The Disabilities Rights Movement – Celebrating the impact of ADA, embracing the challenges that remain

The history of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) did not begin on July 26, 1990 at the signing ceremony at the White House. It did not begin in 1988 when the first ADA was introduced in Congress. The ADA began a long time ago in cities and towns throughout the United States when people with disabilities began to challenge societal barriers that excluded them form their communities, and when parents of children with disabilities began to fight against the exclusion and segregation of their children.

Writing in 1992, Arlene Mayerson knew well the stories and the struggles of the thousands of people who turned personal challenges into a movement. As Directing Attorney of Disability Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) she was in the thick of it all. As lecturer at Berkeley Law School she continues the good fight.

Every American, able or challenged, has experienced the impact of ADA. In fact, ADA has is so imbedded in our daily lives that it is difficult to realize that it is just a quarter century since passage of that federal law. Still, on July 26, 2015 the nation will celebrate the changes wrought in our society over the past 25 years.

It is not too soon for organizations and institutions, schools, the faith community, children’s groups, social service and government agencies, health care providers, senior groups and families to start thinking ahead about how to best join in the celebration.

The good news is that leaders of the disabilities rights cause have gathered and produced an awesome selection of resources, events, and tools to spark interest and support local initiatives.

For those of us who may have experienced but never fully realized the societal changes of which we were a part, Arlene Mayer’s brief history, written in the wake of passage of ADA, offers an informative – and highly accessible – review of the roots and growth of the movement.   (http://dredf.org/news/publications/the-history-of-the-ada)

The ADA Legacy Project (http://www.adalegacy.com) is a major initiative to honor the progress that has been made while reminding us that much remains to be done.   One of the goals of the ADA Legacy Project is to honor the contributions of individuals with disabilities and their allies who persevered in securing the passages of this landmark civil rights legislation. There is an ADA Anniversary Tool Kit, suggested themes, a media kit, proclamations, pledges and more. (http://www.adaanniversary.org)

My personal favorite of the ADA Legacy Project resources is a collection of “Moments in Disability History” selected from the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website and archives. (http://www.mn.gov/mnddc/ada-legacy/index.html) The collection of “moments” includes audio and video clips, historical documents, images and slides covering the decades that led up to the passage of the ADA. “They are the ‘moments’ every self-advocate, parent and professional advocate should know and be literate about in order to create future policy. The collection of “moments” creates a common ground for study of the disability movement. The prime mover behind the “moments”, Ed Preneta, notes that “the events, or aftermath of the events, changed history and their impact resonates with us today.”

Though I have not yet plumbed the depths of the Disability History Museum (http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/index.html) it is intriguing and inviting. The Museum is actually a virtual project “designed to offer people with or without disabilities, researchers, teachers and students with a wide array of tools to help deepen their understanding of human variation and difference, and to expand appreciation of how vital to our common life the experiences of people with disabilities have always been.” The virtual museum includes over 300 primary source documents and images, many designed to show young people who take access for granted the challenges that faced people with disabilities before the movement.   The virtual museum also features information about the situation in developing countries with special reference to the UN Convention on Disability Rights. (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml)

As we celebrate ADA we must be mindful of 21st Century challenges and possibilities. In the past quarter century technology has changed the nation and the world –and the options for people with disabilities. Today’s challenge is to assure that we capitalize on the potential of technology to expand – not limit – opportunities for everyone. The 25th anniversary offers an opportunity to honor the triumphs to date with a clear eye on future possibilities. An earlier blog post focused specifically on efforts to expand access to government information for people with disabilities. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/category/disability-issues/

The story of the Americans with Disabilities Act is long, complex and inspiring. It is a story of individuals and families, institutions and organizations that saw a need and summoned the strength to create and sustain a movement. This is a story we all need to learn, remember and emulate. What better time than the celebration of ADA at 25!   More to follow…

Related Poking Around posts:

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/people-with-disabilities-social-inclusion/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/shout-out-to-ada-at-20/

http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/blog/mary-treacy/access-press-25-quarter-century-serving-and-reflecting-minnesotas-disabilities-comm

 

 

 

 

 

Listening to Ruth Myers as we address 2015 challenges

Note:  This is a revision of an earlier post, reposted because of the current discussions of the education, health and nutritional needs and the rights of American Indian Minnesotans:

“Weaving the stories of women’s lives” is the theme of this year’s Women’s History Month.   The story of the life of Ruth Myers is – and must be – woven into today’s fabric of the education and health of American Indian youth and families. Though Myers is no longer with us, her spirit and her political force continue to shape the educational and political ideology of the leaders she helped to form.

