By Chloe Smith
On April 7, Milwaukee voters passed the Vote Yes for MPS referendum, which will raise $87 million in funding for Milwaukee Public Schools over the next 4 years. Throughout this semester, I had the privilege of working as an intern on this campaign.
My responsibilities in this campaign were mostly writing-based—emails to the campaign’s network of supporters, text outreach, copy editing—but I also did quite a bit beyond that, like canvassing and assisting with filming testimonials at schools. (Of course, I was only a tiny facet in the immense amount of work that went into this campaign).
Spending a semester working on this campaign has helped me learn so much about the political and educational climate in Milwaukee and Wisconsin at large. I’m not from this city, and while I’ve always been well aware of certain educational struggles in my home state of Illinois, I did not know much about the issues affecting Wisconsin.
MPS is the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin, serving over 77,000 students. However, despite its size, the district received significantly less funding per student than neighboring school districts like Shorewood or Whitefish Bay. This lack of sufficient funding led to students and teachers alike not receiving the resources they deserve.
This referendum was not only necessary for supporting our students and teachers, but also long overdue. Before the 2020 vote, MPS was one of the only school districts in the state that had not passed a referendum to increase funding in recent years—the community hadn’t even had the opportunity to pass an increase in funding since 1993.
I’ve always considered myself pretty aware of issues like this, and before this internship, would have called myself rather politically active. However, working on this campaign has completely changed my disposition toward political issues. It’s really easy to think you’re doing enough by voting a certain way, by sharing certain posts on social media, and having conversations with people we know. But we so often forget—myself included—that these problems go so far beyond numbers on a page.
I’ve learned that it’s vital to remind ourselves exactly what we’re fighting for. The best way to do that is volunteering, in any capacity you can, whether it’s signing a pledge or petition, canvassing door-to-door in the community, or making phone calls to voters.
I spent so much time in this position talking with teachers, parents, students, and community members about what this vote means to them. I feel invigorated to continue to volunteer for other issues that matter to me.
While the referendum passed with overwhelming success, the actual process of the election didn’t feel so positive. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court (all of whom had, interestingly, voted absentee) struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ order to delay the April 7 election, many voters were forced to choose between their health and their civic duty. The fact that so many voters still showed up, masks and all, is another reason I’m proud of this city, but I’m disappointed that it was a decision they had to face in the first place.
It says a lot about the educational needs of our community that so many were willing to put their health on the line to vote in this election.
I plan on participating in more campaigns, to whatever extent I can. I’m sure a few of them won’t be successful. But we have to try. There’s a lot of practical things I learned in this internship, but what I find most important is the necessity of going out of your comfort zone. The best way to learn about community issues and activism is to get out there and advocate for what you believe in in hands-on ways, meeting and working with the people you’re fighting for and with.
During my time in this internship, I was continually blown away by the passion, collaboration, and warmth of everyone I worked with and even met in passing. I’m so proud of the city for passing this referendum, but even if it hadn’t, I’d come away from this experience proud to now call Milwaukee home.
I realize how lucky I am that my first experience with something like this resulted in a winning campaign. Perhaps I’d be feeling differently if the referendum hadn’t passed. But then I think about the people I met: my supervisor, who was kind and enthusiastic, and taught me so much about community organizing. The parents and teachers I met canvassing, who thanked me profusely for taking what was just a bit of my time to try and help students. And the students themselves, answering doors with their parents or posing for social media photos for the campaign, who served as reminders of why we were working in the first place. And then I realize, I’d do it all over again, even if the referendum hadn’t passed.
Working on a campaign is hard enough. Working on—and concluding—a campaign in the midst of a pandemic brings a whole other set of hurdles and uncertainties. But even through a ridiculous, rainy election day, Milwaukee managed a huge victory. This city and its voters did right by its students, who deserve a fulfilling, equitable education, regardless of their zip code.
Chloe Smith is a PhD student in the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is also a co-editor of Writing & Rhetoric MKE.
