What This Is…
Issue #66- June 10, 2012
In this issue: Reflecting on June 5th
I know I'm not alone in thinking that the past few days have been strange ones. Along with many progressive activists I suddenly find myself with extra time on my hands. After the 15 months of constant activity and the past few weeks lived at a frantic pace it seems surreal to sit down after a day of school without some form of activist activity to occupy my "free" time. I also find myself experiencing conflicting emotions in the aftermath of June 5th.
While it may seem strange, considering the outcome of the recall elections, I've felt a sense of relief and an odd kind of peace over the past couple of days. I equate it with the feelings I have at the end of a school year. I know that I've done my best over the course of the year for each and every student, and that I've given my all to have a positive impact in all areas of my job. While I know that there is more work to be done, I also know that there will be a short window of time for reflection and recharging. Without the intensity of the daily challenges I can take time and emerge as a more effective educator, colleague, advocate and person.
Just like when I reflect on a completed school year, I must accept the fact that my efforts may have fallen short in some areas. However, success or failure can't be measured only in the stark terms of winning or losing. There is value in the struggle whether the outcome was a positive one or not. Every step in the right direction moves us towards a better future and setbacks are only defeats if you allow them to be. Educators know this better than any other group, we rarely see linear progress towards a goal. Our students progress is measured by inconsistent and sometimes sporadic fits and starts, but we still celebrate each and every victory, no matter how small.
I wouldn't be telling the truth (and we've had enough of that recently from our political leaders) if I didn't say that along with the hope for the future, I also feel a crushing sense of disappointment. After canvassing after school Tuesday with my older son and a fellow educator (and helping at least a couple of people get registered to vote for the first time) I went to play in a volleyball game with a sense of optimism. I didn't turn on the radio until 9:15 and was stunned to hear that the election had been called for Walker. The rest of my night was spent checking results and hoping for a miracle, a miracle that never came.
As results kept coming in I found myself wondering what had happened. How could all of our efforts fall short? Once again I equate my emotions to those that I feel at the end of a school year. As I look at my students I reflect on their strengths and weaknesses and of course wonder what more could be done to make them better readers, writers, mathematicians. Was there more that I could do to connect them to learning? Would a different approach have improved their behavior? The same thinking holds true in the political arena.
At this time of year educators are putting scores into a report card which often makes all the progress that each student made seem insignificant and almost trivial. Who cares if a student went from being a non-reader (Level 0) to being able to read simple picture books (Level 4) when they have so much farther to go to meet the standards for their grade level? In the same way, seeing all of our efforts culminate in a single election result seemed to somehow lessen the impact of what we did accomplish over these past 16 months.
It seemed unreal that our message wasn't heard and that Walker wasn't soundly defeated. There are countless reasons why the recall effort failed to unseat Walker. Some people actually, truly like his policies, some were tired of the political scene, some felt that he deserved a chance to finish his term, some were anti-union, some were mislead… What matters most in the end is that our efforts to engage and educate the voters wasn't successful enough to achieve victory, this time.
I also feel a sense of uncertainty and fear. Uncertainty about what will come next here in Wisconsin and across the nation. Uncertainty about what my job will look like in the near future. Is there a future for public education, or will we find ourselves rebuilding the system in the future after it is destroyed by failed policies, decreased funding and ignorant leaders at the highest levels.
I fear for my family's immediate financial future. Despite the misperception that union members are "living the high life", we've always been a family that "gets by". I worry about how many more hits our family budget can take and what this loss will mean to us. Will we be able to maintain a middle class lifestyle?
There is also a certain amount of anger and frustration coming from some activists. This is to be expected in the aftermath of a tough battle and a devastating loss. These negative emotions are natural, but make it difficult to recover and move on in a positive direction from the defeat. I hear friends who were active expressing anger about the fact that the Democratic Party didn't support Wisconsin's efforts enough, that Obama didn't put his influence behind us. We have the inevitable "Monday morning quarterbacks" who feel that the campaigns were run poorly. An emotional loss like the one we suffered can cause turmoil and division, and it's sometimes easier to lash out at those closest to us. We certainly can't do anything to change the outcome or counter the rhetoric that flows on conservative talk shows.
There is also significant concern about the future of democracy in our state and nation. There are many who feel that our electoral process is tainted and that our elections are no longer valid measures of public opinion. The case can certainly be made that the big money allowed into the process undermines the will of the common citizen. However, the concerns about our electoral process go beyond that to include vote tampering and tactics of questionable ethics and legality. I don't want to believe that these types of allegations are true, but given what we've experienced here in Wisconsin I find it difficult to completely dismiss them as well.
Things are always "darkest before the dawn", and few, if any, movements experience linear success rates. History tells us that it is possible to create successful outcomes out of staggering defeats. If there is anything that the past 16 months have taught us, it's that the people of Wisconsin are tenacious fighters. We stand up for ourselves and for others and can achieve great things when we unite and work in solidarity. We need to take time to grieve about the results, but then look for ways to move forward.
