What I Learned at the WISDOM Leadership Retreat and Madison Action Day 

By: Ken Hood

Out of all the attendees at the 2023 WISDOM Leadership Retreat, I think it’s safe to say that I had the furthest drive. The Green Lake Conference Center is a full three hours and twenty minutes away from my home in Cameron, WI. Due to the impending snow, I found myself leaving early the night before. I was anxious about driving to a new place in the dark. I also wondered if this conference would be worth it. Would I really learn anything? Would these people who I don’t know want anything to do with me and the organizing work I am dedicated to in rural north west Wisconsin?

Approaching the entrance to the conference center was intimidating. It was so dark and quiet that I missed the entrance and had to make a quick u-turn. Once I drove through the front entrance  I felt swallowed up by the darkness. It was after 9 PM and I felt exhausted by the long drive. The road continued on into the quiet, rolling hills, down a winding route. I saw a few empty cabins near the lake, but no people or signs of activity. Had I missed a turn somewhere on these narrow lanes that spread across the 900 acre resort? Despite my nervousness, everything turned out alright. With David Liner’s help, I found my room, and got a good long rest before the conference began in the morning.

The WISDOM Leadership Retreat wasn’t just a trip to a different setting. It was relational. It was practical. Most importantly, it helped set me up for success at Madison Action Day which was a few months away. I can’t go over everything that happened, but I can give you a taste of it. I got to meet most of the WISDOM staff and participate in trainings. We got fired up by our IVE Coordinator, Yolanda. Freddie, the WISDOM liaison, gave a great presentation on making difficult “asks” and turning refusal into opportunity in organizing; even as a professional organizer for 3 years, this was useful to me. We honored a long-time pastor and volunteer for his work in building up WISDOM. There was a challenging presentation and discussion about “White Christian Nationalism,” a troubling extremist movement which JONAH and the WISDOM network are uniquely situated to call out and oppose. On a practical level, this Retreat set us up to organize around the February Primary and the April 4 election. We also learned more about what Madison Action Day would look like this year and the call was put out to all affiliates to set goals and get involved in the planning.

We created new teams and coordinated with volunteers and staff across the state in a way that is much more fluid and personal than signing in over Zoom. The conversations in between events and during meals were invaluable. Shout-out to Ri’ Winter for a great conversation during the “late party.” Several people offered to connect with me. Even for those who didn’t have any follow up with, our conversations at the retreat were highly valuable for me to better understand JONAH’s social justice work and how I can play a part in that bigger picture.

Fast forward a few months and another formative experience takes place: Madison Action Day. After all of the planning and preparation, the big day was here. I got to take a bus with over a dozen fellow activists headed for Madison. I was so excited to go. This was my first time at MAD and my first time in the state capitol.

I thought there would be a lot of sitting around and waiting in line. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The plenary started us off with a bang. The Masonic Center was alive with the sound of drums when I arrived and the auditorium was filling with brightly colored shirts, different colors but the same logo. These colors represented all of the WISDOM affiliates across the state. I picked up a dark purple shirt and a booklet with the main talking points that we wanted to share with legislators (check your email for a copy of this booklet). The policy booklets are such a practical way for new activists and volunteers to connect their self-interest with a broader, positive vision. It also offers compelling language for how to talk about the big issues of prison reform, environmental protection, economic justice, and immigration. A big highlight of the plenary was hearing the “Raging Grannies” come up and lead us in several folk songs. They got a standing ovation and really pumped up the crowd.

We took that energy straight out the door, down the block, and up the steps of the capitol building. The crowd chanted as we marched and held up signs. Rachel Pride did a great job in leading the chants. It was not a solemn procession but a joyful, loving yell. It was a collective yell for justice, with all of us demanding better from our leaders in the Capitol. After hearing a few speakers share moving testimony on the steps of the capitol, we all walked in, taking our bold love for our neighbors with us in spirit.

The practical challenges of Madison Action Day are real, but I am convinced that it was a valuable experience. We got to talk with legislators or their staff. We shared our demands. They did listen. What they do next is up to them. But they know that there is a powerful, mobilized group that cares about social justice issues, that is ready to mobilize to expand BadgerCare and to increase funding for treatments, alternatives, and diversions instead of more jails and prisons. The lunch and the rally at the Masonic Center gave us the needed energy for multiple meetings in the hours we had from 1 PM – 3 PM. Some people chose only to talk with the legislator for their district. Some used up all of their time speaking, going from room to room meeting with legislators across a whole region. Whatever participants chose, their story was heard. The great thing about going this way is that you feel the “togetherness” of it all. There is strength when you share and then another JONAH member shares and then another and another. We may highlight diverse issues, but we all care about each other. We know the value of all the topics presented.

Closing Thoughts

I’m writing this summary article as I ride the bus back from Madison. I’ll be in Eau Claire at around 7 PM and then it’s another hour home for me to drive to Cameron. I’ve been up since 3 AM today but I am energized, and it’s not because I’m over-caffeinated. We are pushing for things that matter. We have the privilege to work with like-minded people of faith, from diverse racial, social, and class backgrounds across the state.

My challenge to our JONAH volunteers and members: consider how you can be more involved in WISDOM this year and into 2024. Did you miss out on a leadership retreat or on Madison Action Day? Maybe it was an emergency. Maybe you were burnt out. Maybe you forgot. JONAH thrives on everyday people coming together. Mothers, fathers, and parents of all types. Single people. Young and old. Black, white, and brown. Rural and urban. We all have a role to play in making the “beloved community” happen and involvement with a statewide organization, WISDOM, is a part of that. We’re all proud of the work we do in the Chippewa Valley, but connecting with WISDOM allows us to learn from the skills and experience of activists across the entire state. It can revitalize us in the work that we care about and give us a bigger picture of what’s at stake. JONAH members care about many of the same issues as the  organizers and volunteers from Oshkosh, Wausau, Kenosha, and Milwaukee. We can all benefit from the example set by others. One of the best parts of my day was getting to encourage MICAH volunteers, brand new activists, as they testified about prison and sentencing reform. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to attend two major events with WISDOM and JONAH in 2023. I’m looking forward to what we can accomplish together now and in the future. Peace.

Ken Hood, Rural Outreach Organizer with JONAH