At times the tributes and kind words flowed and ebbed like a soothing tide quietly kissing its shore. Sometimes they came roaring in loud and brash, a tsunami startling our senses while unleashing its fury. Were we attending a symphony or a pep rally? Those who spoke offered us comfort, humor, a challenge, and unabashed praise; telling their personal stories of how and why she had touched their lives. She had made a profound difference. I sat listening to this outpouring of memories and escapades that put a different spin on a woman I came to know through marriage as Cousin Polly.
During my youth I overheard at the dinner table how she pushed and pulled for civic and social justice in our city. Ironically, in the 60s my childlike understanding of her many groundbreaking achievements was limited to just being proud seeing an African American woman’s face on the cover of the Milwaukee Courier. It was not common practice back then to read news articles depicting women of color speaking out against the injustices and atrocities that plagued our country; in fact the voice of any woman on any issue got very little airplay. Little did I know that this trailblazer was going to change all that. Not only would she be heard but she would set a precedent for many others to follow.
I could go on and on citing the well-known facts about Annette Polly Williams; 30 years serving as the Wisconsin state representative for the 10th District; author of the nation’s first Educational Choice Legislation Bill; expanding the School Choice program to include faith-based schools, to name but a few. These are monumental and impressive attainments that will further impact political and social practices for generations to come. We should all strive in our own way to preserve and enhance the social equity that Polly believed in. However, for me it took only one projected picture on a screen to show how I can personally keep her legacy alive.
One of the houses Polly raised her family in sits directly across from my own. It stands as a daily reminder that inside its walls a dream was birthed and a plan was created. That photograph stirred in me a sense of hope and determination to do more than I have done so far to ensure that the families that make up Borchert Field are spoken for and taught how to be self-empowered. In that picture Polly is smiling and standing on the porch with her babies. The photo screamed to me that this is why she did what she did. It was for all the babies in the community. What she saw as their key opportunity lay rooted in the educational options they were given. All she had to do was start at the top of the steps. She saw the need and infected others to see it too.
It is much like the parable of reaping and sowing. Instead of waiting and complaining about what isn’t happening, we should be inspired or enraged enough to step outside our comfort zone and light at least one small fire. Thanks Cousin Polly for leaving behind the box of matches.