“I got involved with the Gathering because I was homeless, because I lost my job and I couldn’t pay my rent. And that’s basically the long and short of it. I came in one day and asked the coordinator downtown if she needed any help and the rest was pretty much Gathering history.”
Jeanne explained this story to me when asked how she first got involved with the Gathering. She is indeed a part of Gathering history, as she has been volunteering for the Gathering’s meal programs for about ten years.
Jeanne understands the issues that contribute to hunger and homelessness, having spent plenty of time at the Gathering and in Milwaukee. When sitting down with me, Jeanne discussed the Great Depression, the history of Milwaukee, labor issues, urban sprawl, globalization, deindustrialization and the rust belt, the education system, employment issues and more.
“We never looked down the dirt road to see that the corporations and manufacturing jobs were not going to be here. I knew a lot of people that used to have decent, good paying jobs. But now we need to reinvent ourselves—because the industrial day is gone.”
Jeanne is adept at recognizing a lot of the structural and systemic issues that contribute to poverty, hunger and homelessness in Milwaukee. Her lived experiences as well as her self-education have taught her what is needed to turn things around for many disadvantaged individuals:
“Change doesn’t ever come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up. Maybe the time will come when somebody will get inspired to go out and say, ‘Enough! No more.’ People shouldn’t have to live like this. They shouldn’t have to suffer like this. We can do better.”
For Jeanne, and others involved in the Gathering community, the Gathering offers opportunities to do better. Even opportunities to influence change.
“Look at all the people that come here. Where do you find people like this? I don’t know of anywhere else where you might be able to go and meet all of the different kinds of people that come here. We’re like one big adopted dysfunctional family…Maybe [The Gathering] is an idea showing what cooperation could be like. Maybe even showing an idea of what things could be like. If you leave the baggage at the door and everybody comes here and everybody gets together. Who knows? You’ve seen what people do here. We just come in and do whatever. Everybody has a job, everyone has pretty much done every job. Everybody comes in here and does whatever needs to be done. The work gets done. We have fun doing it. But we realize the most important thing is not that we have fun, but the work we do, the most important thing is that people get fed. And that’s basically where it starts. A person comes in here, they’re hungry, and we feed ‘em. You’re going to get so much more back when you do that. I can sit here and preach to the choir but there is nothing like experiencing it for yourself.”
Jeanne’s communal view of the Gathering and the work being done is shared by others who volunteer with her at the Gathering’s dinner program. Some dinner volunteers have even tossed around the idea of opening their own restaurant. Jeanne’s ideas, communal vision, education and articulate hope for the future represent one piece of the puzzle that is needed to end hunger and homelessness.