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James Godsil: Agent of Change

From marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to working with ESHAC to save Riverwest in the 1970s, James Godsil has been a mentor to generations in Milwaukee. Trading the prospects of his brilliant academic career to live the change he wanted to see in the world, Godsil has spent four decades on the roofs of every neighborhood in the city. With his retirement has come reflection, and continued motivation to shape a future for Milwaukee based on cultural equality and nourished by urban agriculture.

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Q&A

Q: Do you have any fond memories from your involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s?

A: I was a field marshal in the Chicago during the 1966 Open Housing Marches. I go back and forth from remembering the Freedom Summer as a great historic moment, to memories of very personal experiences about simply growing up.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and others awoke the world to the American version of apartheid. So I am proud of being part of that effort to dismantle restrictive housing policies.

But I also remember conversations, dinners, ping pong games, and young romance that offset the horrors we were witness to.​​ I lived and worked with about twelve very bright, courageous, and fun college students from across the country​.​ We shared a terrible tenement house, just a block from the famous Maxwell Street and the greasy spoon diner Aretha Franklin made famous.

The first night I witnessed Dr. King himself speak at a modest South Side Church, he was heckled by two Black Power organizers who were critical of his non-violent philosophy. Dr. King invited them to the pulpit and gave them their time, afterwards they stood in the center aisle to await his response. They expected King to be defensive, but instead he began speaking softly and slowly weaved Christian social justice concepts with philosophy from Gandhi and theories of democracy.

King’s voice had a deep spiritual power that held our attention. After several minutes of hearing him exult possibilities​​, ​the young hecklers joined in support of Dr. King’s vision. That might have been a kind of critical and transcendent moment for myself and many others.

Less profound but still wonderful is my memory of presenting a theatrical production at a South Side church with my Freedom School Students. Jesse Jackson and James Bevel were in attendance. My students were only ages 8 to 12 but felt so excited and proud to earn Reverend Jackson’s delight.​ I was especially touched seeing a ​very young Jesse Jackson writing notes for his speech on scraps of paper.

Q: When people learn about your experience with Dr. King, what is the most common question they ask? And your answer?

A: When people find out I was Dr. King’s bodyguard, but only for a moment, they usually ask how in I did you end up doing that, and are curious how dangerous it was. I explain that my position was actually as a field marshal. This involved me walking alongside the marchers, doing my best to catch or deflect the bottles, bricks, and stones thrown at us by enraged mobs. I also had to keep the marchers from breaking their non-violent promise.

So when a stone struck Dr. King in his head, I was asked to leave the line between the marchers and the mob in hopes of alerting the police. We need them as a buffer to prevent an assassination.

​I was very frightened at that moment, worried about getting beaten to death if someone recognized me as part of SCLC’s march. I am deeply grateful that my working class parents did not forbid me this experience, although they were deeply worried for my safety and my sanity.

Q: When did you first meet Grace Lee Boggs and what influence did she have on you?

A: I met Grace Lee Boggs at a Growing Power workshop in 2006. She was about 90 years old at the time and with “all of her marbles,” as she often said.​ It was a thrill. I had followed her activism work in Detroit, the political writings along with her husband Jimmy Boggs, since the early 1970s. Grace was focused on the power of the idea, and the idea of power. She believed conversations should begin organically within a community, and offer reflection for solutions to daily issues.

Q: What was your most inspirational experience with Father James Groppi?

A: I was not living in Wisconsin during Milwaukee’s Open Housing Marches. But I did have the privilege to visit Hephatha Lutheran Church when Father Groppi and Cesar Chavez spoke in the early 1970s. I was inspired many years later when Margaret Razda, his wife, and Andre Lee Ellis produced a wonderful play to honor the memory of Father Groppi’s life. A young Nik Kovac, long before he became an Alderman, was one of the actors in that production, which presented an account of the Milwaukee Civil Rights Movement from the 1960s and 1970s.

Q: How was teaching in a Freedom School of the 1960s different than educational instruction in Public Schools?

A: Teaching in a Freedom School, which was basically a little storefront on Roosevelt Avenue about three blocks from where the riots of 1966 began, had a ​much​ different focus than conventional public schools. Our goal was​ to cultivate​ a more social, spiritual, and emotional​ experience with aptitudes and capabilities. Conventional education is very cognitive. I taught black history and theater with the approach of participation, inviting students to express their newly discovered knowledge in the art of performance.

Q: What are you most proud of from your time as a Civil Rights organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

A: I am most proud of not becoming a ​defeatist and feeling cynical from the enormous hostility and push back that came with the Civil Rights movement. I learned from my father’s Jesuit influences, which taught to cultivate a sense of history as a long arc. I never imagined that bursts of activism would quickly change things that took decades and centuries to develop. I knew we were in for a protracted, multi-generational, multi-cultural struggle, and I proud of having that perspective.

Q: Did you have any experience with the Milwaukee Chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP)? And if so, how did their purpose compare to other city chapters?

A: I have since come to appreciate a number of the brilliant, courageous, and steadfast survivors of the Black Panther Party in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, and New York, but I had very little experience with them during the time they were active.

Q: You wrote that in 1972 you were judged too radical because you believed in concepts like cultural imperialism as a form of symbolic violence. Do you still believe in them, and do these factors continue to exist today?

​A: Back in the early 1970s, the concept of imperialism was not understood by the discipline of political science, as it applied to the USA. So my ideas of cultural imperialism and symbolic violence were beyond that academic grasp until after the globalization of social science. More scholars and intellectuals gave attention to the importance of the cultural interactions, and these concepts began to get acceptance.

The great Western Powers have developed important progressive institutions like individual rights and civil liberties, pluralism, and entrepreneurial aptitudes. But Western culture has produced unhealthy imperial products like excessive individualism, consumerism, and arrogance of power.

Many implicit biases are contained in film, magazines, schools, and business practices, which shapes group thinking. Social psychology today has proven that the mental damage is done to children and young adults when subjected to mass media that devalues their cultural identity and position in society. This affects the spiritual and emotional stability for groups within our community, in their self-identity and status relations with other groups.

Q: If the James Godsil of 2016 could send a single message to the James Godsil of 1976, what would he say?

Meditate and do your best to practice the cardinal virtues of faith, hope, and charity, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance​. Especially prudence.​

Q: Living through the dark days of the Civil Rights struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, can you point to a moment when you felt Milwaukee had turned a corner and had hope for the future?

​A: I have been witness to the great work done by thousands of Milwaukee citizens that inspire my hope for our collective future. There have been countless examples over the years, and I have a list through the decades that reassure me to believe the old city of Milwaukee is at the dawn of some kind of long lasting Renaissance.

Milwaukee, for me, has become especially on the right track since Rocky Marcoux and Tom Barrett signed on to our city becoming a​ global​ innovation center for water and urban agriculture projects, back around 2007.​​

Q: Did you ever give up hope that the social conditions in Milwaukee would improve and ever reach a sense of equality?

A: I never have, nor think I ever could, give up hope that Milwaukee will improve and advance into a more mindful, egalitarian, and dynamic society. We have a long way to go to, but the new generation of Milwaukee people have great resources of mind and spirit for healing the community our environment.

Q: What is your assessment of economic and social conditions in Milwaukee, and is the trend improving, declining, or continuing in a cycle between the two conditions?

A: Milwaukee has great challenges and great possibilities to navigate. We are transitioning from a racially segregated, bureaucratic, and industrial city into some kind of hybrid society. Many old institutions and ways are not practical like before. For me, the renaissance of downtown is complimented by the implementation of new green technologies and enterprises addressing soil, water, and air requirements, with a new commitment of civil society and community involvement to sustain these things.

Q: Violence within the African-American community of Milwaukee has stretched on for decades, is it realistic to give up hope that the situation will ever change?

A: Levels of violence will diminish as our citizens become active in creating neighborhood institutions that inspire young and old learners to become the leaders we have waited for.

Our mainstream institutions are coming to understand that the abused become abusers. Many of our programs in schools and businesses now try to advance more mindful relationships within families, neighborhoods, work places, and civil society institutions.​

Q: What is the most debilitating result of Mental Health issues have you seen in Milwaukee?

