When Nicholas came to Selma, Alabama, he couldn’t ignore what he saw. It changed his perspective on his own life in Eau Claire, Wisconsin and when he went back to Eau Claire, he knew he had to do something…anything. Selma has that effect on people; it forever changed my life and my normal too. Nicholas wanted others to experience the spirit of Selma like he did. He knew if they could just get a taste, their “normals” would be changed. Nick brought a couple named Brett and Rachel to a RATCo (now known as New Expressions) performing event in Eau Claire in 2014, and their normals also began to change. Together they decided to create the Eau Claire – Selma Exchange Program (ECSE).
I was given the opportunity to travel with Selma’s RATCo (now known as New Expression) to Eau Claire for the ECSE along with 40 other kids and adults from Selma. We had a jam-packed week that gave kids from Selma an opportunity to experience life in a different place, while also serving the community of Eau Claire. Straight off the bus, we were greeted with smiles and hugs from Nick, Brett, and Rachel, and we soon kicked off our week with a campus tour of Chippewa Valley Technical College with a group of kids from the Lighthouse in Eau Claire. I’ve got to say, I was so inspired seeing all of the kids eyes light up when they were getting a glimpse of what college had to offer. It was like opportunity had just shown up and ignited dreams. In that moment, I thought to myself, “This. Is going to be a great trip.”
Connections were made instantly. As the Selma youth, their host families, and the kids from the Lighthouse began to share experiences together, they found out how differently they lived from each other. What they didn’t perhaps expect, however, was how much they also had in common. They discovered that the same things frustrated them, inspired them, and moved them. And they agreed without a doubt Wisconsin is truly the best place to eat cheese curds.
It was so touching to see kids who have never ice skated learn to ice skate, to feel them learn the power of giving to others out of love, and to see them gain a new perspective on the life they live. The motto of the week was “Changing Normals” and challenging people to live differently. Something I found so beautiful throughout the week was that all of the people involved pushed themselves outside of their comfort zones – whether it was through ice skating after a 15+ year hiatus, trying a cheese curd for the first time, hosting four unknown teenagers, or volunteering to fill the role of a cranky teacher in Hairspray, it seemed that everyone did something that was “not the norm” for them. In that, this is a form of freedom that I hope everyone can not only experience but LIVE out for the rest of their lives.
The night of our Hairspray performance was an opportunity to tell the story of life in Selma; a life that is all too real for the RATCo (New Expression) kids, but seems out of touch for some who live outside of Selma. A life where the “norm” is full of subtle oppression and division. The reason that the message from RATCo (New Expression) and the Freedom Foundation (now known as Something New) is so powerful is because these kids and adults are choosing to redefine the “normal” life of Selma. They are choosing to push past systems that history has thrust upon them, and instead express themselves freely.
Nick, Brett, Rachel, and others are choosing to redefine normal life in Eau Claire, and to pass on a message of understanding, acceptance, and love. I truly appreciated being a part of the trip and being offered the chance to spread the love and hope that RATCo and the Freedom Foundation have shown me. I believe everyone should experience the freedom to redefine their normal, and that ECSE is offering people an opportunity to do so.