For decades, Ruth  Myers, known as the “grandmother of American Indian Education in Minnesota”was the driving force and voice for American Indian children and their families.  Though she died in 2001, Ruth left a legacy that might well serve as the model for Governor Dayton and the educators who are struggling with the same issues today.  Her spirit, ideas, courage, and unstinting commitment to American Indian learners set a standard to be emulated.  Her spirit can infuse and thus help shape today’s efforts.

Ruth was not a professional educator but a concerned parent, citizen and a proud member of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.  Ruth was sent at an early age to an Indian boarding school, a sad fact that shaped her life and fueled her fervor.  Though she spoke little of those sad experiences, it was easy to feel her pain and the ways in which she harnessed that pain to inspire positive change.

Her accomplishments are legendary.  An elected member of the Duluth School Board, Ruth was appointed by the Governor as the first American Indian member of the Minnesota State Board of Education. Though at times she chaired that Board, she always ruled it by her presence and her persistence.

At the University of Minnesota Duluth where she worked for many years, she remains a legend.  She is credited with starting sixteen of seventeen UMD programs for American Indian students.  Colleagues there recall that, in 1973, she saw a notice in the newspaper that the UMD Medical School was developing a program for American Indians and, in the process, was organizing a committee of community members.  She knocked on the office door of the Dean of the Medical School and asked, “What Indians do you have on that committee?”  The rest is history….

Ruth’s position at UMD before retirement was Co-Director of the Center of American Indian and Minority Health at the School of Medicine.  There she tended not only to recruitment and academic coaching but to life’s details; she regularly stopped at a legendary purveyor of low-cost fresh produce every time she had a meeting in St. Paul – which was often.  Often I think of how proud Ruth would be of the students to whom she offered a gentle helping hand at the most unexpected moment.

Not one to bow to academic measures, Ruth was truly pleased when UMD named the Ruth Myers Endowed Chair in American Indian Education; though she cared little about the honor she knew it would convey status and support on her beloved program.  She was also touched deeply when the Fond du Lac Community College Library was named for her; that library continues to reflect her influence in many ways.  Ruth understood well the power of the record; she often expressed a conviction that American Indian students should be encouraged to pursue professions in museums, libraries and archives so they could correct, complete and basically set the historic record straight.

Though the list of honors for Ruth is nearly infinite, possibly the most inclusive is the Minnesota Indian Education Association Elder of the Year – it says it all.

My introduction to Ruth was as a member of the State Board of Education.  On the first day, she reminded me that I was as much a member as any of the older and, I presumed, wiser members.  She also declared that, from that day forward, I was to watch out for women’s issues so she could concentrate on American Indian and other minority students.  Ruth was the mistress of gentle delegation.

Though her accomplishments as a member and Chair of the State Board of Education are inestimable, a few stand out in my clear memory of those days:

  • Ruth advocated unceasingly for review of the image of American Indians in textbooks, library materials, the core curriculum.
  • She fought for preservation of American Indian languages in the schools.
  • She insisted that every Minnesota student must know something about Indian culture.
  • She regaled education professionals about their indifference to the nutritional needs and dietary threats (e.g. milk products) for American Indian youth.
  • Ever open to change, Ruth examined every proposed rule from the perspective of how it would affect Indian kids and their families.
  • And she would frequently point to the American Indian origins of the U of M Morris campus – and the rights of American Indian students who should be encouraged to exercise their inalienable right to attend UM-Morris.

Often a body of writing conveys the thoughts of an academic who wants to have a voice in the future.  For Ruth, the voice was so strong, the commitment so staunch, the vision so clear and the passion so fervent that it is her voice that speaks to those who will but hear.  My hope is that this includes those who are shaping the future of American Indian education in Minnesota.  As with other great leaders, the vision outlives the individual and must inspire those who would seek to accomplish similar goals – if they will just listen.

