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.