Questions for My Readers– Please Share Thoughts

September 4th, 2013
Hello all.   Thank you for reading my blog.  I hope that you are enjoying it and learning from it as well.  I’ve been enjoying writing and thinking about my role in social change work.

As those of you know who’ve been reading my posts over the past few weeks, my world got a bit of a shake up when it was discovered earlier this summer that I’ve had some nocturnal seizures.  I’ve had a bunch of tests done, but nothing has uncovered the cause yet.  In Wisconsin if you have epilepsy it’s illegal to drive unless you’ve been seizure free for at least three months.  Given that I don’t own a car, I don’t drive much anyway.  But, this new restriction has gotten me thinking more about my role in social change work and in how I do consulting, training, and organizing work.  I’ve got a lot of questions.  I’d like to get your insights.  Please take a few moments to respond to any of the questions below that you have thoughts on.  Thanks!

  1. Do you know any consultants or organizations who are doing community organizing training work online that you think really works at building community?
  2. Who is creating the models that work for sustaining organizers?
  3. What would you like me to talk about in future blogs posts?
  4. What would be helpful for me to put on a website for you to use in your organizing work?
  5. How do you connect and build community with other people and groups?
  6. How could this blog and/or an organizing website help you build an organizing community?
  7. What others ways could my writing be helpful to you?

Those are just a few of the questions on my mind this evening.   The other deep question is about returning to graduate school.  Right now I am working on a masters certificate in Sustainability Leadership and deciding whether I should do a full masters in Sustainability Leadership or Education or if I should pursue a doctorate in some area of Sociology even though I wouldn’t be done with school until at least my mid-forties.  Anyone who wants to get into that area of puzzlement , I welcome you to puzzle with me!

Thanks everyone who shares thoughts!

peace,
amy

Why Sing a Song

August 7th, 2013

Song is a scary thing you know.  I don’t know what it is, but there is something powerful there.  I think of freedom songs that were used to carry codes and free people.  I remember the union songs that told the stories of struggle of working people who won and those who died.  There are the folk songs that tell the stories of mountains and forests, people and lives, war and the path to peace. There’s that demon rock and roll.  And, of course, we cannot forget how song provided the framework for the civil rights movement or how it has continued to grow and tell the stories of our lives in so many ways, reggae, rap, the blues, and the list goes on.

People ask why we are singing in Wisconsin.  Why haven’t we gotten a permit to sing our songs?  The answer, in my mind, is simple.  People have had the right to gather, without a permit, in the capitol rotunda to petition their government in Wisconsin since the capitol was built.  The current administration trying to limit that right and that’s not ok.  Rights are easier lost than won.  We cannot insult the legacy of all those before us who have fought and too often died for the right to petition their government by becoming silent.

People say we should be doing public service instead of singing.  Well, amongst our singers we have nurses, teachers, pastors, people who work in nonprofits, volunteer for food pantries, people leading efforts to build homes for the homeless, tutors and mentors for area youth, volunteers for area museums and community centers, and the list just goes on.  We work every day to care for the world we live in for today and for the long term.

We aren’t there for political parties.  We are there for deeper ideals; freedom of speech, a fair and just society in which the government works for the people not the corporation, a government that stands up for what is right and just, a democracy for, of, and by the people.

I think that if we really had the choice a lot of us would rather take that hour to go grab some lunch.  We don’t have that choice anymore.  We love Wisconsin too much to give it away to the highest bidder.

Come, sing a song.  Don’t worry if you’ve been told you can’t sing well.  Look back at that list of all the others who sang before us in the fields and the factories and everywhere else in between.  They didn’t all sing in tune.  If you can’t sing well, sing loud.

For our friends around the world who wish to support by helping out the more than 100 people who have been cited for singing you can make a contribution here http://solidaritysingalong.org/

The Community Table

August 29th, 2013

I get to work often with groups who want to bring others to the table, wherever that table might be and whatever the people around that table might be doing. Usually the folks they want at the table are different from them in some notable way. They’re often younger. Maybe they have a smaller income. Many times the people with the table have pale skin and the people they’d like at the table have some shade of brown skin.

Increasingly, I’m challenged by that idea of bringing people to the table. I see a couple problems with it. First, it presumes that the people being invited don’t already have their own table that is just as good that you’ve just never seen. Secondly, it keeps the host in the host role. There’s no marriage of equals here. One person/group owns the table. The other is a guest.

