The Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center is not an organization dedicated to reporting on something happening “over there.” Its hundred-plus volunteers are rooted in the very space where things are happening. And they are telling their story as they make it.
Last month, the UC-IMC drove that point home as they threw open the doors of their new space — what used to be Urbana’s historic downtown post office, located at the heart of the downtown district. Over the past three years they have negotiated to purchase of this 30,000 square foot building, which required pre-arranging a lead tenant, obtaining a mortgage, fundraising for a downpayment and the cost of a new roof, and embarking on major renovations.
The significance of their new home is not lost on the UC-IMC collective members, who are brimming with ideas on how to re-invent this natural human gathering point by and for their community. “The community paid for this building initially — in 1914, through taxes to the federal government,” said organizer Danielle Chynoweth. “So it only makes sense that it would be returned to the community when the post office no longer needs it.”
The front section of the structure will remain a post office, as it was before, so neighbors walking in will have a similar experience as in the past — with one significant difference: where one wall of mailboxes used to be is now the newly-constructed studio window of the new low power FM radio station — WRFU, Radio Free Urbana.
WRFU launched on November 13 alongside the grand opening of the space itself, with significant help from the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, who brought equipment and volunteers a-plenty to help the tired IMCistas go the last mile. Community members ranging in age from 7 to 70 banded together to build record shelves, solder sound cables, set up computers, and raise the station’s antenna. The first broadcast kicked off on schedule to the second, and featured a music box rendition of “The Internationale” as its first tune.
Mike Lehman of the Socialist Forum, a collaborating group in the station, then greeted the gathered crowd, and gave gratitude to the years of labor that had gone into making the station possible. The group submitted their first application to the Federal Communications Commission in 2000. The festivities were attended by several local media outlets, including Urbana-Champaign’s full-power community radio station, WEFT 90.1 FM.
WRFU is just one of UC-IMC’s projects that the new building will enable to come to fruition. The Independent Media Center in Urbana-Champaign has embraced a broad definition of “media” and over the past five years has given birth to a loose network of interdependent, overlapping projects — from art collectives to a program that sends books to prisoners; from an innovative community wireless initiative to multiple ad-hoc advocacy efforts arising in response stories that IMC “citizen journalists” broke.
Together, these efforts have moved the small university town to another level of social engagement. Chynoweth is even serving in her second term on the city council in 2000. “The balance of power here has shifted,” she says. “Progressives have recently run seven candidates for local office — [including] city council, school board, township supervisor — and won every seat.”
Organizers hope that the space will take that synergy to another level, allowing the groups to sustain each other financially as well as energetically. “What we’re trying to build here is a big tent, and invite everyone to come under it,” says says Sascha Meinrath, who has been involved in local and global indymedia organizing since 1999, and also serves on the board of WEFT.
According to Meinrath, the “tent” has come into being because the community of Urbana-Champaign wants it. “I commend folks who run their IMC on $300 a year but that isn’t what this community wants or needs,” he says. UC-IMC has fundraised all of its resources through grassroots, one-to-one relationship building, starting from when they issued a challenge for ten people to pledge $50 a month for 12 months — enough to fund their first space rental. 25 people stepped forward initially and that list grew to almost 60 within the year.
The community support behind the activist work goes back to the origins of the IMC, or “indymedia” network, the massive protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999. “This community paid to send five people to protest in Seattle,” says Chynoweth. “That’s when we first saw what could be done.” There, scores of independent reporters discovered that the worldwide web and a few phone lines enabled them to issue live reports on the protests, thus countering the mainstream media’s pro-business bias.
Less than a year later the group met to convene the Urbana-Champaign IMC, joining with a then-nascent global movement dedicated to the “passionate tellings of truth.” UC-IMC has since become one of a half dozen of the most effective and influential IMCs in the world.
But the “media” that frames UC-IMC’s organizing is not just newsprint and DVDs. It includes books sent to prisoners, live music, and chairs painted with intricate designs.
“When I think of media I think of making things,” says Chynoweth. “We talk a lot about ‘finding ourselves’ and ‘finding our identity,’ but I’m really interested in ‘making ourselves’ and ‘making our identity’ — and making our world. Because the world really needs us to make it!”
As she talked she pointed to her colorful shoe, which she explained was painted the night before, along with dozens of unsuspecting chairs and lampshades, as part of what Chynoweth calls the ‘art everywhere movement.’ “There should be art everywhere!” she explains. “People are starving for connection, community and creative stimulus… our goal is to paint every single one of the 150 chairs in this performance space differently.”
This expansive definition of media is matched by a passion for the details of truthtelling — not out of an aesthetic appreciation for good journalism, but for the cause. “There are some things that ware wrong here and need to be changed,” says Chynoweth.
The UC-IMC site has given voice to numerous underreported numerous stories of this magnitude throughout its 5-year existence, including extensive coverage of the an abduction of a local Moroccan and Palestinian rights activist by the FBI and the conditions behind a sudden surge in local jail suicides. UC-IMC footage was also used in court to prove that claims by police against gay rights protesters were false.
The journalists covering these stories were often intimately involved with the situations — as neighbors, mothers, and friends. The process of reporting on the details furthered that connection — instead of merely telling the stories, they helped to create movements to change the situations.
Chynoweth has a list in her mind of local stories that the UC-IMC knows about but lacks the people power to report on with the required rigor. These include the controversial question of locating a Wal-Mart in the city, an alleged rape by an on-duty police officer, and the withholding of available housing by the housing authority. She envisions a quick-response system whereby the UC-IMC could identify such emerging stories and pay investigative reporters to research the situations quickly. This idea raises some controversy in a network founded on the virtues of voluntarism, but Chynoweth is focused on results. “There is a truth that is not being told here,” she says. “Stories kill. And stories save lives.”
For more information, visit www.ucimc.org.
Amy L. Dalton has been organizing and writing with the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia (www.phillyimc.org) since 2000.