Category: social activism

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 I moved at the beginning of the month and today I was finally able to head to the DMV to replace the no longer valid license with a new state ID card.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!

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.

Ikigai

There is a Japanese concept known as Ikigai or “reason for being” that I was recently introduced to by a dear friend who is providing me guidance as I think through where I might go in my next adventure. It is a bringing together of that which you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid to do.

Find your Ikigai.

I’ve been delving into this idea, seeking my Ikigai for some weeks now. I remain confused by exactly what is the difference between what the world needs and what I might be paid for. I don’t know if this is a result of having spent too many years in low wage sectors of the work force or being overly influenced by the realities of a capitalist society. But, in either case, or maybe some combination of both, I tend to believe that anything the world needs is something that one might be paid for. I suppose the question then becomes if one could be paid enough to live on, but as I said, I’ve worked a long time in low wage sectors of the workforce. My pay expectations have risen a great deal since I first began, but monetary riches aren’t really on my radar at all. These days I believe in a living wage, good benefits, and a welcoming work place. When I first began all I sought was a welcoming work place, the other two were just added plusses.

Writing my lists of loves and things that I’m good at brought back many memories. So many were filled with songs and stories, art and laughter. They were memories of caring times, whether those caring times showed themselves in miles of hiking for peace or to protect the water or raise funds for raptor rehabilitation or rocking babies or teaching adults or standing on the strike line. They were creative times filled with ideas showing themselves in a myriad of different ways. Some were sung out. Some acted. Others written in poetry or prose or simply spoken in stories.

This is what I have learned or maybe was just reminded of. I thrive on the creative, both that of others and my own. It simply feeds me. I value the opportunity to care, but care alone can drain me. The two together help me maintain a balance. As I seek my path forward I seek the creative and the caring.

I wish you all the best as you move forward and hope that we might all find our Ikigai

Growing Clarity

It’s been almost two weeks now since my VNS device was turned on and nearly a week since my first increase in voltage. There will be six more increases in voltage until I reach my full dose that will, hopefully, significantly decrease if not stop the seizures that have been a part of my life for so many years.

Already the little device seems to have become a natural part of my being. This is so much different than medication. Sometimes I can feel the little buzz in my throat. I think of it now as a frog in my throat and it reminds me of Kermit singing “Rainbow Connection” from the Muppet Movie, one of the first movies I ever went to see as a child. It brings me good memories and comfort.

Where almost every medication I’ve tried has brought me rashes, tremors, fogginess, and just a general feeling of malaise, I am slowly feeling the curtain lift with this treatment. Buddy and I are back to walking about 2 hours a day. My focus is returning at work. I’ve been feeling good enough about myself and my direction to get myself a few household gifts, things I’ve needed for quite some time but just never got around to purchasing. I’ve returned to actually reading, not just listening to audio books. A lot of little things, good little things. I feel the world turning in a good direction.

I am once again beginning to move toward bigger questions. Walking through the small town where I live I’ve been seeing lots of Black Lives Matter signs. I have one in my own yard. There are very few Blacks who live in the community. I find myself wondering who the signs are for. Are they here in support of Black people facing discrimination and racism or are they here to make White folks feel good about themselves because they put up a sign? I don’t know. I keep puzzling and have found no easy answers, but it does seem to be a question worth pondering.

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.