Monthly Archives: January 2016

Leaders’ Words Fuel “We Love Our Presidents” Walkers

Longtime Northeast Minneapolis residents are justifiably proud of the fact that neighborhood kids know their presidents – in chronological order (though some struggle with the legacy of where Stinson fits in or how come Delano Street is down near Hennepin or whatever happened to President Ulysses or Quincy or Benjamin?

Past Presidents’ Day posts on this blog have covered stories of the patriotism and persistence that led to conferring presidential names and a sense of history on the neighborhood.   Find more background by searching “presidents walk” on Poking Around with Mary. Kirsten Delegard also tackled “The President Streets” in a February 2014 piece on Streets.mn.

Each year, on or near Presidents’ Day, Northeasters show their love for their Presidents – and for the neighborhood – by walking the We Love Our Presidents Walk (https://www.facebook.com/We-Love-Our-Presidents-Walk-239536966115675/). In a community that celebrates its heritage, the Presidents’ Day Walk is an honored tradition.

Past blog posts have focused on the stories of how the streets got their names – especially the wave of Americanism that swept the nation post-World War I. In that era public sentiment led civic leaders to drop the names of early settlers in favor of the names of U.S. Presidents. The practice later continued as presidential names replaced the names of early settlers and the original lettered names – in a stroke of the pen “L” became “Harding”, “M” was “Coolidge”, “O” became “Hoover” and “P was suddenly “Delano.”

This season offers a different take on the traditional walk and accompanying blog post. Listening to the barrage of words spewing forth from 2016 presidential candidates it’s occurred to me that we are familiar with the stories but not the living words of past presidents. By what words did they live? What verbal gems remind us of their observations on life and what sage adages might relate to 21st Century Presidents’ Day walkers?

What follows is a highly selective and flagrantly opinionated jumble of presidential quotes that pique my interest and, in some cases, offer new insights into the character of the speaker.

Though the walk has migrated over the years, the legacy of the presidents is static. What follows are snippets of their expressed thoughts – in chronological and geographic order (mostly).

* * *

  • Washington St. NE is named for George Washington
  • It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unformed.
  • Madison St NE is named for James Madison
  • Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
  • Monroe St NE is named for James Monroe
  • Preparation for war is a constant stimulus to suspicion and ill will.
  • Quincy St NE is named for John Quincy Adams
  • If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
  • Jackson St NE is named for Andrew Jackson
  • It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their own selfish purposes.
  • Van Buren St NE is named for Martin Van Buren
  • Banks properly established and conducted are highly useful to the business of the country, and will doubtless continue to exist in the State so long as they conform to their laws and are found to be safe and beneficial.
  • Harrison St NE is named for William Henry Harrison
  • All the measures of the Government are directed to the purpose of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
  • Tyler Street NE is named for John Tyler
  • I was called from my farm to undertake the administration of public affairs and I foresaw that I was called to a bed of thorns. I now leave that bed which has afforded me little rest, and eagerly seek repose in the quiet enjoyments of rural life
  • Polk Street NE is named for James K. Polk
  • Foreign powers do not seem to appreciate the true character of our government. 
  • Taylor St NE is named for Zachary Taylor
  • I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no enemies to punish—nothing to serve but my country.”
  • Fillmore St NE is named for Millard Fillmore
  • Nothing brings out the lower traits of human nature like office-seeking. Men of good character and impulses are betrayed by it into all sorts of meanness.
  • Pierce St NE is named for Franklin Pierce
  • The storm of frenzy and faction must inevitably dash itself in vain against the unshaken rock of the Constitution.
  • Buchanan St NE is named for James Buchanan
  • The test of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.
  • Lincoln St NE is named for Abraham Lincoln
  • May our children and our children’s children to a thousand generations, continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers
  • Johnson St NE is named for Andrew Johnson
  • Legislation can neither be wise nor just which seeks the welfare of a single interest at the expense and to the injury of many and varied.
  • Ulysses St NE is named for Ulysses S. Grant
  • Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men who disgrace labor. 
  • Hayes St NE is named for Rutherford B. Hayes
  • One of the tests of the civilization of people is the treatment of its criminals.
  • Garfield St NE is named for James A. Garfield
  • Next in importance to freedom and justice is popular education, without which neither freedom nor justice can be permanently maintained.
  • Arthur St NE is named for Chester A. Arthur
  • If politics were really a serious business, of course, the indifference of the press and the people to such serious issues would also be a series matter.
  • Cleveland St NE is named for Grover Cleveland
  • A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, the morality, the justice, and the interest of the people themselves.
  • Benjamin St NE is named for Benjamin Harrison
  • I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.
  • McKinley St NE is named for William McKinley
  • War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed.

