In this issue of On, we share stories that demonstrate the human potential for tenacity and resilience. These are not warm and fuzzy stories, but instead they remind us of what it means to be human and of how community gives us strength and purpose. We are proud to be part of this statewide community and hope you feel inspired by reading stories from some of the remarkable people here in Wisconsin.
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In this issue of On:
You can’t step in the same river twice, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said more than two millennia ago, expressing a truth about change so vividly that the phrase remains in our lexicon. Today, changing rivers are a dramatic, unmistakable fact of life, not a metaphor for it. In much of Wisconsin, recent floods have repeatedly challenged individuals, businesses, and government at all levels. Scientists say it’s likely that this spring we’ll experience flood damage again.
How we understand the changes affecting our waters is critical to how we plan for or seek to prevent and respond to them. Science provides a particular, powerful set of tools. But even with data and technology in hand, the way forward is not obvious. People may consider or ignore the history of particular places. They may agree or disagree about whose interests, and what features of their home places, should be valued. Even worse, people may feel that they don’t have a say in what should be done, or even a way they can participate in the conversation.
We need to do more to support individual and communal resilience in Wisconsin today. That’s why last fall, when flooding severely damaged small libraries in Rock Springs, LaValle, Norwalk, and Ontario, my board authorize the creation of emergency funds to help them recover. In this issue, you’ll read about other ways we are stepping up to the challenge.
The resilience of Wisconsin’s communities depends upon residents’ understanding of the challenges we face. Bill Berry is an award-winning journalist and author from Stevens Point who has worked tirelessly for decades to bring us the information we need about complex environmental issues.
Now and then, the Green Bay Press Gazette pulls a 1963 photo of a busy day at the Joannes Park Swimming Pool from the Neville Museum Collection to run once more, showing how 400 kids cooled off on a 90-degree day back then.
In the foreground, looking up at the photographer, stand my childhood friend Nicky Kobriger and me. I’m the 12-year-old blond boy, and I remember the long-ago moment like it was yesterday. We watched the photographer climb to the roof of the pool building, take several photos and then disappear. I don’t remember the photo running in the newspaper that summer, but I’m sure it did. Every few years, it shows up again, and Nicky and I are once again young.
That photo came to mind when the Wisconsin Humanities Council asked me for some personal reflections on a life of a writer covering water issues to help introduce the water-focused programming of the upcoming year. Why a photo of a swimming pool full of kids? Cities like Green Bay built swimming pools in the mid-1950s at least in part because we had polluted the natural waters. Parents wanted kids to have a place to learn to swim and enjoy those hot summer days.
Like many cities, Green Bay’s waters of my childhood were a stinky mess. The Fox River was a sewer for industrial and municipal users. It was eight blocks upwind from our childhood homes, and on some summer nights Nicky, me and the other kids would pull pillows over our heads to block the smell. The river flowed into the Green Bay, which had a pollution plume almost to Door County. The iconic Bay Beach swimming beach of our parents’ youth had long been closed to swimming. It was that way all along big stretches of the bay. I remember a childhood trip to one of my parents’ favorite beaches on the west shore. We were greeted by a sign that said the waters were unsafe for swimming.
I remember the long looks on my parents’ faces, but we kids took it in stride. Rivers and lakes were polluted. Swimming in them was like drinking poison. After all, there were the pools.
I went away to college in River Falls in 1969 and learned to my surprise that some rivers were actually quite clean and clear. Tromping around the Kinnickinnic River, I contemplated that stream and those back home, and an environmentalist was hatched. Then a U.S. senator named Gaylord Nelson stoked the fire when he came to campus touting something called the Clean Water Act. He made it seem like it was actually possible to make positive change, to repair what we had wrought. I hung on the words of that soft-spoken man.
Sure enough, my first newspaper reporting jobs in central Wisconsin put me face-to-face with the Wisconsin River cleanup. Like the Fox, the Wisconsin was a powerful, hardworking and polluted river that was resilient enough to cleanse itself if given a chance. The river cleanup was a regular beat for news media in those days. It wasn’t easy, and some opponents predicted dire consequences for commerce. But our industrial, municipal and government leaders found common ground and went ahead with the big job. In just a few short decades, rivers like the Fox and Wisconsin and scores of others across the U.S. were reborn. Whole community revitalization projects were built around the suddenly compelling waterfronts. Rivers were economic drivers, community centerpieces, tourism attractions, natural attributes to be cherished.
