Wendy Harris Receives deArmond Award for Citizen Journalism

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• Topics: News Media, People,

This article appeared in the Jan 29 issue of the Cascadia Weekly and is written by and reprinted here courtesy of Tim Johnson. Also participating in this announcement is Sweeney Politics and the Whatcom Watch.

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Though tiny in voice and height, Wendy Harris is Herculean in her fierce spirit to make representative government more responsive and our community a better place to live. She watches the public process and she reports on it.

Harris will be honored in February by an award and private banquet of peers and supporters who want to thank her and encourage others to take up her important work. Award sponsors include the North Sound Media Alliance.

In an era when newspapers and other conventional news outlets are sharply diminished, their voices dimmed, the role of the citizen journalist becomes profound. Ironically, the very social media tools that have weakened the business model and profit centers of traditional media serve the citizen journalist well. The future of news promises to be decentralized and deinstitutionalized; but it will be informed or uninformed, reliable or unreliable, to the extent citizens are involved in reporting on it. Citizenship, in its most generous expression, is the essence of citizen journalism. And because that effort is honorable, we must honor it.

Harris was a skilled tax law attorney until medical disability reduced her professional capacity. As her health permits, she keenly observes the public process and alerts the community through social media to issues of concern. Her particular passion is the health of Bellingham’s two waterfronts—the lake and the bay—and the watersheds that feed them.

“The writing comes out of my activism, and both are limited by my health,” Harris admitted. “The activism is by my nature; the journalism is by default.

“I deliberately focus on issues that are likely to fall between the cracks,” Harris explained. “On issues like the Gateway Pacific Terminal, I know there are so many terrific people working on that and there will be good media coverage. So I will focus on something else—mostly those that focus on natural resources, and especially fish and wildlife.”

Animals and their habitat particularly fall through the cracks because there is so seldom an advocate for them, she said.

“Just as being an activist led me incidentally to writing, working on these issues led me into being concerned about public process issues. Following these issues, I see problems with public records, transparency, open public meetings, and public policy,” Harris said.

“I really do try to stick to facts and cite statutes and accurate information,” she said, “and not make wild accusations because it is important to have credibility.”

Honored by the award, Harris said, “It is so important to get this kind of peer recognition, both to encourage others and give credibility to the work citizens do to make their representative government better.”

The pressure on citizen reporting is keen, she said, because professional staff are considered experts by default and the time citizens can spend learning about and reporting on the issues is always limited—whether by health, family, career or other pursuits. But one should not be shy:

“I didn’t know what a watershed was when I started,” she laughed. “You just have to care.”

The citizen journalism award is named in memory of Paul deArmond, a Bellingham icon who mentored many in citizen involvement and activism. For Paul, the social network was the campfire he hosted in his backyard, where neighbors and friends would jaw over public policy. Many efforts were spawned over those years of fires, issues like neighborhood recycling, and many people were coaxed from there into public office. Paul died in 2013 at the age of 60; but an award that honors his memory lives on, in part to encourage others to take up the challenging task Paul personified.

Toward the end of his life, Paul deArmond was greatly diminished by prolonged illness, but the fire to know and inform still burned strong in him. Wendy Harris embodies this, too.

“i do push myself,” she admitted, “perhaps more than an average healthy citizen, because these issues matter and the time I have to comment on them is limited.”

When government officials see Wendy coming to the microphone, they swallow hard and get their papers in order. Not much more than that needs to be said about the importance of her work.

Cascadia Weekly Editor Tim Johnson served on the nominating committee for the Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award. Also on the committee are NWCitizen publisher John Servais, writer and former city council member Tip Johnson, author George Dyson, NWCitizen copy editor Deb Gaber, and North Sound Media Alliance organizer Suzanne Blais.

Addendum - Feb 18, 2014

We had a fine dinner the evening of Feb 7 at the ‘Back Alley’ dining room of the Black Cat restaurant in Fairhaven. The room was at capacity with an rsvp group of local activists, writers and friends of Wendy. Wendy gave a modest speech upon acceptance of her award from Cascadia Weekly editor, Tim Johnson. We asked her if she could send her notes so we could post her words. Here is close to what she actually had to say to us that evening.

Wendy Harris speech of Feb 7.

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.

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George Dyson gave a short speech at the request of the organizers. We asked George to give us some words of wisdom - our keynote speech if you will. He spoke of journalism and the challenges it faces. He provided us with what he considered the most important portion of his speech, that is, his reading from a small treasured book that was published in 1928.

George wrote: “I did not have (or make note of) any prepared remarks, except the closing passages I read from David Ockham (1928, when things looked even worse than they do now) which are as follows.”

David Ockham, 1928: Stentor, or, The Press of Today and Tomorrow

“Given, however, a sufficiently aroused degree of public opinion… a remedy is not entirely lacking. One of the most characteristic and creditable features of the history of the Press is the great influence that has been exercised in the past by organs of small or relatively small circulation and revenue, daily, weekly, and monthly. Some of these still exist, and although both their influence and their independence have largely departed, they yet stand as sign-posts on the road to defeating the complete monopoly of the Trust Press.

So there is scope for the re-emergence of the independent organ of the type which has demonstrated in the past that great influence may go hand in hand with small circulation and an inconsiderable revenue from drapery advertisements, provided that its conductors are informed with sincerity, fearlessness, and ideals, and refuse to regard the shibboleths of the minute as divine revelations.

And if such a Press do not emerge from behind the smoke screen and the poison… then Democracy will have the newspapers it deserves.

There is nothing to prevent the Press of this or any other country from coming under the financial control of armament makers, international traffickers in drugs, or wealthy men who desire the perpetuation of the slum. There is nothing to prevent its domination by aliens or the worst type of “market-rigging” financier.

That is to say, there is nothing save public opinion, which is itself hamstrung by the passing of the Independent Press.”

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About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Since 2008, this moniker has been used over 130 times on articles written by guest writers who may write once or very occasionally for Northwest Citizen, but not regularly.

Comments by Readers

Dick Conoboy

Jan 30, 2014

Congrats Wendy.  Well deserved.

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Marian Beddill

Jan 30, 2014

Wendy wrote:  “I didn’t know what a watershed was when I started,”

Well, I can pretty well confirm that. I was in the room at the home of a friend, where a group who cared about and worked on the Lake Whatcom watershed, gathered. We told her what this was about - both technically and legally.

Wendy grabbed the thing, and started running with it. Thank you, Wendy!

Marian Beddill

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John Lesow

Feb 08, 2014

February 7, 2014

What a wonderful evening—Thanks to John, Tip, Tim, George, Deb, Claire and the host of others that made it such a memorable occasion. 

Wendy, your speech was as persuasive and articulate as your fearless writing.  Your point about always questioning the status quo really hit home. The fact that you do it so effectively and consistently—both in your writing and public advocacy of causes you believe in—is truly inspirational !

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