A: ​Many people are working hard to de-stigmatize those with mental health challenges, My Mother, who did not go to high school, had an amazingly contemporary understanding as far back as 19950s. She often said that she could not understand why our society was so blind to the obvious fact, not only bodies get sick. Our minds and hearts also develop ailments. Self-medication for anxiety and depression by alcohol is the largest debilitation I have encountered, and it is deeply rooted in our culture.

Q: What brought about your creation of the Community Roofing & Restoration in 1975?

A: My teaching career at Alverno College and UWM’s Spanish Speaking Outreach Center came to an end when I let the administration know that I was not going to continue work on my dissertation, which made no sense anyway to most of the faculty at UWM’s political science department.

I had a child to help raise and skills in roofing and enterprise formation. A roofer with pride and the ability to work on three-story roofs can find nine months of well paying work in cities like Milwaukee. So I began Community Roofing Collective, which evolved into Community Roofing Coop, and then into Community Roofing, Inc.

I saw the possibilities of advancing the skilled trades as part of renewing the old city. It was my hope to create a worker-owned company, where the hierarchy and capitalist exploitation of labor would be minimized because the workers would be the owners, controlling what they made, how they made it, and how the profits were distributed.

The business ventures provided employees with a decent wage for an honest days work and clients with repairs and new roofs that worked. But I discovered that many of those concerned about worker exploitation were not sufficiently committed to the very hard, dirty, and dangerous work of roofing. Additionally, those who had the right stuff to actually do the work, were not very interested in spending time with ideological issues.

Q: How did you make the transition from academics and activism into the world of restoration and construction?

A: I made the transition from an engaged scholar into a roofer and restoration contractor by the grace of God, blood, sweat, tears, luck, imagination, and necessity. Necessity involved making enough money to pay the bills of fatherhood If one can survive the risks, there is good money per hour of labor, flexibility in scheduling, and a context to craft a career that mixes mental with manual labor. I also viewed Community Roofing as part of a movement. From the start I imagined that many white collar folks from my generation would prefer a life’s calling as a restorationist. Even though I was not an engaged academic I continued as an organic intellectual, who would read history and social science, especially during the winter months, and was able to test and refine my theories in the field.

Q: You have spent a lifetime mentoring people across Milwaukee communities and industries, what has this experience taught you?

A: I never was very interested in building a large company with lots of employees. My vision was to build a network of self-managed artisan shops that worked together freely in collaboration. An owner usually works harder and smarter than an employee. Discovering the right people to partner with becomes easier over time. Allowing the truth of a person and a relationship requires enduring crises together, and evaluating how the partnership performed. It’s not the intensity but the duration of passion that matters.

Q: As a Doctoral candidate in Political Economics, a member of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Honor Society, and a Fulbright Scholar in the 1970s, how have you applied this background to your community work?

A: My formal training has given me a great advantage in being unafraid of my ignorance, pretty bold in asking questions and seeking out experts, lacking anxiety in the face of people smarter and more resourced than myself. Social and cultural capital, and especially spiritual capital, trumps green dollar capital.

Q: As co-founder of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, can you explain how you were able to help save key historic homes and buildings in Milwaukee, including the Pabst Brewery complex and the Old Soldiers Home?

A: My main gift to the cause of preservation was harnessing the early power of the internet to connect people and spread the word. It also complimented my roofing work, as we discovered programs that provided tax credits for owners of historic buildings who followed preservation guidelines, or won the appreciation of people for our advocacy work that led to their confidence in signing up with us.

Q: Many generations of Milwaukee citizens appreciate history and want to preserve it, as seen in their contracting your roof restoration services. Then why do so many people not value Milwaukee’s heritage at take such efforts to erase as much as they can?

A: There surely is a role for ignorance in all of this. Many folks are not inspired by their parents or teachers to appreciate beautiful and historic creations. This is often the result of generations of poor schooling. America is a new nation in many ways and our culture seems to be focused more on the present and future, instead of the past.