Stinson Boulevard — Not to worry when you get to Stinson –It’s a naming anomaly. Stinson is one link in the historic Grand Rounds (http://minneapolisparkhistory.com/tag/stinsonboulevard over which the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has naming rights. It is said that Stinson was a generous donor and non-resident of Minneapolis.

***

The ideas are provocative in themselves; some survive, some predict, the passage of time. More important, perhaps, pondering the opinions of the nation’s leaders may warm the heart if not the feet as Northeasters trudge West to East through this historic community.   Those who can’t join the walkers may want to spend some time just reading and thinking about what the presidents have had to say as they campaigned, as they led the nation through troubled times, and as their thoughts ring true or fail the test of time. Some of their ideas may amuse, others surprise, still others inspire or confirm the thoughts of the reader.

The 8th annual “We Love Our Presidents Walk” is set for 2016 is Saturday, February 13.

 

 

African American History Month – A time to gather, learn, create community

Many years ago my friend Marvin R. Anderson patiently helped me understand one of the very special features of Martin Luther King’s Birthday and African American History Month.   What I learned was that both the month and the day offer unique opportunity for all of us to learn and to celebrate as a community. Other holidays focus on gathering the family; MLK Day and Black History Month emphasize our need to know and strengthen our common heritage. A key to creating this essential sense of community is to learn together.

The Black History Month programs sponsored by the East Side Freedom Library (http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org) offer a rich opportunity shape a community in a setting conceived to foster the concept of learning for all. As many Minnesotans know, the East Side Freedom Library is growing as the reincarnation of the Carnegie Library that for a century served residents of a vibrant, often needy, neighborhood in flux. The story of the ESFL is captured in a recent Star Tribune piece by Curt Brown (http://www.startribune.com/check-out-a-100-year-old-st-paul-library-s-rebirth/365543561/) and in an earlier Poking Around blog post. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/arlington-hill-branch-library/

All are invited to join fellow learners at the ESFL during this year’s African American History Month to experience a robust mix of films, speakers and presentations designed – all designed to share information and inspire ideas that will expand visitors’ appreciation of African American history.

Each Monday in February the Freedom Library will feature a film related to Black history; the film series is free and open to all; show time is 7:00 p.m. The rich schedule includes these films:

  • Rize (February 1,
  • The Watermelon Woman, February 8
  • Brother John, February 15,
  • Ghosts of Amistad, February 22,
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, February 29 (a leap year special!)

***For more information about each film, including story and stars, check the ESFL website

February gets an early start with a unique event on Saturday, January 30, when retiring U of M professor Paula Rabinowitz will formally present her unique collection of pulp novels, many written by African American authors, to the ESFL The collection is featured in Rabinowitz’ award-winning book American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. The presentation is at 3:00 p.m. at the Library.

On Saturday, February 13, 1:00 p.m. the Black Storytellers Alliance will share stories of the African American experience with learners of all ages.

Friday, February 19, is Twin Cities Labor Film Night at the ESFL. There will be a screening of the documentary From Selma to Soweto, one film in the Have You Heard from Johannesburg, the well-known series that “places the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa in the context of international solidarity.”

