Rashid Khalidi: "The Arab Spring"
A Tribute to John Hay (1915-2011)

Fighting Fear in Wisconsin

Today's post is from Kim E. Nielsen, an award-winning educator, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities We the People stipend, a Fulbright lecturer, the author of many journal articles, and frequent public speaker. She is the author of Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller. She lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin where she is Professor of History & Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.


I'm afraid to turn on my television. Really, it terrifies me. This is not based on a fear of alien mind-melt, a fear of governmental snooping, or a fear of the little people who live inside the box (no flat screen at my house).

I fear clicking the remote control because I live in Wisconsin. Click: teachers are sucking the state dry. Click: public employees are lazy bums. Click: those guys who plow my street again and again and again (and now once more) are just selfish. Click: collective bargaining rights, the right to help shape our own workplaces, are an unnecessary privilege exploited by the spoiled. Click: it's just petty of people with disabilities to think transportation is necessary to get to work. Click: let's pay everyone as little as we get can get away with. Click: education, the essential core of any democratic society, the best grounding for healthy human beings, the cause to which I've dedicated most of my waking hours since I was five years old, doesn't have to be that good and really isn't very important. Mediocrity, indeed, is just fine.

Really, I'm terrified to turn on my television.

Fear, however, is not helping me out. Fear doesn't make for happy people, fear doesn't lead to quality and transformative teaching, fear hinders parenting, and fear certainly obstructs good policy decisions. For my college students, fear is not a place from which good learning happens. Fear is just no fun. And because I'm a historian, and it's secret requirement of the Ph.D. that I quote FDR (don't tell anyone that I told you), "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

Courage, I tell myself, courage despite fear. Courage to spite fear. At 8 a.m. I will walk before a classroom of students. I will convey to them that they can transform their lives, their family's lives, and their world for the better—and that an education is their tool to do so. That is, of course, why they are in my classroom.

My students, it turns out, have plenty of courage. Most of my students are of the first generation in their families to attend college. They fear not finding employment. They fear that their parents will lose the family home. They fear the loss, or the continued absence of, healthcare. They fear sitting in the classroom while being haunted by memories of rape, of military combat, of things they can't identify. They fear each tuition bill. They fear, more than anything, the loss of hope. They, however, are brave enough to show up in my classroom. And they need, they need, they need me to have hope.

Professor Nielsen, one announces proudly, I got a B on my biology exam. Another student emails me after class, thank you for your concern and I'm sorry I walked out of class but too many of my friends have been raped and I can't even think about these issues. Professor, says a particularly quiet young man, I worked harder on this paper than I've ever worked before. Another student stops by my office… for no stated reason at all, for the third time. One boisterous student who calls me Dr. Kim is thrilled because she just spoke to a state legislator for the very first time. Another cries because her mom attempted suicide, and at nineteen she has to care for her younger brother. One amazed student tells me over and over again that she just can't believe how cool the suffragist Alice Paul was. Amidst all of this, they bolster their courage, they try to study, and they seek meaning.

This morning I woke dispirited, but I need courage for my students and I need courage for me.

Over the last several weeks I've encountered tens of thousands of courageous Wisconsinites. A 12 year old gave her first public speech with a bullhorn, before 5,000 people, in the state capitol rotunda. I love my teachers, she proclaimed, and they deserve more money—not less. Off duty police officers, with signs proclaiming "cops for labor," handed out water to the chanting protesters circling my state capitol as we thanked them for their presence. A wonderful, gruff retired steelworker told me that he didn't think he'd have lived this long without the basic protections his union provides. I laughed along with an animated high school senior, who refused to be cowed by a Republican legislator who threatened to call her truancy officer after she'd spent a day protesting peacefully. She stood proud, proud of herself and of her many teachers who had laughed and hugged while insisting that they deserved the basic human right of collective bargaining. A man who cleans public buildings shows up at our local rallies and sings to the protesters. Assembly Representative Peter Barca, who guaranteed his constituents continued access to him by moving his desk to the cold Wisconsin outdoors after Governor Scott Walker locked the capitol building despite a court order, makes me smile and cheer (send that man wool socks). And the Wisconsin 14 –those wonderful, courageous state Democratic senators who reportedly are braving the wilds of Illinois—are my heroes (especially Dave Hansen, my local Green Bay senator).

The labor rights of the people of Wisconsin, and of the rest of the nation, matter and their loss will impact all of us. My students and the quality of their education matter. The man who plows my street matters. The disability activists who staged a sit-in at Wisconsin Republican Party headquarters matter. Frankly, I and my colleagues matter. And it is unconscionably immoral to have the goal of paying people as little as one possibly can. Most importantly, however, the emerging labor alliance of nurses, social workers, snow plow drivers, fire fighters, college professors, electricians, janitors, ship builders, teachers, and police officers are pivotal to the future economic and social health of this nation. We are the future—not the Koch brothers and not Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker.

Photo by Mark Riechers, shared under Creative Commons. See original.