We live in a world filled with unhealthy power dynamics around class, race and ethnicity, age, gender, and the list goes on. If we want our organizations and our organizing to not be a reflection of the sickness of the world, we have to do something different.

Step away from the table. Meet the people that you want to work with on shared turf. What are your shared needs and concerns? Know that you may be turned away for a myriad of reasons. Some of those reasons will have to do with your personal actions and some with all the stories of histories of oppression. Show respect. Show a willingness to learn. Show a willingness to fall and get back up again. Know that it will take a long time, maybe forever to build a trust.

Get a new table, one that isn’t yours or theirs, but instead that you fashioned together out of shared dreams. Know that this table will look different than your old one. Maybe it will be stronger and maybe it will be a little off balance. Who knows? It will be larger and have many carvings of great stories hard and beautiful.

How do you step away from your table? Here’s just a couple quick pointers that I’ve found helpful over the years:
1. Diversity of whatever sort isn’t a side issue. It is THE ISSUE. Being welcoming, supportive, and representative of all people that you want to be together at the table has to be central to everything you do.
2. Look at whatever you are working on from many angles. Why might others care about this same thing? Why do you care about it? What do you share with others?
3. Keep looking at yourself and your own actions. We are all products of history. We all need to hold ourselves accountable to act in ways the future can be proud of
4. We are all learners, teachers, and leaders. Allow yourself to be each of these with everyone.
5. Be there. When you are called to be supportive to those you want to work with and who are struggling in whatever way do so in whatever way you are able.

That’s a short clip, no where near the whole story. But, maybe there’s something there to consider. Mull it over and share. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Keeping it Cool

July 26th, 2013

I spent my noon hour today as I have often lately. I spent it singing with my friends. Today was a little different though, a return for me after spending most of the week away. The numbers of people in the Wisconsin capitol each noon hour are continuing to grow again. Hundreds of people filled the building again singing and standing in support of the singers and the people’s right to the capitol as a public forum.

Up north my friends are starting to get threats for their work against the proposed mine. Unsigned messages left out in the woods threatening the women with rape and all with death.

I keep hearing messages of sadness and the fascist state that Wisconsin has become. That makes me sad on some level. On a deeper level though I feel the strength growing. I see the people gathering. I’ve been organizing for over two decades and I’ve never seen the people claiming the space like they are today.

There is fear. There is anger. There are heartless beings who have lost their connection to this place and think that the land is something dead for their consumption. They will strike out.

One man at the capitol today was taken to the hospital in an ambulance after his arrest. He was struck by his own body. His heart failed him. It was not an action of billy clubs or tasers. Maybe the police were negligent in their care for him. I don’t know. The violence that injured the pastor today was that of his own body. Tomorrow that may not be true. Tomorrow’s violence may be external. It may be the police or perhaps those heartless beings who have forgotten our connections to each other and this place and think only in dollar signs.

We must be prepared.

I ask all those out there who call themselves activists or organizers or just people who care take the moment. Pause. Do what it is that you do. Call upon Allah. Set down tobacco. Pray in any of a million ways or just simply breathe.

It is time to do something different now. For generations those in power have shown us to meet violence with violence, to shoot faster and straighter. What has it gotten us but dead?

The Anishanabe tell the story of the seventh generation. We must hear that story. We must live it in each action. It’s not some far away fairy tale. It is real.

As you fall asleep tonight, as you wake in the morning, as you feel your rage rising within you, look inside. Look down that long tunnel and see the baby that is our future, that child who is the seventh generation. Ask yourself “will my words, will my actions or inactions today bring that child warmth, safety, food, and love?” Remember if your actions are right by that child they will be right today.

It is hard. It is the hardest thing you may ever do to choose not to strike blindly in anger but instead to listen and stand strong in rage and revolution instead.

Thinking Deep at 4am

July 18th, 2013

A few weeks ago I had a seizure. It was a night like any other until I went to sleep. I had just gone to bed when my housemate heard unusual noises coming from my room. When I didn’t respond to her calls to me she looked in on me. She found me having what appeared to be what is now known as a generalized tonic-clonic seizure. They are more commonly known as “grand mal.” Because the seizure lasted several minutes and I appeared to be having trouble breathing she called 911.

