I’ve got mine, now you get yours.
Just make sure that yours
Doesn’t reduce mine.
I’m pretty sure most of us would deny that the above statement reflects how we see ourselves, how we feel or what we believe. But the sad truth is, this is the message being sent to the growing low-income population in the city of Milwaukee.
Many among us work to make life better for others. Certainly, there are thousands of generous people from across the region who donate valuable time, talent and treasure to help those in need. But unfortunately, charity isn’t going to fix the problem of economic segregation. Just think about how deeply entrenched the systems are and how much must be overcome to create a lasting change. We are divided economically. And racially. And politically. And yet, we live just miles apart. We are one region but it feels like we are separate countries.
I’ve been thinking about what it would take to see the kind of change required to break down so many deeply rooted barriers. We can work for social change – building an alternative power base and forcing the structural changes needed, or we can work for a change of heart. We’ve been through social change. Think of the open housing marches in the 1960s, or the civil rights movement, or school desegregation. All of those created change but did so through struggle and through an ultimate mandate for change. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” That’s how we have seen this type of structural change come about in the past. I’ve spent a good part of my life working for such change in one venue or another. I even had the expanded quote from Frederick Douglass on a poster on my wall in one of the offices where I worked.
I believe that change is coming. Maybe not today – but soon. I say this because I know that you cannot bottle people up and keep them segregated and isolated for so long without the need for change building in their hearts and minds. Some young and energetic organizer will begin to mount a campaign for social change. She will lead a series of “actions” against the power structure, aiming at popular sites such as Mayfair Mall, the Waukesha Wilson Center, the Brewer’s stadium or the new $400 Million basketball arena. She may even get some folks to shut down traffic on I-94, or chain themselves at the gates of Summerfest. She and her growing constituency will point out the places of power and injustice and demand change. That’s one way change can happen.
But now I am wondering if there is another way. I’m wondering if we can mount a sustained and organized effort to change hearts which will then usher in structural change. Is it possible for people of faith to unite around the idea of educating a broad constituency about the need to change the racial and economic dynamics of the region? And in doing so, can we create a movement for change that comes from within; one that is built on the understanding that there is a place and time where peace and justice can kiss and where people of goodwill can usher in a new era of change and shared prosperity?
Change is coming like it or not. It will come through struggle, turmoil and demands or it can come through education, a change of hearts and an appeal to our better angels.
The organizer in me bets on the former. The seeker in me hopes for the latter.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.