Democracy is for everybody, not just the rich. So get to the polls!
Local elections are far more important than Mass voters seem to think, given the historically low turnouts for most of them in recent decades. Especially during off-year contests like this year’s. So, for starters, I just want to encourage everyone who is reading this in a municipality that is holding elections to get out and vote on November 5. Particularly working people—who are the focus of this epistle.
Because politics in a democracy is not supposed to be solely the province of millionaires and billionaires. It’s supposed to be for all of us. However, if working people don’t use our franchise to vote for candidates who will fight on our behalf, then democracy itself is in danger.
Not sure if you’re a working person? Well, if you’re an adult and you don’t own a big business or a huge amount of voting stock, then you are probably a working person. If you’re unemployed, but need to find another job to survive, then you are probably a working person. If you consider yourself poor, working class, or middle class, then you are probably a working person. And if politicians don’t snap to attention when you drop them a line, then you are almost certainly a working person.
I understand that working people are busy by default and that many of us are already focused on the 2020 presidential election—which is as high stakes as it gets in the American political system. But much of what happens in our daily lives is determined in no small part by municipal governments. Important decisions about housing, commercial development, transportation, K-12 education, local taxes, public health, and our lived environment are made every day by Bay State mayors, city councilors, selectpeople, town meetings, and school committees.
Failing to cast your ballot in local elections ensures that lots of important decisions that affect your life get made by politicians you had no hand in choosing. Pols who all too often end up doing the bidding of rich and powerful interests. Rather than fighting for justice for working people in an era when it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to make ends meet.
Changing that situation not only requires that more working people vote in local elections, but also that we actually take the time to inform ourselves about different candidates running for local offices. The problem is that many of the few people who cast votes in local elections don’t really pay attention to who they’re voting for. They go by which college degrees candidates hold. Or which neighborhood they grew up in. Or who their friends tell them to vote for. Or worse still, they vote for the candidates who have held their offices the longest.
None of these are inappropriate reasons to back a politician—taken together with an even cursory understanding of that candidate’s political views and closely held beliefs. The problem is that most voters don’t have that understanding when they go to the voting booth. As trustworthy candidate information can be thin on the ground.
Traditionally, working people turned to local news media to learn more about all the municipal candidates—and read debates between their supporters—as well as synopses of campaign debates. But with local news outlets in decline, and regional and national news organizations having little time to cover local politics, it can be hard to find enough good journalism to be able to make a truly informed decision. Even in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, the main cities that my DigBoston colleagues and I cover.
So, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for how working people can become informed local voters. Ideas which, as luck would have it, also hold true in larger elections.
1) Read candidate questionnaires
Most cities and towns have at least a few civic and political organizations that put together lists of questions on key issues that they ask all the candidates in all the local races. Find them and read them over—trying your best to get your hands on questionnaires organized both by groups you like and groups don’t like. To ensure that you get candidates’ answers to broad array of questions. This alone will give you an excellent idea of which politicians are interested in standing up for working people’s interests.
2) Find out who each candidate takes money from
It’s important to know how campaigns are financed. If your locale has at least one functioning news outlet, you may find articles by professional journalists that cover this ground. But failing that, Commonwealth voters can go to the Mass Office of Campaign and Political Finance website at ocpf.us and see who donates money to the campaigns of every candidate you’re considering voting for—and which candidates have the most money. Pay special attention to big donors who happen to run or own large corporations and banks. Because that will usually correlate to the candidates toiling on behalf of the local establishment, and against the interests of working people. Which is why it’s often good to support candidates who focus on raising lots of small donations from lots of regular folks. If their politics seem solid.
3) Ignore attack ads
Advertising by candidates, if done with a light touch, can be helpful and informative for voters. Unfortunately, many campaign ads are just rank propaganda—and filled with questionable assertions about the opponents of the candidates who buy them. So they are best ignored. Instead, as above, search out information about candidates’ actual positions. Preferably by buttonholing them at public events and asking them for their positions on key issues.
4) Attend candidate forums and debates
The events may be called candidate forums or debates, but whatever they’re called working people should always try to attend at least one for every significant local race. They are the best places to hear candidates’ ideas from their own mouths—plus watch how they engage with other candidates’ ideas and handle themselves under duress. A candidate that can’t take a bit of sparring with an opponent will probably not be the best person to represent working people’s interests.