In Madison we do 911 calls with style. They came with a firetruck and ambulance. I regained consciousness to see half a dozen uniformed men and women surrounding my bed. The really good looking guy was in charge of asking me questions. I did my best to answer those really tough ones like “what day is it?” Who knows what day it is when you’re awoken in the middle of the night? It’s tough to answer questions when you’re struggling to form words and figure out where you are and who these people are.

They decided to take me in to the ER. My housemate, Jennifer, met us there and helped me understand what was happening and was my advocate.

The days following that event were really tough. First, of all dealing with the migraine that came along with the two seizures that I had that night and all the other physical side effects. Secondly, exploring all the fears and new understandings that arose as well.

My family and friends have told me how lucky I was that Jennifer was there. I definitely was lucky. I’d thought for months that I might be having seizures. Now I have proof and can figure out how to address them. On the other hand, however, had she not been there I would have slept through it and just woken with a nasty migraine and nothing to fear.

So what does this have to do with organizing?

Lots I suppose. You can’t deal with the issues until you know what they are and you can’t change them, can’t win until you face the fear. It’s also a reminder to me that I am not permanent. There was a time before me. There will be a time after me. Some day my eyes will close for the last time and there’s a good chance I won’t know it.

How do we continue to do the good work with that knowledge, with a recognition of our miniscule space in the grand realm? Again I have no answers.

I do know that over the years I’ve had hundreds of conversation about burnout, trauma, stress, depression, and hopelessness as a part of what we do. I’ve been a part of many efforts to address such things. Some have helped. Some simply died away themselves.

I know that I struggle with those same things sometimes. I find myself losing my ability to feel the passion that I once felt. I am often left with just sadness and emptiness. I both miss the passion and am thankful to not have that intensity that has worn me out. Still, I look for ways to maintain and build my ability to feel and embrace and love this world and its beings.

We, as activists, organizers, and educators, need to figure out how to not just support others but support each other and ourselves. I find the last the hardest. There is always someone else who needs care, who needs support, who needs strength. They don’t jump in front of me in the line to receive care. I step behind them, push them forward. It’s easier to address another person’s needs than my own.

Tonight, or rather this morning I’m staying awake. I have to. I am going to get my brain scanned in the morning to see why I had those seizures. I have to be in a sleep deprived state. In a little more than an hour I will have been awake for 24 hours straight. Surprisingly I still feel quite awake. In fact, I’m going to take a shower and go for a long walk with the dog when I’m done writing this. It’s been a while since either of us has seen a summer sunrise.

I hope to learn something there that will help me move toward caring more for myself and through that care rebuilding my passion. I ask my fellow activists, organizers, and educators out there, don’t wait for the seizures and brain scans. Show yourself that love and caring that you save for those you defend today and every day. If we are to be in this work for the long haul, we need to be here for the long haul.

What Is Strong? Holding Together

July 14, 2013

There’s some trouble going on in Northern Wisconsin. I’d say it all started when Gogebic Taconite showed up and tried to start mining, but it didn’t. It started generations ago when we forgot that we all come from around the same fire.

This latest round involved some direct action advocates who took action against the Gogebic crew and did some minor damage. They were apprehended and charged. Now folks are left to figure out how to move ahead. Some people supported the action and some didn’t and trust has been lost. Now, how is trust rebuilt? Wish I knew. If I knew I just tell folks what to do. They might try it. It might work. It might not work. They might be thankful. They might tell me what I’m full of.

Here’s what I do remember though. I remember a day many years ago standing out in the cold in a cemetery in Northern Wisconsin. My friend Walt’s body was being laid in ground. He was a veteran so the men were out there with the guns to do the salute. I had already committed to a life as a pacifist and to a belief in the use of direct action. I knew war was wrong. I knew violence was wrong. I knew direct action was right. I knew I would always stand for what was right no matter what.

There was a man there that day who without a word made me question all I knew about violence and nonviolence and direct action. He was standing to my left. When the gun salute went off I looked in his direction. He had the sadness in his eyes and that far away look that seems to see into another world. He was both a million miles away and right there with his cousin who was being laid in the ground at the same time. There was a power there that I did not know until that moment.

It was in that moment that I really understood something that only knew in my mind before. Now, I knew it deeper. That man who was standing next to me was Andy Gokee. He, like Walt and many of the other folks standing there that day had stood many times to protect treaty rights, the right to live as Native peoples according to the beliefs handed down to them for generations. One of the ways that they did that was through the spearfishing struggle of the 1980’s. When I heard those gunshots in that cemetery that day I understood in a different way that the folks I stood there with had their lives threatened. They’d been followed. They’d been shot at. They knew that their families could be killed because they were Indians or because they stood with Native people.