The East Side Freedom Library is located at 1105 Greenbrier Street on St. Paul’s East Side. For more information about the Library or the programs planned for African American History Month contact ESFL: info@eastsidefreedomlibrary.org or 651 774 8687.

 

World Storytelling Day spotlights strong women & heroines

Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die,

we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.

Sue Monk Kidd,  The Secret Life of Bees

The world awaits the convergence of two joyful events. Sunday, March 20, 2016 marks not only the promise of spring but celebration of the time-honored custom of storytelling. On this special day the people come together to celebrate both the Spring Equinox and World Storytelling Day.

The global theme for World Storytelling Day 2016 is “Strong Women and Heroines.” The vision for World Storytelling Day is that, during those 24 hours, everyone will tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible.  Minnesota’s celebration includes a grand event based on the “Strong Women and Heroines” theme.

As any Prairie Home fan knows, in Minnesota all of the women are strong; a select few of these strong women will share their stories in a very public venue to celebrate World Storytelling Day. The public event is set for Tuesday, March 22, 7:00 p.m. at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul.  (www.landmarkcenter.org)

As of this writing these “heroines” have agreed to share their stories:

  • Judy Brooks, Director of Community programming at Landmark Center.
  • Peggy Flanagan, State Representative, District 46A (St. Louis Park) and Director of the    Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota.
  • Catrina Huynh-Weiss, Writer/Producer/Performing Artist; Immigrant to U.S. after the 1975 Fall of Saigon.
  • Rose McGee, Author/Social Justice Activist; Creator of Sweet Potato Comfort Pie Initiative
  • Renee Weeks/Wynn, Augsburg College Student; Kawase Fellow at Hiroshima Peace Institute, August 2015
  • Elaine Wynne, Therapist/Activist; Founder of Veteran Resilience Project
  • Chante Wolf, Persian Gulf Veteran for Peace; Writer/Artist/Activist with Women Veterans

The event will raise support for Veteran Resilience Project (wwwresiliencemn.org) Suggested donation$10.

For more information contact Larry Johnson, 612 737 3904 or larryjvfp@gmail.com

 

 

Minnesota Spin on African American History Month

The month of February, recognized in myriad ways by most Americans as African American History Month, turns a venerable 90 years old this year. Last year’s post focused on the centenary of the association that introduced the concept, the Association for the Study of American Life and History and Culture founded by Carter G. Woodson. (https://netforum.avectra.com/eweb/DynamicPage.aspx?Site=asalh&WebCode=aboutasalh) After 90 years that fledging initiative has morphed to its present recognition as Black American Month or National African American History, a grand celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a recognition of the central role of African Americans in U.S. – and global – history.

Because this blog, in content and readership, has a Minnesota-centric bias, the thought occurred to celebrate by shining a light on the role of African American individuals and institutions close to home. It’s also an opportunity to remind readers, teachers, parents and researchers of the role of MNOpedia, a living resource that is growing in its critical role as chronicler of the North Star State.

As a very occasional contributor I am familiar with the rigorous rules that guide the research, writing and editing processes that shape MNOpedia. I have the highest regard for staff and for the scores of researchers who volunteer their time to record and share the stories of Minnesota’s people, places and things. The hallmark of MNOpedia is that each entry fills out the narrative and identifies additional resources, analysis, and a chronology that places in perspective the passages in the life of an individual, organization or event. Each article serves as an engaging and accessible point of entry to deeper learning and understanding.

And so I chose to skim the scores of entries about the people, places, organizations and events that reflect the experience of African American Minnesotans. These summaries offer a mere hint of what’s readily accessible on MNOpedia; the few noted here are intended to whet the reader’s appetite.