 

 

 

Genevieve Casey – Imagining the possibilities for 21st Century libraries

Though the name Genevieve M. Casey may not be a household word, there are many beholden to her for her lifetime of contributions to her chosen profession of librarianship. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, she spent much of her youth in Detroit, returning to St. Paul to receive a Masters Degree in Library Science at the College of St Catherine (now St. Catherine University.)   After a year of service in many roles Genevieve Casey retired from Wayne State University as Emerita Professor, where she was honored with special tributes including a scholarship in her honor. She died in 2012 at the still vibrant age of 96.

More important than the statistics is her legacy in a changing profession.

Her first professional position was in the early 60’s with the Detroit Public Library where she introduced the idea of an urban bookmobile. Though bookmobiles were originally designed to provide library service to rural communities, the bookmobile idea caught the fancy of Casey who saw the potential of a mobile library to share books and library service with urban readers in neighborhoods throughout the urban Detroit area.

Casey’s commitment to flexibility – meeting the needs of a changing population – was at the core of her professional service, a commitment she demonstrated when she was appointed by the Governor to serve as the State Librarian of Michigan. Those must have been some turbulent years for Casey. Two of the Governor’s budget recommendations that year were for the construction of buildings, one that would house the Law Library Division in a new Supreme Court building; the other, a new facility for the State Library. His vision was years in fulfillment.

In 1963 a state reorganization moved administration of the State Library from the State Board of Libraries to the Department of Education. That same year a former manufacturing building was remodeled as the headquarters to house offices for the State Library. In four months, library staff moved over one million volumes…. The new facility housed the Library for the Blind, a resource that continued to serve a public demand that rose from 635 items in 1960 to 280,347 six years later.

Looking to the future, Casey collaborated with Western Michigan Library to sponsor a professional trainee program through which library students could earn an accredited degree for working at the State Library, with the proviso that they would continue to work at the library for two years after graduation. During her tenure Casey was also called upon to deal with internal problems, including a pervasive rift as school and public libraries were pitted against each other, to the certain delight of others at the public trough.

Casey resigned from the State Library Agency in 1967 to join the faculty at Wayne State University in the Center for Urban Studies.   The 70’s saw a more inclusive approach to meeting the information and recreational needs of the nation’s library users. Once again ahead of the clock in 1974 Casey published The Pubic Library in the Network Mode, a prescient study on the possibilities.

As a faculty member at Wayne State Casey rose to the expanding opportunity to “reach out.” A priority for her was libraries’ inattention to the specific needs of an aging population. In a scholarly piece written in 1973 Casey lamented the fact that there had been scant involvement of libraries in the 1971 White House Conference on Aging. She raised the question: “What is the reason for the indifference on the part of libraries to the aging who constitute 10 percent of the present population, and whose number and percentage are generally believed will increase in the future?” Responding to her own question she quotes the National Survey of Library Services to the Aging, conducted by Booz, Allen and Hamilton:

The absence of special programing for the aging is a result of the traditional philosophy of library service held by most librarians – namely, that the library should provide services of universal scope and appeal. The result of this approach has been to submerge the needs and requirements of a particular group or segment of the population that might have a unique claim on the resources of the library.

That did not satisfy Casey who went on to write a major piece on “Staffing Library Services to the Aging”. It remains a hallmark study. Her ideas about the topic are best preserved in Library Services for the Aging, published in 1984 by Library Professional Publications.

Casey decried the fact that “library services to the aging have not developed at a pace consistent with the increase in the number of 65+ persons in the nation and commensurate with the increase in national interest in the needs and problems of the aging.” Always a systemic thinker Casey envisioned and offered concrete recommendations to train new professionals and to retrain existing staffing and administrators, basically to restructure public institutions.

Though times and technology have changed, Casey’s vision matters today as public institutions address 21st Century challenges. Genevieve M. Casey made a difference for her profession, for her students, and for the needs of a changing population.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunshine Week focus on local efforts to make transparency happen

With good reason, Minneapolitans care about the health and welfare of their trees. Some wonder if the trees on the boulevard belong to the homeowner, the city or the Park Board. Residents can now learn this and more with a quick click on the City’s open portal, just one of scores of data files readily accessible online – and a taste of what is to come as the city expands the portal’s possibilities for data users.

