Newspapers, school and heart: community matters

Once again, it has been a months since I had a column published in these pages. Regular readers of the Herald may have noticed news stories bearing my byline have become scarce over the past few months. You may have also noticed a prominent ad for a full-time reporter in the Herald classified pages.

What many of you may not know is that for the past couple of years I’ve been working two jobs. In addition to my reporting gig at the Herald, I’ve been teaching adult education and doing grant program case management at Uinta BOCES No. 1. A little over a year ago my hours at BOCES increased and I cut back my time at the Herald. In July of this year, I went full-time at BOCES.

At that time, I told my Herald coworkers that I’d stay on part-time, doing some writing in the evenings and on weekends, until they found someone else, which still hasn’t happened. With my full-time and demanding schedule at BOCES, serving on a couple of community boards and taking courses from UW working on my doctoral degree in higher education administration, in addition to, you know, having a life, it would perhaps be the wisest decision for my own sanity to step away from the Herald completely.

But, I haven’t.

There are a few reasons for that.

A primary reason is my loyalty to my editorial coworkers. My editor, Bryon, and fellow journalists Kayne and Don are some of the finest people I know and have become some of my dearest friends. Few people outside the world of small-town journalism understand the demands of the job. News never sleeps and when important events happen — good or bad, tragic or fantastic — somebody needs to cover them. None of us are in the newspaper business for the money — nobody is, because there really isn’t much. I can’t speak for others, but I know without question those of us at the Herald keep doing what is at times a very thankless job because it matters so much.

That leads me to the second reason I haven’t completely stepped away, which is that newspapers matter, especially in small communities. I was reading recently about the phenomenon of vanishing newspapers throughout the country, in places urban and rural but particularly in small towns. The piece discussed the damaging impacts on a shared sense of community and the loss of transparency and accountability in local governments. In short, newspapers help keep people informed on what their public servants are up to and how their tax dollars are being spent, as well as about community events, tragic losses, exciting new projects, the school sports teams and arts productions and more. Places without newspapers are known as news deserts and the loss can be profound.

I was thinking about that sense of community while covering the most recent meeting of the Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees, when former board chair Jami Brackin announced her resignation and impending move from Evanston. I’ve personally disagreed with Jami on a few occasions throughout her tenure on the board, but I’ve respected her efforts to improve transparency and communication and her commitment to the district and all our kids. It would be a mistake on my part to let our philosophical and political differences keep me from seeing that. I’m a reporter, sure, but I’m also a parent and a member of this community.

And it’s when we forget that shared sense of community that I think we start to lose our way.

This past year and a half has been really challenging for a lot of us, in many ways, but one of the most challenging parts is that I’ve at times lost my faith in humanity. We seem to do nothing but argue. We demean one another and question each other’s motives. We stop seeing other people as, well, people.

A family member recently went to work and had a coworker say, “I can’t wait until it’s my turn to shoot some libtards.”

A friend of mine recently told me, “Conservatism is a disease; it’s a mental illness.”

Comments like these make me sad; heartbroken, in fact.

I have people I love who are conservative. I don’t think they are mentally ill. Some of my children’s friends’ families are conservative. They’re good people and I don’t hate them. Far from it.

I myself am a liberal. I have to believe that the conservatives in my hometown, which is the majority of my fellow Evanstonians, don’t actually want to shoot me. I actually have to believe that the majority of them would step up to stop anybody trying to harm others, no matter what their political ideology.

When I’m working, whether it’s covering local events for the Herald or teaching students or helping low-income parents in programs at BOCES, I don’t ask or care who the people I’m working with voted for or where they fall on the political spectrum. All that matters to me is that they’re human beings who share the place I call home.

I stay working at the Herald, even when I’m completely exhausted and overworked, because small town newspapers reflect the heart of who we are.

During my four-plus years at the newspaper, nothing has reflected that heart more than the school district. A community’s children, and therefore its schools, are the heart of a community. Whether people have children themselves or not, what happens in those schools matters, for our collective present and our collective future.

I don’t know exactly what my future holds, only that it will likely continue to get busier, but I sometimes think you’ll have to pull me kicking and screaming away from covering the local school district. I love taking photos of kids. They’re pure and often uninhibited and aren’t worried quite yet about how they look in a photo. I love talking to kids. They’re authentic. And they don’t care if I’m a Democrat or a Republican or somewhere in between.

I love reporting on the arts in our schools — the music and the theater. I love covering the successes of our kids. I even enjoy attending and writing about the monthly school board meetings, simply because it is so important. And because I’ve come to believe that nothing brings a community together like schools. Show me another event that regularly brings the community out in force like the EHS Homecoming. I’ll wait.

That sense of community is why I keep doing this job, even when I have another full-time gig I’m equally, if not more, passionate about. Ultimately, they’re both about serving and building this community. It’s when we stop recognizing that we’re all part of it, when we stop trying to see from another perspective or walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, when we insist our way is the only “right” way, when we label one another as the “enemy” and start making off-handed (or serious) comments about violence, that it all falls apart.

And the eternal optimist in me — that part that thinks we can somehow find our way back to some common ground, even after all the vitriol and at times hatred and frightening situations — won’t let me walk away from something so important to something I love so much — this community and the people in it.

I guess you’re all stuck with me, just perhaps less often. But, really, aren’t we all stuck with each other? Maybe, just maybe, during this holiday season at least, we can try to remember that could actually be a good thing.


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