A leader with deep roots in Wisconsin, Jennifer has nearly 15 years of organizing experience and a history of playing an integral role in winning campaigns for paid sick days, in-state tuition for undocumented students, and community benefits. As Executive Director of Wisconsin Jobs Now, Jennifer led a coalition of 40 organizations to pass a historic living wage ordinance through the Milwaukee County Board. In 2013, Jennifer won the Berger-Marks Foundation’s Edna Award, and Bill Moyers named her his 20th Activist to Watch. She is also a blogger for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Purple Wisconsin project.
Jennifer earned her BA in Political Science and Women’s Studies and her law degree from the University of Wisconsin. Before returning to community organizing, Jennifer worked as an attorney for the Wisconsin State Public Defenders’ Office. She lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband and their two children.
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Jennifer Epps-Addison: People who know me would say I’ve been organizing since birth. I had incredible parents, an interracial couple that married just a year after the assignation of Dr. King, who raised me to question injustice from an early age. When I was in high school, I helped lead a city-wide walk out and march on then Governor Tommy Thompson over his plan to disband Milwaukee Public Schools. The governor backed off his plan and I was hooked. I went on to organize in college. The United States Student Association and their campus training program empowered me to understand social movements and social change. I became an organizer right out of college and never looked back.
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
JEA: Having a political education was a great place to start. In high school, I was reading the writings of Malcolm X and was learning the legislative process in a YMCA program called Youth in Government. In college, I was exposed to social movement theory, reading folks like bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Cornel West. The other factor was having access to training and leadership development opportunities. The United States Students Association is responsible for a lot of my growth and my skill as an organizer. I learned messaging, how to develop strategy and campaign plans, how to manage coalitions and how to lobby. Most importantly, I learned the science of organizing. Paid internships and fellowships are also incredible ways to build organizer skills.
My first organizing job out of college was building a youth organizing program from the ground up as a New Voices Fellow. Again, the support of a national training infrastructure helped me grow and refine my craft. Many of the leaders in my age group have begun their careers in a fellowship, apprentice, or internship program. Sadly, much of the national infrastructure for leadership development has ceased to exist or has been extremely weakened due to lack of investment. Programs like New Voices, the Apprentice Organizers Project, the Center for Leadership Development have ended, and state and national student associations have been severely weakened by conservative legislatures stripping away their democratically approved funding mechanism. I think that if we hope for broad social progress we need to reinvest in leadership development.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
JEA: I’ve tried to make amplifying the voices of those most directly impacted by an issue the center of all of my organizing work. In each successful campaign, door-to-door, person-to-person organizing will undoubtedly be a key part of achieving victory. However, there are a number of equally important tactics in an organizing campaign. Think about what makes “Fight for Fifteen” so incredibly transformative. How did a campaign go from being laughed at to ultimately winning in just two years? First and foremost, the workers are speaking for themselves – they are organizing and their leadership and development is being invested in. But it takes more than just having good leaders for a campaign to be successful. Campaigns require talented staff, a sophisticated analysis of power, strategic messaging, internal organization and capacity, and above all, resources. That is why “Fight for Fifteen” has been so impactful. It is led, at its core, by those directly affected; it is highly localized, yet contributes to building a national narrative; it utilizes a multitude of tactics from legal, to disruption, to policy introduction; and, perhaps most importantly, it is well resourced.
KR: You are currently the executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now. How do the organizing skills that you have developed help you to be an effective director?
JEA: I spent a significant part of my career building and managing coalitions. Working in coalition you learn to lean on your partners strengths, to delegate the work, to manage conflict, and to prioritize outcomes. All of these skills served me well in my transition from Program Director to Executive Director. I do think at times your skills as an organizer can be in conflict with what is required as an Executive Director. I wasn’t fully prepared for what it meant to have to be the final decision maker or to have tough conversations with staff. Again, training programs have become a life saver for me. In my first year as Executive Director, I went through a program called BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity), a leadership development program for Black Executive Directors. Through training and peer support I’ve slowly begun to identify my management style, and I’ve learned a process for grappling with tough decisions. The other skill that has served me well in my transition to Wisconsin Jobs Now is my relentlessness and aggressive nature. Resourcing community organizations is a difficult responsibility. I take every opportunity I can to talk about the incredible work of our staff and members. I lay out our theory of change to anyone who will listen. It’s a lot like organizing when you view relationship building with funders as a long-term, not a one-off, strategy.
KR:Wisconsin Jobs Now is involved in worker rights, living wage, and civic and community engagement. How do you intentionally build Black leadership within these campaigns?
