Wisconsin man leads new movement in Selma - WXOW News 19 La Crosse, WI – News, Weather and Sports |

Wisconsin man leads new movement in Selma

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John Gainey, 25 of Menomonie, Wisconsin, had no idea how a little Alabama town would transform his life.

"Wisconsin is a very different environment than rural Alabama," Gainey said with a chuckle.

Gainey got his first glimpse of Selma as a student at UW-River Falls.

A service learning trip to Selma changed his life.

"Like so many young people today, I was just looking for a cause, looking for something greater than myself to dedicate my life to," Gainey said.

During his week in Selma as a college student, he met a group of people trying to better the community. The Freedom Foundation is a non-profit created to carry on Dr. King's dream.

"What we've been trying to do in Selma is identify issues and not just make it a white or black thing, but talk about where the oppression comes in," Gwen Brown, Freedom Foundation President said.

They're doing that through the kids of Selma.

Random Acts of Theater Company or RATCo is the Freedom Foundation's youth flagship program. RATCo's goal is to empower the young people of Selma by teaching teamwork and self-expression.

"RATCo means life to me," explained Tykeria Edwards who has been a part of the program for 7 years.

"It's a place where you can go to be free and be yourself and have fun," Pearl King, 14, said. King joined RATCo ten months ago.

Song and dance are keeping these kids off the streets

Its a glimmer of hope in a city with so much hardship.

"I was in a very dark place before I met RATCo and when I met RATCo, it just changed my life completely," Edwards said.

"If everyone joined RATCo this world probably be a better place," King continued.

So where does Wisconsin-man John Gainey come in?

Let's just say the kids made quite the impact.

Gainey was on a fast track to medical school when he decided to pick up and move to Selma.

"I told him not to come," Brown said with a smile. She wanted Gainey to complete his degree and go on to be a doctor.

"I have this mental image right now of the whole time I'm telling him that he's like packing up his bag, like 'OK, Gwen, OK...'" she said.

Brown described a reassuring stubbornness about Gainey.

"There was something in his heart that he had to come and nothing was going to stop him," she said.

After three years in Selma, Gainey is following in the footsteps of those before him, leading the movement of today, Students Unite.

"We're a group of students that are addressing the social issues like social segregation and the racial opportunity gap that still exist in Selma and towns like it today," Gainey said.

The group's goal is to honor the past and build the future.

One example is their petition to re-name the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Pettus was a U.S. Senator, Confederate General and a Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.

Gainey said having that name up on the bridge is the antithesis of what they are trying to accomplish in Selma.

"We want to get that name of the bridge because it is a symbol of what would divide this community," Gainey said.

Change.org reached out to Students Unite to start a petition to rename of the bridge. So far they have over 170,000 signatures.

Students Unite's work is making a difference.

"It's a direct parallel between the foot-soldiers of '65 and those of today," Tara Ochs said.

Ochs played the role of Viola Liuzzo in the movie 'Selma.' She got to meet the Freedom Foundation, RATCo and Students Unite while in Selma for the movie's premiere.

"Students Unite is Selma now," Ochs said.

In Selma now there is hope.

All the way from Menomonie, John Gainey found purpose.

Now he's asking the rest of Wisconsin to jump on board.

"People in Wisconsin should care about what's happening in Selma because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he said.

Even a thousand miles away, Selma's history and it's future belongs to us all.

The Freedom Foundation, Students Unite and the Random Acts of Theater Company does all of their work out of church basements, living rooms and empty classrooms.

They are trying to renovate an old building so that the youth movement in Selma can officially have a home.

To help Selma reach that dream, go to buildteppers.com.

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