Wednesday, November 28, 2012

School vouchers: Time to demand common-sense reforms

By Barbara J. Miner
Accountability and achievement are two of the biggest buzzwords in education today.
So why are Milwaukee’s voucher schools allowed to sidestep mandates that other publicly funded schools must follow?
Gov. Scott Walker wants to further expand the voucher program, under which public tax dollars are funneled to private schools. Even the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board has problems with this agenda.
Criticizing Walker’s plans, the newspaper calls for an emphasis on achievement and accountability, two legitimate concerns. But vague admonitions are not enough. Without specific demands, such pleas will have little impact.
Fortunately, there are two specific and reasonable demands that can — and should — be made of voucher schools.
First, that the voucher schools adhere to Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws.
Second, that the voucher schools agree to educate all children, in particular those with special educational needs.
When the voucher program began in 1990, it was billed as a small, experimental initiative to help a few hundred poor children in seven community schools. But even then, the voucher movement had its eye on its prize: replacing our system of public schools with a voucherized, privatized system of every-consumer-for-themselves. Bit by bit, the program was expanded and the focus on poor children was abandoned.
Today there are almost 25,000 students from Milwaukee receiving vouchers to attend a private school. Based on size, the voucher program is now the state’s third largest school district, just behind Madison. 
It’s long past time to demand serious reforms.
Calls for increased accountability from the voucher schools are meaningless unless they acknowledge the essential importance of Wisconsin’s open meetings and records laws. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote nearly a century ago, underlining the importance of making information available to the public, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
All public schools must follow the state’s open meetings and records requirements. Why should the private voucher schools be exempt? This is especially worrisome because a number of voucher schools are phoney private schools; all their students receive a publicly funded voucher and there is not a single student privately paying tuition.
If the voucher schools want to truly be accountable, they should release their data to the public — whether racial demographics, suspension rates, admission policies, staff pay, or the names and contact information of their boards of directors. Likewise, their meetings should be open to the public.
As for achievement, if the voucher schools want to be seriously address this problem, they should agree to educate all children.
Public school districts, by law, must meet the special educational needs of all their students. Voucher schools, because by are defined as private, are not required to meet a student’s special needs beyond what can be provided with minor adjustments, for example helping with reading or speech impairments.
In Milwaukee, the voucher movement has openly and unabashedly created a system of separate and unequal schools. The education of special ed students is the prime example. The percentage of special ed students in Milwaukee’s public schools is about 20 percent. At the private voucher schools, the comparable figure is less than 2 percent.
“All together, the 102 voucher schools are serving a special education population that is equal to what the Milwaukee Public Schools serves in just one of its district schools: Hamilton High School,” Milwaukee superintendent Gregory Thornton noted last year.
Yes, by all means demand increased accountability and achievement. But make the demands mean something. Otherwise, it’s just feel-good rhetoric.
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This blog is cross-posted at my blog, “View from the Heartland: Honoring the Wisconsin tradition of common decency and progressive politics.” At the blog, you can also sign up for email notifications.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Coney Island: a month after Sandy, still in need

 By Barbara J. Miner

Having lived almost 10 years in New York City, much of it in Brooklyn, I’ve always had a soft spot for Coney Island. So when my daughter suggested that the day after our Thanksgiving dinner in New York City we volunteer at a Coney Island relief site, I was willing. Somewhat ambivalent, but wholeheartedly willing.

The New York Times, as part of its Hurricane Sandy coverage, has had several articles and letters-to-the-editors on the social complexities of relief efforts. At what point, for instance, might volunteer efforts do more to assuage the guilt of the volunteer than to help those in need? What is the best way for people of privilege to become involved without exacerbating long-standing race and class divisions?

There are no easy answers. At the same time, such questions are not a rationale to do nothing. So on Friday morning, my husband Bob and my daughter Caitlin and I got on the B train and rode to its final stop at Coney Island and Stillwell Avenue at the southern tip of Brooklyn.