Hopes and hype were high when the City of Minneapolis launched its open portal to data by and about the city. The expectation, if not the plan, was that inquiring minds would have ready access to massive banks of data essential to their work or personal lives. Though the endorsement of the City Council and staff is a commendable first step, the proverbial – and predictable – devil is in the details. Sunshine Week spurs us to capitalize on that first step – and to reflect on how we fulfill the promise of transparency and accountability as a goal for which the City and residents share responsibility.

For the past decade Sunshine Week (March 16-25) has challenged Americans to focus on transparency as the bedrock of our democratic government. During Sunshine Week we pause to reflect that the fundamental premise goes back to the nation’s forefathers whose vision was that, in a democracy, we the people – as defined in 18th Century terms – rule. To do so, today’s more inclusive “we” need to know what is going on with our government because we are the deciders. Life in the digital age calls for back-to-basics thinking about the idea of open government – the intent, scope, limits, barriers and mechanics of implementing systems that fulfill the promise and meet the real needs of the people governed.

In Minneapolis, the recent prominence of open data on the public agenda can be credited to a great extent to the work of volunteer coders, many working through OpenTwinCities, a local affiliate of CodeforAmerica. Their commitment and persistence raised public awareness to the point at which the staff and City Council launched the much heralded data portal. The measure of success of that portal is simple: the extent to which any user is able to find and use data created or collected by the city.

As has happened on a mega-scale with other open government launches, there were technical problems at the outset, glitches ably handled by City technology staff who moved quickly to the rescue. And there have been other problems, including some users’ dissatisfaction with missing documentation, the coder’s guide to how the data are configured. Of greater concern is the fact that, as use of the system expands, some City departments have not yet provided essential data; many more have been slow to eliminate barriers that stymie the seeker. By any measure it is clear that today’s portal offers promise, but not yet the full potential of open government.

The first principle of open government is the presumption of openness which means that government information belongs to the people, that limits to access must be assessed and justified; attention to openness must becomes the standard “pattern or practice” of city government. Further, it is essential that information seekers trust that the information by and about their government is not tainted by vested interests. Above all, data must be in a form and format that is both useable and useful; barriers to access – whether language or disability, lack of tools or skill, or fees – must be eliminated.

This requires a cultural change. On the one hand, elected officials and dedicated civil servants throughout city government are challenged to rethink their work. Cultural change demands that supervisors at every level reconsider their priorities and those of the workers they supervise. At the policy level it is the responsibility of elected officials to hold themselves and every staff member accountable to embrace the spirit of openness. Council members and their staff need to recognize and reward transparency as a strength of Minneapolis.

For our part we voters must place high value on a system that is committed to the presumption of openness. As Minneapolis residents we are challenged to rethink our role as information receivers – and providers. It is an unaccustomed challenge for us to play a dynamic role in the reconstructed digital environment that demands us to take personal responsibility to know the rules, to provide good information to the city, and to hold our elected officials accountable for the service we elect them to perform.

Traditionally, our responsibility has been to understand physical aspects of our city – safe streets, reliable utilities, wise investments and intelligent development. The digital age demands more of the City and of us as residents.

Transparency and accountability hold great promise for Minneapolis, a city whose residents have always embraced the challenge to learn, to share ideas, and to make decisions based on the common good. Our heritage and experience validate our high expectations of open government. In this digital age, knowing more about our City gives us an edge — it plays to our strength.

 

 

 

 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Voice for Open Government, Vigilant Voters

Midst the cacophony that drowns out rational thinking during political campaigns I have long perked up my ears when I heard that Kathleen Hall Jamieson would be the guest commentator. In her measured, critical but positive way she invariably helps us challenged voters to make sense of the rhetoric. I am confident that, when Bill Moyers or another thoughtful interviewer asks an intelligent question, Jamieson will offer a cogent response in words well chosen to communicate meaning to the average voter. For a quick refresher on the media persona of Jamieson, view the first clip on this pre-2012 election discussion on Bill Moyers: http://billmoyers.com/content/web-extra-analyzing-debates-and-ads-in-the-elections-final-stretch/

Intrigued, eager to learn more about a scholar who was willing to share her thoughts with the average voter, I have discovered just how this unique woman continues to shape powerful resources that curb rampant misinformation, propaganda and naked lies.

