by Karen Bauer
Nervously, I set up the HeadCount booth, and wait for the volunteers to show up. It’s hot out, and I wish I remembered to bring sunscreen. It’s early, but there’s already a band onstage. I can’t believe someone put me in charge of all this! But I read the registration info a bunch of times and I am sure I know the rules. I hope I can convince these people to register to vote today. I am kinda freakin’ out. But then I take a deep breath, close my eyes and let the music wash over me for a minute. OK, I’m ready to go. I have to get this right, because I feel that not enough of “us” are making our voices heard at the voting booth.
That was the scene at the first music festival I worked for HeadCount. I had signed up to volunteer back in 2004 because I didn’t like what was happening in the country, and I had to do something! I loved going to shows, and thought it would be cool to register a few voters while I was there. No big deal. I somehow ended up as a team leader, still wondering how a bunch of laid-back Heads could make all of this happen. But we did.
Many shows and thousands of registrations later, I went away to law school and moved on to what I thought were bigger and better things. I moved to a much smaller city and was getting used to my life as a legal aid lawyer when all hell broke loose in Wisconsin’s political scene. I felt like Wisconsin, the home of the progressive movement, was moving in the wrong direction. The new Voter ID bill was going to make it unnecessarily hard to vote. The state government de-funded legal aid for the poor. They were trying to sneak bills through with no debate or public input. I had to do something! I tweeted, I protested, I slept outside the state capital. (Because of all the festivals I have been to, I can set up a tent literally anywhere now.)
Eventually, I found some like-minded local people who had formed “Middle Wisconsin.” They wanted to get more people to speak up and make their voices heard. I was asked to be on their steering committee because they wanted someone with “community organizing experience.”
The way I got that experience:
Volunteer >Become Team Leader>
Figure out voter registration>
Alpine Valley>Tweezer Reprise>
Find more volunteers>broken table>hugs
Take over as WI team leader>Freakout>
Alpine DMB>Windstorm>Broken Tent>SCI x2>
Summercamp>Register voters with Al>sunburn>
10KLF>Golfcart ride with Vince Herman>Who took my pen?
Wakarusa>Michael Franti Acoustic set>Tears>Pride
Anyway, the Middle Wisconsin steering committee gets together every week or two at my friend Mandy’s dining room table. We are just a bunch of regular people, trying to make a difference. While we sit around the table drinking home-brewed beer, we plan our next event. We try to combine fun stuff with a dose of political reality. (Sound familiar?) We keep in touch with our members by using Facebook, a blog and a monthly newsletter.
On Sunday, August 14, we staged a Concert for Voters here in Wausau. 9 different bands played and local vendors sold food (and tie dye shirts) from stands around our city square. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Obey talked about how important activism is. Current members of the state legislature spoke about the importance of voting and local groups like ours. A lot of people showed up, danced and had a great time. We even had hoopers on the lawn! Our community is now more informed, and hopefully energized to make a difference about the direction our state is taking. I was lucky to be a part of the planning something like this. And this time, I wasn’t nervous at all. If I learned anything from working with HeadCount, it’s that it all gets done somehow.
Where was I during this festival of democracy? Sitting at the Middle Wisconsin voter info booth, getting sunburned, listening to the music, and helping people learn about the new Voter ID law. We registered 39 people and I am proud of that. As proud as I was when I started registering voters in 2004. But this time it’s different. I know why someone put me in charge of all this, and I think back to my time at the HeadCount booth, and smile.
What about my idea of moving on to “bigger and better things?” There’s nothing better or more important than knowing you are making a difference. Whether I’m an activist in the courtroom or at the voter registration booth, it’s all a big deal, and it all matters. I am grateful to HeadCount for teaching me that, and grateful to the people of Middle Wisconsin for reminding me that it is still true today.