The accomplishments of the Urbana/Champaign IndyMedia Center (UC IMC) read like a media activist’s wish list:
- Start free monthly paper partially funded by local labor groups.
- Produce news segments for community radio station and work to get license from FCC to start new station.
- Open up storefront shop in downtown and attract kids with all-ages performance venue.
Piss off mayor by insisting that the local cable access channel run “Democracy Now!”
The volunteers who run UC IMC have done all this and are now looking for new ways to alter the media landscape in their Illinois town. What began in late 2000 as 10 people meeting weekly has grown to an organization with more than 300 volunteers.
The UC IMC is part of a large and evolving media reform movement. After the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, IMCs popped up in cities around the world. Activists, who had long complained about media coverage of protests, decided the time had come to take reporting into their own hands. Today more than 80 IMCs have been established in more than 30 countries. But the UC IMC is one of the most effective — and the first to gain 501(c)(3), or nonprofit, status. While IMCs in larger cities have struggled to reach out beyond a core of media activists, the UC IMC has engaged its community by effectively talking about issues that affect people locally.
“The success of the IMC movement depends on everyday people realizing that, in our monoculture of information, their eyes and ears are valuable,” says Danielle Chynoweth, co-founder of the UC IMC. She believes that by providing an alternative media outlet the group is changing the media dynamic in Urbana/Champaign.
“We can look at examples when the IMC’s reporting changed the reporting of the mainstream press,” says Chynoweth. “Frequently it’s the case that we’ll break a story and then the mainstream press will cover it. Ultimately, what we want to see is under-covered stories covered.”
In 2003, Chynoweth spoke at the first annual National Conference for Media Reform about organizing local activist groups around the issue of media reform. Her talk, which she billed as “10 rules for organizing a space in 10 minutes,” addressed the biggest problem facing many activist groups: How do you get your group to do something instead of getting bogged down in questions of process? One of her 10 rules, adhered to by the UC IMC, is, “Empower those who work, not those who just talk.“
“If you talk, you don’t necessarily make decisions. You can’t just show up to a meeting and mouth off about how you want this and want that,” she says. “As a result, that’s really kept the IMC an organization that runs by consensus, and is driven by people who do work and are willing to ask for something and put their energy and time behind making that thing happen.”
The UC IMC is structured around a number of working groups that operate autonomously. For example, if a community member is interested in helping with the radio station — scheduled to launch this June — they at10d the meeting of that working group, and avoid lengthy and unrelated discussions of the monthly paper or video projects, which have their own working groups and separate meetings.
Much of the unique success of the UC IMC can also be attributed to group members like Chynoweth, who have evolved from media activists to community organizers with a foot in electoral politics. Elected to a second four-year city council term in February, Chynoweth has ambitious goals for herself and the IMC. “My life goal is to decrease power differences and to connect people to resources that help change their lives, ” she says. As a member of the city council, she fought for and won a domestic partner registry, pushed affordable housing issues and, most recently, helped pass an ordinance removing tasers from the Urbana police force.
Being an active part of the community is important to Chynoweth. “I would like the IMC Foundation to be the owners of a community arts and media center in the heart of our downtown,” she says. The group has raised more than over $60,000 and is currently looking for a permanent building.