Born in Minneapolis in 1946 Jamieson graduated from St. Benedict’s High School in St. Joseph, a residential school operated by the Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict. She received her BA from Marquette University with an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Following a career in academia Jamieson was named Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Along the way she has authored or co-authored sixteen books and articles beyond calculation. One example is a February 2015 article “The Discipline’s Debate Contributions: Then, Now, and Next,” published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech. In that article Jamieson synthesizes some of the contributions scholarship has made to understanding televised presidential debates – learning from debates, factors that mediate audience, and the ways in which candidate debate communication forecasts the presidency of the eventual winner.

Renowned as a media guest Jamieson has been honored with a host of teaching awards. In May 2013 she spoke at the University of Minnesota Center for the Study of Politics and Governance; Eric Black’s thoughts on that presentation are an essential read for anyone who wants to understand more about what motivates – and distresses – Jamieson. (http://www.minnpost.com/eric-black-ink/2013/05/kathleen-hall-jamieson-and-attack-fact)

What many who know Jamieson from her media appearances do not know is that, in her role as Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, she is responsible for the familiar FactCheck.org, for FlackCheck.org, the political literacy falsehood-detector, and, most recently, for SciCheck.org.

Founded in 2003 FactCheck.org was one of the first websites devoted to refuting misleading assertions about US politics. FlackCheck.org operates as a parallel resource. What’s new is SciCheck.org launched earlier this year. The mission of SciCheck.org is to evaluate the scientific claims made by politicians. This podcast and print overview of SciCheck.org affirm that the coverage is nonpartisan and bipartisan:

(http://www.factcheck.org/2015/02/flackcheck-org-video-scicheck-findings/

In a video interview with Mother Jones Jamieson “credits” another Minnesotan, Michele Bachmann, as the inspiration for SciCheck. “When Michele Bachmann made false allegations about the effects of…a vaccine, in public space on national television…the journalists in the real context didn’t know how to respond to the statement as clearly as they ought to….The time to contextualize is immediately. That [allegation] should have been shot down immediately.” Specifically, it was Bachmann’s diatribe against HPV, underscored by false scientific assertions about measles vaccine safety and her rants against climate change, that spurred the urge to nip misinformation in the bud.

In a recent episode of Mother Jones Inquiring Minds podcast Jamieson expands on the need for the media to respond with alacrity and viable facts to false claims and outright prevarications: http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/02/michele-bachmann-factcheck-scicheck-inquiring-minds

Though Jamieson is tongue in cheek about Bachmann, she is serious about her concern that, in spite of the vast and valid amount of solid scientific information available, voters too often get their news from highly ideological media outlets. Especially since the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, the flow of information is subject to the heavy hand of vested interests that counter and drown out legitimate reporting on science issues.

Thus, when the Stanton Foundation, legacy of one-time CBS executive Frank Stanton, approached Annenberg, Jamieson was firm in her conviction that what the Center needed to do was “hire ‘real science journalists’ with the expertise to refute false claims and to get those corrections ‘into the bloodstream of journalism more quickly.’”  (Update: the issue of scientific viability came to a head in late February when the House passed by a vote of 229-191 the Science Advisory Board Reform Act which would effectively prevent scientists who are peer-reviewed experts in their field from providing advice to the Environmental Projection Agency.)

Meanwhile, Jamieson is at work creating a complementary strategy known called LIVA, an acronym for “leveraging, involving, visualizing, analogizing”. The intent of LIVA is to more clearly communicate the evidence and overcome the biases of communicators and receivers of science-related messages. These biases Jamieson identifies as “endpoint bias,”, the tendency to overemphasize the last point in a trend line, and the inclination to overvalue recovery from a loss. Jamieson’s goal is to leverage the credibility of well-accepted sources such as NASA, involving the audience in a visual presentation of the evidence, and using an analogy to make the conclusion clear.” The authority and impartiality of sources of information are the premise on which the LIVA method rests. The LIVA strategy is outlined in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences co-authored by Jamieson and researcher Bruce Hardy.