The UWM Archives is one of the only institutions in Wisconsin with a social justice collection strength. Combined with its focus on Milwaukee and UWM history, the repository is filled with local stories of community organizers and activists. UWM’s Latino Activism collection contains photos, correspondence, press releases, newspaper clippings, and official university documents that detail the struggle for Latino rights on campus. In the early 1970s, Milwaukee’s Latino population exploded, but the number of Latino students on campus was pitifully low in comparison. University staff and community members attributed these low enrollment rates to the lack of support for Latino students on campus, so Latino activists took their case to Chancellor Klotsche. After sit-ins, protests, camp outs, and several arrests, the Spanish Speaking Outreach Institute, later called the Roberto Hernandez Center, began to connect with and assist UWM’s Latino population. I took a look at some of the records in the Latino Activism collection to see what they had to say about the power of Latinx rhetorics and community.
Community was the backbone of the Latino activism movement at UWM in the 1970s. This flyer, titled “Latin community takes over UWM Chancellor’s office”/ “Comunidad Latina retoma la oficina del rector de UWM,” is an explicit call to community for assistance in direct action. Calling themselves “the latin community,” there is no distinction between students and non-students, only the call to “support” in occupying the Chancellor’s office. This blending of community and use of family support has been a class trend for Milwaukee-based Latino activism. They rhetorically link their purpose in protesting to Klotsche’s absence at a community meeting, asserting their occupation as a direct response to disrespect and disinterest. This connection between administrative absence and occupation is an interesting rhetorical strategy that simultaneously legitimizes their tactics and calls attention to institutional buffoonery. The flyer is also written in English and Spanish, indicating the varied languages within Latino community in addition to their attempt to garner support from non-Spanish speaking allies.
After the Latino occupation of Chancellor Klotsche’s office, UWM acquiesced to the creation of a Spanish Speaking Outreach Institute. This document is the official proposal and “commitment” of the institute, outlining ten guiding principles. This record is drastically different from the flyer in several ways. First, this record does not make a direct call to any community. It mentions the “Spanish speaking community,” but later refers to the issues of “non-English speaking” students as if they are interchangeable. Second, the rhetorical strategies suggest that the creator of the record, the Council for the Education of Latin Americans (CELA), was interested in “solv[ing] the problems of the Spanish speaking community,” rather than rectifying the institutional inequality related to these problems. The document explicitly details the disappointingly low number of Latino students that UWM was willing to support through the institute, indicating tokenization rather than inclusivity. Lastly, this document is only written in English, suggesting that its intended audience was not the Spanish speaking people it was supposedly addressing, but the English speaking CELA and UWM administration.
UWM’s Latino Activism archive details the community activism and rhetorical power used to create the Spanish Speaking Outreach Institute. Milwaukee’s Latino activists and the community that supported them are directly responsible for the resources and connections available to contemporary Latino students. While some of these historical documents indicate a deliberate disregard for a multilingual community, the UWM archive has done some work to alleviate this. The metadata for the records, which is necessary for searching, browsing, and researching, is available in both English and Spanish. It’s important that these records are available in multiple languages since they directly pertain to the Spanish speaking community. The Archive also follows Library of Congress subject terms which are typically limiting and outdated. The collection subject terms include "Hispanic Americans," which we've discussed several times in class as homogenizing and eurocentric. Aside from these criticisms, the UWM Archive is a great place to dive into the rich history of Latino activism on campus.
On Monday, March first, I attended the May Day Dia Sin Latinx March organized by Voces de la Frontera (A Wisconsin based Immigrant and Latinx rights organization). This march was held with the objective of demanding that Waukesha County’s Sheriff Severson reject 287g, which he covertly put into effect after telling the people of Wakesha county that he wouldn’t. 287g allows local law enforcement to be used as ICE against the members of it’s own community. It would allow these officers to stop and question people based solely on their suspected immigration status.
Once arriving in Waukesha, I was excited by the huge amount of people who had shown up in resistance and solidarity. I could not gage the numbers at the time but have heard that there were from 10 to 15 thousand people. To me, one of the most beautiful aspects of this union of people was the communal aspect of it. There were tons of families and groups of people of all ages. There were parents teaching their children to stand up for themselves, that they have a beautiful community and that they are not alone. One of my favorite moments in the march was passing by a family that was marching. A little boy who could not have been more that 8 years old had a red toy megaphone and was chanting words of inspiration to his community and they would then chant back to him. This to me was more inspiring than even the amount of people who had gathered for the March.
At the beginning and the end of the march there were speeches by immigrants and children of immigrants speaking about their experiences and of what was at stake for them. There were also speeches talking about ways to hold Waukesha county accountable for their actions and speeches to give the community strength and hope. There was a lot of love in Wakesha at this march.
**Content Warning: some discussion of violence, sexual violence, and murder**
UWM’s Women’s and Gender Studies department invited Melissa W. Wright to speak at the annual Vilas Trust Lecture series this past February. Wright is a feminist geographer and the current chair of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department at Pennsylvania State University. She presented her work titled “Against the Evils of Democracy: Fighting Drug Wars and Femicide in Mexico and the Americas,” about the formation and strategies of social movements spurred by the increased disappearance of Mexican citizens. Graduate students were invited to a bagel hour discussion with Wright before the lecture series where she was able to discuss the intimacies of her research. With Latinx rhetorics on my mind, there were a few interesting highlights about the relationship between rhetorical power and activist discourse.
Wright’s scholarship explores the strategies of social movements in Mexico that address the alarming number of disappeared Mexican students and women. Many of these movements are led by Mexicanas who actively oppose the misogynistic language that discourages their involvement in the public sphere. Wright focuses on how rhetoric shapes public participation and democracy when women are excluded by social norms that dictate their submissive docility. Wright’s primary example was the difference between la mujer publica (whore) and el hombre publico (citizen), which attaches a stigma to women who participate in the public spheres of politics and activism. This misogynistic discourse punishes women who seek change within their communities by aligning them with sex work, and obfuscating their message. Movements like Ni Una Mas are primarily organized and supported by women, meaning that their activism is necessary particularly for addressing the problem of the disappeared.
One rhetorical strategy of these social movements is the use of the term ‘disappeared’ as opposed to dead or missing. This distinction is supposed to draw attention to the political power of the disappeared in addition to the responsibility of the government for their status. Normalistas have been at the forefront of Mexican activism throughout history and are named for the Normal schools started during the Revolutionary Era. These Normal schools continue in indigenous and rural areas of Mexico today, training high school graduates to become teachers for their communities. Wright discussed Normalistas as transforming from students to activists, creating a body of protestors for the disenfranchised students who are so often the victims of these disappearances. Normalistas use several rhetorical strategies to draw attention to the disappeared, who they believe have political presence even when lacking a physical one. Disappeared represents an action that is done to the students rather than something they do, and it is in opposition to the government-sanctioned term ‘missing,’ since the Normalistas believe the Mexican government is directly involved in these disappearances. They use other rhetorical strategies like staging classes of instructors teaching to empty chairs with the picture of a disappeared person taped to its back. These activists really focus on the rhetorical power of absence for these issues.
Similar to the rhetorical power of the disappeared, Wright discusses the cultural and linguistic nuances of the term feminicidio. The disappearance and murder of Mexican women has been an issue since the mid-twentieth century. Ni Una Mas, the organization mentioned above, began in Mexico in the 1990s as an anti-femicide organization in response to the thousands of tortured and abused women’s bodies found in the border region between Texas and Mexico. The women were discussed in public discourse by the government and the media as las muertas, or the dead, erasing their personhood and the context of their murder. Wright credits Mexican feminist activists for coining the term feminicidio in response to las muertas. Feminicido marks the murders as a national trend and human rights violation, and directly connects the Mexican government to state sponsored violence and murder. This activist language changes the meaning of the Anglo word femicide to encompass the consequences of political impunity. This rhetorical strategy emphasizes the necropolitics of the disappeared, and their political power in instigating change.
