What is going on in Wisconsin is not just theoretical to me. Nor as distant as you might think. Besides having many close relationships there– I am still unemployed, after all. There is something about this; about what does or doesn’t happen to working people that feels very personal to me. It would also feel very personal if I was working, but unemployed is the vantage point for me currently. But things continue to move forward in Wisconsin, and the activism in Wisconsin, as well as other places in the world, in turn, will encourage more activism. More courage. Of that I am sure. I am also sure that this will make a difference over the long run, whether they win or lose this particular battle.
There were demonstrations here on Wednesday and today in support of Wisconsin, of workers and collective bargaining. I learned late Tuesday about the Wednesday noon-time demonstration in support of the Wisconsin teachers and workers. In so many ways this groundswell of activism is one of the most hopeful things that has happened in a long time. (Obama’s election was hopeful in this way too– regardless of what you do or don’t like about his leadership at this moment– and surely some, though not all of the things that I do not like about his leadership at this moment, are related precisely to the political compromises that are made, in the face of the kind of hatred, disrespect and dishonesty demonstrated by his opposition on the right.)
On Wednesday I got up, walked my daughter to school, went directly to the store and bought several inexpensive sheets of neon-colored poster board, heavy-duty markers, and a card of barrettes (unrelated to the demonstration except that I need a haircut and my hair is longer these days…). I stuffed these things in my purse and under my arm and went home. I called my wonderful Wisconsin teacher friend and my wonderful sister in Milwaukee, left them both messages about what I was doing and set about making my sign. I chose a neon pink poster board and black marker. I considered ruler and pencil for straight lines, printing the words out on my computer and decided I wanted to really make this sign to look like exactly what it was– a homemade sign that would express what I care about and what I think. So I wrote out the words:
DC Public School Mom Supports Wisconsin Teachers and Workers!!
I am lucky to have one of my oldest friends in town– my very, very close friend D. who lived in Wisconsin with me for many years and who is most definitely not unemployed (like I am still) right now. She had called me the night before about going together but her work is such that she often needs to cancel a date like this. I wasn’t confident that she would actually go but she emailed me that morning and we met and rode to the demonstration together.
Wednesday was a glorious day. Sunny, cold, but not too cold– just beautiful. Being out with my friend, making a poster, thinking about what it means to stand with other people. Near or far. These are all good things. I figured there would be maybe a couple hundred people at the demonstration. But there were over a thousand. Maybe two thousand. There were many unions represented–different unions, each with a different printed sign to hand out, but my friend D. and I each had our own home-made signs. I knew my older nephew– a stellar student in his senior year of high school– had decided not to go to high school that day, but to take a bus the hour and half to Madison to protest and I texted him several times that afternoon.
On the same day, my younger nephew who is a junior high student in Wisconsin, wrote a kick-ass letter to their state senator, expressing his support for teachers, decent salaries and benefits for teachers, and his view that it is the job of an elected official to listen to everyone, including young people and students. He then proceeded to get over 100 signatures of other students on his letter. To each of these things I say “dayenu”– which means essentially, “that alone would have been enough”.
Today’s demonstration in my city was closer to home– not near any government building, but on a mid-sized city plaza with a fountain at the center. It was more rag-tag actually, than the Wednesday demonstration, but hopeful too. Today I had my daughter, my partner, my friend D. and another old friend, just in from out-of-town all with me.
I was touched (and it clearly made an impression on my daughter) that both Wednesday and today, many, many people stopped me and asked if they could take my picture with my sign. The most touching to me was a small group of three people about my age who looked at each other and at me and one said to the other, “You have to take their pictures–this mom and her daughter and their sign”. They gave us buttons that said, “A Voice for Wisconsin’s Students and Public Schools” and I asked them where they were from. They are teachers from Eau Claire in Northern Wisconsin, Wauwatosa and one other place (I cannot remember where) who said they had a meeting here this weekend and had asked their union if they could skip it so they could be in Madison, protesting–but were told they were really needed here.
On the hope front, watching what is going on there, listening to my friends and family in Wisconsin, is teaching me things day by day, about what keeps people hopeful. Connection first and foremost. Sometimes it is just sheer numbers that allow people to notice they are not alone. (They estimate that as many as 100,000 were out today at the state capitol building in Madison– and it was 18 degrees outside.) Sometimes it is an image or a story about what someone else did that fills you with hope. I think, actually that people loved my sign, because it was so clearly me— not someone else’s idea, but me out there because I care. I don’t mean it mattered because I was the particular person I am– but because I am someone who showed a little about myself, personally. I think knowing I care made them hopeful and less alone, like hearing about all these folks makes me hopeful and less alone.
In the past I didn’t understand exactly, what the point of one or many small demonstrations like today’s demonstration here was– when the purpose was to show support for another group. “How is that helpful?” I used to think. Now as I talk to my friends in Madison, and talking to those teachers today– I understood what it would be like to be one of them; to have so much at stake– and the difference it would make if I knew that there were many, many people in other places thinking about the struggle I and others were courageously carrying on. I thought about hope as I listened to the different chants. This may well be completely a matter of personal opinion, but although I completely agree with the sentiment “Union busting is disgusting” it didn’t do much for me on the hopeful front. It’s just true, but doesn’t point you in a forward direction. On the other hand, “Hey hey, ho ho, Scott Walker has got to go” did– simply because it kept my mind on what we need to and could accomplish together. Perhaps one of the most hopeful things I’ve been hearing and reading about is the fact that Scott Walker’s attempt to divide working people– his bill exempts police officers and fire fighters from losing their collective bargaining rights– has failed miserably. Fire fighters are, apparently, out in full dress uniform, in numbers every day– with the protesters. The police there are also supporting the protesters. Both groups are clearly very smart, not easily bought off and perhaps there is something about being a cop or a fire fighter that makes more clear on a daily basis than it is to the rest of us, just how much our survival, our well-being and our lives, depend upon each other. Oh and there is one more thing. I credit my sister who pointed this out to me. What is happening now started as a serious effort by the Wisconsin teachers. And who are school teachers? Mostly men? I don’t think so. Although no one’s really talking about it, at least not in the press, this was started, and in terms of the teachers is, I believe, overwhelmingly the work and the strength of women. Women who care for children– their own if they have them, and ours.