Above all, Jamieson holds that the people’s right to know, to have access to accurate and unbiased sources of information by and about the government is paramount. Speaking at the University of Minnesota in 2013 Jamieson concluded:

There’s a sustained ongoing set of challenges for those who believe in the policy model in which one set of institutions is responsible for coming to know as best we can, and protecting the record, and some other set of institutions is engaged in policy making. To the extent that we don’t find some way to blunt these forces that are subverting these institutions we are going to have high levels of deception backed by large sums of money wreaking havoc with the way in which we make policy.

A wise woman’s timely challenge for Sunshine Week 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

21st Century Storytelling – Digital tools to create a better world

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but therehave been no societies that did not tell stories. ~ Ursula K. Le Guin

Thinking and writing about storyteller Mattie Clark and World Storytelling Day (March 20) spurs me to wonder how we might harness the ancient power of storytelling to reclaim Americans’ sense that we still have the power to hold our leaders accountable. What I have learned is that a growing number of social activists are taking a lead to explore creative ways to employ digital tools to share the inherent power of stories.

Politicians have always realized the value of narrative, and voters have long responded to the essence of humanity illuminated in a well-crafted yarn. In the digital age technology transforms the technique but never the intent of a good story well told.

Because we are at the dawn of the digital age, explosions of naked data often overwhelm the receiver. My thought is that data rules because it’s easier to gather, manipulate and display data than it is to share a really good story. Jay Geneske writes that, though in some ways human connections are more pervasive than ever, “the noise and ubiquity of this digital world makes it harder to surface and share personal stories of change and impact.”

Caring creatures that we are, most of us still respond to anecdotes in which our fellow human beings play the lead role. Writing in the March 2015 issue of Governing, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene observe that “simple data – no matter how well it’s communicated – is devoid of the kind of emotional content that sticks in people’s minds.” They quote Jennifer LeFleur, senior editor for data journalism at the Center for Investigative Reporting, who “sees some governments putting up data without context, with no sense of why the data matters or how it affects people directly.”

Digital Storytelling for Social Impact, a major study sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, offers a timely fusion of technology with the power of a well-told tale. (The full report is available online at http://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/blog/digital-storytelling-social-impact) In a follow-up blog post researcher Geneske describes the dilemma: “Long form narrative and conventional journalism now share the stage with messages of 140 characters or fewer and images that disappear seconds after they are opened. While there have never been more ways to reach audiences, it has also never been more difficult to really reach them.” Geneske decries the fact that “the noise and ubiquity of this digital world makes it harder to surface and share personal stories of change and impact.”

The Rockefeller Foundation study reminds social activities of the challenge to government and nonprofits: While private sector leaders have tangible products to offer, “public sector leaders…obtain resources by gaining support and legitimacy from politicians, public opinion and a myriad of other invested institutions each pulling and pushing in their own directions. Then, as the work gets done, it’s difficult to measure the impact it has made because the outcomes often emerge years after initiatives are implemented and working out what caused what is near on impossible. It’s a tough gig.” (quoted in Geneske)

Taking it a step further, my personal observation is that nonprofits and government are often at their best when the desired effect is that nothing happens – though the absence of street crime, food poisoning, fraud, house fires, and sex trafficking make the world a better place, it’s well nigh impossible to measure harm that was averted by the intervention of a social or political force.

Building on the Digital Storytelling for Social Change study, in December 2014 Rockefeller expanded the Foundation’s dive into digital storytelling as a tool for social action with the introduction of Hatch, an online primer, toolkit and community.  Hatch promises the user that the website will serve as “concierge” with a “suite of tools and a growing community to help you leverage the power of narrative to increase reach, resources and impact for your social impact or organization.”

Another strong voice in the movement is the Center for Digital Storytelling (http://storycenter.org/), committed to “the value of story as a means for compassionate community action.” Though digital storytelling is a yet un-tapped tool the philosophy of the Center is underscores that “new media and digital video technology will not in and of themselves make a better world. Developing thoughtful, participatory approaches to how and why these technologies are being used is essential.”

