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Summer awakening
In Monroe, teens take the lead on racial justice activism
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Sarah Jacobson, left, and her 15-year-old daughter Taylor Jacobson, right, participate in a racial justice demonstration Sept. 6 on the Historic Courthouse lawn. - photo by By Kat Cisar

MONROE — Quinn Moorman has always held strong beliefs. The Monroe High School junior joined the Gay Straight Alliance and got involved with the Youth in Government Program as a freshman.

When Moorman got the opportunity to organize a gay pride parade this summer in Monroe, the 16-year-old’s response was immediate: “Heck yeah, I’ll help!”

Moorman also attended the first Black Lives Matter demonstration in Monroe, in early June. On Aug. 25, the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha “felt so close” that Moorman was moved to organize another round of demonstrations over the Labor Day weekend in support of racial justice.

“I’m not afraid to put myself out there,” Moorman said. “Locally speaking I think our community could be more outspoken.”

In this small town, teenagers are leading the call for racial justice.

“In a city I definitely wouldn’t be the one organizing it because there’d be an adult organizing it,” Moorman said.

Here, adults are following the lead of the teenagers.

In response to a student-led effort to bring attention to issues of racism within the district, the School District of Monroe Board of Education passed a resolution denouncing racism at its July meeting and administrators have promised to take further steps.

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Quinn Moorman, right, holds a sign at a sit-in in support of Black Lives Matter in Monroe on Sept. 6. The 16-year-old organized the event. - photo by By Kat Cisar

Natasha Morgan, treasurer of the MultiCultural Outreach Program of Green County, said participation in her organization — which started as a program to help immigrants but is now tackling issues of equity more broadly — has grown dramatically over the summer as interest grows in racial justice, sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May.

She credits local teenagers with taking action.

“Adults and some of the parents of these socially minded teens have looked for an outlet, and we’ve seen some of them get involved,” she said. “We’re kind of, like, in awe of the youth and looking to follow the lead of the youth. We want that energy that they have and the excitement that they have.”

The organization has hosted a series of virtual trainings on racial bias in recent months. It has also distributed about 100 yard signs in Green County that say “Together we rise” and depict hands of different skin colors reaching up to hold the Earth, an image designed by Heartland Graphics in Monroe.

Teens are “resilient,” Morgan said. Adults can get caught up in fear, but “the youth don’t seem to have all that added fear. I think that’s kind of true for every generation.”

Rumors vs. Reality

Rumors circulated in the days leading up to the first weekend in June that protestors were headed to Monroe, possibly from out of state.

An email with the subject line “POSSIBLE Demonstration” went out June 5 from the nonprofit organization Main Street Monroe to downtown business owners and community members. It explained that “there are rumors going around that a group will be coming to Monroe anywhere from 4-7pm tonight and/or tomorrow night.”

The email, from Executive Director Jordan Nordby, asked everyone to remain calm. He noted that “any agitation will only make matters worse.” Fires and destruction were erupting at or after racial justice demonstrations in bigger cities like Madison but so far Monroe had been quiet.

Reality didn’t match the rumors. Far from outsiders coming in, the organizers of that weekend’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations were graduating Monroe High School seniors. Well over 100 people, mostly teenagers and their moms, turned out over the course of three days.

Though peaceful, the demonstrations weren’t without tension. A small group of armed white men, some wearing camouflage, assembled on the downtown Square. They told Monroe police they were there to protect, but the demonstrators found their presence intimidating.

“It was kind of creepy,” said 15-year-old Taylor Jacobson.

Jerry Dahlen, captain of the Monroe Police Department, described the armed group as “open carry people.”

“They felt that was their duty to monitor (things), in their minds anyway,” Dahlen said. The supervising officer on duty “just talked to them and said, ‘Hey, we’re just looking for peaceful protests.’ ... They were cooperative.”

Bringing change to school

Jacobson, a biracial sophomore at Monroe High School, has helped lead an effort this summer to address issues of racism in the school district.

Earlier this summer, she noticed fellow students participating on social media in “Whiteout Wednesday,” a response to the Black Lives Matter-led “Blackout Tuesday.” The students were posting that “white lives matter, too” and “talking about how they think that it should be All Lives Matter, and just trying to devalue the movement,” Jacobson said.

It hit a nerve, especially when she and other students of color have experienced racism firsthand, mostly in the form of microaggressions and ignorance.

“It’s not even them being racist intentionally,” she said. Her whole life, white people have touched and played with her hair “like I’m some Barbie.” As a basketball player, she endured jokes on the court that played into the stereotype of Black people as “scary.”

Her mother, Sarah Jacobson, who is white, said her daughter growing up was a “shy little kid” and she feels bad for not protecting her more from people touching her hair: “I don’t think I understood how rude it really was.”

In June, Taylor Jacobson and Makayla Harrow, who graduated in the spring, were upset that the school district hadn’t explicitly and publicly denounced racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. They decided along with other students to bring their experiences of racism to school administrators and seek change.

It started with a series of listening sessions in late June.

Rick Waski, district administrator of Monroe schools, said these discussions showed that examples of “overt racism” were going unreported and “we had some work to do in our district.”

