Leaders Igniting Transformation takes its platform to Wisconsin's Capitol
Young people around Wisconsin have been harnessing their political power, turning out in record numbers on campuses across the state for the recent spring election.
But political decisions are being made year-round.
LIT Lobby Day is a chance for LIT, or Leaders Igniting Transformation, an organization that aims to build political power for young people of color, to have a day of legislative lobbying and advocacy at the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The energy was palpable on the steps of the Wisconsin Capitol Tuesday April 18, 2023. Around 100 young people from around the state, some in high school, some college students, gathered on the stairs overlooking state street, chanting “run us our money!” and responding, “invest in our now!”
They were there to let legislators know about LIT’s priorities for the state budget. That includes equitable funding for K-12 public schools, accessible and affordable higher education and voting access. A steady stream of student speakers led to UW-Madison student Kai Brown.
“Hey, y'all, my name is Kai Brown. I use they them pronouns,” said Brown. “And I'm a college fellow through LIT at the University of Wisconsin Madison, which is literally right in front of us.”
Brown was one of many students wearing bright orange t-shirts featuring a coin being dropped into a piggy bank and the slogan “Invest in our now!” Brown explained they are the only person in their family to go to college. They said that with every step of admissions and college life, there have been moments where they couldn’t afford something.
“[That included] the key charge to my dorm, segregated fees, the $200 freshman fee. This is what deters marginalized students, when there's more anxiety about poverty than there is helping hands,” explained Brown. “There is a reason I don't see folks who look like me in the classroom, I don't have the pocket to throw out a surprise $200 every time my school asks for it.”
Some students held signs opposing AB 69, a bill circulated by Republicans to bring back armed "school resource officers" in some schools.
Other students held up a large sign decorated as a check written to “the students of Wisconsin” for $24.5 M. That’s the amount of money being sought by the UW System President and Board of Regents in the 2023-2025 budget to continue funding Wisconsin Tuition Promise, which is being paid for in its first year by reserve funds.
The Promise would provide up to four years of tuition and fee funding for students coming from families earning less than $62,000 a year. This would provide funding for about 8,000 students at the 12 public universities other than UW-Madison, which has its own privately funded program.
Republican lawmakers have said they are unlikely to OK the request in their version of the state budget.
“As constituents of this state, it is not just a duty, but it's their right to know who are the people that are making decisions over their daily lives,” says Cendi Tena, co-executive director of LIT.
She says young people deserve to know how decisions are made and what it takes for legislation to pass or be blocked.
“So we do year round programming, and we are very adamant with our members about our works does not stop after the election, our work actually begins after the election,” said Tena. “Because a big part of ensuring that we get what we want is holding elected officials accountable to the promises that they've made.”
Part of the day of lobbying included students snaking in and out of the labyrinth-like halls, stairwells and elevators of the state capitol to get to meetings with legislators or their staff.
“OK Let’s go!” called out organizers after a lunch break, sending students to the offices of Democratic Reps. Tip McGuire of Kenosha and Greta Neubauer of Racine and Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson of Milwaukee.
A group of students were ushered into the office of Republican state Sen. Van Wanggard of Racine. There they met with his chief of staff, Scott Kelly.
After the students explained their support for the Wisconsin Tuition Promise, LIT fellow and UW-Parkside freshman Nicholas Smith cut right to the chase. “So, you’re chief of staff, right? Yes. Where do you think Sen. Wanggard stands on this?”
Kelly said it’s the beginning of the budget process and senator Wanggard will have questions.
“Well, frankly, he'd want to look at what's happened at Madison to see what that's impact has been,” said Kelly. “Are you seeing retention? Right? Are you seeing people sticking around that may not stick around? That's, you know, that's the key.”
When the students asked if senator Wanggard would support more early voting sites on UW campuses, Kelly told them: “I doubt it. The system’s working pretty good, pretty well now so I don’t think needing to create more … If you look at the two last elections especially, you can see the spikes on campuses.”
KB Bjerk—a LIT staff member—told the students after the meeting that part of Lobby Day is learning to communicate with those they might not always agree with. “We’re not here to argue and we're like going to find some commonalities. And we're still going to say what we came here to say, and how it lands is how it lands. So, I'm really proud of all of you guys,” Bjerk said.
LIT is a progressive organization, and students were able to find a more receptive audience in the office of Democratic state representative Jodi Emerson of Eau Claire. There, UW-Eau Claire student Jacksen Wolff asked Emerson for backing on more of LIT’s platform, like automatic voter registration.
“So that we can allow somebody in the marginalized communities who don't have access to DMV services for you know, various reasons, so they can just vote,” explained Wolff.
“Not to like, quote Bernie Sanders,” responded Emerson. “But at one point, I wrote the damn bill for that one. So yeah, totally on board with the automatic voter registration.”
MPS Junior Amaya Baldwin said the students have an important perspective for lawmakers, regardless of their political bent. “[Lawmakers are] at the Capitol every day, they don’t get to see what goes down in schools. They’re not in schools,” said Baldwin. “They're working planning on how to fix schools, but they're not actually in the schools to see what we need to be fixed," Baldwin said. "And that's why it's also important, because you actually make them … you hold them accountable for what they're what they want to pass what they plan on doing and what they're doing now.”
LIT has been providing testimony at all public hearings before the Joint Finance Committee on the 2023-2025 budget. And they will continue to try and influence the process.