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Kendrick Wronski: Woman Behind the Painted Signs.

 

Have you read that Frog and Toad story where they plant the seeds in the garden? Toad goes out to the garden and keeps shouting, “Seeds! Start Growing!” There is a  natural part of me that wants to shout like Toad, but at 64,  that tendency is starting to melt. My hammer is giving way to a hand full of finely-tuned, effective tools.

unnamed-6I grew up in Red Wing — a big German Catholic family, one generation off the farm. My grandparents on one side were farmers in Southern Minnesota — the Wabasha/ Kellogg area. The other side were railroad workers in Winona. Their parents immigrated from Germany, Bohemia, Poland, and Sweden. My mom was born in Red Wing and is living there still. Her parents met at a dance in Red Wing.

Grandpa worked as a machinist. He also chopped wood, rolled cigars and was a beat police officer. He died when my mom was in college and her brothers were in the service. Mom came home to help grandma raise Mom’s sister who was 8.Grandma cooked at the Catholic school I went to. I have been writing  about these ancestors.

My upbringing was very conventional. Two younger sisters, five brothers, a very loud dad and a very quiet Mom. I went to a Catholic School.   In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

My first experience in Minneapolis was when I was a sophomore at Mankato State College, studying to be a teacher and I got an internship in the ”inner city.” I worked at a school on the North side — Hall Elementary. There were eight of us living together in a house owned by the college—over in Selby Dale neighborhood in St. Paul. Everyday we’d travel to north Minneapolis. We had advisers, we had adults living with us but there was no discussion that I remember, to help us process what we were experiencing. I felt alone, pretending I understood what I was seeing.

After I graduated I started teaching in Staples, Minnesota. While there I heard about a Humanistic Psychology convention in the Twin Cities. I signed up. At the convention the woman sitting next to me — Sheri — said “I’m going to walk over to North Country Coop for lunch, want to come?” I didn’t know what a coop was. I said sure. She picked out some foods I had never seen in my life. I found something. We ate. Sheri was in a group called Movement For a New Society.

After two years in Staples I gave my notice. They said, “You will never find another teaching job.” The economy was bad for teachers then but I knew I had to move in the direction of more life. I went home to Red Wing and sent out hundreds of applications for teaching jobs in the Twin Cities area. After the school year began, I heard about a job in early child education in Anoka. They needed someone immediately.

I reconnected with Sheri in Minneapolis. She had just bought a coop house and had space for roommates. I moved in and got involved in Movement For a New Society. I remember MNS as pretty self righteous and judgmental but I was young and into those qualities. It was also deeply socially responsible. But I don’t remember racism ever being discussed. It was a white group.  Nothing on ablism, gender or race; no consciousness of being on Native land. Still, it was at least an opportunity to sink my teeth into some of the disparity.

Class and sexuality — MNS helped expanded my consciousness in those areas.

I didn’t know I had a “class background” when I join MNS. I learned it the hard way while living in my third MNS coop house. I proposed “income sharing.” It seemed fair.  Everyone should give according to their income and only me and one other person were working full time. It took me a long time to realize the others didn’t have to work. They had  trust funds and parental backup, were going on vacations and earning money when they felt like it. The two working class people were funding the whole coop!

That was the end of our “income sharing” scheme.

I was at a big MNS meeting and someone said “Alright— the lesbians have to caucus.” Every single woman but me got up and left! I was like “Oh my gosh! All my friends are lesbians!” It was suddenly a possibility. A really good possibility. There was no looking back. But before, it never dawned on me! I just thought “this is what you do — have boyfriends.”

My mother, now 93, has two lesbian daughters. My younger sister Nia knew she was gay in grade school, when I didn’t even know what gay was. But I was the one who came out first to mom. My timing could have been better. I believe I came out to her right after my Dad died in 1979. Because I felt I had to. My sister watched the way mom —an observant Catholic all her life — reacted, and decided “I am never coming out to my family.” It took about six or seven years before she finally did.

I give my mom a lot of credit. She went from “I cannot live with this information you have given me” to having a home interview with the Star Tribune where she expressed her support for Marriage Equality a few years ago. My sister’s partner is one of Michelle Bachman’s sisters so the newspaper really wanted to talk to them. Nia said, “Why don’t you talk to my mom?”

When I started talking Black Lives Matter, the next one in the family to cross that threshold, to begin to understand the need for racial equality — other than my sister Nia who rides to work with Black Lives Matter signs on her bike — was my mom. Another sibling said to me ”Hasn’t she earned some peace — stop pushing her.” I replied, “Yes! Yes she has. But I’m not going to treat her like she’s dead.” I agreed to be more moderate, but mom brought it up to me! She ordered A Good Time for the Truth from the bookstore. When there was a Westminster Town Hall forum on racism and White privilege,  mom was the one who sent out the link    to everyone in the family. When you are 93 you certainly don’t have to change. You can just hold court, listen to your children laugh and that’s enough, but mom has never stopped moving forward.