Wright's presentation provided several interesting examples of the connection between rhetorical power and activist language. By changing popular discourse, Mexican activists have drawn attention to the institutional connections and lacking government action concerning the disappeared. These rhetorical strategies have brought feminicidio and student disappearance into the global spotlight.
On May 1st of this year Voces de la Frontera arranged a statewide march for the rights of immigrants, immigrant families, and migrant workers aimed at sending a mesage to the state of Wisconsin about the economic values, through both commerce and labor, of the Latinx communities within the state. Having learned about it when a Voces leader visited our class, I planned to attend. Instead of driving to Waukesha for Un Dia sin Latinxs , as it was called, I elected to meet the bus at the nearby Public House. It’s a very short trip from my apartment, and sitting there, looking at the raised fist emerging from the woodwork, made me think about the irony of my situation. I was planning to travel to Waukesha to involve myself in a community action yet I’ve actually visited few places in my own neighborhood since moving here. I was happy to see a familiar face from class appear when M entered, and wondered how big that banner they hauled onto the bus actually was; as one woman said, it looked big enough to contain a body. We saw exactly how big it was later, as dozens of people carried it down the street.
I chose to pay for the bus ride for two reasons. First, I don’t know where Waukesha is and had no idea what the parking situation would be, but mainly because I felt that the bus ride could be a valuable observation opportunity, a chance to hear the preparatory rhetoric. I expected a journey filled with exhortations to unite, excite, and channel the energies of the riders toward one common cause and goal.
I was wrong. Aside from collecting the money – hilariously trying to collect a ticket from the driver – and boarding the bus, the Voces representative did nothing but talk to the person next to him. I saw a kairotic moment wasted. No one near us was really talking about the event, either, just making general chit-chat. Mand I took the opportunity to get to know each other a little better and discuss our connections to different Latinx communities, hers in Miami and mine in Albuquerque, and our mutual interest in film.
Once we got there, what interested me the most, naturally, was the use of language. The crowd was obviously quite ethnically diverse (a wonderful thing to see), and this was clearly acknowledged. While it seemed safe to assume that many if not most of the Spanish-speakers there also understood English (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit), it seemed equally safe to assume, this being the American Midwest, that this was not reciprocal and that not all the English speakers spoke Spanish at all or, like me, had limited understanding. Both languages were heard from the speakers, but Spanish took precedence; English, when spoken, was used to explain to those who didn’t understand what had just been said in Spanish. While the size of the crowd was impressive, and the signs and slogans powerful, I enjoyed this subtle reversal of language subordination the most. This was unapologetically a Spanish-speaking event. The initial rally weighed heavily toward Spanish, and the slogans – whose printed forms were about 50/50 between the languages – were almost always spoken in Spanish, with one not being spoken in English near me until halfway through the march, finally letting me know that the last word was “defeated.” This allowed everyone to follow the rhetoric, but also modeled the kindness and consideration for other languages that Spanish so frequently does not get in America, and that other languages may not get at all.
The message, while unspoken, was clear to anyone who listened, and served a legitimate and important purpose: to show that in this event, on this day, this Latinx community would not assume a secondary position, a back seat, and Spanish would not be a “foreign” language here. English was used to be inclusive; not, as is common, the default.
On the long march I saw and heard the energy and focus I had missed on the bus. Interchanging slogans were chanted constantly, and the entire town seemed to be watching. White, Latinx, and African-Americans marched for two miles by the thousands, some with their dogs, and unlike at other political rallies or parades, no one seemed to be there for any other purpose. Their energy was channeled directly down the street and toward the courthouse.