I knew that the Rockaways beach community in Queens had been devastated by Sandy’s trifecta of water, wind and fire. But I was unprepared for the still-momentous devastation on Coney Island almost a month after Sandy’s fury had abated.

We were volunteering at a food and donation distribution center at Coney Island Gospel Assembly — one of about 10 relief sites within the ConeyRecovers network.

Pastor Connie, head of Coney Island Gospel Assembly

Coney Island is known most famously for its amusement park and boardwalk, but its prime was almost a half-century ago. (A former barrier island, Coney Island became connected to the mainland via land fill.) Today, the Coney Island neighborhood is home to about 60,000 people, about 45 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. Some 20 percent of its residents are African American, 28 percent are Latino, 24 percent are white, and 15 percent are Asian.

Some 23 days after Sandy hit shore, a number of buildings in the area remain only marginally habitable. Most first floors are filled with mold and rotting wood; some second floors are not much better. Forget about basement-level living areas. Those with the necessary resources and inclination are gutting their homes and rebuilding. Many are not sure what their future holds, and the necessities of life are in short supply.

A home along Neptune Avenue, as owners try to salvage what they can.

A basement level home, now abandoned.

Mold — an ever present problem in hurricane-ravaged homes.

Our volunteer location, Coney Island Gospel Assembly, is on a corner lot. After the hurricane, its location was ideal as a center for free hot food, medical assistance, and disbursement of donations of clothing, food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and bottled water. The parking lot became an outdoor warehouse; areas near the street became centers for social services and hot meals.

The backbone of the volunteer efforts consisted of church-based volunteers, Americorps members from throughout the country who were staying at a union hall in Queens, and local organizations such as the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able initiative that is a transitional work program for those with a history of homelessness or substance abuse. They are there for the long haul.

The long-term volunteers and residents of Coney Island deserve a few words and photos in a far-away newspaper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They should know that they are not forgotten.
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For more information on relief efforts in the Coney Island area, go to ConeyRecovers, an initiative of the non-profit Alliance for Coney Island.

Workers from Ready, Willing & Able organize donations.

Many of which arrive at random times and in random quantities.

Neighborhood residents wait in line — for hours —  for the church to begin distributing necessities.

After three hours of organizing boxes, the pastor's son, Jack, is able to explain to volunteers how the distribution line 
will be organized.

The distribution begins and residents explain what they need most — whether diapers, bottled water, food or toiletries.

Knowing it may be a long walk home, residents come prepared with the carts that are now ubiquitous throughout the neighborhood.

A young man whose tattoo stands for "clarity of focus" and which, he says, helps him understand what's important in life.

As we walk back to the subway, we traverse mounds of sand that, during the hurricane, traveled a mile-and-a-half from the beach and settled in homes and on sidewalks.

We travel back to Manhattan. Coney Island residents continue with their lives.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln and Walker: Why they do—and don't—belong in the same headline