All proponents of digital storytelling stress – and grapple with — the harsh reality that stories harbor a pernicious gene. Agents of misinformation are have mastered the power of well-crafted prevarication to mislead the unwary. Thus Barrett and Green warn that “a good yarn that isn’t representative of what’s happening in the world can lead to bad policies.”

My friend Ruth Myers would emphasize that a priority for truth-tellers must be to “enhance the perceptive paranoia” of message receivers. The universal challenge is to cultivate critical thinking skills that screen out what one critic calls “outliers”, tales the Bard described as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Another is to delve deep to capture the humanity that lurks beneath the data, to embrace the power of a good story well told – orally or digitally – as a tool for change-making.

 

Anne Kanten – Radical, Realist, Relentless Advocate for Family Farmers

 

Statistics and stories often present very different pictures of reality. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the silos of data about farm workers.   Though residents of the real world have always known that women carry an enormous burden of the work on a family farm statistics fail to reflect that reality.

The good news is that the stories of the lives and contributions of women farmers is actually getting some long overdue attention in the media – and stories reveal the facts:

For Minnesota family farm advocate Anne Kanten this must bring huge satisfaction, surely a chuckle. History shows that the mind, hand and spirit of Anne Kanten are a mighty force in shaping the image and reality of women as leaders in the changing world of today’s family farm.

As Americans struggle to rethink the sources of food, food safety, nutrition, and the power of corporations and international trade agreements, it seems right to revisit the ways in which Anne Kanten’s story, still a work in progress, is “woven into the essential fabric of our nation’s history.”

Kanten set the pace for today’s women in farming – from the farm she worked with her husband Chuck to her tenure as Deputy Secretary of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to her selection as one of two recipients of the first Family Farm Champion Award sponsored by the Farmers’ Legal Action Group (FLAG) to her honor as “Rural Champion” at the 2011 National Rural Assembly meeting in St Paul. She even has a starring role in Dairy Queen, a video view of three activist women farmers fighting for changes in agriculture policy and practices during the turbulent 1980’s. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoXt02QulP4)

Reflecting on the “Rural Champion” award Kanten reminisced about a time when “the farm and the land and my faith were all tied together in the 1950’s.” What followed in the 1970’s and 80’s was catastrophic. Farmers lost their land and Kanten’s “radical” instincts came to the fore.

In 1989 Kanten was interviewed as part of the Minnesota Farm Advocate Oral History Project; the transcript of that interview with Dianna Hunter is accessible online.   In that conversation Kanten shares the narrative of the ways in which thirty years working with her husband on the family farm prepared her for her life of advocacy, high office and leadership in shaping agricultural policy at the state and federal levels – basically, how she earned the title “radical.”

 

Reared on an Iowa farm, the daughter of immigrants, Anne Knutson graduated from St. Olaf College and began her adult life as a high school teacher. It was when she married Chuck Kanten, a third generation farmer near Milan, Minnesota, that she began to understand the land and what it meant to be a steward of the land.  She and Chuck operated their successful family farm for three decades.

It was her commitment to land stewardship — and the devastation of the land in the mid 1970’s – that led Kanten to reshape her perspective on agriculture policy. She began to think about the political implications, and then the responsibility of the faith community to “understand more about this whole business of agriculture policy.” In the end, she realized, she reflects “it was really the church that got me going, and that moved me eventually into the political arena, and the soap boxing that I did in the name of the family farm.”

Kanten began to change the questions she was raising in her own mind about the politics of agriculture. Her inquiring mind led her first to the county library where she read up on agriculture and the history of agricultural policy. Next she visited the local banker, then back to the library to learn about investments and returns.

Thus prepared, Kanten was at the ready to take action when farm families were devastated by the financial crisis of the late 70’s and 80’s. She found a venue for her experience and ideas in the grassroots American Agriculture Movement (AAM). The agenda, Kanten relates, was simple: “Keep people on their farms, with parity prices for agriculture.” Engrossed in AAM, Anne “hit the road” – traveling to the Capitol in St Paul and to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC “listening and learning and sharing, and just telling people what was going on in the heartland of the United States.”