The speeches at the end of the march – and man, did my knees and foot hurt at the end of that march, making me feel inordinately aged – offered more English, either as a translation of entire speeches made in Spanish or, as in the case of a student with immigrant parents, made in English in the first place. His speech was not translated into Spanish, and this stands behind my assumption that most if not all of the Spanish-speaking attendees could get by in English just fine. Spanish was, it seems, not used in this event for purposes of comprehension, but rather to assert identity, to establish presence: a rhetorical choice made all the more effective by the fact that it wasn’t openly stated.
At least, not in English.
Listen to three white, female, graduate students chat about our experiences marching with Voces de la Frontera on May 1, covering topics like our reactions to the march, the unfortunate backlash we saw the march receive on social media, and the often dehumanizing aspects of citizenship.
-SP, DK, & CS
This week we discussed activism, language, and pedagogy in relation to Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Cherríe Moraga’s feminist anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color and Candace Zepeda’s chapter “Chicana Feminism” from Decolonizing Rhetoric and Composition Studies. These works both discuss identity politics and intersectionality, while also tackling concepts like racism, sexism, and homophobia in academia and larger society. The readings focus specifically on Chicana identities/feminisms, marking them as distinct from Latina, Mexicana, or American identities/feminisms. Chicana/o identity formation began with the rise of the United Farm Workers and other civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s. This identity marker delineated not only heritage and ethnicity, as it is typically used to describe those living in the United States with Mexican heritage, but also a political identity that is aligned with civil disobedience and social justice. Towards the end of the Second Wave of US feminism in the early 1980s, Chicana feminists began forming coalitions that addressed the racist and homophobic policies and actions of more mainstream, white feminists. This Chicana identity, one that is uniquely ethnic and political, is what bound Moraga and Anzaldúa together to begin compiling the anthology that would drastically change the course of feminist theory.
Many class members commented on the importance of Moraga and Anzaldúa’s anthology, not only for academic discourse, but for pedagogy. We discussed the chapters that are typically used in classroom settings, and began to explore what it means that particular literature, like This Bridge Called My Back, usually finds itself stuck in disciplinary silos. We brainstormed solutions to this issue, offering effort and awareness as two important first steps to integrating more texts by women of color and spreading them beyond the ‘ethnic/women studies section’ (this is the terminology used on the back of the book by the publisher for organizational purposes, not how we as a class decided to classify the book). Classmates also contemplated the boundaries of allyship in this situation, asserting that white scholars must take responsibility for lacking diversity in professional institutions and take informed steps to expand what scholarship is accepted as canonical. We discussed what Zepeda calls the “Third Space,” for Chicanx students, emphasizing the importance of pedagogies of the home, Moraga’s theory of the flesh, and Chicana feminisms ideology of ‘the personal as political.' These three theories focus on the importance and value of student knowledge, grounding pedagogical practice in an ethics that promotes success for groups traditionally punished in hegemonic educational institutions, like Chicanx students. Class discussion dove into the complications of a Third Space, debating the merits of plural Third Spaces in order to expand post-colonial, flexible pedagogical forms.
This week we were also able to host Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the founder and executive director of the activist group Voces de la Frontera, as a class guest. She spoke about the accomplishments and direct action strategies of Voces, but class discussion further revealed the importance of rhetoric in the movement and for the organization. It is interesting to note that Voces has been using the Latinx distinction since 2016 as a measure for inclusivity, which harkens back to our earliest class conversations about the term’s merit within the community. As a class, we explored the use of ‘movement rhetoric,’ and its repeated presence in Voces through protest signs, letters written to government officials, and educational materials circulated in the community. We also considered the use of ‘family rhetoric’ when advocating for immigrant and civil rights issues. Most of the imagery and language adopted to rally support for Voces’ causes centers on kinship ties and the sanctity of family life. This rhetoric is purposefully chosen to reclaim the humanity so often stripped from immigrants and Latinxs in public discourse. Voces de la Frontera will be hosting their second Dia sin Latinxs & Immigrantes on May 1st, 2018, at 10AM in Waukesha, one of the most conservative and anti-immigrant areas in Wisconsin.