By Barbara J. Miner

Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln deserve its many accolades. It powerfully reminds us that race is central to both our history and our future, and that our democracy is a work in formation.
Watching the movie it’s hard to imagine — and yet impossible to forget — that 150 years after a bitter civil war that left 618,000-750,000 men dead, and after more than a century of Jim Crow laws eviscerating the Black vote, a Black man was elected and then re-elected President of the United States. All Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, can be proud of that.
Lincoln is also a reminder of what has not changed. Then, as now, one political party catered to the views of white males. Then, as now, the other party was identified with ending white supremacist views, but had an equivocal record on doing so. Then, as now, politics was blood sport.
Change the names — the movie’s Democrats are this era’s Republicans, and vice versa — and it’s clear that our political divides have not significantly changed.
Political personalities aside, Lincoln underscores how the civil war and the end of slavery were seminal events in our nation’s history. Likewise, Black labor before, during and after slavery has been essential to our country’s economic development.
Add that all up and it’s clear: there is no way to understand the United States without acknowledging both the role of African Americans and of racialized politics in shaping our country. Yes, our views of race have evolved and are undeniably complicated, but race is still an ever-present subtext.
Which brings us to today’s Republican Party and our very own Scott Walker.
One of the strongest post-election messages from Republicans who realize they are living in the 21st Century is that the GOP must move beyond its obsessive focus on a dwindling base of white males.
In post-election pronouncements, forward-minded Republicans have been tripping over themselves trying to figure out how to appeal to new constituencies, in particular Latinos and women. Their top solutions thus far: help reform immigration and cool-it on the anti-contraception, pro-rape messages.
But there’s been a stunning lack of GOP comments about reaching out to African Americans. Which is telling.
First, it shows that, above all else, the GOP is still fixated on partisan politics of figuring out how to defeat Democrats. Forget leadership. Forget doing what’s right. Forget the fate of this country’s 41 million African Americans.
The post-election silence about African Americans joining the GOP is deafening, notes writer, blogger and radio/TV host Elon James White. “Why are us Negroes not even in the thought processes of many of the Republican leaders? Women? Hispanics? Asians? Sure. Blacks? Eh ...”
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune on a “Facing Race” conference offered several interesting perspectives on the challenges not just for Republicans but also for Democrats.
Michael Omi, a scholar on U.S. racial politics at the University of California, Berkeley, “said it was still unclear if Asian-Americans and Latinos would be increasingly accepted as ‘honorary whites,’ which could align them more closely with the Republican party while perpetuating a black-white divide, or if the country would move toward a new, more multi-faceted view of race,” the Tribune noted.
The “honorary white” possibility is a provocative but not entirely implausible perspective on the future. In the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the apartheid regime in South Africa granted “honorary whites” status to immigrants from Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.
Or, as the children’s rhyme goes, “If you’re white you’re all right. If you’re brown, stick around. But if you’re black, get back!”

At the “Facing Race” conference, writer Junot Diaz noted the historic yet fragile nature of the multiracial coalition that helped propel Obama to re-election.
"People of color have for the first time in the history of the United States attained a strategic plurality that, when coordinated, allowed us to decisively alter the outcome of the presidential campaign in Obama's favor," noted Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. But, the Tribune writes in paraphrasing Diaz, maintaining the new alliances “could be tough given long-standing tensions among various groups, deeply internalized images of white supremacy among minorities and vast economic disparities still in place 50 years after the civil rights movement.”
“Who knows,” Diaz is quoted as saying, “if the coalition will hold, splinter, collapse or mutate.”
Amid such uncertainties, Republican politicians are already positioning themselves for the 2016 election. Including our very own Scott Walker.
Gov. Walker has distanced himself — and least publicly — from the Romney/Ryan ticket’s nostalgia for the past.
The Associated Press is one of many news outlets which has Walker on the short list of possible GOP contenders for 2016. “I think it’s not that our beliefs are wrong,” Walker is quoted as saying. “I don’t think we do an effective enough job of articulating those beliefs and what it means in people’s lives.”

But there are glaring problems with Walker’s view. First, it puts him out on a shaky limb of saying that the GOP’s problems are not based on its politics but on its messaging. 

Second, Walker has shown little ability to win over voters now coveted by the GOP: young people and women, in particular. And he’s got a horrific record with African Americans.

In the recall race Walker is so proud of winning, he relied on the Romney/Ryan base that didn’t cut it on a national level. Last June, Walker won only 5% of the African American vote, only 47% of women, only 47% of those aged 18-29, and only 43% of those earning less than $50,000 a year, according to exit polls. (Figures for Latinos and Asians were not available because of their small voting numbers statewide.) His strongest base, 62%, was with white men.

As far as Latinos, Walker has had the luxury of sidestepping immigration issues. But his 2011 budget mean-spiritedly eliminated in-state tuition for undocumented students at public universities. 

Not to be forgotten, Walker signed into law one of the most restrictive Voter ID bills in the country, a measure that is now before the courts. Nationally, voter suppression attempts have been recognized as an anti-democratic embarrassment and a low point of the presidential election. Walker’s Voter ID stance will not be forgotten.

