Climbing Through Three-Way Mirrors

Photo by Operation Fresh Start

Tenacity is celebrated as a cornerstone of strong character. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. We’re sometimes afforded these chances through structure and other times through dumb luck. Structure in that our society is designed around allowing some mistakes to be made and learned from. Oftentimes, juveniles are given lesser sentencing for the same misdemeanors as their adult counterparts. Dumb luck in that I didn’t lose a finger or get pierced by the errant projectile flung when I learned why table saw kickback is so dangerous.

Middleton native and Dane County Executive Joe Parisi works to give everyone the same second chances he was afforded. “There are a lot of important things we learn along the way, often by making mistakes, and that helped me see the potential in other folks. When we look at this through the recent events that we’ve seen that have brought tens of thousands of people out on the streets protesting racism and racial injustices, it’s very clear to me that, as a white American, opportunities were available to me that aren’t necessarily available to young African Americans who were the age that I was when I was getting into trouble.”

Not everyone’s scope perceives these events as Joe does. But it’s also true that, for better or worse, not everyone chooses to spend their time paying attention to what’s going on around them politically. “I came from a family that was pretty engaged in politics. … It was just normal for me, paying attention to politics and people voting and being concerned. It was something I assumed we all did.” Which may have made him more comfortable putting politics in the backseat during his adolescence.

“I was probably more focused on politics when I was younger, like grade school and middle school. After that, I wasn’t really focused on actual politics. I was concerned about a lot of issues, but I was never actually engaged through high school. As a matter of fact, in high school, I was a musician. I was a drummer, and that’s all I was focused on. And I also didn’t participate much in high school. I dropped out when I was a junior. I think the thing that kind of really led me to the things that are my passions today politically stem from that time in my life. I got in a little trouble here and there. I quit school. Then I realized that wasn’t the best decision I ever made. … Generally, I got to be a real person for 35 years before I ran for office.”

Photograph provided by Dane County Executive’s Office

Through it all, Joe was supported by the people around him, and when he decided to pursue his education, friends and family encouraged the shift in gear. He earned his GED and, when he was 30, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from University of Wisconsin–Madison. Learning what it is to think critically and consider multiple perspectives from a humanitarian view gave Joe something he could attach to his previous life as the drummer for longstanding blues rock band Honor Among Thieves.

“When I was going to run for the assembly, I talked with a friend of mine. I said, ‘Man, I can’t do this. Look at the skeletons in my closet. I dropped out of school. I got in trouble.’

“He looked at me and said, ‘Your life is the American Dream.’

“It really struck me. It’s like, yeah, look at the life I’ve been able to lead despite the mistakes I’ve made when I was young and dumb. But how many kids today are really given that chance? And how many young people of color are given that second chance for mistakes they might make? I think if you look at it objectively, the answer is not as many as their white counterparts.”

Joe spent eight years as county clerk, where he found an opportunity to help others in a way that resonated with him. “When I got elected, I had an office neighbor who was the county treasurer. He sat on the board of an organization called Operation Fresh Start (OFS).” The organization is designed to give young people a second chance, including those who’ve dropped out of school and gotten into a little bit of trouble. It wasn’t long before Joe joined the board of directors and regularly volunteered his time to tutor those in the program.

Photograph provided by Operation Fresh Start

“Being in elected office, for me, has always been a vehicle to pursue my passions in making a difference in people’s lives,” says Joe. After his time as country clerk, he ran for state representative, won, then pursued his master’s degree in criminal justice so he could better identify, understand, and address the root causes of what exactly in the system of governance was getting young people into trouble. After six years, he transitioned from the state assembly to county executive. “As much as I liked the legislative branch, when you’re in the executive branch, you get to set the agenda. You can pull people together. You can get a lot more done.”

For example, thanks to his position, Joe was able to put together a program to address the growing costs associated with obtaining a driver’s license due to driver’s ed programs being cut from schools (outside courses can cost upwards of $600 per person). “While I was in legislature, what I would’ve done was to try to introduce a bill to increase school funding for driver’s ed—something that could take decades. As county executive, I was able to put together a program by reaching out to CESA as well as Madison School District, and we put together a partnership through which the county is able to fund a driver’s license program for hundreds of young people whose families can’t afford the driver’s ed fees.”

It isn’t just Joe’s past that inspires him to put his efforts toward those deprived of living by unwritten rules. Joe’s wife and two daughters are a big part of his evolving perspective. “I have a 19-year-old African American daughter. … I think of the white teenagers, the young people who are children of my white friends, and I think of their experiences versus my daughter’s and her African American friends. They’re extremely different experiences. My daughter has been called the n-word multiple times by, interestingly enough, usually adult white males out of the blue in public. … While my white friends are shocked and appalled by it, which is a natural reaction, black parents and black teenagers are appalled by it, but they’re not shocked because that’s their reality too—living day in and day out with racism.”

No two chances are exactly the same, but every chance should be given in good faith. Some people have to work harder than others to obtain the same thing, okay. But nobody should get to play with a corked bat. And nobody should have to run the bases with their shoes tied together. Joe’s politics aside, our community is stronger when the opportunities we recognize and dare to undertake allow us to showcase what we learned playing the first inning. Mistakes are human, and our world shouldn’t just recognize that—it should embrace it.

Kyle Jacobson is a writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson