ASK ELi: Why Was ELi Founded?

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Friday, October 2, 2015, 8:24 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: The author, about a hundred years ago. She is shown on the left.

Readers sometimes ask me why I founded ELi—especially given that I donate lots of money and work to it, and earn no income from it. I also get this question when I’m on the road speaking for my usual professional work as an historian, mainstream nonfiction writer, and patient advocate. Some people wonder aloud why on earth I’d spend so much time working on hyperlocal issues when I usually write for the national and international press.

As I write about in my current book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, I was raised by a couple of democracy geeks. My parents used just about every right given to them in the First Amendment, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to protest. My dad even ran for Congress once. My mom wrote for and to newspapers. Because my parents were Polish, and because of what happened to Poland under Soviet control, they were especially aware—and made us especially aware—of how amazing American democracy was and is.

Because my parents cared so much about politics and democracy, they subscribed to a large number of newspapers. I grew up on Long Island with the task of clearing all those papers off the dinner table into a big stack every night before we ate as a family. That photo up there is a picture of me and our dog Juno at that dinner table. (Yes, the wallpaper . . . it was the 1970s.)

When in 1990 I went off to graduate school at Indiana University, a few years after becoming a college drop-out and a mortgage broker, I followed in my parents’ footsteps of activism. In Bloomington, I was lucky enough to meet a guy who had been raised in a similar fashion—although I was descended from Catholic Right-to-Life activists and he was descended from Unitarian communists. (Spoiler alert: I married him.)

My work in graduate school on the history of the biomedical treatment of humans labeled “hermaphrodites” led me to become an activist for intersex patients’ rights starting in 1995. In addition to my scholarship, I’ve been working in that area for twenty years now. I write in my current book about how much journalism has changed in those twenty years, because of the economic pressures of the internet.

People don’t want to pay for their news, and the consequence is that there’s been a huge resource- and brain-drain from journalism. This, in turn, has terrible effects on democracy, including rights movements, because the only way most people find out what is true about healthcare systems, corporations, their government, and their schools is through the press.

We moved to East Lansing in 1996 and bought our house in the Oakwood neighborhood in 1998. One day, years ago, our neighborhood president Ann Nichols (yes, that Ann Nichols—our managing editor) came to tell me about a worrisome development plan called “City Center II” designed for just down the hill from us. Ann and I started to educate ourselves and our neighbors about this project, especially about the concerns regarding the developer Scott Chappelle. Ann and I quickly bonded over an obsession with factual accuracy along with our love for our neighborhood.

As part of our work responding on behalf of our neighborhood to City Center II, we started attending City Council. It was then that I started realizing just how little people in this town (including me) knew about what was going on in this city. I got a lot of education from Vic Loomis, then a Councilmember, about how our City government functioned—and didn’t. By 2012, I was so frustrated, I started a free online, non-editorial, nonpartisan newspaper called East Lansing Info. It was all volunteer, except for my paying tech helper Lisa Lees a little bit. It had no legal existence. It did a good job helping to educate people.

But that model was not sustainable. I realized soon that the only way we could have a truly functioning ELi was to create a nonprofit foundation for it—to take donations and to pay managers and some reporters. (I was inspired by the Pro Publica model.) Well, by early 2014, I was wrapping up heavy work on my book, and I decided at that point to turn ELi into a real nonprofit corporation dedicated to serving the people of East Lansing through a free public news service, of, by, and for the people of East Lansing.

I asked a number of people to consider being on the board of directors with me, and three stepped up to the plate. One was Vic Loomis, who brought to us critical knowledge of local government, local philanthropy, business, and finances. Vic helped me understand how to think about procedures versus policies, triaging of stories, and running the business side of ELi.

Another was Mike Lawrence, a law professor at MSU (and my neighbor), who brought with him not only his experiences in law but also his scholarship on American radicalism. So often at board meetings, Mike has asked useful questions that never even occur to me.

The third was Stephen Thomas, MSU scientist and faculty member. Stephen brings to us a tech-savvy approach that helps us so much in thinking about how we interface with our users and our donors. His work in online education also informs how we think about presenting information in a compelling and effective fashion.

The four of us on the board plus Ann have now seen ELi through its first fiscal year. (Read about that here.) It has been a privilege for me to work with this board, and to work especially closely with Ann as she shapes, trims, feeds, and promotes the ELi you see. I will refrain from gushing about her here since I’ve already done that. Lisa Lees still does tech for us as she did starting in 2012, but now we also employ her daughter, Morgan Lees (President of the Board of Trustees for All-of-us Express Children's Theatre) as our tech manager.

ELi has been a bear to run, especially as I’ve had to balance it with my professional life and being a mother to a now-sophomore at East Lansing High School. Who knew small businesses face so much paperwork? (Well, Vic did.) Who knew that Council would take on so many hot-button issues in a single year?

But it has been an absolute joy. We have, I believe, really upped the dialogue in this town, pushing people towards looking at facts—and looking for facts. We have turned artists, retired people, and students into dogged local reporters. We have educated people about tax increment financing, campaign finance, the East Lansing Public Schools, and the hidden joys of living here. We’ve leveraged ELi’s work to force the for-profit news services in this area to pay more reporting attention to East Lansing, as we have represented serious competition to them. (We are non-commercial, but when we do great reporting, we are essentially stepping into their market, potentially taking their share of readers.)

And we have taken a relatively small amount of generously-contributed donations and turned it into—well, if I may editorialize, I think we’ve turned it into journalistic magic. I like to think that somewhere Ben Franklin is smiling down on us. I know my parents are tickled.

ELi has been, from my point of view, an amazing and amazingly successful adventure. I’ll bet if you’re still reading, you agree. So don’t make me say it. Just click here, and join me right now in packing provisions for the next year of adventure. It’s bound to be exciting.

 

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