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Jeff Smith column: Walking in someone else's shoes

Jeff Smith

One of my favorite parts of serving as State Senator is listening to stories. Each of us has a story. I feel so grateful every time someone shares his or her story with me. Sometimes the best stories are the ones from people who think no one will listen.

We all have dignity and worth and deserve to be treated kindly. In the past week, I've read a story, heard a story and have a story of my own worth writing about. Each story highlights our community and state's need to do better for those who feel their stories aren't being heard.

Nelson Mandela's words ring true, "A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but it's lowest ones." Citizens with criminal records are treated as outcasts, but if we don't listen to their stories how can we stop the cycle of crime that exists in our communities?

Perhaps some of us don't think about the challenges those with criminal backgrounds face. How hard it is to reintegrate into society after incarceration. How difficult it is to find gainful employment - or a second chance - with a criminal record.

The story I read was from the local newspaper. A man was released from jail in Neillsville without money to get to his home in Eau Claire. What would you do in that situation? Walk? Call a friend? Call a cab?

Desperate to get home, the man called a cab and convinced the driver he could pay the $200 cab fare once they arrived at his home in Eau Claire. The man told the driver he would go inside the home and get money to pay the fare. Instead, the man cut through the backyard and went to his real home two blocks away.

Later that evening he was arrested for not paying his cab fare. Perhaps if we really listened to what he needed to get back on his feet, this man could be reintegrating into the community instead of going back to jail. The $200 cab fare could've saved taxpayers money in the long run and kept this man out of jail.

Another story I heard was from two African American students during one of my visits at UW-Eau Claire. They described how their mild mannered friend was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While responding to an incident, a police officer slammed the young man to the ground, bruised his back and arrested him for resisting arrest. This young man was a bystander and was treated as a criminal even though he did not commit a crime.

This student was offered a plea agreement. Accepting the agreement would make it harder for him to pursue his dream as a social worker to help the less fortunate.

Thankfully his strong support network advised him not to sign the agreement. After eight excruciating months, on the day before his court appearance, he was exonerated for lack of evidence. This young man's dreams were restored, but what about the stories of others who took the deal?

The story I have to tell was from our Senate floor session last week. February is Black History Month — it's the special time of the year we pass a resolution honoring the contribution of African Americans who inspired change for our country, our state and our communities.

Each year, the Wisconsin Legislative Black Caucus offers names of individuals to honor for the resolution. Our Wisconsin native, Colin Kaepernick, was one of the individuals the Black Caucus chose to honor this year.

Republicans chose not to listen to the Black Caucus by amending the resolution to strike Colin Kaepernick from the list of historical contributors. Our history is filled with stories we don't want to hear, but oftentimes those are the ones we need to hear.

We need to ask ourselves: What would we do if we were in their shoes? Walking in another person's shoes isn't always comfortable. Seeing different perspectives offers our communities the best chance to succeed so we don't have to read about, hear about or witness people not being heard.

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