The theme for African American History Month 2016 is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories.” The context sparked by the theme “hallowed grounds” suggests a host of places of worship that have played a significant role in the lives of African American individuals and families as well as of the communities they have served:

  • A proud feature of Duluth, and a place of worship for African American Duluthians, is Saint Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.   St. Mark’s, founded in 1890 by Reverend Richmond Taylor, is not just a building but also the heart of Duluth’s African American community. This is a community that has weathered hard times including, but certainly not limited to, the 1920 lynching of three African American men. (Note: The Lynchings are described in another MNOpedia entry.)
  • Another church that remains central to the African American community is Saint Peter Claver Church in St. Paul, the first African American Catholic Church in Minnesota. In 1910 Father Stephen Theobald, the first African American priest ordained in the St. Paul Seminary, was named pastor of St. Peter Claver. The nucleus of a lively 21st Century community St. Peter Claver, at Oxford and St. Anthony near the much-traveled 94, welcomes a multi-racial congregation and serves as a pillar of the community it serves.
  • Crispus Attucks Home, established in St. Paul by AME missionaries Will and Fannie King served people in need for six decades, 1906-1966. Though there were several orphanages in the early days of the 20th century they served neither African American children nor people who were old or infirm. Despite great difficulties the Crispus Attucks home settled and survived for a half century in a house on Railroad Island near Swede Hollow in St. Paul. Though the original house has been razed, the site is now part of Eileen Weida Park and the Crispus Attucks Social Welfare and Education Association sponsors a scholarship fund for African American high school students.

MNOpedia articles also tell the stories of African Americans who designed or constructed “Sites of American Memories”:

