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“To get action, you gotta get active. You gotta get out there, talk to your neighbors, knock on doors. Participate. And vote!”

Sports fans know Wisconsin is the Badger State. That’s because Bucky Badger is the defiant mascot of the University of Wisconsin’s top-ranked football, basketball and hockey teams. Yet few know why this tenacious animal represents the state.

In the 1820s, lead miners dug tunnels into Wisconsin hillsides, where they also sought refuge during cold winter months. This tenacious spirit reminded locals of the badger, a resilient, all-season survivor who never backs away from a fight. 

Citizen Action of Wisconsin (CAWI), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, embodies the badger’s virtues, even if the group prefers a friendly cow as its own mascot. As founding members of People’s Action, they share their vast organizing experience and creativity with peers across our network every day.  Many of the techniques CAWI pioneered – from multi-issue organizing to movement politics and relational canvassing – are important parts of the People’s Action family DNA, and the Organizing Revival.

CAWI celebrated four decades of organizing this spring with events in Milwaukee and La Crosse, Green Bay, Wausau and Eau Claire, and a special documentary film. The organization’s decentralized structure – with member-led cooperatives in six regions – is one of many ways CAWI has innovated and set an example for grassroots organizations. 

“We’re called Citizen Action of Wisconsin for a reason,” says Rafael Smith, the group’s climate and equity director. “To get action, you gotta get active. You gotta get out there, talk to your neighbors, knock on doors. Participate. And vote!”

CAWI was born in 1983, as the Reagan administration sought to undo victories the civil rights, womens’ and environmental movements, and organized labor had won in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The Reagan election was a clarion call to progressives,” recalls Jeff Egan, CAWI’s executive director from 1985 to 1993, “ that we really had to dig down deep and organize more broadly.”

As part of the C/LEC and Citizen Action networks of community groups founded by Heather Booth, CAWI forged an innovative strategy in its early years by uniting religious, labor and community groups to organize statewide and engage in the political process. 

“Citizen Action of Wisconsin was one of the most vital, clear-thinking and exciting organizations,” Booth recalls. “We started to spearhead the concept of multi-issue and multi-constituency organizations across racial lines, across economic lines, across geographic lines, farmers organizing with people in cities.”

“It’s always been built on the same core principles,” says Bob Hudek, who led the organization from 1994 to 2007. “Putting justice and love at the center of our politics, really believing that we can build a multiracial coalition.”

On the strength of this statewide base, CAWI won multiple victories, including discounts at grocery stores, a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures, and forcing Wisconsin to divest from South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1985. They beat Exxon’s efforts to open a toxic minerals mine in northwest Wisconsin, and held hundreds of thousands conversations with voters statewide with their door-to-door canvass. These shows of strength prompted a backlash, when the National Republican Senatorial Committee filed a complaint against them with the FEC, which CAWI defeated.

CAWI’s efforts also attracted the attention of two young progressive local lawmakers – Tammy Baldwin and Mark Pocan, who became key allies. Baldwin is now a U.S. Senator, and Pocan a U..S. Representative. Both also served on CAWI’s board for many years.

“When I got elected to the state legislature in 1998, I had the opportunity to start working with CAWI,” says Pocan, an emeritus chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “What was so important about doing that for me was to have a coalition of groups that had common values, that big table of groups to get something across the finish line, just meant everything who served as an elected official.”

CAWI helped lead the national fight for universal health care, first for the Clinton health plan, then the passage and defense of the Affordable Care. Health care remains a central fight for the organization today, advocating for Medicare for All and for the BadgerCare public option in Wisconsin. 

“Citizen Action of Wisconsin has stood for health care as a right from the beginning and fought all of the fights along the way to achieving that end,” says Robert Kraig, who has served as CAWI’s executive director since 2009. “Citizen Action will never rest until we take control of health care back from the medical-industrial complex, and guarantee health care as right, where everyone gets the care they need, no matter what.”

CAWI became charter members of People’s Action in 2016 when groups in the Citizen Action network united with National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society, the Center for Health and Environmental Justice and other groups to create a single network with more than a million members and the power to move policy at a national level. They now play a critical role in many of People’s Action’s campaigns, direct actions and movement politics program.

This spring and summer, CAWI’s entire organizing staff attended People’s Action’s 12-week organizing bootcamp, to sharpen and deepen their organizing skills. Several of these organizers, including Rafael Smith and Maletha Jones, attended multiple People’s Action trainings this year, including the first-ever Movement Politics Training for Trainers. 

“This boldness – taking stands that people did not always see as the right ones to take – more often than not Citizen Action has been on the right side,” says Mandela Barnes, Wisconsin’s former Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor and longtime CAWI member. “Pushing the envelope is what this organization does best, and we’ll continue to push the envelope together.”

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