by Karen Bufka
The LWV New England Leadership Conference, aka “Quad States”, was firing on all pistons again this year. It was very well-attended, with fifty-four participants gathering at the Best Western in Wells, Maine from April 7th-9th. Twenty-one hailed from Maine, thirteen from New Hamp-shire, eight from Vermont, four from Massa-chusetts and three from Rhode Island. Between the timely and informative sessions, fun net-working and delicious dining, time flew. I would highly recommend saving the date for next year— it is a great way to bust out of town and begin springtime adventures, and it’s a bargain!
We heard first from Toni Zimmer, Secretary of the LWVUS board and liaison to the LWVUS for New England. Change is afoot! The current LWVUS board is very diverse, with new mem-bers in the majority. They are working to streamline governance and make it easier to join and take action with the League, with the inten-tion of making the League the go-to organization again for all things civic. One welcome piece of news is that the days are numbered for the term, “Member at Large” (MAL)! And, they are already planning for the League’s 100th Anni-versary, preparing a toolkit for us to use in putting together our local celebrations. Toni also listed some of the League’s accomplishments from last year’s election cycle, including the fact that its members did impressive amounts of voter registration and that it helped four million voters learn about 45,000 candidates in 24,000 races through Vote411.
Naomi Shalit and John Christie from the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting spoke about “Integrity of Journalism”. John called journalism “history written on the run”, but noted that it started to change when cable news began choosing and presenting news in order to keep viewers watching and to make money from ads. He mentioned that metrics arose and now applies to print journalism, too. This means that news outlets need to get the most “eyeballs” in order to stay in business, causing them to rush to get the story out first, even if it is wrong! And, opinion and controversy sell, so reporters are increasingly editorializing in their stories.
Naomi confirmed that this trend towards opinionating instead of informing is a big prob-lem. She contrasted the neutral reporting of Walter Cronkite to the opining and emoting of current news show “hosts”. News with integrity may look boring, but she emphasized that the American public needs to know that news is credible so we can make up our own minds—rather than having the reporters makie them up for us. John noted the rise in the phenomenon of anonymous sources, problematic because it doesn’t hold people accountable by making them stand behind their information. He urged us to be skeptical of stories with unnamed sources and to be awake consumers of the news by considering who wrote a story (and why) and by looking for facts, not opinions.
Tom Kerr-Vanderslice, from Generation Citizen in Rhode Island inspired us with stories of their work bringing civics education alive for kids. Instead of the usual model of lectures and written tests, G.C. gets kids actively engaged in making change in their communities. First, they help a class of students unanimously choose an issue. This process of choosing, itself, is a huge learning experience, including the challenges of commun-ication and compromise. Then they begin to work within the system to effect change around that issue. This process is anything but boring for the kids, even—or especially— getting the reluctant ones to feel engaged and empowered. It brings to life for the students that they can really make a difference. Tom offered lots more information about this work, too much to include here, so check out the Generation Citizen website (http://generationcitizen.org/)!
“Distrust of American Institutions” was quite thought-provoking. Dan Shea, Professor of Government at Colby College and Director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement, offered research and insights to possibly explain how we arrived at our current situation of huge numbers of disaffected voters. He had five main points: 1) the fading of the American Dream, leaving people fretting about economic advancement for themselves and their children; 2) the decline in associational life (e.g. church or clubs), which breeds isolation, anxiety and distrust; 3) the reemergence of a partisan press, starting in the late ‘80s when the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine and speeding up with the rise of cable news; 4) the echo chamber phenomenon, in which he interestingly included the decrease in competitive congressional races; the rise of deep partisanship, which he also called a sorting into tribal partisanship. To leave us on a brighter note, he offered the idea that we just need to work on Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms: 1) freedom of speech (civil dialogue and peaceful protests); 2) freedom of worship (revisit the possibilities of contemporary associational life); 3) freedom from want (do something about economic equality); 4) freedom from fear (re:economic anxiety and global events).
In our last session, on Sunday morning, we had a lively discussion of the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It would be beyond me to relate the ebb and flow of that complex conversation, so I will just say that clearly the book is timely and opens a window of awareness for its many readers into a world within our world here in the United States. It seems to prompt many questions which will take some time to be answered withinour society. Not comfortable, but important!
Once again, I’d highly recommend that you put Quad States on your calendar for next year…