  • Clarence Wigington served as lead architect in over 90 St. Paul city projects. Though a person, not a place, Wigington and place are indistinguishable in the story of African American influence in Minnesota. Today’s St. Paulites and visitors will see Wigington’s work in the playground buildings at Hamline and Minnehaha parks, the Harriet Island Pavilion, and the Highland Park Water Tower; the latter two are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Long-time St. Paul Winter Carnival attendees will recall that the original ice palaces that were envisioned and designed by Wigington.
  • Another site well remembered by African Americans and others is described in the MnOpedia article on the Casiville Bullard House, 1282 Folsom Street in St Paul’s Como Heights neighborhood. Built and owned by Casiville Bullard the house is on the National Register of Historic Places.   Bullard (b February 24, 1873) came to St. Paul in 1898 to do stone work for the third State Capitol. The work of this African American craftsman is much in the news today as architects and craftsmen restore the original beauty of that edifice.
  • ***
  • Though the sense of place is the 2016 theme of African American History Month, the many MNOpedia entries tell the stories of African American Minnesotans whose lives have made a difference in the lives of Minnesotans and of all Americans.   Included among these articles are these:
  • George Bonga (c1802-1874) may not be a household word in Minnesota, but he shared his knowledge of words as a translator before Minnesota became a state. Bonga’s father, Pierre Bonga, was African American and his mother was Ojibwe. Educated in Montreal, George spoke fluent English, French and Ojibwe, skills that made him an indispensable player in treaty negotiations in which character as well as language was essential.
  • Marvel Jackson Cooke (1901-2000) broke both the color and the gender barrier as a journalist and political activist whose life and work spanned the 20th Century.   In some ways she also broke a geographic challenge as the first African American child born in Mankato. As a young girl Marvel’s family moved to the Prospect Park neighborhood in Minneapolis where she was the first African American child enrolled at Sydney Pratt School. Later she attended the U of M, one of five African Americans who graduated with the Class of 1925. Soon after graduation she moved to Harlem where she found work as an editorial assistant for W.E.B. DuBois at The Crisis, the national publication of the NAACP.   Thus began an incredible life that included her brief engagement to Roy Wilkins, a lifetime of investigative reporting, and a summons to testify at the McCarthy hearings.
  • Nellie Stone Johnson (1905-2002) was a union and civil rights leader and subject of a recent Minnesota History Theatre. The production, affectionately entitled “Nellie” drew huge crowds.
  • Renowned as a trial lawyer, Fredrick McGhee (1861-1912) was the first African American admitted to practice law in Minnesota. Known to be a force in the courtroom McGhee was one of the founders of St. Peter Claver Church. He also worked with W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP.
  • George Morrison (1919-2000) who is an internationally recognized artist celebrated in the 2015 major exhibition mounted by the Minnesota Historical Society.
  • One of the state’s most popular African American heroes is Kirby Puckett (1960-2006), the iconic hero who led the Twins to the World Series not once but twice. Echoes of “k-i-r-by p-u-c-k-e-t-t” still resonate midst the ruins of The Dome. When glaucoma curbed his career Puckett retired from playing but continued with the Twins as Executive Vice President, a role in which he continued as an active and visible community leader.
  • Dred and Harriet Robinson Scott, legends in the history of emancipation, lived as slaves at Fort Snelling. the lives of both are recorded in MNOpedia. The struggle for justice is memorialized in the Dred Scott Decision that led directly to the beginning of the Civil War.
  • It was the racial prejudice she experienced as a realtor that led Lena Olive Smith (1885-1966) to a career as an attorney. As a graduate of Northwestern College of Law (1921, she was for many years the only African American woman practicing law in the Twin Cities. She is credited with helping end the segregation of African American audiences at area theaters, with prosecuting police brutality and for the NAACP protest of the U of M’s showing of Birth of a Nation.
  • African American superstar Marcenia Lyle (Toni) Stone was the first female professional baseball player in the Negro Major League; Stone also played for the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro Major League Team. The Great American History Theater celebrated the Toni Stone story in a world premiere production of Tomboy Stone in 1993.
  • John Francis Wheaton (1866-1922) was elected by white voters of the Kenwood neighborhood to serve as the first African American to serve in the Minnesota Legislature (1898).   A native of Hagerstown, Maryland, Wheaton migrated to Minnesota where he put himself through the U of M law school by working as a hotel waiter and railroad porter. Wheaton was the first African American to graduate from the U of M law school, and only the fourth to earn a U of M degree.
  • The name of Roy Wilkins (1901-1981) who spent his early years in St. Paul is best known to Minnesotans because of the St. Paul civic center that honors his name. The honor is bestowed on Wilkins because of his lifetime of leadership in the African American community and the civil rights movement.   After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1923 Wilkins worked as a social worker in Kansas; his leadership in the NAACP led to his appointment as W.E.B. DuBois’ successor as editor of The Crisis, the national publication of NAACP. From there Wilkins moved up the ranks to serve as Executive Director of NAACP, a position in which he immersed himself in legal action, the effects of which changed the nation’s laws. Among Wilkins’ countless tributes is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, bestowed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson.

***

Articles in MNOpedia also chronicle events that reflect the times and tell the stories of the African American experience in Minnesota.

  • One article I particularly enjoyed is the story of the “Journeymen Barbers.” One of the fascinating notes in this article is the description of the ways in which these African American men played a role in passage of Minnesota’s Sunday closing law in 1894. The Journeymen also worked for passage of the nation’s first barber licensing laws. The Journeymen barbers union continued until 1980 when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union assumed jurisdiction over union barbers.
  • The story of the Sixteenth Battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard will capture the attention of students young and old.   A century ago the U.S. military was segregated in practice, racist in its recruiting. African American Minnesotans petitioned then Governor J.A.A. Burnquist to form an all-African American battalion of the Minnesota Home Guard.   The MNOpedia article offers a great summary of this unique story – the bibliography suggests a wealth of resources that will illuminate the lives and contributions of African American military volunteers a century ago.
  • “Black Suffrage in Minnesota” is an article that traces the story of abolition as it unfolded in Minnesota – a development that did not follow the Southern path. After the Constitutional Convention of 1857 Minnesota politicians were slow to take bold action, supporting Lincoln’s emancipation policy but reluctant to expand the rights of African Americans.   Ultimately, Minnesota joined Iowa as one of just two Northern states to call for suffrage on the national ballot in 1868. Iowa and Minnesota eventually become the first two post-Civil War states in the North whose electorate approved Black voting when both Houses voted to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment which finally passed in 1870.

