Wendy Harris passed away last week from a respiratory illness she had battled for years. Wendy was well-known for her civic participation in both Bellingham and Whatcom County. She was a dedicated environmentalist, a friend to all animals, a fearless writer, and an outspoken critic on civic issues in Bellingham and Whatcom County. For many years, Wendy was a force to be reckoned with as she wrote for NW Citizen, the Whatcom Watch, and other local publications. Her critical thinking, sound analysis, and her voice will be missed. We were proud to have you, Wendy.
Below is a reprint of her speech from 2014 when she received the Paul deArmond Award for citizen journalism. The speech was posted then, and we think it appropriate to repost it now.
Wendy Harris speech of Feb 7, 2014
Personal Reflections On Citizen Journalism
I am honored to be accepting an award tonight in Paul’s memory, and in recognition of my efforts as well as others, so many of whom are here tonight, in advancing citizen journalism. I am especially appreciative of the fact that I am receiving this award while I am still alive.
I am not sure I ever “chose” citizen journalism. As an observer and a perpetual outsider, it is probably more accurate to say that citizen journalism chose me. And this is not completely surprising. I believe a defining characteristic of citizen journalism is that it is the domain of those who challenge the status quo.
As a sociology student at Berkeley, I learned that people in power enact laws and policies that keep themselves in power. This is a universal truth. In a free society, people support the status quo, either because they are part of it, or they wish to join it; they fail to understand how this conflicts with their own interests. They are motivated to accept the status quo because they believe their values will be heard and their needs will be addressed.
So they work within the system to make things a little more to their liking. They join local task forces, stakeholder groups and neighborhood associations, they volunteer for community projects, and they are appointed to citizen boards and commissions. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with any of these activities.
But make no mistake…these are all actions inherently calculated to support the status quo. And when you join these efforts, even if you do not know it, you have already chosen your side. You are upholding existing values and beliefs. Even the idea that we are working to improve things has as its foundation the belief that what we are improving is worth keeping.
These are the values reflected in our "free press." Because mainstream journalists, like most of us, have unconsciously and often unquestioningly internalized these values as we grew up; the result is a system that appears so credible, and so “free.” The range of political perspectives and interests, and the degree of citizen involvement, creates the illusion that our system of government is more mutable, and more responsive, than it really is.
There are, of course, and have always been, some of us who believe that the emperor is wearing no clothes. We are the people who watch. We are the people who question. We are the people who challenge. And we are the people who remain outside our community’s "circle of trust."
We have been free to speak, but until now, we have struggled to have our voices heard. Our comments and concerns are muffled in a cultural filter that marginalizes and discredits all those who challenge the status quo, without separation or distinction. It does not matter how eloquently we speak, the strength of our analysis, or the truth of our assertions. To those inside the circle of trust, everyone on the outside looks crazy and everyone looks the same.
For me, citizen journalism begins the moment we stop addressing those within the circle of trust and start addressing each other, in our distinct and separate voices. As Jay Rosen famously stated, "Citizen journalism occurs when the people, formerly known as the audience, use the tools of technology to begin educating each other."
While this is where citizen journalism begins, it is also where, in many ways, our most difficult struggle also begins. Citizen journalism gives everyone a voice, but as the Tea Party has shown us, not every voice is of equal value. Citizen journalism can be transformative, but it is naïve to believe that all change is positive.
As the first wave of citizen journalists and advocates for a democratic society, we must challenge not only the status quo, but the potential abuses of the new tools we are using to empower ourselves in that fight. It is not enough to make things better, we must also ensure they do not become worse. That is an extraordinary, perhaps even unprecedented challenge to embrace. We need to recognize and honor that challenge.
How do we do that? By doing exactly what we are doing now… supporting each other, talking about these issues, accepting a heavy burden of responsibility toward the public, engaging in critical thinking and sound analysis, incorporating science and research into our work, and trying to maintain a level of civil discourse while continuing to watch, question, and challenge.
I am really proud to be part of a group aspiring to these goals, and I hope I will continue to make you proud of me.