5) Find the accessible candidates
Any candidate running for local office—especially one who purports to represent the interests of working people—should be easy for any constituent to contact on short notice. As the election approaches, try emailing or calling the campaign offices of candidates you like and ask to speak to them about any question you have about their policy proposals. They should get back to you quickly. If they do, it’s likely they will continue to be easy to reach once in office. For those candidates already in office, you can contact them with a constituent services request. Or contact their campaign office as with other candidates. Same drill. If they get back to you—a typical working person—quickly then they probably aren’t just catering to corporate supporters.
6) Vote for your interests, not the interests of the rich and powerful
The preamble of the constitution of the storied militant labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began with the following statement: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” There was much truth in the sentiment then, and there is much truth in it now. So when you, a working person, go to the polls, keep that statement in mind. Don’t vote for candidates who work in the interest of the real estate industry. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are pro-housing when they are really pro-commercial development. Don’t vote for candidates who say they are for “smart growth” when they are really for “letting real estate developers do whatever they want wherever they want” in the interest of fatter profits. Don’t vote for candidates who feign concern about global warming, then support policies that increase the number of cars on the road. Don’t vote for candidates who say “no new taxes”—when what they mean is “no new taxes on the rich.” Et cetera, et cetera.
Vote for candidates who talk about shifting the tax burden back on the rich and corporations. Get enough of those candidates into office to control local governments, and start doing just that. Raise property and commercial taxes. Increase the pathetically small payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) that nominally nonprofit private colleges like Harvard, MIT, and Tufts University currently pay cities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville. Then use the funds to bankroll an expansion of social programs that benefit working families. At the local level this would include—for example—building more social housing (a European term connoting public housing better than most American public housing), making public schools around the Commonwealth as good in poor towns are they are in rich ones, building more public health clinics, and rebuilding streets to favor public transportation, bikes, and pedestrians over cars.
But none of this can happen without working people getting more involved in our political process at the local level. So go forth, put some real effort into learning about the candidates for local office, and then get to the polls. Every time there’s a local election. Onward…
Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.
Specifically, I called for locals with three of the four qualities we look for in good journalists: ability to communicate, compassion, and deep local knowledge. The fourth quality, formal journalism training, was something my colleagues and I were willing to provide at an introductory level to motivated applicants.
A very diverse group of 15 DigBoston readers hit us back, and we ultimately trained four of them in a free three-hour basic journalism workshop that Chris Faraone and I prepared for the occasion. Since then, two of the trainees have filed draft articles, and you can expect to see them published with us by summer.
So now we’re ready to accept new candidates for our next class of trainees.
And I’ll ask the same questions of interested audience members that I asked before: Are you a smart, compassionate, talkative person from one of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods? Can you put words in rows, and maybe take some pictures on your phone? Do you want to learn to be a journalist? Do you want to tell the world about the place you grew up? About its problems and its successes? About its corruption and its virtue? Its shame and its glory?
Yes? Then drop me a line at email@example.com. Let’s talk.
Comment on reader feedback
A few weeks back, I asked DigBoston’s audience to send in comments about what they thought we were doing well and what they thought needed improvement. We then got a bunch of responses—most highly complimentary. Which were nice to read. But some folks also included some very useful criticism about some of our various beats and how we could make them better. We took those to heart and are working to make the requested improvements.
Follow DigBoston on Flipboard
In an editorial a couple of weeks ago, I announced that DigBoston is moving away from Facebook. Not so much because of the ongoing Cambridge Analytica scandal, as that the social media platform has become a drag to use and expects us to pay it to reach our own audience. Regularly. Naturally, the editorial was thin on specifics about how we would do without Facebook. I mentioned that Twitter was one logical place to focus our social media activity, but recognized that Twitter is not really so much different than Facebook that it will provide us with a long-term alternative.
However, there is one hot social network that can replace a big part of what news publications like DigBoston do on the internet… in a more equitable way for all concerned. While we participate in the movement to build the more democratic and decentralized social media we’d ultimately prefer to use.
Flipboard, which has been around for a few years, has more than 100 million users and growing, and provides a great way for people to share news articles with each other. And it’s perfect from our perspective because we don’t have to pay Flipboard to reach readers that follow us there. It pushes our latest articles to all our followers as part of its service.