***

MNOpedia is designed and supported by Minnesotans to tell the unique stories of Minnesotans with every Minnesotan. February is longer than usual this year, a quadrennial opportunity to spend those extra hours learning and sharing stories about African American places, people, events and things with Minnesota ties.

 

 

Most Dangerous — A most readable story of the right to know

The right to know is the birthright of every child born in this democracy.   The challenge is to recognize and nurture that right, to inculcate the attitudes and skills that make it a reality. The welfare of the child and of the nation depends on the exercise of this fundamental right.

The problem is that the right itself is exercised not in the abstract but in the concrete – in the ways a young person develops the habit of probing, questioning, weighing facts, defending a position, understanding the sources, the barriers, the politics and economics of access to information by and about the government.

It is through stories that young learners come to understand what lies behind the published narrative, the editorial, the decision, the report, the media analysis or, in the midst of a campaign, the hype.

Young people need concrete examples of how, when and why access to good information makes a difference. Then, and only then, can they appreciate their inalienable right to know.

Even in this digital age, the written word remains an effective teaching tool. Good books communicate connections, convey the ways in which information comes to be, illustrate how it is shared or secreted. A good story well told demonstrates the power of information to shape decisions that ultimately determine action.

The Young Adult Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association, has just issued a shout out for a timely tool that breathes life into the complexities that surround exercise of an individual American’s right to know. Impressionable young readers are the target audience for Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. (1) The book, written by noted young adult author Steve Sheinkin (http://stevesheinkin.com) was recently selected as recipient of YALSA’s 2015 award for excellence in nonfiction for young adults.

Most Dangerous is the story of the iconic American whistle blower, Daniel Ellsberg.  The intriguing drama illustrates the basic right to know while it tells a captivating tale of intrigue, resistance and roles. The book is published by Roaring Book Press, an imprint of Macmillan’s Children’s Publishing Group.

In an interview Sheinkin offered while he was still buried in writing, the author previews the essence of the adventure:

My new book, which will be out in September, is Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War. The subject, obviously, is the Vietnam War, and at the center of the action is this brilliant young Pentagon insider, Daniel Ellsberg, who starts off as a hard-core Cold Warrior. He sees the war from the inside, spends time in Vietnam War, gradually turns against the war, and decides to risk everything to try to end it. He’s the guy who leaked the Pentagon Papers – the top secret documents that exposed years of government lies about the Vietnam – to the New York Times. He’s still around, and is often interviewed about the more recent bombshell leaker story, that of Edward Snowden. Anyway, the book’s going to be kind of similar to Bomb, in terms of being a big, fast, complex, morally ambiguous thriller, with lots going on at once. At least, that’s what I’m going for!

Though young readers will no doubt focus on the thriller aspects, the implicitness of the right to know is essential to the narrative. The narrative is so compelling that the book will appeal to writers whose teenage years are long past.

Intergenerational discussions may be fostered by inclusion of digital resources including a well-known documentary that earlier generated broad and heated discussion. The documentary is accessible on Hulu (http://www.hulu.com/watch/337497).   A description of the documentary is available on the PBS website: (http://www.pbs.org/pov/mostdangerousman/film-description/

(1) The title of Sheinkin’s book originated with the comment of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who referred to Daniel Ellsberg as “the world’s most dangerous man.”

 

Beltway Blizzard Blues

Routine inside the Beltway matters

Until a touch of winter shatters

The very order of society

Is felled by angst and high anxiety

 

K Street Suits are in a muddle

Two feet of snow is not a puddle

Limos idle, the Metro slows

How to shovel no one knows

 

Rank and rules first quake then crumble

Scions fume and cabbies grumble

Congress staffers wander halls

No one emails, no one calls

 

The media are in their glory

As they narrate the epic story

Of hopes destroyed and votes not cast

Of absent members, bills not passed

 

Should they declare this a disaster

Or would tabling it be faster

Or could this be just Nature’s curse

Reminding us it could be worse?

