By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
I am what academics might call a community-engaged researcher. Much of my research and writing involves telling people in positions of power (teachers, healthcare practitioners, health communicators) about how much they can learn from communities and their communication practices. I am interested in learning about ways that institutions can better invest their time and money toward building relationships and supporting the expertise that is already present in the community. It’s quite simple, really, but I think it’s important work. I don’t see myself as an expert, but rather, I try to leverage my privileges and resources to support and sustain the communities that I work with. Thanks to a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, I’m spending the 2020-2021 academic year working as a fellow at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin (PPWI) with their Promotores de Salud Program. My role with this work is a bit like an intern and a resident researcher. Part of my time is spent in meetings and planning activities for ongoing educational programming with the promotores and the other part is spent with research activities (like interviews, focus groups, analyzing data, and writing) that are focused on highlighting the work of the promotores. So, while my colleagues are figuring out teaching online in a pandemic, I’m figuring out what it means to do community-engaged research remotely. A topic that is constantly on my mind is access.
Access and barriers to access have long been topics of interest for healthcare practitioners, researchers, and policy makers. They impact how healthy a community is and how well (or not) a healthcare system meets that community’s needs. Networks of access include many different aspects such as transportation, food security, housing, social services, family life, and more. Not only do people face barriers to accessing quality healthcare, but institutions often also face barriers to the ways they can access and connect with communities. Many of these barriers are inherent in the ways the healthcare system is set up to privilege spaces, professionals, and language practices that are separate from local communities—especially immigrant communities. One way that institutions try to “reach” Spanish-speaking immigrant communities is through promotores de salud (health promoters). Promotores de salud are often seen as lay people who can educate their communities about health information and transmit messages from institutions that are trying to reach the people where they live. Too often, the direction of information is top-down in the ways it moves from the healthcare institution to the community.
The hope is that improving access to information can lead to a decrease in health disparities and an increase in the utilization of healthcare services by these communities. But what about the information and education that can come from the community to inform and make positive changes to institutions? Part of my work this year is to lift up the stories, experiences, and expertise of the promotores de salud to help identify ways that the healthcare system might transform into something that is more just, equitable, and accessible.
So, what do these promotores de salud do? The specific role takes on different shapes depending on where they work and what institution they’re affiliated with. The promotores that I’m working with are experts in creating confianza (trust/confidence) and connecting people to resources. By building confianza with their communities, people open up to them about all sorts of things going on in their lives. They use a curriculum (CCmás) about sexual and reproductive health that was developed with input from the community. This curriculum is taught through conversations at Home Health Parties, or Fiestas Caseras, which were modeled after the Avon business model of gathering for a party in people’s homes and working as consultants. These fiestas caseras provide the space for the promotores to facilitate conversations about a range of topics on sexual health, reproductive justice, advocacy, and empowering the community. Through the support of various grants, the promotores also support non-partisan activities for civic participation by encouraging and assisting people with filling out the census and registering to vote. With the current pandemic, some of the promotores have turned to virtual gatherings to host Fiestas Caseras, and all of them continue to help connect people to resources available for legal issues, bill payments, health services, and more.
The promotores may work in similar roles with other organizations and many of them have other jobs in addition to their work with PPWI. They live within Latinx communities across the state of Wisconsin and they understand the daily challenges and injustices that immigrants from Latin America face while helping uphold essential businesses and our economy. With an understanding of the intersecting oppressions that their communities face, the promotores see their work as part of reproductive justice. By advocating for “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities” (SisterSong), they understand that the challenges immigrant communities face in reproductive healthcare is more than simply whether or not they have access to clinics and information about reproductive health. It is impacted by whether they can pay their bills, whether they have safe environments in their homes, whether they have been denied the option to choose whether or not to have more children, whether their children face danger in the U.S. or other countries, and so much more. This complex understanding of the realities that immigrant communities face in the U.S. could inform more holistic, equitable, and compassionate approaches to healthcare.
Health promoters are experts that researchers, administrators, and practitioners should learn from and compensate for their expertise. If their expertise and experience was valued as much as the credentials of our health providers, then we might see our community education models become more dynamic in the ways that institutions could be informed by communities and relationships between them could become more mutually beneficial.
Rachel Bloom-Pojar is an Associate Professor with the program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UW-Milwaukee and a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society fellow with Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar, Danielle Koepke, Chloe Smith, and Madison Williams
Last month, we made a commitment to amplify, support, and engage with antiracist writing, rhetoric, and organizations across Milwaukee. We made a promise to highlight the ways that everyday writing and rhetoric are being used to advance social justice, challenge oppression, and empower communities. In order to hold ourselves accountable to these commitments, we pledged to publish an Antiracist Action update reflecting on our actions each month, and this is the first of those updates.