He said some students simply lack cultural awareness.

“We can’t prepare students for diversity in a community that really doesn’t have a lot of diversity. That’s why the educational process is so critical. Diversity is not as evident in a lot of our students’ lives,” Waski said. Monroe schools are 85% white, compared to 69% statewide.

Jacobson said she wants to see bias training for all teachers and students, as well as curriculum changes that highlight the positive developments and achievements of people of color throughout history.

“I feel like a lot of what we learn is the hardships of people of color,” she said.

Waski said the district is committed to taking these steps, although “it’s a little tricky because we’re not at 100% operational capacity right now” given the challenges of starting a school year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He anticipates the Board of Education will set specific goals at its November meeting.

“It’s been necessary that we make a concerted effort to address these issues. I think we’re heading down the right pathway, but it’s a process,” he said.

Jacobson and her peers were initially nervous to approach administrators.

“It was daunting to talk to people with so much power. ... I’m going in with (one year of high school) and talking with people with Master’s degrees,” she said. But, “now there’s some steps being taken towards equality in our schools, which is pretty cool.”

After the Board passed a resolution denouncing racism, school personnel and students worked together to write a related series of “We Believe” statements to post publicly, such as “We believe antiracism and diversity needs to be explicitly taught, starting at an early age.”

The statements simplify the “fancy legal words” of the resolution into “a way that normal people would understand it,” Jacobson said. Together, the effort is “legally binding the school” to take action.

‘I want to be there’

Over the Labor Day weekend, about two dozen people participated in a sit-in on the Historic Courthouse lawn. They sat in lawn chairs or on blankets and held up signs in support of Black Lives Matter while chatting with one another.

Among the demonstrators was 88-year-old Sybil Teehan of Monroe. She remembered being “interested in what Martin Luther King Jr. was doing” back in the 1960s, but she was busy at the time with four young children at home.

Now, though, Teehan is ready to get involved. She’s taking up a family tradition. Her mother, the daughter of Swiss immigrants, was a suffragist who demonstrated for the right to vote in Green County in the early 1900s.

“If there’s any little thing I can be part of, I want to be there,” she said. “I know there really is racism in this community. We have to talk to one another. It isn’t just happening in Madison or Kenosha.”

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Demonstrators at the Sept. 6 sit-in in Monroe ranged in age from 9 to 88. - photo by By Kat Cisar
Moorman, who organized the demonstration, is 72 years Teehan’s junior but equally passionate about social justice issues.

Moorman identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. They came to the demonstrations with their parents, Suzanne Koch and Jeff Moorman. Koch sat with friends a few paces away.

“Hey Quinn, do you know ‘We Shall Overcome?’ by Pete Seeger?” Koch shouted out.

Moorman had never heard the Vietnam War-era protest song or Seeger, a folk music icon born in 1919. The protest music they like are songs like “Black Parade” and “Freedom” by Beyoncé, “Freedom” by Pharrell Williams and pretty much any song by John Legend that’s not a love song.

The demonstrators watched as passersby walked around the Square, in and out of shops and restaurants. It was a busy weekend downtown. A wedding party walked past. Cars circled the Square. Unlike at the demonstration in June, no armed militia showed up.

When a Monroe Police Department SUV passed, Moorman exclaimed, “Oh, there’s police drive-by number one.” Moorman had called the police department and the county beforehand to get permission for the events.

“The police department was very nice, actually. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t the courtesy I received,” they said, adding later that they were glad to have police checking in.

Dahlen, the Monroe police captain, remembers talking with Moorman.

“I said we would not put a foot patrol up there, we would do a lot of drive-bys, and if someone was giving them a problem, they should call us,” he said.

Moorman and other demonstrators didn’t express specific concerns about racial bias or unfair practices among police locally. Instead, they said they simply want to bring attention to systemic racism in general and to the diverse experiences of minority groups.

Katie Abraham, a teacher in Monroe, said she wants white people to recognize their privilege and recognize that “your experiences are not the lived experiences of everyone.”

Monroe resident Nadine Patchin Whiteman said she found out about the demonstration through her drumming group.

“We know all lives matter. We know that,” she said. But “White Lives Matter” as a slogan ignores reality, she added. “To me that’s saying we’re going to look at everything the same and we’re not going to recognize the struggle, the struggle that’s happening right now.”

Systemic racism is hurting people, “to the point of death,” she said.

Danielle Hanson, a 2001 Monroe High School graduate now living in Chicago, happened to be in town visiting family and came to the demonstration with her husband and two nephews, 12-year-old Tre Dammen and 9-year-old Wesley Dammen, both of Argyle.

When asked why she was there, Hanson said, “For change.” She’d participated in Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago, but it was her nephews’ first time at a protest. They made their own signs.

At one point, Koch pointed at a pickup truck as it left the Square.

“That guy flipped us off,” she said. The driver was white, and she guessed he was about her age, in his 50s. “Aren’t we supposed to be grown up? ... There’s children here.”

Koch said advertising the demonstration beforehand “felt not safe.” She worried about attracting militia types.

But the teenagers at the event were less worried.

“I think you just have to accept that some of that is going to happen. You just have to stay strong,” said Jacobson.