 

 

FOIA at Fifty — Does access to information really matter?

We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts. Tavis Smiley

Back at the dawn of the digital age my prescient brother sold the potential of pricey technology by answering the inevitable question ”Whadya sellin’?” with the ubiquitous retort ”Whadya need?” Though the goal was to sell the product, the first step was to identify the customer’s need – the gadget wouldn’t matter till the buyer “felt the pain.”

Truth to tell, few Americans will specify “open government” or “transparency” high on their Litany of Felt Needs. Fewer still will recognize their lack of access to information by and about the government as a major source of pain or as a detriment to living a fulfilled life. The Founding Fathers highlighted identified the five basic freedoms in the First Amendment as the Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Petition.

Here I have to quote Gene Policinski, CEO of the Newseum Institute, who advised readers that “you may not think of the First Amendment in working terms. More likely, you don’t think of it at all – or if you do, it’s associated with harpsichord music and Colonial Times.” (DesMoines Register, April 18, 2015) As Policinski suggests, for most citizens “open government” is a remote and nebulous yawn.

And yet Policinski wakens us with the truth that “while all 10 of the amendments in the Bill of Rights protect our rights, it’s the First Amendment that defines the core freedoms we use every day.”

The first challenge for advocates of transparency and accountability is to make government information matter — only then will the body politic care, or even notice, if, how, by whom and why the information chain is frayed or broken. The unfortunate but no less true that the need for government information is too often best illuminated by the failure of the system to fulfill the promise.

The ongoing crisis in Flint offers a case study: Serving the public watchdog role incumbent on investigative journalism, the Huffington Post reports in detail the failure of the government to uphold its information responsibility:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water- epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c )

Though illustrative of incredible failure, the article demonstrates the ways in which reliable information matters, and why government alone plays the essential role as collector, organizer and point of access to information that matters – when it matters and to whom it matters. Whether it’s politics, incompetence or sheer negligence, the broken chain of government information lies at the core of the water crisis in Flint.

A very different but deeply distressing diatribe appears in a recent issue of Slate . The article exposes the racist manipulation of information gathered and managed by malevolent forces within the government.

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/what_the_fbi_s_surveillance_of_martin_luther_king_says_about_modern_spying.html)

These unspeakable realities expose the ugly underside of open government.   At the same time the contemporary allegories illustrate beyond question that information by and about the government matters not only in terms of national security but in the daily lives of the American people. The stories underscore the fact that ordinary citizens and their representatives bear responsibility for what is an inalienable right, a powerful force and a trust.

Information is a tool, useful and usable for good or for harm. Those who understand the power of information as a tool wield power, the critical power to provide reliable, essential, needed information or the power to derail, delude or destroy. The anecdotes underscore the lesson that information matters, that reliable, access to information by and about the government is at the core of this democracy.

It follows then, “as night the day”, that misinformation, the lack of information, hoarded information, the misuse or misinterpretation of information, the failure to collect or to disclose information subvert the common good. To protect the common good requires constant vigilance on the part of every American.

There are signs that the digital age is heightening awareness that information matters. One compelling example is a recent Internews study supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The extensive study grapples with the compelling question from the government perspective. Entitled Why Information Matters the study concludes that “without information, people can neither understand nor effectively respond to the events that shape their world.”

http://www.internews.org/sites/default/files/resources/150513Internews_WhyInformationMatters.pdf

Never one to shield the reader from harsh truth, including the truth that information matters, master of the literary thriller Tom Clancy warned his readers that “the control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

The bulwark of access to information by and about the government is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted fifty years ago in July 1966. Discussions have already begun concerning the law, the rights it protects, the need for revision. The time is now to make the case that information by and about the government matters to the American people.