role to make sure that baby has access to quality childcare, healthcare, food, and all the other things that the White baby has. As that Black baby grows, it is our responsibility to make sure that baby has access to same level of learning experiences that the White baby does. Right now, too many kids coming from African American families don’t have the same access to learning so by the time they enter kindergarten they are already far behind many of their White counterparts even though they are just as smart and talented.

As that Black child grows, we have a responsibility to show them the best of who they can be. Celebrating Dr. King and Rosa Parks is great and we need to do that, but no child should grow up only seeing a handful of heroes that look like them. Show them all the best. Celebrate the famous names of history and the fact they just did well on their spelling test and everything in between. After all, that’s what we do for the White kids.

As that Black child grows to adulthood, recognize that they are still growing. They will make mistakes just like their White counterparts. Trust and forgive them as you do those young adults with white skin. Hire them, teach them, inspire them and be inspired by them.

As that young adult ages know that their life experiences from infanthood on will continue to define their actions and that we are responsible for their experiences within the community in which we, White people, quite frankly hold most of the power.

This is how we stop the violence. This is how we end the looting. This is how we stop the fires burning. We acknowledge that we, the holders of power in our communities, are holding tight the hand of every arsonist out there and forcing them to strike the match. We have the power to stop doing that. We need to do that now.

Kneeling

A lot of thoughts are going through my head and the feelings are deep in my heart as I join the nation in mourning the passing of Mr. Floyd George who was murdered by Minneapolis police yesterday.

The murder wasn’t simply the killing of man. It was part of a generations long action to hold down people of Color. It was one of million acts of fear by White folks, afraid to give up their power, afraid to live in peace, and solidarity with our brothers and sisters.

One of the things that I find myself thinking about is the uproar caused by Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem. A man kneeling as a statement, calling for justice for people of Color and thousands cried out claiming he was some sort of anti-freedom heretic. Yesterday, another man knelt. He knelt on the throat of a fellow man who pleaded to be allowed to breathe.

So many men and women in this country have fought and died in the name of freedom. I pray that we are wise enough to recognize their sacrifice and to know that freedom lies in our ability to speak, not in the ability to crush the speech of others.

For all of those who kneel to reach the heavens, I hope that you will do so. All those brothers and sisters, like Mr. George, need whatever it is that we each do so that they might breathe.

When Will We Be Able to Breathe Again?

The Minneapolis police murdered another Black man last night. Mr. George Floyd died, his airway crushed under knee of racism.

I watched a press conference this afternoon about the event. It was gathering of mostly African American leaders with a sprinkling of other people as well. I was struck by an elder standing near the mic. I didn’t catch his name. I think it might have been Frank something. He was Native. I don’t know his tribe. He wore the AIM uniform, an AIM t-shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy hat. His look reminded me of a hundred other friends I’ve known along the way and of a story.

I was reminded that we all come from around the same fire. Someday, if we are to survive we have to come back together be that new people.

This man died because he couldn’t breathe through the hatred and fear that held him down. Not his hatred, not his fear, the hatred and fear that is white and monied. The hatred and fear that chokes the life out of all of us.

It’s been over 500 years now. It’s long enough. It’s time to step out and celebrate the beauty of our differences. We are more than black and white. I know we’re still social distancing, but in whatever way you can, hold each other in your hearts, raise up the beauty, celebrate the strength, honor the struggles. Do whatever it is that you can to make it possible for all who are being crushed to breathe again.