Most significantly, Walker apparently has no intention of straying from the GOP agenda. He waited less than two weeks after the election to move forward with the Republican dream of suppressing the vote by those deemed Democratic Party sympathizers. Knowing he has right-wing Republican leadership at the state legislature that will back such efforts, Walker said last Friday that he would like to end Wisconsin’s same-day voter registration law. 

Not coincidentally, such a change would significantly impact Milwaukee, where the Obama/Biden ticket won 79.27% of the vote. Overall, about 17% of those who voted in Milwaukee registered on the day of the vote, propelling the city’s 87% voter turnout. 

As for women, the Walker agenda is a disaster. As governor, Walker has signed legislation that prohibits local legislation on paid sick days, repealed an employment discrimination law, mandated “abstinence-only” sex education that does not call for teaching about the proper use of contraceptives, and banned almost all abortion coverage in any policies set up as part of Obamacare. 

And does Walker really think that his education record — he cut education funding more than any governor in state history and is decimating the budget of one of the best public university systems in the country — will earn him national accolades?

And what about climate chaos and Walker’s love-affair with cars and his hatred of mass transit? How many votes will that win him four years from now? 

One of the lessons of the 2012 election is that demographics and one’s political vision matter. Yes, Wisconsin’s Republicans control state-level politics, in large part due to the Republican’s redistricting maps. But nationally, Walker’s demographic base and political vision are not a winning combination.
Will Walker change his stripes in order to woo a national audience? He certainly may try. But can he deny his record?
In the long run, Walker’s attack on public sector unions may be the least of his problems.
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Life in the trenches of democracy — reflections from a Milwaukee polling site

