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Blue State Students Take A Red State Field Trip

Riding north out of Chicago into Wisconsin on a recent spring day, a group of teenagers from Lake View High School on Chicago’s North Side leaned against the big windows of a coach bus to snap cell phone pictures of grazing cows and barns. 

Months after the presidential election, these students, many of them black, Asian, and Latino, were headed to a small, rural Wisconsin town with their teacher on a quest of sorts. Still reeling from the presidential election results, they wanted to understand why the country had picked Donald Trump. 

The teens felt threatened and bewildered by Trump’s win. Meeting people who sided with Trump, they hoped, would help them come to grips with a confusing and divided world. 

As the group approached Blanchardville in southwestern Wisconsin — population 825 — they had lots of questions about the teens they’d be meeting. 

“I don’t know if they don’t like Mexicans, I don’t know if they’ve even seen a Mexican,” senior Jonathan Garcia said. “I don’t want them to think we’re bad people.”

Added sophomore Tiyamika Williams: “I’m expecting a lot of white people.”

And, because they’re teenagers, senior Bob Brown had a final thought: “What food do they eat? ... I always thought farmers probably [like] bacon and sausage … but maybe some of these people have completely vegetarian diets.”

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‘What we seek is understanding’

When the bus arrived in Blanchardville after a three hour drive, a local teacher hopped on the bus. He set the tone for the day.

“Mostly what we seek is understanding,” said Grant Hambrick of Pecatonica High School. A Lake View High School teacher reached out to him to arrange for this field trip, as well as a follow-up visit for his students to Chicago. About 60 teens total participated. “We want to understand you. We want you to understand us. That’s our main goal.” 

Hambrick started with a quick primer on the area before the group headed to a local family farm. 

“There’s a lot of poverty in this area,” he said. “It’s not as idyllic as some may think to live in a small town or grow up on a farm. Some of our kids get up at 4:30 in the morning. They milk cows, and then they come to school and fall asleep in my class,” Hambrick added with a laugh.

He then told the students the area is politically divided, as is the state. Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to carry Wisconsin since President Ronald Reagan last did it in 1984. 

“This is not all one-size-fits-all politics,” Hambrick said. “This county did go for Trump, but the two counties surrounding us went for [Hillary] Clinton. So it’s about 50-50.” 

Once at the farm, a Lake View student jokingly compared it to the one at the Lincoln Park Zoo. But unlike the zoo, the farm had a whole shed full of tractors, a white farmhouse where people actually live and two large red barns perched on a hill.

To answer questions about farming, the Pecatonica High School students manned stations across the property. Inside the milking barn, for example, Trevor Gilson, an 18-year-old with dusty blonde hair and sturdy work boots, explained that dairy farmers are paid by the pound. 

“So 100 weight of milk is worth $15 right now, and a cow can produce anywhere from 40 to 140 pounds,” Trevor said.

Pricing and milk distribution is a big issue in the state. Trump visited Wisconsin the week before the field trip and defended the state’s dairy farmers amid a trade dispute with Canada that prevented many of them from selling milk across the border. 

Throughout the day, the students kept the conversation easy, talking about things teenagers pretty much everywhere have in common — dyeing their hair weird colors, playing basketball and hating geometry.

Those aren’t exactly flashpoints in national politics, but Larisa, one of the Lake View student organizers of the trip, said the visit was more about challenging stereotypes. 

“I thought they would be like hillbillies who would be really rude and closed-minded,” the soft spoken Latina girl with striking eyes said as the day wound down. “I thought we’d be more accepting, but they’re just as accepting … as we are.”

Still, Larisa wondered what the Wisconsin kids really thought of people like her — immigrants — and what they would think when they visited Lake View High School in a few weeks. 

Students from Pecatonica High School in rural Wisconsin talk with Chicago teens about city life in the library of Lake View High School. (Becky Vevea/WBEZ)

Coming to Chicago

It was hot on the day the Wisconsin students arrived in Chicago and made their way through the metal detectors at Lake View High School. 

Larisa showed around three Wisconsin boys and Hambrick, the teacher. As they walked up a stairwell, she pointed to peeling drywall, telling them Lake View is the oldest high school in Illinois. Larisa has fought against budget cuts at Lake View and other Chicago public schools.

But when she showed them the school’s indoor pool and large, historic auditorium, the Pecatonica teens were amazed. They have nothing like that at their small, rural high school.

“We have to do [performances] in the cafeteria,” Hambrick said, explaining they build a plywood platform to serve as a stage. “We have lots of plays. We had a musical this year, but we would kill to have that kind of facility.”

Later in the day, the group of 50 or so teenagers piled onto the Brown Line and headed for Millennium Park downtown. Many of the Wisconsin kids had never even been to Chicago, much less on a CTA “L” train.

Sitting under a tree near the famous Cloud Gate bean sculpture, Larisa finally dove into the issues many Lake View kids have been grappling with since the election. 

“I know a lot of you guys are white. Do you guys think that impacts your experience in the United States?” she asked during a circle discussion. 

“Being white? I mean, I guess yeah,” said Trevor, the 18-year-old who explained how many gallons of milk a cow can produce. “Like, I don’t have to worry about immigration or anything like that.”

“How about that question asked of you the other way around,” he added. “Are you treated differently?”

Without a doubt, the Lake View kids said. A lot of their families are from other countries, they said, and many of them worry their undocumented parents could be deported. 

Then, Larisa shared that she’s undocumented. 

“What would it take to become, like, documented?” Trevor asked.

That’s not really possible, Larisa said. WBEZ isn't including Larisa's last name because of her immigration status.

A sign at Pecatonica High School in Blanchardville, Wisconsin welcomes a group of teenagers from Chicago's Lake View High School. Students from the two schools recently visited one another to get to know people on opposite sides of the country's current political divide. (Becky Vevea/WBEZ)

‘Why would I hate someone that I’m so similar to?’

The exchange between Pecatonica and Lake View high schools came about because students like Larisa wanted help making sense of the 2016 election results. 

Did it help? 

“I think it confused me even more,” said Neyda Diaz, a Lake View student who also helped organize the trips. “Or maybe not even more, but like, it didn’t answer my questions of why they voted for who they did.”

She discovered that many of the Wisconsin teens shared views similar to hers, though they couldn’t vote in the last election. Getting to know them, she said, made her forget all the things that divide them.

“When you really get to know them, we’re so much alike that it’s like, why would I hate someone that I’m so similar to?” Neyda said. 

Trevor and Larisa stay in touch.

“He Snapchats me pictures of the cows,” Larisa said. “ He said he had never met anyone that was [undocumented].”

And that, she said, was the whole point of the trip — to start talking and learning from people different than themselves.

Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.

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