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Cleveland Documenters is making public meetings more accessible while teaching new skills

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Posted at 6:38 PM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 19:22:23-05

CLEVELAND — Cleveland Documenters is teaching Ohioans new skills while paying them to make public meetings much more accessible to residents impacted by them.

The group is actively recruiting people to take notes on Cleveland City Council and some Cuyahoga Council meetings, take notes, and publish those notes at Documenters.org. Some meetings are also live-tweeted by Documenters, getting information out to the public even faster.

Documenters can sign up at Documenters.org, fill out an application, attend orientation to learn how to be part of the program, and then can apply for assignments. Extra training is available for people who want it.

The program started in Chicago and is now run by City Bureau, a “nonprofit civic journalism lab based on the South Side of Chicago,” according to its website.

It later branched out to Detroit and later to Cleveland right around the time the pandemic was starting. The program is run through Neighbor Up and funded by The Cleveland Foundation and the Visible Voice Charitable Fund of the Cleveland Foundation.

Field Coordinator Lawrence Daniel Caswell says there were early discussions to delay launching the program.

“We were still saying that we were going to hold off doing meetings until the pandemic was over and then I think we realized within a month of that that that wasn’t happening anytime soon,” said Caswell.

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"Our goal for this, long term, is to be a reliable and relied upon resource for public government meeting information in Northeast Ohio," said Caswell."

The pandemic has shifted city council and committee meetings online all over Ohio, making it a challenge for residents who struggle to navigate the internet. But it’s made the Documenters’ work easier since attending a meeting now often requires only the ability to sign on to Zoom.

Training classes teach Documenters about note-taking, live-tweeting, how City Council meetings work, and how to remove their personal bias and become a neutral third-party observer.

“Just really thinking about trying to take your opinion out of it and form it into question is actually really valuable,” said Caswell.

Being informed has always been an important part of Courtney Green’s life.

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"You should always know what's going on around you and be aware of your surroundings, right?" asked Green.

“People don’t have that much time and time is valuable if you can just get to what you need, then that’s what matters,” said Green.

That’s why the Cleveland Metropolitan School District educator signed up to work as a Cleveland Documenters Reporter on the side for the last new months.

She says covering some of Cleveland’s budget hearings was eye-opening.

“This is how much money is being put into this area and this is how much money isn’t being put into this neighborhood, but this is the budget we have,” said Green.

The meetings Documenters sit in on are often in the middle of the day and they can last for hours, making it hard for residents to stick around for all the items on an agenda. Documenters provides a spot for residents to catch up after the meeting.

“It’s a good thing because it’s absolutely necessary for democracy,” said Caswell.

Caswell and a handful of other editors with journalism backgrounds oversee the roughly 50 active Documenters and roughly 300 people who have signed up to be Documenters. About 150 of them have gone through training and about a third of them have signed up for and completed an assignment in the last 90 days.

So far, the Documenters is focused on the City of Cleveland and some county meetings, with plans to expand to the suburbs and Summit County eventually.

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Documenters get paid for their time, making it gig work that teaches participants new skills.

The project marries the benefits of being civically active with doing civic journalism.

“I feel like both of those pieces of work are equally important and we feel like to do that work, we really should pay people for it,” said Caswell.

Documenters get $16 per hour and are on the clock for the time they prepare before a meeting and write up the notes after a meeting. A guarantee to get paid for a two-hour meeting time means even the shortest assignments yield almost $60.

Caswell says it’s not meant to be a full-time job but it can be a lucrative side-hustle, teaching Documenters important skills they’ll keep with them after the pandemic is over.

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Even online City Council meetings can last for hours and are often in the middle of the day, making them very hard for many people to attend in full.

“It’s not really designed to be a set group of people doing this every week, week in and week out,” said Caswell.

He says the goal is to have active members rotate through as they’re able to work with the program.

“If it’s important to us, if we believe it’s important for democracy, we need to make that information and that civic knowledge as accessible as possible,” said Caswell.

Here’s the Rebound Rundown:

  • The next orientation for Cleveland Documenters is March 10.
  • You can sign up here.

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