A Grassroots Front Page Story Enlivens the News
By Susan Haig
As creative director of a civics-based news site featuring videos about social change, I'm asked from time to time how CivicStory decides on topics for its stories. Answer: When initiatives have 4 or 5 significant or surprising elements that are of deep interest to a broad audience, and will resonate beyond the story's locale.
Just such a local and universal story - An English Village Leads a Climate Revolution - recently appeared on the front page of The New York Times (Aug. 22). It offers a vivid example of what we call civics-based news: stories about citizens transforming their communities in a constructive way.
Reporter Tatiana Schlossberg tells how the citizens of Ashton Hayes in the U.K. - population 1,000 - have voluntarily lowered their carbon emissions by 24 percent since 2006, and strengthened their community in the process. She reports that the project leader, former journalist Gary Charnock, believes that the village can achieve a total reduction of 80 percent in the next few years.
The narrative offers a series of surprises: Ashton Hayes citizens steered the project clear of political parties and politicians; at the project’s first meeting half of the village population showed up; the MO was public 'wine and cheese meetings' in private homes; and the initiative has attracted global interest from "200 towns, cities and counties" (including New Jersey's Upper Saddle River).
The specific actions village residents have taken to accomplish their goal are impressively varied. No less than twelve carbon emission-reduction tactics are referenced in the story, including home investments such as solar panels, geo-thermal pumps, and grey-water cisterns, and life-style choices such as fewer flights, drying clothes on clotheslines, or simply "putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat." The story also cites do-it-yourself activities such as growing vegetables, brewing beer and - perhaps controversially - keeping cows.
What I especially admire about the article is its implicit view of social change - a topic of interest in nonprofit organizations that's seldom explored in day-to-day news. Through high-impact quotes, the story identifies basic motivators such as learning, socializing, and having fun, as catalysts for change—without trivializing them.
With understated candor, Ms. Schlossberg defines a key cause of our collective inertia: "Sometimes, efforts to reduce greenhouse gases involve guilt-tripping or doomsday scenarios that make people feel as if the problem is too overwhelming to tackle."
The citizen change makers quoted in the article, by contrast, offer a refreshing sense of what is possible: “…If you can create enthusiasm and spread knowledge, normally, people will react in a positive way," says Councilwoman Janet Gulvaag of Notteroy, Norway, one of the many municipalities that contacted Ashton Hayes for advice. "We just think everyone should try to clean up their patch," says Rosemary Dossett, who moved with her husband to Ashton Hayes specifically to join the carbon-neutrality effort. "We just do it."
Times editors weighed the urgency of a story of environmental concern, action, stewardship, and self-governance, and placed it on page 1. We eagerly anticipate more such stories.
Susan Haig is founder & creative director of CivicStory.org and
conductor of the South Orange Symphony Orchestra.
An English Village Leads a Climate Revolution
By Tatiana Schlossberg, NY Times, Aug. 22, 2016
Oct 4-5, 2016, Dubuque, Iowa
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