"I was brought up to see what was has happening around me and not to turn a blind eye to the conditions that people in my community were struggling with."
--Jennifer Epps-Addison, Executive Director Wisconsin Jobs Now
It was a lesson taught to Epps-Addison early in life by her parents and grandparents and has helped to mold someone Bill Moyers has noted as one of the top 20 young organizers in the country today.
Epps-Addison, with nearly 15 years of community involvement, has used her organizing and communications expertise to play an integral role in winning campaigns on issues such as community economic development policy, paid sick days, and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. She was the winner of the 2013 Edna Award, which honors women age 35 or younger who have distinguished themselves as leaders of the social justice movement. Today, as Executive Director for Wisconsin Jobs Now, she guides a non-profit organization committed to fighting income inequality from the bottom up and building stronger communities throughout Wisconsin.
Growing up in Milwaukee--a city that has been described as the most racially segregated in the nation--Epps-Addison witnessed first-hand at an early age what public school segregation looked like. Its impact helped to shape her life as an organizer and fighter for the people. Although she attended a Milwaukee public school, her brother was part of a school desegregation program and he attended school in a suburban district.
"Early on I was able to see the differences in opportunities the kids in different school districts had," Epps-Addison said in a recent interview with Wisdom Voices. "When I was in high school Tommy Thompson (then Wisconsin governor) rolled out a plan to disband all Milwaukee Public Schools. I felt compelled to do something. So with other students, I helped to organize a walk out of high school students and went to the Governor with a real education plan that was crafted by students."
It was that experience, Epps-Addison says, that made her realize that organizing and assisting others to have their voices heard was something she wanted to do as a career, which now includes leading the charge for Milwaukee's MORE ordinance, which established that 40 percent of all construction jobs on publicly funded projects would go to city residents. She also directed a campaign to pass the Milwaukee Jobs Act, which created entry-level construction opportunities for unemployed city residents.
"It's been such an honor to do what I do and work with whom I do it," she said. "I know it's hard, especially with the recent Supreme Court ruling (Harris v. Quinn) and with politics in general. People feel as though the system is rigged against us. I don't think those feelings are unwarranted. I have my moments of frustration but I ground myself in incredible hope and optimism that I see in the people who are most directly affected every day.
"I'm blessed to work for an organization whose top priority is making sure that the people who are struggling through these conditions are equipped with the tools to fight back. I think that's what Wisconsin Jobs Now does--it gives people a space to come together collectively"to come up with ideas on how to fight back in a system that honestly is rigged against them. Milwaukee is known as being the most segregated city by race, but it's also the most segregated by income. Income inequality is an incredible issue we're facing in Milwaukee and across the state in general. I make it my mission to empower poor and working class people--those who make the state run on an everyday basis, whether they're caring for children or an aging parent with Alzheimer's or cleaning up or serving food--those are the people who make the state great. I want to make the state better for them and make their communities stronger and healthier. The best way to do that is to help them stand up and demand more from their employers.
"I'm grateful that I can help amplify our voices because ultimately those in my neighborhood don't want to hear about a minimum wage; they want to hear about a living wage. They're tired of just getting by on the bare minimum--scraping to pay for their electric bills, for their heat, and prescriptions. People here work hard. And they were told that in this country if you work hard and play by the rules and do what you're supposed to do, you're supposed to be able to build a good life for your family. "Unfortunately that's no longer the case. People are working 2-3 jobs and are not making ends meet. That wasn't the country I was raised to believe in. I think back to my parents' time. When they got married, it was still illegal in some states for inter-racial marriage. They lived through their own times in which they expanded the conversation and hoped and brought forth new ideas and worked for what was needed to make our country evolve into the country they believed in. That's what we're seeing with the worker movement that got its spark in 2011. We're seeing it come to fruition in 2014. What we're saying now is that 'we're ready; we deserve more; we're not settling for table scraps and we're going to fight for more.' And what that means is a real living wage that allows us dignity in our labor."
Epps-Addison remains optimistic even in times when Citizens United puts the rich and powerful in the driver's seat for some much of the political action today. She reminds us that the political sphere is but one of many that can bring change.
"The challenge is to help everyday people have their voices heard because unfettered, unlimited money in politics has really corrupted the idea of one person/one vote and every voice counting," she said. "And the way you get around that is to not add one more voice to the lobbyist roles in capitols around the country, but rather to actually get out in the street and to have a crisis moment for the people making these decisions. I can't tell you how many times we've gone to a boss' home or legislator's home (to protest) and have people shake their finger at us and say, 'how dare you go to someone's home; what they are doing is their job.' But people forget that decisions employers and politicians make (in their jobs) affect ordinary people's homes every single day.