Stephen Braunginn

A variety of interesting people, passions, and movements came together to create the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice back in 1991. A quarter-century later, they have been in the vanguard of working on issues of economic justice, grassroots democracy, global community, respect for diversity, and immigrant rights throughout the state of Wisconsin.

Did they ever think it would last 25 years?

“I wasn’t sure that it would last a year,” smiles Stephen Braunginn, who along with Nan Cheney served as the first co-chairs for the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. “We weren’t looking at starting an organization per se, we were looking to start a movement. The response was immediate, it was broad and we were extremely surprised.”

Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice (WNPJ) is now a powerful coalition of activist groups and citizens of conscience statewide that has served as an essential coordinating force for movements to end wars and cut military spending, and to promote economic and social justice, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, prison reform, immigrant rights, and more.

On February 23, 1991, more than 350 people representing over 60 communities throughout the state responded to a call from State Rep. Frank Boyle and crowded into the Assembly Chambers of the State Capitol to gather strength from one another in their frustration and concern about the Gulf War. On that day, the ground war had officially begun.

“Huge crowd. They filled the chambers. Standing room only,” Braunginn remembers. “I was floored. After that, people were most certainly not willing to lay this thing down. They were excited. They took it back home. They organized back home and we would soon be growing exponentially. We knew right away we had something … we knew that network was important.”

WNPJ founders (l-r) Harry Boyle, Midge Miller, Fred Risser, and Nan Cheney
WNPJ founders (l-r) Harry Boyle, Midge Miller, Fred Risser, and Nan Cheney

Out of that gathering arose the WNPJ and since that time, the network has grown to include over 150 peace, human rights, religious, labor, and environmental organizations throughout the state.
The protests and demonstrations were originally a separate entity to themselves. “WNPJ wasn’t even considered at that time,” Braunginn says. “There was no title. There was no thought of putting together a group or organization yet. I was working with Allen Ruff, Dave Clarenbach, and other organizers. I began to build a lot of relationships with many different people.”

Other WNPJ co-founders and early leaders included State Sen. Fred Risser, Cheney, and Midge Miller. Co-founder and Wisconsin State Representative Frank Boyle of Superior said this back in February of 1991:

“The country’s ethical compass has snapped. We’re careening through violent military adventures abroad, converting this country into a two-class state of rich and poor, vastly increasing the inequalities in education, health care and employment, all of which feeds a social disintegration creating hopelessness, violence and crime. Instead of awareness and feeling, we’re given platitudes and thought control. This country is in deep trouble. Knowledgeable and courageous people joining together can demand a new course and stop this disintegration. That’s the definition of patriotism!”

“We said right then and there that we didn’t want this limited to Madison and we didn’t want it to be a liberal Madison thing,” Braunginn says. “We said that we want every crook and cranny of the state to feel this movement. We had folks from Sauk Prairie to Park Falls to Kenosha ….. all over the state. Superior, La Crosse, Stevens Point and Milwaukee.”

WNPJ will be honoring Braunginn with the Lifetime Achievement Award at their 25th anniversary gala on Saturday, Oct. 15. It will be a night for WNPJ to look back on 25 years and honor past board members, staff, and volunteers while looking ahead to the next quarter century.

“I was shocked to get this award because I have not been in the public eye, although I’ve been on Facebook quite a bit and advocate that way,” Braunginn says. “I’m asking, ‘Why?’ And it’s because they are saying ‘thank you’ for starting this organization that is still alive and kicking today. I’m extraordinarily pleased to see how well it’s still doing. I’m happy to be honored and that people feel like I made a difference.”

Outside of WNPJ, Braunginn has a fantastic resume of political, social, and economic activism having served as the president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, deputy director of the Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Prevention Resources at UW-Madison, director of Multi-cultural Affairs and Special Interest Groups for the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Braunginn also served for three terms on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. On top of all this, Braunginn is one of the top promoters and ambassadors for jazz in Madison, has spent more than 50 years listening to, absorbing, and studying jazz in a variety of ways and in a variety of settings and hosting his own radio show.