After a couple of months’ wait, I’m pleased to announce that DigBoston has now been accepted as a Flipboard Publisher. And we invite all our readers to join Flipboard and follow us there. Here’s the link: flipboard.com/@DigBoston. You’ll find using Flipboard for your daily news dose to be a much more pleasant experience than using Facebook. And it’s just as social as Facebook with far more ways to share articles with your friends and family than the larger social network ever had.
Justice for Saul Levine
The Boston art scene was shocked last week when longtime MassArt film professor Saul Levine announced that he had resigned from his job after teaching there 39 years. Why? According to Levine, on the last day of his fall semester senior thesis class he was expecting students to present some of their work in progress. But they didn’t. Scrambling for something to discuss with them, he decided to review different editing constructions. He chose two of his short films to use as examples. One of which, NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE, had a great number of fast cuts. He had shown the film every year in class since making it in 1989 and thought nothing of using it to make his points. The 15-minute film had some nudity and sex in it, but only a few seconds that go by so fast viewers typically barely notice it.
According to his friend, film critic Gerald Peary, in a Facebook post on Monday, at the end of the class one of the students asked Levine who was having sex in the film. He said, “It was me.” Then, unbeknownst to him, at least one student anonymously reported him to the MassArt administration for sexual harassment… or at least that’s what the school claims.
With no warning about what was coming, the administration called Levine into a Feb 8 meeting where he was “ambushed” and harangued for two hours by officials he felt sure had never watched the “offending” film. They apparently agreed with the anonymous student or students that his showing a movie in which he appeared nude and having sex (with a committed partner) did indeed constitute sexual harassment. Despite the fact that much of his body of artwork is very personal, and sometimes features him nude. And the fact that he had every right to show his own very public and very well-known artwork in his own class for completely valid pedagogical reasons. Artwork which is in no way prurient or pornographic.
Although he had a faculty union leader accompanying him in the meeting and was not fired immediately, Levine felt so pressured by the encounter that he decided to resign rather than wind up in a protracted and expensive legal battle with the administration to clear his name.
“I am a full professor in film and video,” Levine told me on Tuesday. “I am still teaching until 5/31. I chose to resign because I felt targeted. The 2/8 meeting let me know that they were gonna get me!”
Since making a video attacking MassArt last Thursday—excoriating the administration for effectively violating his artistic freedom, his academic freedom, and his rights of free speech and expression—his situation has received coverage in Artforum, Boston Globe, IndieWire, and other outlets.
Dozens of fellow artists and civil libertarians from around Boston and beyond are rushing to his defense. I strongly agree with them that MassArt’s treatment of him is unconscionable. I think the college should make a serious effort to bring him back. And its administration should put much more careful thought into how they handle similar incidents in the future.
NOTES AFTER LONG SILENCE can be viewed here: vimeo.com/73242778/. Levine’s video response to MassArt can be viewed at facebook.com/saullevine/videos/10215932754649479/. I encourage readers to watch both. And if they agree that justice was not done, to join me and other supporters of Saul Levine in contacting MassArt Interim Provost Lyssa Palu-ay (firstname.lastname@example.org, 617-879-7782) and Director/Title IX Coordinator Courtney Wilson (email@example.com, 617-879-7751) and demanding that MassArt apologize to him and offer to reinstate him to his former teaching post immediately—removing any blemish to his record that may have resulted from this unfortunate incident.
Levine concluded: “I’m out of MassArt but people should protest the attack on free speech—which includes showing my film and the manner in which I speak.” The last comment in reference to his lifelong speech and motor disabilities that he feels the college administration used against him.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. He is also arts editor and holds an MFA in visual art from the Art Institute of Boston.
Good journalists typically have four attributes: an ability to communicate information about the world around them to other people, training in the conventions of journalism, compassion for their fellow human beings, and deep knowledge of the areas they specialize in (which we call “beats” in the journalism trade). DigBoston, like any news outlet, obviously needs good journalists. And we’re constantly recruiting new talent. Yet as a city newspaper with a mission to provide the people of Boston’s many neighborhoods with useful information about their hometown, we need more than that. We need native Bostonians working for us.
More to the point, we need working-class native Bostonians. People with deep knowledge of the streets they grew up on. Because we’re very serious about our mission to cover ALL of Boston’s neighborhoods—not just the rich ones. But there’s a problem: Most of the people who want to work for us as reporters—and who know enough to think that there’s even a possibility of them doing so—have just three of the four attributes we’re looking for. They can communicate well, they are compassionate at some level, and they have journalism training. What they don’t have is deep local knowledge. Nor do they necessarily care much about all of Boston’s neighborhoods. Only the ones they hang out in.
