Erika Wolf: Former national organizer now approaches change on a block-to-block level
by Peggy Schulz
photo by Alice Waraxa
Erika Wolf, volunteer coordinator at the Riverwest Co-op, has an impressive background as an organizer and activist, on state-wide, national and even international levels. But she’s more than happy to be back in her favorite Milwaukee neighborhood, where she’s applying her undying passion for justice, fairness and equal rights on an immediate, community basis.
Erika’s experience includes serving as the National Field Director for Jill Stein, the Green Party Presidential candidate in 2012. (Stein also is the Green Party’s candidate in 2016.)
Erika worked with Wisconsin Voices, a non-partisan issues-based group, and joined thousands of others in the occupation of the Capitol building in Madison, in protest of Scott Walker’s attempts to strip civic unions of collective bargaining rights.
Erika also worked as a lobbyist for the United Council of UW Students, on a variety of issues. And she has been involved with STEP—Student Training for Environmental Protection—on tactics, lobbying strategies and organizing.
She left school at UWM, where she had been studying political philosophy, to work on a project in Haiti. “I need to be a forester,” is the thought that arose in Erika’s mind after the Haiti experience. She then enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point in their forestry program. But Milwaukee—specifically, Riverwest—called her back.
Finally, just a block or two from the Co-op, Erika also does a radio show for Riverwest Radio called “All the Things.”
All of that experience and education have made Erika the impassioned woman she is today.
Erika found her way to Milwaukee initially in 2003, shortly after she graduated from high school. (She’d been here only once before, for a music event.) She didn’t know anyone here, but she wanted to live in “a real city, with real issues,” she said. “I didn’t know there was a place like Riverwest,” she said. “I feel very rooted here, and I recognize the people here who have done work before me.”
She stayed for a few years after ‘03, but ended up moving to other cities to explore both educational and work opportunities.
“I moved back to Wisconsin when Scott Walker was running for governor for a second time,” Erika says. “Hell, no, that can’t happen!”
A teenage organizer
Erika relates she wasn’t at all familiar with the word “organizer” when she became one for the first time—at age 15. She was outraged at what she saw in the news about the war in Afghanistan. “Adults weren’t understanding that violence begets more violence,” she says.
Erika didn’t grow up around organizers, but her parents instilled positive values in her that fueled her inextinguishable fire. “My parents encouraged me to know myself, to be myself, to have strong values and stand up for them.” Erika remembers thinking at age 15, “This is not teen angst. This is who I am.”
“It’s about all of us”
Beyond her work at the Co-op, Erika is involved with a number of other projects in Riverwest and beyond. She’s a strong believer in the role art can play in providing insight into all of the people in our multicultural world. “We need person-power,” she says, “the stories to lift us up. Organizers need to strongly rely on art to express who we are and where we’re going.”
Erika talks about the notion of taking our thoughts and putting them into action. “Take those ideas out of our heads and move them into our hearts … Let’s go for what we need and believe we can get there,” Erika says. “Otherwise, we’re not gonna get there.”
Erika notes that well-known activists and philosophers such as Ghandi have put forth the concept that organization is taking what feels like private suffering and changing that into collective hope. “It makes it about all of us, includes everyone,” Erika says.
One example that builds on this idea is the work she’s been doing with a group focused on deconstructing rape and apathy (DRAM). One of their projects is to provide date-rape-drug test strips. Erika reports that more than 40% of Milwaukeeans in a recent survey reported being involved in sexual violence.
“That’s devastating,” Erika says, especially when one considers how many people likely were victims of sexual violence but were unwilling to report it.
Working toward positive change
The term “electoral politics” is one that can elicit frustrated shrugs from lots of folks these days. Erika is no exception. But she’s definitely not satisfied to stop there. “We need to establish ecology within the political movement and provide an alternative, like the Co-op,” Erika says, “to create our own systems.”
“Let’s move away from focusing on dominant institutions,” she says. “We need to say: ‘So if
And, speaking of politicians, Erika appreciates the fact that Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette came up with our state’s current motto: “Forward.” Originally a Republican and then a Progressive politician in our state in the early part of the last century,
as both governor and U.S. senator, “Fighting Bob” was as passionate about positive, forward-looking change as Erika Wolf is today, in Riverwest.
Erika provides a broad perspective on what Riverwest residents can look to, in order to improve the quality of life for all neighbors. “The smaller your constituency, the smaller the focus, the more impactful your service,” Erika says, describing making positive changes in the city. Issues such as potholes in the roads, parking, street lighting—“the neighborhood is where you experience these issues as you live your life,” Erika says. “My block and my neighborhood are my home … in Riverwest, we’re building a model. What does it mean to create our own jobs, define our space, create our culture?” Erika asks. And she expresses huge excitement over the beginnings of a member-owned bank in Riverwest.
“We’re gonna put our pennies together,” Erika says. “If I give a little and you give a little, we’ll have a lot,” she says of the “mind-blowing” concept of a neighborhood-based and owned financial institution.
That’s just one example of the type of block-by-block organizing that can do so much to build the community. She notes that more art, and more and better transit, are two specific things she would like to see in the neighborhood, and not only within the technical boundaries of Riverwest.
Erika recounts that the Riverwest neighborhood designation at one time extended west to the freeway. What is now known as the Harambee neighborhood, where Erika lives, was included in Riverwest. “I would love to see our community not just be a place where different people live near each other, but actually become multicultural,” Erika says. “We all want the same things: to feel safe, be ourselves, and be creative.”
Perhaps “Forward, Riverwest” would be a good motto for the neighborhood to adopt. And/or, if you’re into body art, think about permanently sharing a quote of Erika’s with your neighbors (I know I am!): “We should, and we can; so we are.”