Today I had another of those experiences. I got a message from a Black woman that I know. She had gotten stopped by the cops in the Madison area because she looked “suspicious.” She was interrogated for half an hour for nothing, nothing other than driving while Black.

I don’t claim to know much. I know the stories go much deeper than I will ever know. What I understand is that sometimes there is a power much stronger than words that speaks to us all. There are powerful spirits among us and there are those who walk in fear as well.

It is alright to be afraid. In fact sometimes it may be the wisest thing to be. Fear can increase your consciousness of what is around you, give you the tools with which to act. To deny that fear is generally nothing more than lying and cockiness. Be afraid and keep walking through that fear. Learn the stories, listen deeply, and walk through the fear wisely. Acting for the sake of acting brings nothing. Acting with heart and spirit and mind in tune, brings justice and healing and change.

organizing as a learning tool– thinking about the anti mine fight in the 90’s and today.

 July 10, 2013
As I considered creating this blog as a means of moving toward developing a community organizing school,  I asked friends what I should write about and what they’d like to read.  One suggested to me writing about the anti-mining movement in Wisconsin in the 1990’s and that movement here today.  I was intrigued by that idea.  Today I’d like to take on just a little piece of it from my own perspective.

I’ve been thinking some about not just organizing training, but organizing as a means of education.  In the early 1990’s when I became involved in the anti-mining movement in Wisconsin,  I was a young and naive college student.   My understanding of the world was largely limited to my life growing up in rural southeastern Wisconsin.

When I got to college I started getting involved in environmental organizing as well as in some student rights issues.  I started to connect with other students and activists around the state and began going to meetings, events and rallies around the state.  Getting involved in statewide work and especially in the work around the Crandon mine started opening my mind and heart to the different experiences and lives of folks around the state.  Most notably I started to understand that Native peoples in Wisconsin weren’t just a story in my history book.  They were and are quite alive and some have much to share about understanding this place in which we live and who we all are.

I was at a rally against the mine one time on the capitol steps in Madison.  There was an Anishanabe woman,  Frannie VanZile I think her name was, speaking that day.  She stood up on those steps surrounded by girls and young women and her voice rang through the bullhorn.  “You women, you women out there.  You are the keepers of the water.”  Twenty some years later I can still hear her echoing in my ears.  Those words defined my course in life.  She taught me a central piece of who I am.

Somewhere along the way between then and now I went from being that young and naive college student to being the middle aged woman who gets to tell the tales of “back in the day” and I ask myself; “How do we teach?  How do we inspire? How do we hold the hands of young activists who will carry the fight for decades to come?”

Today Wisconsin is fighting to protect the water as we were back then.  This time the proposed mine is in the Penokee Hills in the northern part of the state.  A few weeks ago some young activists got in a bit of tangle with some folks on the mine site.   From all I’ve heard it doesn’t sound like any bigger of an action than one that my friends and I would have engaged in during the 90’s.  The response was different though.  A young woman, Katie, is facing a felony charge and Gogebic Taconite, the mining company, has hired mercenaries from Arizona to guard the site.

Two things float in my mind now about this incident.

The first is about violence and nonviolence.  I’ve been a proclaimed pacifist all of my adult life.  Yet the other day when I was reading Myles Horton’s autobiography I came across the idea that the question is not really about violence or nonviolence, but about what is the lesser violence?  Katie and her friends engaged in a direct action that some might have called violent.  In fact, the company is using that as their excuse to hire these guards.  My understanding is she threw a soda can and tried to take a cell phone away from someone who was filming.  Maybe that is violence, but armed guards to protect the company that will destroy the land and water,  bankrupt the economy, and devastate the cultures of the area is that not the greater violence?  How do we decide what is warranted?

The other is  how do we hold Katie’s hand and that of her friends as they grow as activists and leaders who will take this fight on for the decades to come?  When I started out in the 90’s there were a few of us young folks involved in more “radical” direct action organizations.  Our insights were largely welcomed.  We were pulled into the larger fight.  We got to stand with the elders who had fought for years before us and learn.  Some of us were sort of golden children, loved and cared for by some very wise people who knew we’d fight more effectively if we were stronger and that they could give us that strength.   I’m not always sure that’s happening today and I wonder how we make it happen.

Where The Idea Began

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.