During the recorded interview Anne describes in poignant detail the 1979 Tractorcade to DC, encounters with the police, the false rumors of violence, and, most of all, the leadership: “The quality, the intelligence and the ability of those farmers was absolutely exceptional. And I was very proud to be a part of that.” Anne defends what might be viewed by some as naivete by affirming the role of the governed in setting the political agenda: “I still think that’s the proper way to lobby. That you go and you tell your story, and you tell it honestly and truthfully to the best of your ability. That’s what it means to lobby. And we didn’t have any training sessions or anything. We simply went to tell our story.”

All this leads to the next chapter of Anne’s narrative which begins in December 1982 when she was tapped by Governor Rudy Perpich to serve as Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture; in that position she was responsible for all of the regulatory divisions of the agency. When the Star Tribune heralded “Radical Farm Woman Appointed to Department of Agriculture” she decided to assume the role.  Anne remembers how she was expected to wear “two different hats” – dealing with the legal complexities of the regulations while never losing sight of how the “farmer fits in.”

At first blush, the impact of the AAM Tractorcade may seem minimal. Still the experience changed the essence of AAM – and the life of Anne Kanten. Anne emerged as a leader; she began to work with Lou Anne Kling who had been working close to home with farmers in her area, providing technical assistance, information, help to family farmers trying to meet the legal and regulatory complexities of operating in troubled times.

The two women came to understand that “there were farmers who needed help, who first of all didn’t want to admit it, and who even when they did admit it found it very difficult to walk through a professional door to get help. They found it very difficult to walk into a county Extension office, or even to share with their lender what was going on. Or many of them couldn’t even share with their spouse, or their own kids what was going on. So there was the beginning of a lot of pathos….”

The two women concluded that one solution would be to “clone” Lou Anne, to train volunteer farmers who would be knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise – and time – with their neighbors. And thus began the Minnesota Farm Advocate Program of which Kanten became the Chief Administrator. The goal of the program was to provide training and a venue or farmers and bankers to resolve their differences, to move both parties from animosity to restored trust. The story of the Farm Advocate Program is recorded in print and in the oral history project of the Minnesota Historical Society. In her interview Anne describes the participants as “a most wonderful bunch of human beings…Because they are so dastardly smart and intelligent, is one thing. But their commitment to help other farmers is most remarkable.”

Throughout her life, Anne and Chuck traveled the world, first as “lay mission observers” from their church, always as family farmers.   Travel convinced Anne, 1) that agriculture policy must be viewed and shaped from an international perspective, and 2) that the relationship between women and farming is symbiotic.

Her thoughts, recorded in 1989, are prescient.   Speaking of the struggle of women Anne reflects:

There is a sense that women were still responsible for the production of food. Women are still responsible for feeding the family. It was women who would get up early in the morning and go for water, maybe walking miles. Walking for firewood to build a fire. Going to the fields to hoe, and to plant, and to harvest. The tremendous burden on women.”

Comparing her own life as a woman farmer with the lot of women in lesser developed nations, Anne concludes:

Women here…have not held up our end as we should. I think the crisis of the ‘80’s has brought a lot of women to the fore, has gotten a lot of women educated, and gotten a lot of women into understanding policy and understanding lenders’ regulations, and so there have been good things….The experience in Africa was a good perspective to have in my head when I talked about agricultural policy.

Speaking into that recorder a quarter century ago, Anne concluded that in this country women had been ‘the invisible farmers.’

We have quietly done that bookwork, and we have driven the trucks, and we have driven the tractors, and we have taken care of the kids, and we have gone to PTA, and we’ve done all those things. But we have not been in the visible policy arena.  And we have not been on the boards and commissions that make decisions. And I think that women are just coming to that now.

Now, as then, Kanten’s focus is on the future, above all on the need for advocacy and for collaboration among family farmers. Clearly, she is spot on in her insistence on the imperative to shape agriculture from a global perspective. On the topic of the role of women in agriculture, it is abundantly clear that she called that one, too.

Anne remains a vibrant force in shaping agriculture with the role of the family farmer and of women at the core of her thinking. Her husband and partner Chuck died in July 2014; their son continues to operate the family farm. With her customary vision and indomitable spirit Anne maintains her “radical” commitment to the role of family farmers, with special focus on the expanding role of women as producers of the world’s food supply.

The story of Anne Kanten is for all time woven into the essential fabric of the history of agriculture, of Minnesota and of the nation.