JEA: WJN invests the bulk of its resources in field organizing, whether that’s door-to-door in neighborhoods or worksite organizing. Our organizing goal is to move folks up a leadership pipeline. From the field, we engage people through actions and events. Our members believe deeply in the power of direct action and disruption of unjust systems. WJN activists are no strangers to speaking truth to power. Together, they’ve organized some of the most successful retail and fast-food strikes in the nation, engaged in civil disobedience taking over bridges and other public spaces, and marched directly on corporate actors that seek to undermine our democracy. Once folks are invested, we ask them to take the next step by becoming a block captain or worker leader. As a leader in WJN, folks get a deeper level of investment in their training through bi-weekly trainings and strategy sessions. These are volunteer positions where people map their social networks and agree to take a set of turf either in their neighborhood or workplace. We invest in our leaders as though we are training organizers. We build their capacity to develop strategy and speak publicly, and they become the leaders of our campaigns.
When WJN has the resources to expand our work, during elections for example, we hire from our base of block captains and worker leaders. During the 2014 Wisconsin Governors election, for example, our program placed over 125 leaders into living wage $15/hour field and data jobs. When we contract after elections, these workers go back to volunteering continue growing our base. When WJN is looking to hire, we prioritize considering long-term leaders. In fact, 100 percent of our organizing department, and 50% of our management staff, were leaders or activists within WJN.
KR: Recently, based on a number of social indicators, The Root declared that Wisconsin was the worst place in the country for Black people to live. How do these challenges affect the way that you organize within Black communities?
JEA: People might think that it would be easier to organize in a community where the injustice is so pronounced, but that’s not the case. Folks in Milwaukee are surviving through a decades-long great depression. Roughly 55 percent of black men are jobless in Milwaukee. Black women, even though they are more employed, are deeper in poverty. Black women are often forced to string together two or three part time jobs in order to make ends meet. This can be a difficult environment to grow a culture of resistance in. In essence, you are asking folks that have little to no free time to give up extra hours of sleep, a rarely available day off, or quality time with their family, in order to volunteer. This harsh reality has informed our desire to create international ownership within the program. Folks don’t participate in WJN in the service of others (at least not exclusively), but rather they see the power in connecting their individual struggle to collective action.
The other consideration is the impact of race and racial polarization in public policy making. Those in power in Wisconsin often scapegoat Milwaukee (i.e. black folks) for the state’s economic problems. This tactic has made it very difficult to pass policies that will improve the conditions in Milwaukee. There is no quick or easy fix for this problem. Nonetheless, Wisconsin Jobs Now members plan to launch a program in Spring 2015 to connect out-of-state working class whites to members in Milwaukee fighting for racial and economic justice. Their theory is that the only way to change the hearts and minds of folks out-of-state is to get out there, door-to-door, to build relationships.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
JEA: In some ways, I think my perspective on this is fairly skewed. I’ve always worked for “progressive” organizations that didn’t specifically name Black-led organizing as a goal. We had many conversations about diversity or expanding a base of leaders, but never named Black organizing as something to strive for. Black organizations tend to be small organizations operating on shoestring budgets, making it very difficult to raise their organizational profile and compete for national foundation investment. In addition, trainings from labor union “organizer in training” programs to internship and apprenticeship programs have all been disappearing due to lack of resources. Also, as Black leaders move into director level rolls (especially in state-wide organizations) there is pressure from funders and sometimes members not to name race specifically. Still, I am incredibly encouraged by the #blacklivesmatter movement that has taken hold of the country recently. This organic network of both institutional and individual black leaders has that potential to springboard the individual work of black-led organizations into a powerful and collaborative 21st Century movement for economic and racial justice.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
JEA: I’m a huge fan of the idea of creating more opportunities for black leaders to connect, commiserate, and train with each other. In the short term, I’d love to be engaged in a space that works toward identifying a Black agenda with tangible outcomes. What would it look like to create a national Black agenda that addressed wages, working conditions, education, and criminal justice? What would a 10 year strategic plan for empowering and activating the Black diaspora in the United States look like? Part of the reason it is so difficult to name Black organizing is because we are literally at the bottom of almost every social indicator imaginable. Thus, everything from infant mortality to climate change, housing to immigrant rights, are all “Black” issues. Putting some of the brightest thinkers in the same creative space with a goal of identifying a strategic plan and a set of outcomes to improve the lives of Black folks would go a long way towards increasing and sustaining Black-led organizing. Organizing labor and foundations around this plan would take it even further.