EAU CLAIRE — Jared and Kelly Choate were about to purchase flight tickets when they heard the news.
Jacob Blake had been shot seven times in the back by a Kenosha police officer. The couple felt horrified by the pain and anguish caused by the shooting.
The Choates, who live in San Francisco but grew up in northwestern Wisconsin, had already decided to walk across the state in support of Black Lives Matter and voting registration. They planned to start in Milwaukee, but the shooting of Blake changed their course. Instead of buying plane tickets to Wisconsin’s largest city, they flew into Minneapolis, drove to Eau Claire to attend an Aug. 29 protest against racial injustice and police brutality, then drove to Kenosha.
Blake’s hometown served as the first leg of their nearly 400-mile journey across Wisconsin that took about two weeks and concluded Sunday. The walk ended in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died in May after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Jared walked about 30 miles per day while Kelly, who was working remotely, drove ahead and supplied food and clothes, occasionally walking alongside him for a few miles.
“She’s the central nervous system; I’m just the feet,” Jared said.
He walked mainly on country roads and trails. At night they camped, stayed with friends and rented an Airbnb in Eau Claire. The first few days were warm, while last week involved rain and cold temperatures on the walk from Eau Claire to Menomonie.
Despite the challenges posed by Mother Nature, Jared said having someone else on the journey made it much easier and less lonely than his previous long-distance excursions.
“This has seemed like a cakewalk,” Jared said.
Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of Jared starting a five-month run across the country, so the couple wanted to do something to mark the occasion. After the recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, among others, they knew the topic would be racial equity and voting rights.
“It’s a horrible circumstance, but it’s an opportunity to come together and take the steps to make change,” Kelly said. “Our main goal is to try and find these little ways that add up to big things.”
Those ways include meeting with political candidates, vocally supporting racial equity and encouraging everyone to register to vote. In Wisconsin, voting information is available at myvote.wi.gov.
They both work for startups and live in California but keep a close eye on Wisconsin politics. During the trek, the Choates met with progressive candidates for state office and discussed avenues to bring about social change.
Jared said there is no one solution that will solve centuries of injustice, but having difficult conversations is a good starting point.
“There’s no panacea,” Jared said. “It’s going to take a lot of really tough discussions on a lot of issues, and we’re going to have to have everyone with open minds and open hearts to find new ways to solve these problems, because the old ways are clearly not working.”
The Choates know firsthand about the importance of open minds. They both grew up in the area, he in Seymour and she in Spooner. According to the 2000 census, Seymour was 98% white and Spooner was 96% white.
“Racism was often the native tongue,” Jared said. “I had to unlearn racism growing up because there was zero exposure (to racial diversity) but a great deal of fear.”
He called that unlearning process a daily challenge.
“You only know what you learn, and if you don’t learn diversity, you need to find it through either exposure or a learned empathy,” Jared said. “It needs to be an active dialogue on a daily basis, because we all have many innate biases that run so deep we might not even acknowledge them.”
Jared also believes the country is facing an “empathy deficit” that makes it difficult to understand other people’s challenges.
David Carlson agreed with the importance of empathy. Carlson, an ACLU rights for all regional organizer based in Eau Claire, first met the Choates after the Aug. 29 protest, at which Carlson spoke. They agreed to meet the following week as the couple made their way to Minnesota, and the three of them talked for nearly two hours last Wednesday.
Carlson said empathy can help provide an understanding of experiences that people haven’t personally felt.
“The issues that people of color are facing in this state seem so distant that there’s a large disconnect between the inhumanity of the things happening in terms of the people living here (and) what they relate to in their lives,” Carlson said. “Without that empathy, there is no translation of how bad the things are that are happening.”
By picturing themselves or their loved ones in situations faced by Blake, Floyd and Taylor, white locals’ perspectives might change.
“If people in Eau Claire could imagine that their kids were the ones that were being profiled, that were being chased down, that were having guns pointed at them, that were being Tasered, that were being pepper-sprayed, that were being put in chokeholds — if they could imagine that was their children at 16, 17, 18 years old, would they have the same beliefs about policing that they have when they’re looking at other people’s children?” Carlson said.
Carlson appreciated the avenues in which the Choates are raising awareness, since Jared has experience as an endurance athlete and Jared and Kelly both feel passionate about racial equity. He believes more people speaking out regarding a topic they know and care about could lead to rapid progress.
“If everybody did that, we would really move the ball further a lot faster than is happening right now,” Carlson said.
By traversing hundreds of miles and talking with citizens and political candidates about racial justice and voting rights, the Choates wanted to do something to make a difference. They hope to inspire others to do the same, however they see fit.
“We know a lot of people who feel powerless now and aren’t sure how to contribute, but if you can take that first step and say, ‘I support you’ and ‘I’m willing to do something but I’m not sure how,’ there’s going to be a way,” Jared said. “There’s a way that we can all get out there. We just need to find the intersection of activism and our daily lives.”