It was 6:10 a.m., cold and dark on a dimly lit street. “Who are you?” an obviously harried woman asked as I stepped out of my car. I told her I was there to work at the polls.
“Good,” she said. “Two of my people have had their phone numbers changed and another two aren’t answering.”
I had signed up to be a bilingual election worker for the City of Milwaukee. My assignment was at a small, one-room pavilion at a South Side park that seemed little more than a glorified playground.
The pavilion’s outside light wasn’t working, bolstering my sense that this particular electoral machine was not well oiled. My husband, who had an hour before he had to be at work, came in with me.
The one-room polling station was jammed — seemingly haphazardly — with tables, folding chairs and assorted park-related equipment, including a huge Weber grill. The polls were to open in less than an hour.
The polling station’s two chief inspectors were frantically calling missing workers and figuring out how to bring order to the chaos. My husband was pressed into service to help move the tables. I was handed thumbtacks and tape to put up necessary notices in English and Spanish.
“Welcome to the bowels of democracy,” I joked to my husband.
Within the hour, the pavilion was transformed. There were still a few rough edges but it had become a functioning polling station with all the necessary stations, forms and signs. All the poll workers had arrived.
“Hear Ye, Here Ye, The Polls Are Now Open,” the election chief proclaimed on the dot at 7 a.m. Lines had already formed. People were anxious to vote. Our day’s work began.
More than 15 hours later, at 9:45 p.m., I finally left the polling station.
I can’t remember the last time I worked so hard for so long.
I can’t remember the last time I worked with such a fascinating, humble, inspiring, and diverse group of people.
Starting at about 9 p.m., my daughter had started sending rapid-fire text messages from a New York City sports bar that had five big-screens, each one tuned to a different network.
“MSNBC is calling it for Obama!” she texted at one point.
“Elizabeth Warren won! Tammy Baldwin won!” another text read. “And all the ‘rape’ apologists lost!”
Cell phones were not allowed in the polling stations, so I had had no clue what was going on with the elections. Nor had I received those heartening text messages as they came in. As my husband and I drove home from the polling station, I called my daughter.
“Mahalia, life in the trenches of democracy is fascinating,” I explained. “But I feel like a soldier in a World War 2 foxhole, slogging away with no clue if the good guys are winning or losing. Tell me more.”
I don’t like war analogies, but I felt this one was appropriate.
What’s more, I was proud to have been a foot soldier. Reading analyses in the New York Times and following Nate Silver’s blogs had been a part of my life for weeks. But in the end, I learned much more about the workings of democracy at this little known, off-the-radar polling site on Milwaukee’s near South Side.
Above all, I learned how deeply people believe in the right to vote. They may not always exercise that right. But they want to protect it.
My fellow poll workers were a diverse group. There were several older women (including me, with my grey hair) some black, some white, some Latino. There was the bilingual election chief who wore a sports jacket and the coolest silver-toed cowboy boots I have seen in a long time.
A middle-aged mother and her twenty-something daughter worked side by side, both of them fulfilling the South Side stereotype of white working-class women who won’t take gruff from anyone and who speak in one volume: loud. An older black man dealt with the pavilion’s minimal heat by wearing his Green Bay Packers jacket and hat the entire day. A bilingual young woman who had graduated from Pulaski High School worked with me at a crazy-busy table for voters who had a change of address or who had never voted before.
Not to be forgotten: the white guy who had lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and knew it so well that he could immediately tell people, based on their address, which of the three ward tables they should vote at.
We were slammed with non-stop work the minute the polls opened. We barely had time to go to the bathroom, let alone eat decently or take a break and relax. Never once did I hear anyone complain.
In many ways, our little polling site was a microcosm of Milwaukee. Whites were in the minority of voters, but still a significant percentage. About a third were African American — a fascinating development in a neighborhood that 40 years ago was a center of white resistance to open housing. A number of voters spoke Spanish, such as the gentleman who came in and explained that, at 60 years of age, he had decided to vote for the first time in his life. No one looked like they had much extra money to spend at the end of the week. 
There were as many fascinating stories that day as there were voters. One woman impressed me the most.
Sometime in the early afternoon, at a point when I was feeling like a factory line worker and people were becoming a blur, a thirty-something African-American woman sat quietly in front of me. Without a word, she handed me information explaining her situation. I quickly looked it over.
It suddenly dawned me: the woman was a victim of domestic abuse. By law, she had the right to a confidential voter address, and she had taken the necessary steps. To be on the safe side, she had brought in a letter from a transitional housing center documenting necessary information. I looked at the letter’s date: Nov. 5, 2012.
“You went and got this letter yesterday?” I asked the woman, buying time as my mind processed the various hoops she must have gone through.
“Yes,” she said, pride and dignity in her voice. “I wanted to make sure I would be able to vote today.”
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Why can't felons vote? The question is long overdue

By Barbara J. Miner
I grew up believing that the United States is an unparalleled beacon of democracy — the home of the free and the land of the brave.
So I find it disturbing that when it comes to a fundamental democratic right — the right to vote — the United States has a dismal record.
In fact, the United States has more restrictions on voting rights than any other democratic nation in the world, according to Marc Mauer of the highly respected Sentencing Project
Even South Africa is more enlightened.
In South Africa, all prisoners have the right to vote. In a 1999 ruling that eloquently speaks to issue, the constitutional court of South Africa declared: “The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood. Quite literally, it says that everybody counts.” 
In the United States, meanwhile, an estimated 5.8 million people are ineligible to vote as a result of current or previous felony convictions, even non-violent offenses such as writing bad checks or embezzling money. Or, in the case of Kelly Rindfleisch, doing campaign work on county time when an aide to then Milwaukee County Exec and now Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

(In the plea agreement with Rindfleisch this October, the judge denied a request to delay matters until after the Nov. 6 elections so Rindfleisch could vote. Circuit Judge David Hansher said that if he made an exception for Rindfleisch, he’d have to also do so for every defendant up to election day, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)
Disenfranchisement Growing

In the four most restrictive states — Iowa, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia — felons permanently lose the right to vote, even after they have served their sentence. The can regain the vote only through a cumbersome process of applying for a pardon from the governor or a decree by a clemency board. 

