One of the criticisms of politics is that it lacks heart. Too frequently, campaigns and political activity are driven by the numbers, rather than by ideals. Neighborhoods or people are ranked according to their likelihood of voting and voting the right way. During signature collection, leading up to the recall election of Governor Scott Walker, a few of us decided to take a different path. We had done the drive-up signature collecting, where many of us had braved the snow to stand at crowded intersections waving our “Recall Walker” signs. But, as the collecting started to slow down, we looked for a meaningful way to gather the signatures of people who had been overlooked.
There was an area surrounding Deer Valley Road in the Town of Madison that had personal and professional significance to me. I was fairly certain that nobody had been out in this neighborhood gathering recall signatures. I had hosted our school picnic in this low-income neighborhood for the past five years, so it was familiar territory. We chose Southdale Park, the community’s center as our meeting location and hit the doors. It was clear after going through the first apartment building that we had chosen wisely. Residents welcomed us inside. They asked us what had taken us so long to find them. Many grabbed the clipboard enthusiastically to add their signature before we even had time to offer up an explanation. The people in this community fully understood the impact Governor Walker was having on our state. It was a cold winter in Wisconsin, but I found myself refreshed at these doors. These residents had been overlooked due to their location and socio-economic status, but they had not given up on taking action.
During the recall election, a new program was born under the We Are Wisconsin umbrella. The mission of “The Doors Less Knocked” program was to go into under-served communities, educate people about their rights, register new voters, and connect with people regarding the recall election. Volunteers bought into this program from the start. People saw it as their chance to form new connections and to empower the communities that they cared about. It was clear that the impact made at the doors would extend beyond the recall election. For this reason, a small group of faithful volunteers sat down with the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) President, Kevin Gundlach, the night before the recall election to discuss the future of “The Doors Less Knocked.”
We were all certain that this movement needed to expand beyond the electoral. We wanted to form more meaningful bonds that would result in true partnerships. To do this, we needed to be doing more than just campaigning. Our answers would only come at inviting these residents and community leaders into the conversation. In doing so, we would truly be placing community first.” With this expanded mission came a new name, “Community First.”
Though we are a young organization, our group is diverse. Operating under the South Central Federation of Labor, draws in a lot of Union representation. There are teachers, social workers, nurses, and a sheet metal worker. However, our group also includes private sector workers, clergy, School Board and County Board members, and retirees. The diversity of the group’s experiences is our greatest asset.
Since the recalls, our team has been busy. We have been out in communities talking to the people about what matters most to them. We have used literature, surveys and personal connections to guide us toward our next steps in the neighborhoods we serve. In doing so, we have educated ourselves on employment, housing, and transportation needs. It was through “Community First” that I recently found myself speaking at a City Council meeting.
Our work has only just begun, but every step on this journey’s start has been inspiring. Our work in the communities reconnects us to a world where people are distanced by fear and assumptions. Every door that is answered with a smile and a friendly greeting lets me know that we are on the right path, a path that will continue to follow the needs of the community.