There is also the role of greed in this equation. Developers with a profitable idea, that requires some historic treasure to be demolished, can turn a blind eye to what is lost. We often have to make hard choices without enough information. And people have different opinions about what is worth saving when it is an obstacle to new opportunities. I think the new generation of creatives are inspiring developers to pay more attention to civic amenities like our pre-WWII houses and buildings in the old city. This is partly why more companies are awakening to the value of having corporate headquarters downtown.

Q: How did you become involved with ESHAC (East Side Housing Action Committee) in the 1970s and what was the organization’s mission?

A: ESHAC was a group of young people from the civil rights and peace movements who committed to building institutions that responded to the needs of people in the old city, starting with tenants on the Eastside and expanding to Riverwest. We read books on community organizing that emphasized the need for actions that improved the quality of life and advanced institution building, that could fill what we saw as the void in urban America from demise of labor unions, political parties, ethnic associations, and organized religion.

Q: Why did the City of Milwaukee want to creation of a boulevard through Riverwest and how was ESHAC block this?

A: Neither the city planner nor the politicians new anything about how to build a healthy civic life in Riverwest. They just knew how to make it easier for people to drive from the suburbs to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. ESHAC’s Jeff Eagan was the heavy lifter of the campaign that succeeded in blocking the boulevard, which would have cut Riverwest into two disconnected parts and destroyed all the anchoring small businesses, like Big Ray’s Tap. ESHAC teamed up with the small business owners, and leading families of Locust Street and Riverwest, and began to widen the coalition until our effort and protests finally stopped the project.

Q: How does the economic situation of Riverwest today compare to the 1970s?

A: Riverwest is key for the renaissance of Milwaukee’s old city neighborhoods, developing boundary crossing projects that are recipes for change. ESHAC forced the city to change the map that characterized Riverwest from a deteriorating neighborhood, to an improving neighborhood back around 1977.

Q: You have had a unique vantage point to view Milwaukee for four decades. Spending weeks on rooftops in every neighborhood, what was the experience like?

A: Having survived those forty years high on the roofs of Milwaukee, I can now say the experience was divine. There is a natural high that went with the experience for roofers. The danger and the drive to do the work involved prepared my mind and body to more powerfully experience the beauty and the grandeur of nature and life. I did not sit behind a desk, so every day could gaze upon the nearby trees changing over the seasons, watch the birds and animals in the trees and yards, admire my brother roofers in danger on high, and appreciate the artistry and efficiency of our production. A sage once told me that the easiest place to find God is in a garden. And especially a garden that is a workplace we freely choose.

Q: After spending a lifetime defying gravity to restore historic rooftops, how will you spend your free time in retirement?

A: I hope to be able to help save as many of the historic homes and buildings in Milwaukee as possible, and to help advance the development of a green infrastructure workforce.

Q: Jac Smit is considered the father of urban agriculture. What influence did his thinking have on your sustainability efforts?

A: Jac Smit’s influence came through a collection of ecopreneurs known as the Milwaukee Urban Agriculture Network (MUAN). that team included Julilly Kohler, Martha Davis Kipcak, Sharon Adam, Stephanie Philipps, Young Kim, Ann and Jon Bales, and Dave Boucher.

They introduced me to one of the first conferences on urban agriculture, where I was personally moved and inspired by the modest elegance of Jac Smit. Our meeting motivated me to follow his work, and I was amazed by the depth of his urban agriculture projects. Unfortunately, he passed away before having the chance to explore connecting possibilities.

Q: Why has urban agriculture been so slow to develop in Milwaukee? And is the movement getting sustainable public support?

A: Urban agriculture has developed faster than I had imagined it would, when I discovered it through Will Allen’s Growing Power miracle shortly after my 60th birthday in 2005. Neither I nor my friends in the environmental movement had ever witnessed or imagined an urban agriculture project like what Allen created. It gives me hope that a Grand Alliance for Green Infrastructure Workforce Development will evolve around the Great Lakes region in the future.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned from being a board member of Growing Power, Will Allen’s not-for-profit center for urban agriculture?

