By Karen Vieth, Emerge Wisconsin Class of 2013
For the first ten years of my teaching career, I thought
teaching and voting were enough. I was doing what I loved and I was fulfilling my civic duty. I will never forget the day that all of this changed. It was February 11th, 2011. Like clockwork, a student brought in my classroom copy of the Wisconsin State Journal and set it on the table beside me. As I was saying my “good mornings” to my class, I picked it up and read the headline, “Walker to propose stripping collective bargaining rights from state workers.” I looked again, assuming that I had misread the title. I carefully set the paper back down and looked out at the hopeful faces of my students. I was now fully awake and I knew the protection of these students had to extend beyond the walls of my classroom.
The action taken by Wisconsin’s Governor Walker in Act 10 forever changed my life. The following weeks were filled with protests, public hearings, and nights spent at the Wisconsin State Capitol. In the months that followed, I would knock on over a thousand doors throughout the state to assist with the Senate recall campaigns. In passing, I heard female leaders like Kathleen Falk and Tammy Baldwin promote Emerge as a powerful training program, but I saw my place at the doors, having one-on-one conversations with the people of the state I love.
By August of 2011, I was completely engaged in politics. That summer, when I wasn’t on a road trip with area activists, I would stop by the phone banks at Madison’s Labor Temple. I would research the candidate I was making calls for and locate the district on the map before donning a headset. One evening, I was told that we would be making calls for Emerge graduate, Jessica King, who was working to unseat Senator Randy Hopper. When I read her bio, I was inspired. Jessica King’s life had been anything but typical. She had overcome many obstacles including becoming a ward of the state at a young age and putting herself through school. In addition to feeling inspired, I felt validated. I saw a piece of myself in Senator Jessica King’s story. Perhaps my own life experiences could some day empower others.
It was at a Dane County Board meeting when I finally found my voice in politics. The budget was up for discussion and I was one of many citizens there to give testimony. There were services on the chopping block that had helped me as a teen and as a young adult. These were services I wanted to protect for my students’ families, yet I was nervous getting up in front of a room that was packed with hundreds of people. I was wearing my bright red Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) Union T-shirt as a symbol, but also to boost my confidence. Once in front of the Board, I spoke my truth. I shared pieces of myself and my virtues with complete strangers. I did this to preserve the path I had taken and strengthen it for others. As I stopped talking and turned to go back to my seat, an audience member yelled out, “Go MTI!” I was taken aback by a brief showering of applause. The “me” from a year ago would not have been standing in this spot. Again, my own path had shifted.
Months later, I found myself at a local political fundraiser. I had accepted the invitation out of curiosity; this was a world that was new to me. I smiled and greeted people, but felt largely out of place. A friend of mine turned to introduce me to Emerge graduate and Dane County Supervisor (now state Assembly person), Dianne Hesselbein. An amazing thing happened, catching me completely off guard. She didn’t need the introduction. Supervisor Hesselbein shook my hand with a genuine smile and said, “I remember you. You spoke at the Dane County Board budget meeting.” She went on to explain that my words had moved her. This moment made me give Emerge a second thought. Perhaps, there was a larger forum for my voice and my passion for issues that affect our community.
As I pondered Emerge, I stayed engaged. I spoke at School Board Meetings and for the Chicago Teachers Union when they were out on strike. I worked on political campaigns, spoke on the radio, and began my own blog. All of this was fulfilling, but the idea of Emerge kept surfacing in conversations, followed by assertions of, “you should run for office.” I turned to people I trusted, like Emerge graduate and State Assembly person, Melissa Sargent. With each person I talked to, my resolve heightened.
Now, I am officially a member of Emerge Wisconsin’s Class of 2013. I know that other great women, many of them mentioned in this blog, paved the way so that I can stand where I do today. Walking into my Emerge classroom on the weekend, I see the power and potential in each of my Emerge sisters. And when they smile and welcome me into the group, I now see that same potential in myself.
Photos by Erin Proctor, Special Education Assistant and Madison Teachers Inc Member