Our goals for our Antiracist Action updates, beyond holding ourselves accountable, are to give our readers options for taking tangible actions to support the antiracist missions of local and national organizations as well as celebrate and uplift the ways in which various organizations and activists improve, empower, and fight for our local communities.
Communities across Southeastern Wisconsin continue to be in the national spotlight around issues of racial injustice and police brutality. To the right are just a few of the major events over the past month that have highlighted the need for increased anti-racist action and community organizing.
What We’ve Been Doing
Here are some actions we’ve taken in response to recent events. We encourage you to do the same.
Check your voter registration status and make a voting plan now. Decide whether or not you will be voting absentee or in person, then make the necessary arrangements—request your absentee ballot, figure out where you will go to vote in person, what time you will go, how you will get there, etc.
Call the Kenosha Police and Fire Commission and Governor Tony Evers to demand the resignation of Kenosha Police officials. Follow the link for contact information and a sample call script from the Wisconsin ACLU.
Sign Color of Change’s petition calling for Mayor John Antaramian and Kenosha City Council to fire Kenosha police chief Daniel Miskins.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the officer who shot Jacob “Jake” Blake is held accountable.
Sign Color of Change’s petition demanding that the NBA league office and team owners lift the strike ban in players’ union contract.
Discuss antiracism, protests for racial justice, and how to make sense of current events with your children. Here is a list of resources for talking to children about Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence. One of us recently bought the book Antiracist Baby and has added it to storytime with her child.
Talk to family members about current events, racism, and privilege. We’ve been working through some difficult conversations with family members who don’t understand the gravity of racial injustice and the necessity of swift antiracist action. Here’s a resource where Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race offers advice on conducting these conversations.
ACLU Protestors’ Rights Resource Page
ACLU guide to writing your elected representatives
We want to hear from you.
Is there an antiracist cause, organization, or event that we should be featuring? We invite you to write a post on it. Here are our guidelines for submissions:
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.
by Chloe Smith
This semester, I am teaching two sections of English 102: College Writing and Research with a unique opportunity for community engagement. We are collaborating with a local organization called Learn Deep Milwaukee.
Learn Deep is focused on building a community-wide resource for career exploration for high school students in the area, and providing students the skills they’ll need for a rapidly changing workforce. According to Learn Deep’s website, to achieve this goal, “teachers and schools will need to adopt new methodologies that allow students to work in teams to explore real problems and how to get better at doing so.”
This partnership was a natural fit considering English 102’s emphasis on community-based research. The final project of the course asks students to research a topic or issue related to Milwaukee and produce an information product that could be useful to community members.
To gain more insight on issues facing communities in and around Milwaukee, the students in these 2 sections will be interviewing various professionals from the healthcare field who are associated with Learn Deep. Once the interviews are finished, we will transcribe them and code them to find topics for further research.
To prepare for these interviews, we have focused a lot on oral histories with an emphasis on ways in which they allow the person being interviewed to spend time reflecting on personal experiences and telling stories in their own conversational format. This focus will not only give students a greater chance to gain honest perspectives on issues facing the healthcare field in Milwaukee, but also allow them to foster a deeper connection with their interviewees.
Before choosing their interviewees, students spent time researching and discussing healthcare topics that interested them—with the results ranging from topics like the effects of racism on public health to hospital initiatives to the effects of vaping.
Based on their interests, students chose their interviewees from a list of professionals who volunteered to be interviewed for the project. Students have since been hard at work setting up interviews and drafting questions. We’ll spend the first week of October workshopping questions, practicing interviews, and even working with Pete Reynolds of Learn Deep and Joan Ward of Employ Milwaukee’s Center for Health Care Careers to receive feedback on interview questions and advice on coding the interviews once they’re finished.
I’ll admit that I came into these classes feeling rather nervous. Of course, I was over the moon at the opportunity of leading students through community-engaged research, but I wasn’t sure if they would share my excitement. Luckily, my worry was unfounded.
I’m blown away by how engaged these students have been, and how willing they are to work through a research process that, for most of them, is entirely new. They’re approaching these interviews—and the prospect of the research that will come after—with enthusiasm and creativity.
The interviews will take place during the week of October 7th. To keep up with how they went, the research they inspire, and some student reflections on the process, check back later on in the semester.
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
This is the second part of two posts about our new faculty members with the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program at UWM: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. You can read Part 1 here.
What experience do you have with community-engaged teaching?
Maria: I have taught many professional writing and technical classes, which naturally lend themselves to community-engaged projects. For example, in my "Digital Rhetoric in Health and Medicine" course at UWO, students worked with the Women’s Center and Student Center on campus to create a series of multimedia, advocacy toolkits to support educating their college peers on the importance of data privacy. We reflected on the learning that occurred through these projects and shared our community-engaged projects on the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative’s blog. Also, in my "Grant Writing Foundations" course, my students worked with five Oshkosh community non-profits organizations. While students gained experience researching and writing grant documents, this collaborative partnership also revealed the importance of reciprocity. As the course concluded, students remarked on the interpersonal and rhetorical negotiations they had to make in order to successfully partner with the organization.