All of that happened in a few short years, and in my way of looking at it, those river cleanups were among this nation’s major accomplishments of the last century.
Maybe it was heightened awareness, but water issues of all sorts became big news. I kept following the story lines. Or they kept following me. When my wife and I sought to buy our first home, in Wausau, we learned through a well test that the well water was high in nitrates and we couldn’t get a mortgage because banks considered it a high risk. What the heck were nitrates, and how did they get in the water? I did a series of newspaper articles and learned that high nitrates and resulting difficulties were common. People just weren’t talking about it.
Down on the potato fields of the Golden Sands region of central Wisconsin, researchers had found more than nitrates in wells. A potent pesticide, aldicarb, had leached into the ground water from agricultural pest control. I was part of teams that covered the pitched controversy that followed, one that pitted agriculture against environmentalists. Once again, the long public discussion produced common ground, and that led to state ground water quality rules that were a model for the country when adopted in 1984. I’m convinced the constant media attention focused on the situation led to that legislation.
Good as the Clean Water Act was, it failed to address polluted runoff from agriculture and other sources. Changing agricultural practices have exacerbated the problems, and these days dangerous algae blooms are common.
Everywhere we look in Wisconsin, it seems there’s a water story: Water quality in the Great Lakes, rising nitrate levels and new research linking nitrates to a long list of health impacts, concerns about how to handle the waste from large animal confinement facilities. Then there’s the whole water quantity story, which has been with us since the birth of high-capacity wells capable of pumping more than 100,000 gallons of water per day. The growth of high capacity wells for agricultural irrigation and municipal water supplies in parts of the state has been phenomenal. In the Golden Sands region alone the number of high capacity wells in the Central Sands Area has increased from fewer than 100 in the early 1950s to more than 3,000. Now, we face the question: Do the waters below ground belong to the public or to private entities?
I have spent my life covering water stories, and I suppose I’ll be writing about water issues as long as I’m able. Some, like the big river cleanup of the 1970s, are great legacies to be shared. Others, like the ones we struggle with today, are still being written. In almost all cases, these water stories are also stories about humans and how we resolve conflicts for the good of all.
– Bill Berry, Stevens Point
In the Spotlight:
For some, the sound of rain is a trigger, waking in the middle of the night to check weather radar.
For others, like Ryan McGuire, “I can go right back to that night. I’m walking down the street and the water’s up to my chest and you almost get, like, a shiver in your back.”
Says Ron Campbell, “You see all those flooded homes, and you know there’s a story in every single one of those homes.”
These are snippets of the stories from the Driftless Writing Center’s Stories from the Flood, which received a $10,000 grant from the WHC. The collection of oral histories, photos, poetry and other memories memorializes the catastrophic flooding of late August 2018 when a foot of rain fell and led multiple dams in Monroe and Vernon counties to fail.
On an icy November evening, many of the project’s contributors gathered to share their stories and learn from each other. The community room of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve overflowed as people craned their necks to listen, balancing plates of food donated by local vendors.
Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, a UW-Madison English professor, spoke about how her students were changed by their experience of collecting stories. The students often heard people say they felt others had it worse, despite the loss of homes or livelihoods. Some residents lamented the red tape they fought in pursuit of government assistance. Others talked about their gratitude for the help they received from neighbors and strangers. As a short film played, narrated by long-time local reporter Tim Hundt, footage of the devastation drew gasps.
There is a long history of catastrophic flooding in western Wisconsin’s valleys. It has compelled whole communities to move and led to innovation in farming practices to mitigate erosion. The frequency and intensity of the flooding seen in recent years, however, are giving residents pause.
Despite the losses, Stories from the Flood also offers rays of hope. Folks help each other out, marshal their resources, rebuild, or move their communities. They come together and look for answers. They’re resilient. According to scientists, they need to be. Long-term projections suggest there is more flooding to come.
Hearing these powerful stories from the Coulee Region sealed the decision to focus this year’s Beyond the Headlines project on the future of our waters. We’ll be holding workshops in six locales statewide to help journalists and community leaders tell their local water stories. The first will be at La Farge High School, overlooking the Kickapoo River.
Access to accurate, trusted news is essential to the civic life of Wisconsin communities and to the health of our democracy. But today, both trust in the news media and access to quality news sources are in decline. The WHC launched the Beyond the Headlines initiative in 2018 to tackle both problems, as well as the troubling rise of social media as news sources.