Stephen Braunginn (right) with brother Judge Paul Higginbotham at MLK noon ceremonies
Stephen Braunginn (right) with brother Judge Paul Higginbotham at MLK noon ceremonies

“I can definitely say that WNPJ was a pinnacle time in my life. WNPJ was one of the major components where I could channel the knowledge and skills and the drive that I had at that time,” Braunginn says. “I had my fire stoked up so hot inside myself at that time … my furnace was burning hot. Ain’t nothing going to stop me. I’m going to be out there and I’m going to make a difference.”

Braunginn was also active on both Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns and co-founded the 2nd Congressional District Rainbow Coalition. He was very much involved with a variety of groups and was the perfect person to be the first co-chair for WNPJ. “The stuff we were doing for the Gulf War was the impetus for us to try to pull together a broader group of people around the state,” Braunginn says. “The feeling was that we were doing all this work, Nan Cheney and I and other volunteers out of the Frank Boyle’s office … and we could tell that we were having an impact. I remember an issue that Dora Zuniga and I used to always talk about was the fact that the people on the front lines [of wars] were always going to be people of color and low-income. We really talked about the issues that needed to be talked about at WNPJ.”

There was strong anti-war sentiments going through the founders of WNPJ. As anti-war as Braunginn was himself, he wanted the new organization to be much more than that.

“Everybody was anti-war, but I was always about looking at it the opposite way. Instead of looking at it negatively, let’s look at what it is that we want,” Braunginn remembers. “What do we want? We want peace! We want justice. We want social justice, we want economic justice.”

WNPJ membership consists of over 150 member organizations and nearly 400 individual members. A board representing a broad range of interests, experience, and localities meets about four times per year. The Steering Committee, composed of the organizational representatives, meets annually in the spring to set directions for the organization which are ratified by members at the Annual Fall Assembly. The Network has on the payroll two part-time staff positions, as well a representative of the Veterans for Peace #25 and a special volunteer to assist with newsletter layout. Volunteers help with other special projects.

“WNPJ is important because of the strength in numbers and because of the strength in the parts of the state that they are in,” Braunginn says. “It’s a big network and it’s not just about Madison.”

Braunginn looks very fondly on his original co-chair of WNPJ, beloved political activist Nan Cheney (who passed away in 2010). “Nan Cheney was a very special person to me … I loved her to death. I have so many great memories of her and she truly inspired me,” Braunginn says. “I share this award posthumously with Nan Cheney.”

Nan Cheney
Nan Cheney

After 25 years of advancing a sustainable world free from violence and injustice and serving as a catalyst for community organizing and education, Braunginn says that in order for WNPJ to thrive for another 25 years and more that they need to fully embrace the youth of Wisconsin.

“There needs to be succession planning. You are getting young adults who are now entering into their prime age involved in leadership,” he says. “I am old. I am the past. However, if they want to pause and live in the past for one night … fine. I’m glad.

“But I’m so excited that my son [Matt Braunginn of Young Gifted & Black] is out there doing what I can no longer do. I can’t physically do those things anymore – I can do it on Facebook, or if somebody wants to interview me,” Braunginn smiles. “But I cannot physically go out and organize any more. My body is sick. But both [my wife] Jenny and I feel like this is a time for young people to step up and step out. My son and people his age are doing just that and I want the spotlight on them … the young people. And that’s part of the message I will give when I receive this award.”

Increased involvement and diversification will be keys for WNPJ as it looks to grow in the future.

“It’s about creating more inclusion … but you create more inclusion by getting more people involved by drawing them into issues that are important to them,” Braunginn says. “The hottest issues have to do with criminal justice, police reform, addressing the racial disparities in this state in every community – because we’re also talking with the Latino community, the Hmong community, and particularly, in northern Wisconsin, in the Indian communities. They get the biggest shaft.

“They’ve been working on [diversifying WNPJ], I know they have,” he adds. “I want to give it a bump … because if you’re not at the table, then you are being pounded on.”