These people who apply in droves to work at publications like DigBoston—and indeed all area news outlets that can pay something—are generally middle- or upper-middle-class folks in their 20s from outside of Boston that got degrees in journalism (or communications or literature or business or art and design) at one of our many area colleges. And that’s fine. They have every right to do so, and some of them end up working for us and doing a great job. But only after, and this is key, we help them learn more about the city they’re covering.
If we’re willing to work with people who have three of four qualities that make a good journalist out of the gate, then it’s only fair that we should go the extra mile and recruit local talent that has the other combination of three attributes: ability to communicate, compassion, and deep local knowledge. Because those candidates can definitely be trained in the conventions of journalism.
Readers may not realize it, but journalists did not traditionally go to college to learn their trade until recent decades. Journalists learned journalism by doing it. By becoming, essentially, apprentices to experienced journalists. Which worked well since journalism is many things, but it is not rocket science. It’s a way of collecting and presenting information. Once you learn its conventions, then you can be a working journalist.
So, are you a smart, compassionate, talkative person from one of Boston’s working-class neighborhoods? Can you put words in rows, and maybe take some pictures on your phone? Do you want to learn to be a journalist? Do you want to tell the world about the place you grew up? About its problems and its successes? About its corruption and its virtue? Its shame and its glory?
Evolving the way the world moves … beyond Uber (and Lyft)
July 7, 2017
BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS
The following column was written as commentary for the July 2017 episode of the Beyond Boston monthly video news digest — produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations. It’s aimed at suburbanites, but fun for the whole Boston area family.
Over the years, I’ve often written about how to improve public transportation in the Bay State. But this time out, rather than rehash my standing call for the legislature to raise taxes on the rich and corporations to properly fund such a necessary service, I’d like to take a different tack and discuss a topic germane to the future of both transportation in general and public transportation in particular. Specifically, the so-called ridesharing industry pioneered by corporations like Uber and Lyft.
Ridesharing is a transportation system in which riders and drivers interact via software on cell phones, rather than going through human dispatchers. The software allows riders to see which drivers are near them, and to have the closest one assigned to them. It provides price estimates for rides, features seamless automatic payments from rider to driver at the end of each trip — and it incentivizes simple but important things like drivers keeping their vehicles clean.
One would think this ridesharing system would be great for riders and drivers alike, but that’s not the case. The problem with ridesharing … is that it’s not really ridesharing. That is, Uber and Lyft and smaller companies like Fasten completely control their operations from top to bottom. Including the economic structure that determines how much riders will pay in fares — and what cut of those fares go to drivers. This system is non-transparent and largely unregulated.
An actual ridesharing system would be controlled by its riders and drivers. It could, and I would posit should, be publicly managed. In short, rather than allow ridesharing companies to assist in the dismantling of existing public transit systems like the MBTA by gradually privatizing them, those systems — or agencies set up by individual cities — could run municipal ridesharing services at cost.
Fares would be regulated in ways that would ensure riders the best fares — which poor and working class riders would be able to consistently afford. A small percentage of each fare would go to the municipal rideshare service to develop and maintain the necessary software and infrastructure. Then all the extra money that presently flows into the coffers of Uber and Lyft top brass and investors would be paid to drivers in the form of the best possible wages.
Such a service would be an excellent adjunct to public trains and buses, and would make it much easier for everyone to get from point A to point B. Plus it would be far more democratic because it could be organized to ensure that riders and drivers would play a large role in managing the service. It could even be run as a hybrid of a consumer and a worker cooperative. And democratically controlled from top to bottom. Restricting the growth of Uber and Lyft to something like their natural share of the private transportation market by its mere existence.
Going the public route — or at least a similar nonprofit route being experimented with by RideAustin in Austin, TX — would satisfy the needs of the loyal base of Uber and Lyft clients by providing comparable service at a better price point. And it would also satisfy the needs of a whole new layer of riders who will be able to afford access to new municipal ridesharing services on a regular basis — in addition to public buses, trolleys, and trains. All while paying living wages to drivers. Who are, after all, the backbone of the current corporate ridesharing system. But who are also the most exploited by it.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.