In the first year of Beyond the Headlines, public trust in the work done by local Wisconsin journalists got a boost through face-to-face discussions of urgent local issues. In Wausau, Eau Claire, and Superior, we formed local committees of journalists and community members. Each committee chose a local issue that would be the focus of public discussions between journalists, other experts, and the public. In Wausau, the community dug into questions surrounding law enforcement and the media. In Eau Claire, in a region where recent economic growth has failed to benefit the poor, poverty was the focus. Superior and the surrounding region suffer from a significant decline in Wisconsin news media outlets, so they discussed what it means to live in a “news desert,” and how the situation might be improved.
Beyond the Headlines also brought together journalists from around the state for a workshop designed to help them do an even better job of reporting stories about Wisconsin’s waters.
Starting in spring 2020, Beyond the Headlines will focus statewide on water issues, helping media outlets and community leaders tell scientifically accurate and humanly meaningful stories about flooding, groundwater contamination and more, as we continue to connect media with community leaders and the public.
Go to www.beyondtheheadlineswisconsin.org for details, resources, and other locations.
When Kewaunee chiropractor Robin Nelson asked a former mayor, “Can we paint the lighthouse?” she couldn’t have foreseen how the community would change. Not only is the lighthouse getting a facelift, but an historic walking tour, funded in part with a WHC mini grant, has the community seeing itself in a new light.
Spurred by the loss of jobs when a nuclear power plant was decommissioned in 2013, Kewaunee has struggled to reinvent itself. “I liked the idea of trying to show people the value of the historical impact that a harbor community had,” Nelson says. “Working on [the lighthouse] project has shown me how much Kewaunee means to me–and all the people who live here, too,” she says. “It makes me realize we do live in an important community.”
UW-Milwaukee professor Arijit Sen and his students collaborated with residents to explore the history and heritage of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Dr. Sen is seeking new ways to use history as a resource to help Wisconsinites build livable communities. “We discover how these different residents are bound by common aspirations of homeownership and stewardship and civic pride. We hear of difficulties and struggles too… but even struggles teach us important lessons of resilient practices and grassroots strategies to address problems,” says Prof. Sen. Residents and visitors pictured here were on an “Jane’s walk,” one of many public programs that resulted from the WHC-grant funded project.
When Geri Naymick talks about her values, and what connects her to the Wisconsin Humanities Council, it’s two words: identity and legacy. She deeply values the ways the WHC helps people across Wisconsin explore and take pride in their identities. And by including the WHC in her will and choosing to make annual contributions from her IRS distribution, she is creating a legacy that will enrich so many lives.
To find out more about legacy gifts, contact Gail Kohl. And if you want to make a donation right now, make it a recurring gift of $10 or more per month and you’ll receive a copy of the beautiful Love Wisconsin coffee table book! Just go to our Donate page and give to Love Wisconsin or the Annual Fund. You’ll be redirected to our donation portal (hosted by UW Foundation), where you may choose the first option, “Repeat this gift every month for the greatest impact.”
Have you discovered Love Wisconsin yet? If not, we’re thrilled to introduce you to this digital storytelling project—and to announce that we’ve recently formed a partnership that means we’ve taken over its production. Love Wisconsin shares powerful, first-person stories via social media, email, and the web. The stories provide a glimpse into the lives of people from all over Wisconsin and from all walks of life. We know you’ll be inspired by these intimate stories of personal transformation, community involvement, and cultural identity.
Human resilience is a central theme in many of the stories Love Wisconsin tells. For example, in September we shared the story of Nadine Machkovech, an Appleton woman who overcame a traumatic childhood and an opioid addiction, and now works to empower at-risk youth. In October we featured Corey Saffold, who spent several years on probation as a teenager, then went on to become a Madison police officer and a popular speaker in our ShopTalk program.
|You can find both stories—and many more—on the Love Wisconsin website at www.lovewi.com. Keep up with new stories every month by following Love Wisconsin on Facebook, or sign up for the email list at www.lovewi.com/get_involved.|
When the WHC created and launched the Immigrant Journeys from South of the Border “¡Mi travesía hasta Wisconsin!” exhibition last summer, we and our partners at Centro Hispano of Dane County hoped that its portraits of eight individuals would help to humanize the state’s conversation about immigration.
“There is a lot of stigma and discrimination around immigration, and the exhibit was both informative and humanizing…Educating the community on immigration will make it a better environment for all residents,” said one visitor.
Two copies of the exhibit will tour statewide in 2020 thanks to a generous donor. For information and to see a digital version, visit www.wisconsinimmigrantjourneys.org.
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