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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Attorney believes children’s literacy is a civil rights issue

by Kaye Hult

Along with advocacy, Norm Gissel enjoys reading to children.

Coeur d’Alene attorney and civil rights activist Norm Gissel considers children’s literacy a civil rights issue because it affects their ability to engage in the world. 

To participate fully as citizens when they grow up, children need to be able to read and comprehend what they read, he said, explaining that literacy relates to the American value for everyone to have equal opportunities.

Studies show the importance of reading to enable people being engage equally in society, Norm said. People need to be educated to find meaningful work.

“Literacy matters economically, politically and culturally,” Norm said. “What could be more destructive than for children to attend public schools and then not be able to participate fully in society?”

Since the confrontation with the Nazis in this region reached a successful conclusion, he has turned his attention to children’s literacy as a manifestation of civil rights.

Norm now puts his advocacy skills to work organizing teachers and parents to urge the Coeur d’Alene School Board to make reading a top priority with the goal of 100 percent literacy for students. 

In addition, he helps put books into children’s hands. In 2014, his daughter Greta and school board trustee Dave Eubanks created Jingle Books to collect reading books for K-3 children.

 He also promotes sending children to Kids Camp, a summer program for struggling readers entering second and third grades, so they don’t lose ground in reading over the summer.

“Both these programs are measurably successful,” Norm said.

“I’ve always been interested in reading,” he said.  “In whatever I’ve done or thought, reading has been central.”

Norm’s roots in advocacy began when, at 16, he and a friend put a resolution before Bonner County voters to add pennies to their taxes to purchase a county book mobile.  It was defeated, but Norm learned about politics. 

His first success in advocacy was at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Norm joined a fraternity to gain culture and polish, but knew that fraternities, with parent chapters in the South, were then racist institutions.

He joined one, became rush chair and invited a Chinese-American friend to rush. The fraternity invited him to join. The only choice to check for race on the pledge card was Caucasian. With his clearly Asian last name, they sent the card in.  The local fraternity decided that if the national did not accept him, they would leave.  The national never said a word.

“Now that fraternity is integrated,” he said.

Norm’s conviction about the equality of all people also started in his childhood. He was born in Weiser, Idaho, a farming community northwest of Boise.  His father was a railroad switch master. In 1945, his family moved to Sandpoint.

Norm and neighborhood friends played pick-up football games. A boy who had cerebral palsy loved football.  When they chose teams, one team had one less player, so the boy hiked the ball for them.

“He and other less skilled children also played in pick-up basketball games.  If one side was clearly better, we’d stop in the middle of the game and redistribute players to make the play more equal,” Norm said.

His father, while not philosophical or a church goer, would tell Norm, “Everything you see is part of God.”  Like many other white men at the time, he lampooned African Americans working on the railroad, but his father knew Norm saw things differently.  Norm was in law school when Martin Luther King Jr. died, so his father drove from Sandpoint to Moscow to be with him in his grief.  Norm’s mother also respected his beliefs about civil rights.

After graduating from the University of Idaho in 1962 with a degree in history, Norm entered the Air Force as a lieutenant.

Traveling through the South on his way to basic training, he had two experiences that made an indelible impression.

• At a truck stop in Arkansas, he saw that blacks were forced to use an outhouse created out of oil drums two-high.  On the outside in large letters was the “N” word, Norm considered it a monstrous but a cultural manifestation of the state of mind in Arkansas. He was outraged, but felt unable to do anything about it.

• When he stopped to eat in Oklahoma City, he saw vacancy signs on motels across the street. When a black couple wearing better clothes and driving a finer car than his asked where they might stay, he didn’t know what to tell them.

“Whenever I was tired while challenging the Nazis during the Aryan Nations era from the 1970s to 2000 in North Idaho,” he said, “I remembered those images of white hatred toward black humanity and my feelings of impotence. 

“Those experiences took me from a civil rights believer to a civil rights activist,” he said.

After four years in the Air Force, Norm attended law school at the University of Idaho, graduating and starting a job with Legal Aid in Lewiston in 1970.  In 1972, he moved to Coeur d’Alene as assistant attorney general for Region 1 Health and Welfare, expecting to be an environmental lawyer.

“No sooner did I arrive than the Nazis manifested themselves, so most of my civic work was around the Nazis,” he said.

Norm did not join the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations when it started in 1981 in response to an attack on a Jewish-owned restaurant.  He joined it in 1984.

In 1998, guards at the Aryan Nation compound shot at Victoria Keenan and her son after their car backfired near the compound, when they stopped to look for a wallet that fell out of the car.  The guards held them at gunpoint.

Norm was instrumental in bringing Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center to represent them in a lawsuit seeking justice for their trauma.  The trial awarded them $6.3 million, bankrupting the Aryan Nations, who turned their compound over to the Keenans.  The property is now a peace park.

In the 1980s, as chair of the Coeur d’Alene Library trustees, he began to realize how civil rights relate to literacy. The library did not have a wheelchair ramp. When a wheel-chair bound man insisted on entering and was helped up the stairs, he found the aisles were too close together for him to browse the books. 

That started an effort to make a handicap-accessible library.  Norm led a campaign. In January 1986, they dedicated a new location for the library on Harrison Ave.  It had a ramp from the main floor to the children’s sections.

After a campaign that began in 1995, the new library was built in 2007 at 702 E. Front Ave.

Whatever enhances freedom and dignity for each person is ultimately, in Norm’s mind, a civil rights concern.

For information, call 208-964-4823 or email heartofcda@gmail.com.




Copyright © May 2017 - The Fig Tree