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Public trust in government has reached near historic lows, but one nonprofit news organization is using a people-powered approach to fight this disturbing trend.
Documenters, led by the nonprofit news organization City Bureau, is a national network that trains and pays people to document local government meetings and build a community around democratic participation. The initiative is a recent recipient of the Lever for Change Stronger Democracy Award.
What was the inspiration behind Documenters?
Documenters began in 2016 out of our efforts to cover police board meetings in the wake of the murder of 17-year old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer — a reckoning for our city, and a moment when our own capacity was constrained as we worked to responsibly report a critical story. By distributing the work across multiple people we were able to rapidly annotate long police board reports and efficiently cover meetings. We realized in the process that many of these roles did not require deep experience, and that people’s insights into the issue were richly informed by their own lives. So we started training more people and began covering other meetings.
To more easily find public meetings, we organized a group of volunteer coders to write scrapers that collected metadata about public meetings into a single calendar. We gradually formalized the program, codifying training materials, hiring dedicated staff roles, and developing custom software to replace the many emails and spreadsheets we used in the program’s early days. In 2019 we launched Documenters.org to allow for global accessibility of all Documenters Network resources. Starting with Detroit in 2018 we began supporting groups in other cities to set up Documenters programs in their own areas. The network has been growing steadily since.
Your initiative trains and pays people to document government meetings. How has this helped build community and strengthen democracy?
There is immense, latent potential in America’s public meetings. With the right systems in place, it can be converted into a new form of civic infrastructure, one that makes local democracy real and accessible to anyone.
Having a Documenters program in your area means that it is easy to find meetings about issues you care about, and that workshops where you can learn more about local government are available almost every week. Once you’re trained, you can take assignments to document those meetings. You get paid for your work, and you can immediately see it distributed in a way that is accessible to your community. You trust the public record — and advocate for it — because you wrote it. You also grow in the process. You get detailed feedback about your work, building skills and learning more about how your local government works. And along the way you build relationships with others who, while different from you in many ways, share the experience of being a Documenter. When pivotal events like elections come around, or when your community is facing a crisis, you already understand how local government works, and are ready to share information with those around you and help them find the resources they need to make informed decisions. You may have followed local politics before, but now you are a part of it. Democracy is part of your everyday life.
We’ve trained 2,062 Documenters across the network. They create a corps of locally engaged residents who are equipped with civic skills and connected at once to their own communities, the levers of local government, and each other. Their numbers do not need to be massive to have a systemic impact, because they are active members of specific communities. In their workplace, church, bar, coffeeshop or barber shop, they chat, debate, gossip, and reflect with others. Drawing on their work as Documenters, they can both share civic information with their communities and bring the discussions in their community to the front lines of local policymaking.
We’ve learned that the relationships they bring are key, because while Americans increasingly distrust institutions, we all trust someone in our community. Documenters build on the trust that already exists among us to strengthen local democracy.
What results do you hope to achieve with funding and support from the Stronger Democracy/Lever for Change community?
There is no reason why a Documenters program could not exist in every community in America. The program delivers clear benefits to the public in a cost-effective way, and open meetings laws — the legal foundation that the program is built on — are universal across all 50 states. After six years of intentional growth, we’re ready to scale. The $10 million in funding from the Stronger Democracy award allows us to quickly grow our staff to meet demand, improve our program technology to increase the impact of Documenters’ work, and provide matching funds so that the network can grow more equitably and sustainably. With those resources in place we project that we can support 50 Documenters sites across the country by 2027.
The nationwide growth of the Documenters Network will result in tens of thousands of trained Documenters who are trusted sources of civic information in their communities, a systemic shift in how local media is produced, more accountable local government, and unprecedented data about governance, policymaking and civic engagement at the local level. Taken together these effects build legitimate trust in public institutions and strengthen American democracy from the ground up.
What are the biggest challenges you see in our democracy? What are you most hopeful about?
We need infrastructure for civic engagement that’s worthy of and generates trust.
Government that is hard to access and understand is hard to trust, creating fertile ground for misinformation. This manifests differently in every American community, but writ large, the effect is clear: Without real access, we mistrust the institutions that shape our lives, and then we mistrust each other. This problem impacts everyone, but not equally. Public meetings determine who is at the table for key policy decisions, and whose experiences are most visible and considered by policymakers. They are notable spaces where people of color have been historically excluded, and where white supremacy and other structural inequities continue to be reproduced in policy today. Unequal access to the civic process cycles and compounds, and the consequences consistently fall on the most marginalized.
But the crisis of our public meetings also represents a powerful opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of civic life. They are sites of huge potential: A single person attending a public meeting can both change how officials behave and reflect back what they learned, becoming a trusted source of information for their community. We’re hopeful because, despite the many obstacles, Americans do show up at public meetings every day to observe and participate. Documenters operationalizes that hope. By coordinating and supporting the public desire to participate in civic life we can reshape how civic information is produced and shared in American life, and create the conditions for a stronger democracy.
What do you want donors to know about funding bold solutions?
Structural change in our democracy requires a structural approach that involves the participation and leadership of its citizens.
Funders often invest in small groups of individuals who are experts in their field in hopes that they can solve the enormous, complex challenge of building a healthy democracy. The more we’ve grappled with the questions of what and who make our democracy function, the more clearly we’ve seen the error of this thinking.
Democracy is not just a technical system of elections; it’s government of, by and for the people — an active practice that requires constant public input and participation. To strengthen democracy we have to strengthen that practice.
The Documenters Network equips people across the country with the tools and resources necessary to participate in civic life and influence change on their own block, neighborhood or city. To us, this is what investing in bold solutions looks like: Equipping and entrusting many people to be stewards of their own communities.
The Stronger Democracy Award is a competition to identify bold solutions addressing systemic barriers and advancing structural reforms in three key areas of U.S. democracy: Voting and elections, policymaking, and civic engagement. The Award is managed by Lever for Change, a nonprofit affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that uses open and transparent competitions to help donors identify and fund high-impact solutions for significant societal challenges.