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Big dreams found in a small town

| Shari Lau

Editor's note: This is the first story in a two-part series leading up to "Risking Everything: History and Civil Conversation," an exhibit and related programming to be hosted by UW-Eau Claire during the month of October. Through the "Risking Everything" exhibit and events, the goal is to engage the UW-Eau Claire campus and the greater Eau Claire community in conversation about the civil rights era and its lasting significance.

Many people think life-changing opportunities exist only in big cities, but 2015 UW-Eau Claire graduate Anna Kerber knows better. She found her passion, her career path and herself in Selma, Alabama — a city less than half the size of her hometown.

Kerber, who earned her bachelor's degree in history education, grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, an affluent suburb of Minneapolis with a population of just over 50,000 people. 

"Minnetonka isn't a small city, but it also isn't very diverse," Kerber said. "I can count on two hands the number of kids who were different than me in my high school graduating class of 700 students." 

In 2013, City-Data.com reported Minnetonka's racial makeup as almost 90 percent white and 4 percent black — a statistic Kerber said is not uncommon in cities in this region of the country. The numbers are in stark contrast to the racial makeup of Selma, which City-Data.com reported as almost 80 percent black and just over 17 percent white.

"I grew up very sheltered, and I was blind and naïve to other parts of the country and what was going on there," she said. "I wasn't aware of issues that were happening outside of my own community. I was ignorant to other cultures and what it's like to live in a society that doesn't always respect you because of your race or ethnicity."

It wasn't until she became involved with the UW-Eau Claire Civil Rights Pilgrimage that Kerber first found herself fully immersed in a different environment and culture than her own. 

The pilgrimage is a student-led program offered every spring break and Winterim. Now in its seventh year, it immerses students in the sites of historic importance to the civil rights movement and introduces them to people who were part of the movement. 

The pilgrimage of a lifetime

Kerber went on her first Civil Rights Pilgrimage in 2014 as a junior at UW-Eau Claire and said she immediately knew she was experiencing something special. 

"The first day blew my mind," Kerber said. "We listened to Charles Person talk about his time as a Freedom Rider in 1961. Hearing the first-hand stories of someone who lived through that critical time made me realize just how life-changing this trip would be. It wasn't just history anymore. It was real." 

As the pilgrimage progressed, the stories of those who battled for freedom and equality became even more real, and entering Selma brought it all together for Kerber. 

Selma was the battleground for African-American voting rights culminating in the Selma-Montgomery march that helped give birth to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is a city that played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, but one that still struggles with racial equality today.

"When we made it to Selma, everything from the trip hit home for me," Kerber said. "We could see how tradition and mentality still segregates the community. It is a place that made me realize that the issues I used to think were so far away, are actually in my backyard."

When Kerber speaks about her time in Selma, the love and admiration she has for its people is clear, and so is her compassion for the issues they face daily. 

"Selma is my community," she said. "It makes me sad that I was blind to it for 20 years. I wish I would have seen racism in society earlier. I have learned to value people from different cultures and appreciate what they add to our society. If I had been exposed to this earlier, I may have had better relationships with people along the way."

The people and sites of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage prompted Kerber to make the journey twice more — serving as a trip coordinator — and she also spent the summer of 2015 interning for the Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Selma that works with underrepresented youth in the community. 

Bringing Selma home

Kerber returned from her first Civil Rights Pilgrimage with a new sense of social justice and was no longer content to live blindly, she said.  

"Seeing large-scale inequality firsthand taught me that there is more that I want to do with my life and more to how I want to live my life," Kerber said during her time in Selma as a Freedom Foundation intern. "I love Selma because of the impact it has on the people who come here. It opens your mind to see that racial inequality is happening now, and it's happening everywhere. My views of what I can teach people changed after the Civil Rights Pilgrimage."

Kerber took her knowledge and passion for Selma and turned them into a senior capstone project for her history major. Her paper focuses on the role of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's voter registration campaign in Selma. The SNCC was the first organization to go into Selma to start grassroots efforts for African-American voting rights. 

Kerber's personal connection to the people and places of that movement benefited her capstone project, said Dr. Erin Devlin, assistant professor of public history at UW-Eau Claire. 

"Through her work as a student coordinator, Anna has had the opportunity to visit iconic historic sites, such as the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and to visit local institutions dedicated to preserving the grassroots history of the movement, such as the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute," Devlin said. "She also has had the opportunity to listen to and learn from grassroots foot soldiers like Ms. Joanne Bland, who participated in the 1965 voting rights marches. Anna's intimate connection with this history inevitably enriched her engagement with and passion for the topic she had selected for her history capstone." 

While Selma was a turning point in the civil rights movement, it was also a turning point for Kerber's own life. Although she graduated with a history education degree, Kerber realized she wanted to reach kids beyond the school day.  

"I became more interested in mentoring and counseling kids," Kerber said. "They need a place to feel safe outside of school hours and a possible troubled home. I realized that I can make a bigger difference outside of the constraints of a classroom."

In August, Kerber began working with the AmeriCorps College Possible program in Minnesota. She works with underrepresented high school juniors on college preparation, including ACT prep, college essay writing and deciding on a college. 

"I want to work with kids from middle school to high school and show them what is possible," Kerber said. "If they see that, they will be able to really learn about themselves and what will make them happy. So many people at UW-Eau Claire and the Freedom Foundation are helping me do that, and I want to pass that to others so they don't have to wait until they're 22 years old to change their lives. If I can be that person for one kid, it will mean everything to me."  

Photo captions

Top photo: Anna Kerber, second from left, and other UW-Eau Claire students on the 2015 Civil Rights Pilgrimage gathered at First African Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to hear stories from the civil rights era.

Inserted photo: Anna Kerber meets with Freedom Rider Charles Person in Atlanta.