Breaking the Egg
I lived first in a little house, I lived there very well
The world to me was small and round, and made of pale blue shell.
Nestled 80 miles Northeast of Madison, the capital, and 82 miles Northwest of Milwaukee, the largest and most diverse city, lies the sleepy lumber town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The City of Oshkosh first came to prominence after the great fire of Chicago. Oshkosh was one of the primary sources for lumber used to rebuild that city, and grew to become the third most populace city in Wisconsin. In 1972, one of the children’s overalls made by a, then obscure, clothing company called Oshkosh B’Gosh gained notoriety when it was advertised in one of the more prominent magazines of the day. Oshkosh Trucking was one of the largest and most beloved employers within the Fox Valley, and paper was king.
That was then. This is now.
Much of Oshkosh’s manufacturing base has disappeared exposing a large un-transferable labor force. In an effort to rebuild a sagging economy, the Oshkosh Correctional Institute which was built in 1986 expanded its rated bed capacity in 1996 to receive 1,800 inmates. This, plus Oshkosh’s history as a “low crime” community had resulted in a dramatic shift in its demographic make-up. Within the span of one decade (10 years), Oshkosh’s African American (AA) census population ballooned to a near four-fold increase over its original numbers….almost exclusively lower socioeconomic.
Although a large percentage of this immigrant population came from Chicago, Milwaukee, Racine, Tennessee, Minnesota, and Ohio also accounted for sizeable portions.
One of the largest challenges came in the education of this new group. This population had neither a long history in Oshkosh, nor did they come from similar inter nor intra-geographic environments. The challenge was one of understanding this new population, bringing them together, all while trying to educate them.
I recently held a conversation with eight (8) African American middle school students. Each of these students was attending the same school. Many had classes together. Not one of these students was born in Oshkosh (0/8). Only three of the eight (3/8) were born in Wisconsin. And only two (2), a brother & sister pair attended primary school in the District.
How do you acculturate a group of students into “how things are done here,” when the only secure cross-cultural connection they have is race/color. They do not even know each other sitting in the car, yet our expectations are that they move forward toward a shared goal/purpose.
Just think of it – we have dramatically increased the belly of our population through immigration (increased jail population), loss of jobs (closure and exit of manufacturing), and lack of transferability of employment (trained to do one thing, and have done it for years).
When you sit within a culture that has lost jobs, has a population retention rate of 79% (79% of the population remain or return), a 29% bachelor degree or above rate (71% high school and below), and has a proud steeled cultural and social history, you must expect these changes to breed and harvest strong grief reactions!!
Not dealing with it does not make it go away. But (a) know that is one aspect of grief, as is anger, and (b) change may need to be mandated. It is not going to happen organically. And it is not going to happen without financial challenge.
We can sing the song of social change how much we want. The words are nice. You feel like hugging and offering the sign of peace afterward. It will not change without a shift of market forces. You either reward me financially for making the changes, or charge me financially for not making the changes.
I will not be happy. I will not make them willingly. I will be very resentful. I will try to make perfunctory shifts, like moving the furniture. But, with insistence, I will make the changes…if only because I want to retain my job.
Then comes the, already readied and primed, social movement. When changes are being forged, you must have a readied and primed social movement to support and enact that change. Those are the people who do the work and place the moral cover over the mandate. Eventually, we get to a new sense of “normal.”
This is not as simple as I’ve made it seem from this brief statement. (See the challenges of our new Black president or a new Black principal) These are countervailing forces; change versus defense of change.
This challenge is nowhere near brief. It is, has been, and will be with us forever.
As human beings, we identify, generate, re-identify and re-generate ourselves through difference. We group. And as we group through culturally similar identifiers (age, ethnicity, language, schools we attend, music we like), those identifiers themselves become the seed of separation.
Even a kid with 12 earrings hanging onto or out of each orifice, identifies with another kid similarly adorned, all while arguing against society’s lack of individualism.
Don’t expect it to be different because this is 2009. That is simply another day, another year, another date. In many ways we are still basic and base animals in beautiful clothes and nice smelling cologne.
If we are, however, to steel/steal the best of us, we have to figure this one out. We are losing some great talent.