In our democracy, the importance of a free press is this: An informed citizen makes a good decision.
People often try to influence us, intimidate us, butter us up, all in an effort to change the story to one they like better than the one we’re going to tell. While we listen to everybody, ultimately we decide what’s important and true, and we deliver that information to the people who depend on us for the facts — and once people have that information, they can act on it.
Somebody needs to explain that to the Stowe-Morrisville Coalition, formed in the aftermath of ugly incidents in Stowe and Morrisville.
The coalition is trying to confront issues of racism and anti-Semitism, but is struggling to define its mission. Is its focus on racism and anti-Semitism, or should it expand to include ageism, sexism, LGBTQ issues and classism — “a huge divide” between Stowe and Morrisville, as one coalition member said at a meeting May 26? As coalition members at that meeting struggled to have frank and uncomfortable conversations, they fumbled over finding a “safe space” and communicating without causing hurt feelings.
They chafed at the fact that their meetings were being held in public. The Stowe town government supplied $3,000 so the coalition could hire a facilitator. One coalition member wondered how quickly it could burn through that $3,000 and thus escape public scrutiny. (Fact: The coalition is not a public body subject to the state open meeting law. It’s a private group. It can meet in secret, although it’s difficult to build wide community support on a burning public issue if all the discussions occur behind closed doors.)
After getting nowhere on writing a mission statement, the coalition members turned on the Stowe Reporter staff member covering the discussions. The reporter was there to report, not participate; she did not defend herself, and the coalition’s facilitator sat on her hands instead of redirecting the conversation.
Coalition members blasted the reporter for noting that, at the group’s first meeting, only one of the 30 people in the room was black — which seems well worth noting in a group assigned to confront racism. That observation, the reporter was told, was highly offensive and hurtful, “a form of aggression … traumatization of a person in a public setting.”
They said the media needs to be educated, the Stowe Reporter should have to confess all its sins as a condition of reporting on the coalition, and it will be open to condemnation if its reporting might have an unpleasant impact on someone.
One coalition member said the group needs to educate the community — which, of course, is why a reporter was there — but first it needs to create a safe space, “and I don’t feel safe.”
And, as the meeting ended, coalition members all but chased the reporter out of the room.
All of that is really unfortunate. An ugly incident led to formation of this coalition, and its job should be to confront these difficult issues with purpose and resolve.
Let’s imagine what an effective coalition would do.
First, it would declare right off the bat that racism and anti-Semitism are not only real, but need to be confronted and combated, right here, right now.
Second, it would figure out ways to show — not just tell — that these problems are real, to persuade the citizenry that corrective action is essential.
Third, it would expand the coalition to include many more people and organizations who understand the evil inherent in racist and anti-Semitic actions.
Fourth, it would develop an action plan — to deliver its vital message to students, to parents, to teachers, to church-goers, to service clubs, to everyone who is willing to listen. It would hold panel discussions, produce an excellent video, and set up a website with resources for the community and places where people could tell their stories about what has happened to them and the effects they continue to feel today.
It wouldn’t spend its time and energy in elaborate efforts to make sure its members aren’t offending one another, to the point where they’re unable to write a simple mission statement. It wouldn’t long for secret meetings that run counter to its objective of calling out racism and anti-Semitism, and recruiting people to the cause.
What happened in Stowe and Morrisville was wrong. The coalition has important work to do. It needs to do its work in public to demonstrate the power of its message and the need for change. The last thing it needs to do is shoot the messenger.