Derek: My first year writing courses are focused on place and community. What I mean by that, is that the course focuses on issues directly affecting the local place where the students live. I have students conduct research not only in academic spaces such as the library, but also out in the community. They have to talk with people, organizations, and businesses to get a greater understanding of the various stakeholders' perspectives. For instance, when I taught in Western Pennsylvania, I developed a course around the environmental issue of Marcellus Shale fracking. Many of my students were directly connected to that industry through friends and family.
What do you envision for the future of our Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program?
Derek: I think it is important for us to develop a program that has a viable option for careers outside of academia. The academic job market is tight and there are other careers in which students should consider. To facilitate this idea, I think we should seek relationships with outside organizations and businesses and educate them on how students in our program can contribute to the goals of that organization. Perhaps we could set up summer internships for our students. The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program serves as a perfect example of what some of our students should consider applying for after they complete their degree. The program places recent PhDs in government organizations and non-profit sectors for up two years.
Maria: I am very excited to work on the Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program. My dissertation drew from my community-engaged work with the ART of Infertility. Engaged in that work, I recall moments of feeling overwhelmed not just by the doing of a dissertation but by the natural messiness of navigating and learning what it means to do community work. I hope to draw on these experiences, as well as the experiences of current graduate students, to think about how the program can be structurally organized and designed to offer mentorship and institutional support. I see my book project with John Gagnon as one scholarly trajectory that assists with this, but I’m also eager to think through the types of experiences and training we offer to our students via our curriculum. It’s an exciting program, and I think will resonate with folks across the field!
What is a graduate course you look forward to teaching?
Maria: I’m really looking forward to teaching Cultural Rhetorics in the spring. I’ve taught this for undergraduate students, but I’m eager to teach approaches to a cultural rhetorics methodology to graduate students. I am hopeful that students will also take interest, as I see cultural rhetorics offering methods useful for individuals who want to do ethical and reciprocal community work. Plus, I’m hoping that I can invite a couple of scholars who do cultural rhetorics work to join our class for some Q&A sessions.
Derek: I look forward to developing and teaching a topics course entitled African American Rhetoric and the Black Freedom Movement. The course is intended as an informed introduction to African American rhetoric, which is defined as the “communicative practices, and persuasive strategies rooted in freedom struggles by people of African ancestry in America” (Jackson and Richardson). The readings and discussions will familiarize students with various contemporary theorists whose ideas broaden contemporary conceptualization of African American Rhetoric. By the end of the course, students will have a richer understanding of how rhetoric is a tool of social change encompassing a variety of written, visual and verbal communication strategies. Readings in particular will include major thinkers like Cornel West, Keith Gilyard, Molefi Asante, and Geneva Smitherman.
What's something you like to do in your free time?
Derek: Exploring Wisconsin. My family and I are still new to the Midwest so we’re looking forward to taking some day-trips to go hiking, kayaking, and canoeing, especially when the leaves start to change colors. Also, we just adopted a 5 year-old Labrador Retriever named Obi, so we want to get him out of the city and get some strenuous exercise.
Maria: I’m a Wisconsin girl at heart. Raised here, in the summer I am an avid musky fisherwoman. I caught a 41 inch one this summer with my dad. In the spring, I help a family friend on their maple syrup farm. Taking walks in the woods, listening to storms roll through, and establishing a connection to the land has helped me stay grounded when the stress of academia can seem intense.
Thanks to Derek and Maria for their time and interest in contributing to Writing & Rhetoric MKE. I’m looking forward to building community with you in our program and around Milwaukee! -RBP
By Rachel Bloom-Pojar
Fall 2019 marks the official launch of our program in Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement at UWM. My colleagues and I are also excited to welcome two new faculty members to our program: Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Maria Novotny. To help everyone get to know them better, I asked Derek and Maria a series of questions about their experience and vision for the new program. In this post, we’ll learn a bit about Derek and Maria’s background with research and part 2 will focus on their teaching and goals for the future of the program.
What is your experience with community-engaged research?
Maria: I draw on my work with the ART of Infertility to inform my community-engaged scholarship. As a resource organization, I host multimodal art workshops for reproductive loss patients to depict their experiences with grief and the reproductive healthcare industry. Once patient pieces are created, I invite patient-participants to narrate their infertility experiences through their artwork. Today, the organization has over 200 pieces of narrative art, of which, I incorporate into art exhibitions around the U.S. I understand these exhibits as evidence of how art rhetorically translates technical, scientific, and medical experiences into accessible experiences for non-experts to grasp and ignite community-engaged action. My purpose is to act as an ally to remove the embedded cultural stigma of receiving an infertility diagnosis and create resources that educate healthcare providers, and the public at-large, on the sociocultural challenges faced by the reproductive loss community.
