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A Cautionary Tale From Wisconsin

You know me as a Newton Upstander but what you may not know is that I grew up in Wisconsin. In fact, my hometown is none other than the liberal-as-can-be Madison, Wisconsin (a.k.a., Mad City for those in the know). I essentially grew up on the UW Madison Campus so of course when it was time for me to go to college, I simply had to leave town and go somewhere else. I only had two requirements: I needed to stay in the state-system for economic reasons (proud Pell Grant recipient over here!) and I wanted to be in a city, and that meant Milwaukee.

People in our community may be surprised to hear that Milwaukee is an amazingly vibrant city that oozes cool. It was home to woke hipsters long before anyone had ever heard of either term. But, Milwaukee is also one of the most racially segregated US cities with some of the worst health disparities in the country. As the ACLU of Wisconsin puts it, “During a time in which Americans are being forced to confront how centuries of white supremacy has shaped virtually every aspect of our lives, there may be no better case study for the present-day impact of systemic racism than the City of Milwaukee.”

A famously purple state, Wisconsin is also home to the progressive movement, The Onion (the original one), Joe McCarthy, and Kyle Rittenhouse. Just a few days ago, Republican lawmakers cut the UW System’s budget by $32M all over “ Republican anger over diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, programs on the system’s 13 universities,” but it also recently flipped the Supreme Court to liberal control for the first time in 15 years. They have a radically conservative state legislature but a democratic governor. In other words, it is a perfect petri dish for the extremes of American politics.

So what does this have to do with Newton? Sadly, more than you would think. It is not fear-mongering to say that what has happened in Wisconsin could happen here, which is why our local paper is covering the issue.

If you have a Boston Globe subscription, I implore you to read How politics changed education in the Milwaukee suburbs: ‘Now school is about the politics and the fear’ by Jess Bidgood. If you don’t have a subscription, get it at the library or from a friend. It is that important.

The article describes what happened in Waukesha County, a Milwaukee suburb, and is the perfect illustration of what happens when the far-right machine targets local school board elections. The Waukesha County GOP “went looking for candidates: vetting them with questions about ‘conservative issues’ then training them and helping them file. There is also a PAC that has raised and spent tens of thousands of dollars.”

And it worked. “With the help of the local GOP and national groups, this new crop of candidates has expanded to take over nearby school boards, too, posting victories that have turned this area, Waukesha County, into a laboratory for conservative efforts to change education….”

Gone are the rainbow flags. Gone are the Black Lives Matters signs. Gone is the ability for teachers to use student’s preferred pronouns. In their place are fear, alienation, and crackdowns. As one transgender student put it, “I’m kind of used to it at this point, knowing my humanity is debated. As depressing as it is, it’s just a normal part of life.”

You may think that something like this could never happen in Newton. Obviously Waukesha County is far more conservative than our city. However, tactics adapt to the community, and we already know we are a target of right-wing inspired attempts to undermine our progressive policies and values. Seemingly nonpartisan but staunchly conservative groups such as FAIR (which has a Metrowest Chapter) have made inroads into Newton and Moms for Liberty, which has been designated as a far-right extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, boasts a chapter in Middlesex County. These groups use fear to drive a wedge between parents and set up a false narrative that we must choose between our children’s’ academic success and respect for and appreciation of differences.

I believe that we can keep what is happening in Wisconsin from happening in Newton, but we must stay vigilant and pay attention. As you may know, Newton has School Committee elections this fall and we will need to do everything we can to ensure that successful candidates are champions both of academic excellence and the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging values that attracted most of us to Newton.

We will be sharing more information on the elections and the various candidates' views over the summer but for now, please read the Globe article to remain informed.


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