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.