Last spring my father, a retired teacher and union supporter, gave me an insight that has guided me through this process. He expressed the belief that of all the things that a union can provide for its members, one of the most important is hope. That hope springs from a collective effort to improve the conditions that we toil in on a daily basis. The strength of a union comes from its members and their support of each other. In many ways a union's strength can't be measured in conventional statistical terms. We draw our strength from the solidarity that we feel with others who share our values and our circumstances. While it is difficult to give our power a concrete value, it is just as difficult to destroy the will of a group of people who share a hopeful vision for their society.
At its core, this vision is one of equal opportunity that is truly shared by all citizens. We know that all people will experience different degrees of success and that not everyone can be "#1". At the same time we must also recognize that our society does not currently provide a fair and equitable opportunity for many of our fellow citizens to succeed, or to advance their position socially, economically or politically. The "American Dream" of building an economically secure life, starting from any class is certainly threatened by current GOP policies. Cuts to education, safety nets and other public sector programs and services only increases the divisions between our economic classes.
As a state we must unite to insure that everyone is allowed the opportunity for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No single individual, political party or ideology has all the answers. Our strength comes in the open, honest debate between equals. A debate that we have been unable to really have in our present social, economic and political climate.
Just as no political entity has the answers to our state's challenges, no single demographic group should dominate the discussions and the states social, political or economic landscape. We have seen a great deal of tension between different groups and this has contributed to our state's woes. Wisconsin can only move forward if we recognize the contributions that all of our diverse population offers. This means respecting and accepting differences between citizens and not discriminating in social, economic or political policies. Our democracy will not survive in a segregated and hate filled culture where the wealthy minority controls all power and uses divisive rhetoric to maintain their status.
We must also keep in place a support network for those who fall upon hard times. It is admirable to attempt to navigate the world without relying exclusively on the charity of others, but at the same time we are all connected and need to support each other through good and bad times. Since February, 2011 we have certainly experienced some divisive and challenging times in Wisconsin, our state needs to find ways to heal and move forward. Yet, at the same time we can't simply concede defeat and allow Walker's agenda to proceed unchecked.
There is no doubt in my mind that many of the progressive activists will continue the fight for social and economic justice. Given that we wield little political power (only control of the Senate gives us any chance to slow the tide of GOP legislation) we must rely on the Republican leadership to demonstrate restraint and to begin to work on developing true bipartisan policies that will mend our state and move us in the right direction. Perhaps our conservative leaders could look to a pair of Republicans who occupied the White House after our nation's most violently divided era.
Most of us are familiar with Abraham Lincoln's 2nd inaugural address, part of which says, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
While Ulysses S. Grant's presidency was not a model one, his words at his inauguration were right on track. He said, "The country having just emerged from a great rebellion, many questions will come before it for settlement in the next four years which preceding Administrations have never had to deal with. In meeting these it is desirable that they should be approached calmly, without prejudice, hate, or sectional pride, remembering that the greatest good to the greatest number is the object to be attained."
That is not as simple a question as it may appear at first. Many progressive activists are feeling abandoned, defeated and unfortunately divided. With the losses in income and collective bargaining rights we will face economic difficulties that will impact our ability to engage in future political actions. It sure seems like the deck is stacked against us. It might seem easier to simply accept defeat and try to hold on to what we can on a personal level.
We read and hear about our failures and see our efforts used against us on the national stage.
Once again I turn to the lessons learned over the past 16 months. Together in solidarity we can affect change. I know that for myself this has been a journey of awakening to the dangers we face and the possibilities for overcoming them. I have the countless memories of positive experiences and have seen the strength that citizens operating in unity can have. If we continue the fight we will see our strength increase and our state move towards a more just society.
As we move forward it is important to identify and define areas where we can impact policy. We must also create goals that can be achieved and build towards our eventual success. So many of us joined the public debate in recent months and we can't retreat from our positions and withdraw into defending our personal spheres of influence. For myself I see a number of areas that I will be continuing to work in. I will continue to share my ideas and offer ways for interested citizens to get involved in restoring Wisconsin's values to our political, social and economic discourse.
Maintaining, Restoring and Expanding Union Rights: Destroying these rights formed the centerpiece of Governor Walker's agenda and must be a strong pillar of our resistance. Unions will need to develop new strategies and ways of operating to survive and succeed in the new climate created by Act 10. Unions must reach out to the public and form partnerships with the community. The "divide and conquer" strategy can't work if we don't allow ourselves to be divided.
Election Reform: No one with any "common sense" can argue that our electoral process is no longer "fair and balanced". The money that flowed into Wisconsin distorted the process and there is no doubt that money will continue to undermine our democracy until some real reforms are implemented.
Public Education: Wisconsin's public schools face unprecedented budget cuts and a climate that is anti-education and anti-educator. Finding new ways to finance schools and changing policies that are designed to destroy public education are important goals.