'Documenters' trains Minneapolis residents to be local government watchdogs
MINNEAPOLIS -- Tashawna Williams frequents the Northside Green Zone Task Force meetings in north Minneapolis, intently listening and taking notes for others who can't be there.
It's part of her work as a "documenter," a community chronicler of the city's public meetings.
"That's the most important thing - to share what people might not know and get people involved and get them seats at the table that they never had an opportunity to sit at," Williams said.
The Documenters is a program that trains - and pays - everyday people to keep tabs on local government, especially committees and commissions that fly under the radar. Documenters show up to meetings and take notes, which are then published online for anyone to access.
It started in Chicago by City Bureau, a nonprofit newsroom that is "a local laboratory for journalism and civic engagement," said Max Resnik, who is the manager of the Documenters network.
Detroit was the first expansion city, followed by Cleveland and Minneapolis, which in January launched its program overseen by Pillsbury United Communities. Fresno, Atlanta and Omaha have most recently signed on, and the goal is to grow elsewhere because of a $10 million investment into the program over five years.
"We heard from reporters, community members and even members of local government that with the timing of local government meetings and the accessibility of those meetings, there's just a lot at the local level people don't know about," Resnik said. "So Documenters is a way for people to be paid and trained to know how local government works and report that information back to the public."
Resnik said 2,000 people nationwide have been trained and attended thousands of public meetings. In Minneapolis, there are 40 active members of the program who cover a wide range of meetings, from the high-profile like city council to lesser known ones like the Minneapolis Park Board. Documenters choose what meetings they want to cover.
"Local government is not very accessible to the everyday person. There's a lot of systemic barriers. They're often held during the day. They're filled with bureaucratic language. They can last for hours," said Jackie Renzetti, editor of the Minneapolis Documenters. "Why Pillsbury wanted to bring it is to help break through some of those barriers, especially with the understanding that those barriers are disproportionately felt in the neighborhoods we serve."
Renzetti said their work isn't supposed to replace local reporting, but supplement it by training citizen journalists to look out for their communities. The notes from documenters, she said, go more in-depth than meeting minutes that are already usually publicly available.
"A cool byproduct of it is by having people physically there, I do think that kind of signals to these local government agencies that 'Hey, people are watching. We are tuned in,'" she said. "We know in other cities we've seen a subtle shift in how the local government there approaches transparency."
Williams has been part of the Documenters since the beginning and estimates she's covered upwards of 20 public meetings so far. Among the participants in the Minneapolis program, 40% are people of color and 70% are women or identify as non-binary, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s.
Collectively, they've made a public record of more than 300 meetings.
"I believe in the mission because I think it's important as residents, especially taxpaying residents, to pay attention to what's going on around you," she said. "I think it's very important to make sure your voice is being heard, that you are present when you can be, and make sure that those opportunities for those that aren't present [are] accessible to all."
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