Wendy Harris Receives Citizen Journalism Award
by Tim Johnson
Cascadia Weekly Editor Tim Johnson served on the nominating committee for the Paul deArmond Citizen Journalism Award.
Wendy Harris will be the first recipient of the deArmond Award for citizen journalism. The award is named in memory of Paul deArmond, a Bellingham icon who mentored many in citizen involvement and activism.
Though tiny in voice and height, Wendy Harris is tenacious in her fierce spirit to make representative government more responsive and our community a better place to live. She watches the public process and she reports on it.
Harris will be honored in February by an award and private banquet of peers and supporters who want to thank her and encourage others to take up her important work. Award sponsors include the North Sound Media Alliance.
In an era when newspapers and other conventional news outlets are sharply diminished, their voices dimmed, the role of the citizen journalist becomes profound. Ironically, the very social media tools that have weakened the business model and profit centers of traditional media serve the citizen journalist well. The future of news promises to be decentralized and deinstitutionalized; but it will be informed or uninformed, reliable or unreliable, to the extent citizens are involved in reporting on it. Citizenship, in its most generous expression, is the essence of citizen journalism. And because that effort is honorable, we must honor it.
Harris was a skilled tax law attorney until medical disability reduced her professional capacity. As her health permits, she keenly observes the public process and alerts the community through social media to issues of concern. Her particular passion is the health of Bellingham’s two waterfronts — the lake and the bay — and the watersheds that feed them.
“The writing comes out of my activism, and both are limited by my health,” Harris admitted. “The activism is by my nature; the journalism is by default.
“I deliberately focus on issues that are likely to fall between the cracks,” Harris explained. “On issues like the Gateway Pacific Terminal, I know there are so many terrific people working on that and there will be good media coverage. So I will focus on something else—mostly those that focus on natural resources, and especially fish and wildlife.”
Animals and their habitat particularly fall through the cracks because there is so seldom an advocate for them, she said.
“Just as being an activist led me incidentally to writing, working on these issues led me into being concerned about public process issues. Following these issues, I see problems with public records, transparency, open public meetings, and public policy,” Harris said.
“I really do try to stick to facts and cite statutes and accurate information,” she said, “and not make wild accusations because it is important to have credibility.”
Honored by the award, Harris said, “It is so important to get this kind of peer recognition, both to encourage others and give credibility to the work citizens do to make their representative government better.”
The pressure on citizen reporting is keen, she said, because professional staff are considered experts by default and the time citizens can spend learning about and reporting on the issues is always limited—whether by health, family, career or other pursuits. But one should not be shy:
“I didn’t know what a watershed was when I started,” she laughed. “You just have to care.”
For Paul deArmond, the social network was the campfire he hosted in his backyard, where neighbors and friends would jaw over public policy. Many efforts were spawned over those years of fires, issues like neighborhood recycling, and many people were coaxed from there into public office. Paul died in 2013 at the age of 60; but an award that honors his memory lives on, in part to encourage others to take up the challenging task Paul personified.
Toward the end of his life, Paul deArmond was greatly diminished by prolonged illness, but the fire to know and inform still burned strong in him. Wendy Harris embodies this, too.
“I do push myself,” she admitted, “perhaps more than an average healthy citizen, because these issues matter and the time I have to comment on them is limited.”
When government officials see Wendy coming to the microphone, they swallow hard and get their papers in order. Not much more than that needs to be said about the importance of her work.