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NCMR2008: Women winning policy fights in the States

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June 10th, 2008

By Guest Blogger Nathaniel James

I haven’t done a comprehensive review of the National Conference on Media Reform’s program, but I know the panels I chose to attend had some amazing women leaders presenting their work and their vision for the future. For instance, the Future of the Internet panel held in a large auditorium included Eloise-Rose Lee, a grassroots digital inclusion superstar at Media Alliance in the Bay Area and Susan Crawford, international Internet policy leader at ICANN and powerhouse evangelist for One Web Day, which is like Earth Day for the Internet.

I caught the tail end of the “There Is No Media Justice Without Women” panel, moderated by Women In Media & News’s director and WIMN’s Voices editor, Jennifer L. Pozner, and featuring WIMN’s Voices bloggers and movement leaders Deanne Cuellar (Texas MEP and MAG-Net), Betty Yu (Manhattan Neighborhood Network), Shireen Mitchell (Digital Sisters and NCWO- the National Council of Women’s Organizations) and independent journalist and activistAnne Elizabeth Moore (author, Unmarketable).

The Women and Media Justice panel was, of course, radical, righteous, and inspiring. I would have loved to seen the whole thing, but I needed to see Winning Technology Policy and Media Reform in the States during the same session period. At the Media and Democracy Coalition, we work to build capacity for media change at the local and state level, so this was an important one for me to attend. I really wanted to hear from leading women at NCMR, and the Winning in the States panel delivered. It was made up and moderated entirely by women leaders. The following are my notes and comments from that session:

Amina Fazlullah, US PIRG, explained that states can be faster catalysts for legislative change than Federal bodies, and ideas can move from state legislative bodies to the Federal level, “It’s absolutely crucial the this work begins at the state level.” Another important point: states can protect consumers at a level that the federal never can, because state governments are accessible and more connected to people’s lives on the ground.

Washington State Senator Kohl-Welles also spoke. The Senator has been working to make Washington a leader in Internet connectivity. She started with an anecdote illustrating how many people still don’t understand the importance of digital inclusion. On the plane, her neighbor asked “aren’t there more important things to spend money on” than broadband deployment? When she said she was concerned about connectivity in rural places, he replied “well, can’t those people just move somewhere else?” Unbelievable. Good to know some of our leaders get it.

Catherine Settanni
from the Community Technology Empowerment Project works locally in Minnesota where she helped launched Minneapolis’ free wi-fi network, which includes a great community portal. She had a great idea about pressuring the states to ensure that any time taxpayers’ money is spent to move something online, it has to include a set aside for digital inclusion efforts.

Susan Satter
, Senior Assistant Attorney General in Illinois, told us that state utility commissions are highly vulnerable to industry capture in the policy process, due to being appointed positions She also gives us a hot tip: attorneys general can be important advocates for positive change in telecoms policy, especially in their role as consumer complaint arbitrators.

After the presentations, I asked the panelists about strategies to influence organizations like the US Conference of Mayors and National Conference of State Legislatures.

Senator Kohl-Welles and moderator Julie Schwartz, Progressive States Network, answered my question:

* The Senator is an executive of the NCSL and says that a positive telecoms agenda is just starting to come through. She also mentioned that Ron Simms, King County Executive, published an op-ed calling for a national digital inclusion strategy. If I understood her correctly, she thinks the NCSL is a place where such a strategy could be developed.

* Julie reminds us that state legislators very often are motivated by a spirit of public service, but they are often pressed and some times even working other jobs, and if we want to influence them, we have to provide the model legislation, the messaging, and an opportunity to be a hero on our issues.

Beth McConnell
, The Media and Democracy Coalition, asked if there are things cities and states could do better if the federal government made some changes, for instance improving e-rate and lifting the ban on schools and libraries from offering access to their networks to the broader community. The answer is “yes” on e-rate from Catherine. Other opportunities might include getting more federal money for broadband mapping, in the Farm Bill, for instance. We also need to fix the fact that, apparently, there is more federal money for broadband mapping than actual broadband deployment. There is another bill on infrastructure in the House now that includes some money that localities could use to improve digital access.

Some people may not think this kind of nitty-gritty legislative stuff is very exciting, but if it means uncovering points of intervention that people can use close to home, then I’m in. If we can help people influence their local representatives, make real change, and build power for grassroots media democracy activists, then I’m in. The big federal policy fights might grab the spotlight most of the time, but this panel made it clear that we should support struggles happening all over the country that are being led by this group of savvy women and their colleagues.

Guest Blogger Nathaniel James is the Campaign Coordinator at The Media and Democracy Coalition. You can reach him at njames@media-democracy.net You can find his personal blog at http://phasetransitions.blogspot.com/

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