Many of my friends and family have moved away from me because of the anti- racism work. It is not that they don’t support it — it’s that they don’t understand making it a priority. A bigger priority is having a garden or biking across country. There is a sense of giving lip-service and then flipping a switch to go off and have a great life.

On the other side of that are the people who DO get it — I primarily stay connected with them on the internet, since my health does not allow for much community activity now.

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Facebook is a way I can “go to work” every day, making connections to advance  racial justice. I find someone to help with a task, bring two people together. I am a natural renegade. I saw after the last 94 action that we need White men to monitor White men who come to demonstrations, throw things at the cops and then leave the Black community to take the fall for it. I found some younger, more agile white men to do that, organizing from my computer seat. (The response I got from some people in SURJ was that I had to be careful, there were “deep discussions going on about tactics,” — something about anarchy I didn’t understand. I admitted I was not up on anarchy but I felt this was still something good to have in place. It was a gap I could fill. There is too much “no, wait” energy sometimes, and for my health, I need to go for the “YES!”

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I am the parent of a young adult working with Black Lives Matter, who was centrally engaged in the 4th precinct occupation.  My siblings and their kids saw my child — their cousin —  standing next to someone shot by white supremacists, on the news.  I thought that would move them to might take action. I don’t understand their silence.

I shared parenting with Meg.  We were partners for 20 years.  We are still co-parents together, and very close friends. Our first relationship lasted a year, when we were in our 20’s in 1979. When we broke up I went to Vermont with another lover who had decided to go to Bath, Maine and take a house building class at Shelter Institute. She said “You could come too.” Within a week I gave notice — just as they were offering me tenure. We learned how to build houses. Electric, plumbing, roofing, pipes. After six weeks I felt confident that I could build a house for myself. As it turned out we found an old house in Vermont that worked for us. We fixed it up.

But Meg and I were not done. She transferred out to Boston in 1989 to work for the Unitarian Universalists. We ended up together again, living on Plum Island in a tiny cottage by the ocean for a year. Meg commuted to Boston. I began painting.

I can’t believe I didn’t get involved in racial justice issues when we lived in Boston and DC. It saddens me that I was not more awake then. Sure I was busy. Parenting. Painting. Making some money. Enjoying life. But I find myself wishing that I had been connected to more of what was happening in our country.

I started doing my art seriously when Meg and I got back together.  I have never been a part of the “art world.” I have never written a grant. But I painted every single day. First one self portrait after another. Oil paint. After a year my money was gone. Meg and I moved to DC, where we lived for a decade. I began getting scrappy jobs to support my art habit. Got myself into and out of trouble with credit cards. Meg tried to help. She made enough money. I worked crappy minimum wage jobs until I created a solo housecleaning business. I was able to work close to home with a flexible schedule, an aerobic workout, plenty of reflective time and a living wage. I did that until I my body could not do it anymore. For the last ten years I have had chronic fatigue syndrome and have been living on disability income.

Back in Minneapolis, I joined an Anti Racism Study Dialog Circle ASDIC in 2011-12. Ten week sessions, four hours a week. It was very academic. I began doing some art as a way of interpreting the lessons for myself. Quotes. Ideas I could put in my hands. The first group I was in was at a Baptist Church in town. They accepted me as a lesbian feminist non-religious artist. Every week I brought in an artistic rendition of what we were learning. A sort of floor puzzle of living within the “White Racial Frame” took form. I took ASDIC again a second time and my art was not so well received, but since then I have found a way to use this concept hatched during these workshops.


When I was doing that “inner city” internship in college we went to a big meeting in North Minneapolis. It could have been organized by The Way — I’m not sure. I was at the back of a large packed room with my other interns. There was a Black woman on the stage telling a truth I had never heard before. It knocked me down. She was talking about the realities of racism and the whiteness that perpetuates it…

That memory comes back often now, because, working with SURJ I want to do my damndest to be there for other people in that beginning place, who are just beginning to face and feel the racist culture we are a part of —  who need company to figure out what their responsive action will look like.

SURJ just had a general meeting of 400 people and I helped create a room where people could come who were in that place — people who have turned away from white supremacist training and are looking for the next step. Fifty people crossed that threshold. Due to physical limitations, it has been a decade since I have been in a room like that with so many people, expending that much energy. I think I was able to do it because it was so undeniably needed. I cant show up on the street much or organize many details most days, but I can still do this. I may be sniffing out a trail for myself. Finding work I can still do, to help. As an old special ed teacher, I can see when something isn’t working and can think of various ways to move ahead. This work “puts me in the harness” as a Quakers say — for meeting people in a different way and trusting that each of us can help change and move and build.

Since I have chronic fatigue syndrome. I know that at some point living in a rest home is a strong possibility. My cognitive abilities are not working the way they used to work. The only way I can write most days now is in phrases, I can’t make much of a narrative. For my birthday I had 18 people come and listen to 13 new poems reaching for my own cultural heritage. These friends knew I wouldn’t last much more than an hour. That was in March. Now, almost every single day a poem/reflection arrives under my fingertips.

 

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