A: I learned that the power of an idea is in the grain of history. Will Allen had partnered with some very radical green experimenters by the time I encountered Growing Power in 2005. And he was spectacularly equipped to introduce the world to the possibilities of urban and organic farming. Not just for growing food, but also for growing skills, minds, hearts, and wills, for growing neighborhoods, and interlocking communities. Allen said “It is not how green is your thumb, but how fertile is your soil” that counts for growing things.

Q: Why do you consider Will Allen to be a prophet?

A: Prophets are seers, proclaimers, and teachers with whom we mindfully cooperate. Will Allen has been the nation’s most impactful urban farmer, advocate, and green infrastructure developer.

Q: Do you think the public is engaged enough in seeing that Milwaukee becomes a more unpolluted ecosystem, and if not what can be done to improve their involvement?

A: I think Milwaukee has begun to awaken to the need of addressing ecological and cultural rifts. Thirty years ago very few people understood the consequence of pouring toxic soaps or even motor oil into the sewer system. We did not grasp the consequence of DDT sprayed in urban settings, or the rampant use of insecticides and fertilizers that kill the beneficial organisms that make for nutrient rich soil. Almost no one thought about storm water management or the possibilities of growing fresh food in our cities. Winning public involvement can greatly accelerate this awareness and tangible results.

Q: You coined the term Milwaukee Renaissance and started an online Wiki magazine by the same name, long before Mayor Barrett and the local news media picked-up the term. What trends did you base this idea on?

A: I witnessed the arrival of the global village to the neighborhoods of Milwaukee. We became a networked society that intensified the cooperation of shared economies and ideas. This blended the racial, ethnic, and gender identities into ​the old city center and surrounding communities.

Q: What do you love most about Milwaukee? And what is your biggest frustration?

A: I most love Milwaukee’s grace and grit. We have a polyglot of Brooklyn-like neighborhoods including Riverwest, Bay View, Walkers Point, Walnut Way, Amaranth Village, Sherman Park, and Washington Heights, and more. And Milwaukee has plenty of Berkeley-like areas, such as Eastside, Shorewood, and Wauwatosa. Our history of Democratic Socialists from Victor Berger, Daniel Hoan, and Frank Zeidler is an amazing legacy. And I especially love Milwaukee because it has been my home since 1969, the place I raised my four children, and worked with people in every community. I have fond memories and encounter people I have known in just about every neighborhood in town.

My biggest frustration is in the part of ourselves and our culture that sees the glass as half empty rather than half full. There is a strain of fatalism in our culture which is a negative mind set. Many go through their entire lives believing that Milwaukee is a deteriorating city. This sets the stage for a scarcity mentality and leads to an excessively narrow focus on getting material things now for me and mine, at the expense of others.

Q: Why did you decide to publish the poetry book My Milwaukee (2007), and do you have a favorite poem?

A: The Milwaukee Renaissance Olde Godsil poetry platform was born back in 2005. My daughter Megan collected some of my everyday poems and made a Christmas present gift of them to me. And then later Christina Ward helped me choose and arrange more of my simple poems. We produced Backpocket Press, with the help of Clarke graphics, and published one hundred copies of Olde Godsil’s My Milwaukee. But I really do not have a favorite single poem.

Q: Even though you have received public recognition as Milwaukee Entrepreneur of the Year in 2010 and a Mandi Award Finalist in 2013, what has been your biggest challenge in getting people to see beyond conventional wisdom and share your vision?

A: It was in winning partners who defied conventional wisdom who wanted to work together. Individuals who have the privilege of investing their attention and work in experiments that will take years or even decades to fully materialize, and often in the face of ridicule or disappointment from family and friends, are rare to find. And for all the reasons that make them exceptional, also make them hard to recruit.

Q: Did your father encourage you to follow his career in the Tool & Tie business, and what was the biggest life lesson he taught you?

A: My father taught me many things mostly by example. My father did not want me to be a tool and die maker. While the vocation would have always paid well, and was highly skilled labor within the manufacturing trade, Joe Godsil did not want me to work in a factory. Through the Jesuit education he and my Mother paid for, it was their hope I would pursue loftier fields and a higher paying career in the mainstream culture.

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Watch the video that was produced as a companion report for this Q&A interview with James Godsil.

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