Equally troubling, the number of disenfranchised felons is growing, as are the racial disparities in the loss of voting rights.
Largely due to the mis-named War on Drugs, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, growing from about 500,000 in 1980 to nearly 2.3 million three decades later. A disproportionate number of those imprisoned are blacks and Latinos.
As a result, almost 7.7 percent of blacks of voting age cannot do so because of their criminal records, compared to 1.8 percent of non-African Americans.
In three states — Florida, Kentucky and Virginia — one out of five African Americans is not allowed to vote. (For these and other disturbing statistics, see the July 2012 report by The Sentencing Project: “Voting Behind Bars: An Argument for Voting by Prisoners.”) 
The issue of prisoners voting not only raises moral and ethical concerns, but also has a clear impact on electoral outcomes. It’s hard not to wonder whether felon disenfranchisement is a modern-day reincarnation of Jim Crow restrictions on voting.
A look at Florida is enlightening.
In the historic Bush versus Gore 2000 election, the Florida vote was decided by only 537 ballots. Due to Florida’s prohibitions on voting, on the day of the 2000 election an estimated 600,000 ex-felons — in other words, not including those still in prison, on parole or on probation —were ineligible to vote
“If disenfranchised felons in Florida had been permitted to vote, Democrat Gore would certainly have carried the state, and the election,” concluded Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggens in their article in the American Sociological Review.
Lessons from History

The United States experiment in democracy has always been a work in formation. During the Colonial period when our democratic institutions were first developed, only about 6 percent of the population could vote. Women, African Americans, Native Americans, those who couldn’t read, those who did not own property and people with felony convictions — all were excluded.
Over time, and through popular struggle, the right to vote has expanded. Today, all those Colonial era restrictions are gone — except one.
African Americans and Native Americans can vote. Women can vote. Poor people can vote. Illiterates can vote. But, by and large, felons cannot.
The right to vote, even in federal elections, is determined at the state level. And it’s a hodge-podge of laws.
In 12 states, convicted felons may permanently lose their right to vote, with exceptions depending on the crime committed, time since their sentence was completed and other variables. In this group, the four most restrictive states are Iowa, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia.
In the two least restrictive states — Maine and Vermont — felons do not lose the right to vote and may cast absentee ballots while in prison.
In 13 states and the District of Columbia, felons can vote after they leave prison. In another four states, felons can vote after they finish their prison sentence and parole. In another 19 states, including Wisconsin, convicted felons may vote after they complete their entire sentence (prison, parole and probation).
In 10 states, restrictions may apply to some people with a misdemeanor conviction.
In Canada, meanwhile, in 2002 that country’s Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a ban on federal prisoners voting. “The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and the rule of law and cannot be lightly set aside,” the court ruled. “… denying penitentiary inmates the right to vote is more likely to send messages that undermine respect for the law and democracy than messages that enhance those values.”
The international human rights community has taken a similar view.
Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights at the Council of Europe (with 47 member states), has argued strongly that prisoners should have the right to vote. “Prisoners, though deprived of physical liberty, have human rights,” he has argued. “Measures should be taken to ensure that imprisonment does not undermine rights which are unconnected to the intention of the punishment. Indeed, authorities should ensure, for instance, that a prisoner can receive health care and have contact with his or her family. The right to study, to be informed and to vote belongs to this same category of rights which should be protected.” 
In the United States, there is little talk of the rights of prisoners; lock ‘em up rhetoric holds the day.
But fundamentally, this is an issue of voting rights, not law and order. If there is a silver lining to the rash of voter ID and voter suppression efforts in the last few years, it is the growing awareness that protecting the right to vote is fundamental to protecting our democracy.
After Nov. 6, with the heat of the presidential election over, there’s no reason not to ask the question: why can’t felons vote?
If that’s too big a step for you, ask this question: why not allow the vote for felons on probation or parole, or those who have completed their sentence” According to public opinion polls, most Americans favor such reforms.

As The Sentencing Project notes, “How much difference would it make if state laws were changed to reflect the principles most Americans endorse? The answer is straightforward: Voting rights would be restored to well over 4 million of the 5.85 million people currently disenfranchised.” 
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.