Last Wednesday night I was the guest of a UMass Lowell Community Psychology class. The students had all attended the prior evening’s Lowell City Council meeting. That was the meeting at which there was a lengthy discussion about the location of the city’s Nativity Scene and at which City Manager Lynch submitted his resignation. My task was essentially to debrief the students. Most of our time was consumed by the Nativity Scene issue which I wrote about separately. At the end of that post, I promised I’d be back with other issues that we discussed.
Many of the students went into the council meeting with the expectation of being bored. Universally, that was not the case. I did suggest that while it is rare to have a boring council meeting, this one had more drama than most. The students were generally impressed with the level of passion and advocacy shown by councilors, even though the students may not have agreed with the positions taken.
The students were surprised by the amount of texting that councilors seemed to be doing during the meeting. I said it was ironic that members of a generation for whom texting is second nature (i.e., the students) looked on this negatively. They explained that in the formal setting of the council chamber, they thought texting during the meeting was inappropriate.
The councilors had apparently all received brand new iPads prior to this meeting. The students, seated in the balcony and all very familiar with the iPad, were amused by the wide range of comfort level exhibited by councilors (who were probably unaware that they were being so closely scrutinized). Some councilors seemed comfortable and familiar with the iPad while others were constantly consulting with neighboring councilors over such basic tasks as turning it on and changing screens.
In our discussion of the possible motives behind the nativity scene controversy, the course instructor (who has at least five years of familiarity with the Lowell city council) asked me to tell the students about the controversy that arose around Patrick Murphy during his term as mayor. I gave an overview of Mayor Murphy’s time in office including the dispute over the placement of the bust of Pericles and the mayor’s subsequent use of the statue as a prop in his St. Patrick’s Day skit and all the angst, real or contrived, that flowed from that. One student made what I thought was a very perceptive observation: that the Nativity Scene and Pericles controversies both involved tangible artifacts (statues, in both cases) that were at best ancillary to the operation of city government.
Regarding the city manager’s resignation announcement, when I said it was completely unexpected several students expressed surprise at that. Several said that during the meeting they formed the impression that the manager seemed not to care very much about the issues being discussed, behavior they found completely consistent with someone about to resign. One said that the manager’s demeanor and body language during the meeting reminded her of the way co-workers in her past retail jobs had acted on the days on which they were going to quit at the end of their shifts.
Near the end of the class, I asked the students where they got their information about politics and events in the communities in which they lived. Their answer, mostly, was that they did not access information about events in their communities. None read newspapers, watch TV news, or listen to talk or news radio (when I offhandedly mentioned Walter Cronkite I was met with a roomful of blank stares). To the extent to which they do receive local information, it comes from social media, mostly from things shared by friends on Facebook. Impromptu conversations with neighbors while shoveling snow or taking out the trash was cited as another source. Several explained that between work, school, child care and the other demands of life, they felt that they lacked the time needed to track local affairs and seemed content to leave it to older people who were already established in life (i.e., finished with formal education, kids older or grown, established jobs with regular hours, etc) to keep an eye on local government. The students did acknowledge that if a particular issue that was personally important to them (for example, the expansion of before and after school programs for their children as a way of easing child care pressures) they would get involved in local politics as a way of advancing that particular issue.
My visit with the UMass Lowell students was enjoyable and enlightening. I was neither surprised nor disappointed when they said they did not routinely access local information. I’ve long held the opinion that young people have moved beyond traditional newspapers and radio and that the challenge is to find other ways to engage them in local affairs. Another benefit to me of talking with the students was that most people who attend or watch a Lowell city council meeting already have preconceived notions about how the issues should be decided and about the personalities involved. Having the opportunity to hear the reactions of a group of young people who went into the meeting with a clean slate of knowledge about the issues and personalities involved was a fascinating experience.