Derek: My research focuses on African American community rhetorical histories which means I have to do research in the archives and in the local neighborhoods. I conduct interviews with community members, walk the locations where historical events took place, and attend community events. I also like to take students on walking tours of these historic neighborhoods.
What are you currently working on?
Derek: I am currently working on my book project, “The Places We Knew So Well Are No More:” A Rhetorical History of Urban Renewal and the Black Freedom Movement. In particular, I’m focusing on the Milwaukee section of the book where rhetorical education played a significant role in helping residents understand the complexities of urban renewal. In addition, I’m working on a conference paper (National Communications Association) about St. Paul, Minnesota, which will also be featured in my book. My paper explores how race is implicated in the contested spaces and places of urban renewal policies. But more importantly, it will examine the rhetorical actions taken by residents in St. Paul in an effort to save their community from the wrecking balls of eminent domain during the 1950s and 60s.
Maria: I’m currently co-editing special issues for The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics on “Curation: A Multimodal Practice for Socially-Engaged Action”, Computers and Composition on “Rhetorics of Data: Collection, Consent, & Critical Digital Literacies”, and Reflections on “Rhetorics of Reproductive Justice in Public and Civic Contexts”. While on the surface those themes may appear distinct, the calls emphasize scholarly contributions that consider how curation may act as a response for social action.
Related, I’m working on a co-authored book project with Dr. John Gagnon (University of Hawaii-Manoa). We published “Research as Care: A Shared Ownership Approach to Rhetorical Research in Trauma Communities,” which offers a cultural rhetorical framework for collaborating with trauma participants for rhetorical research. Our book project tentatively titled, Care as a Practice: Reorienting Research in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, offers a cultural rhetorics infused methodological framework to inform the design and ethical enactment of community-engaged research projects. Our manuscript expands on and explains the idea of care as a research practice, demonstrates the efficacy of a care-centered research paradigm, and delivers concrete models for how to enact care methodologically.
Danielle: I’ve lived in the greater Milwaukee area since I was young. I graduated from Marquette University in 2013 with a degree in Writing Intensive English. For my Rhetoric and Composition MA project, I rhetorically analyzed how Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez utilizes Instagram in order to build community with her followers. I hope to do more research about the ways in which people make rhetorical choices in digital spaces. As a mom of two energetic daughters, I don’t have much “spare time,” but I love drinking coffee and finding pockets of time to read.
Chloe: I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life. As a first generation college student, I got my bachelor’s degree in English from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in 2017. I finished my masters in Rhetoric and Composition at UWM this past spring. My MA project focused on the history of “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” and supporting teachers in furthering linguistic equality in their classrooms. In my free time, I enjoy cross stitching, listening to true crime podcasts, and supporting the Chicago Cubs.
As two students about to begin working toward their PhDs in UWM’s brand new Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement program, we see this blog as an opportunity to spotlight important work, events, and people in our community. While Milwaukee is known for its beer and cheese, we hope to explore more deeply what is happening in and around this city, and how people are engaging with rhetoric.
We’ve both been with the blog since the beginning, in Rachel Bloom-Pojar’s Latinx Rhetorics course in Spring 2019. We’ve seen the blog in all of its uses: as a tool to recap class discussions and readings, as a highlight of community events, and as a way to connect with other academics over the woes and triumphs of qualitative research. As contributors to this blog, we’ve written pieces that connected to theories and practices in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, and we’ve workshopped with our peers to create content that both a local and extended audience would be interested in reading.
Slowly but surely, we’ve seen the connections between our program and the community being built with this blog, and we’re looking forward to keeping that momentum. Writing for the blog was sometimes challenging as part of our class assignments, as it could be difficult to write good content within the confines of the guidelines. We hope that going forward, this blog can be not only a source of information but also a conversation starter with both our local community as well as with our larger academic community.
Both UWM and the Milwaukee community as a whole has an exciting year ahead: here on campus, the English department will be officially launching our new PhD program: Public Rhetorics and Community Engagement. Through this program, students will be challenged on their notions of rhetoric and stretched to engage with the diverse communities that surround UWM. We hope to utilize this blog as a platform to highlight other writers on campus and off. People are doing rhetoric in Milwaukee in a myriad of ways and we want to celebrate and share it!
It's going to be a big year for rhetoric and writing in Milwaukee. Next March, the city will be host to the 2020 CCCC Annual Convention; in July, the 2020 Democratic National Convention. We look forward to being a place of learning, connection, and community for those in the city, those visiting, and those keeping tabs from afar.
We hope to continue adding intriguing rhetorical writing to this blog, and welcome submissions from fellow writers who are engaging with community events, organizations, individuals, or anything else that highlights writing and rhetoric in our city.
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.
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