Redefining Civic Engagement: Why City Bureau’s Documenters Do This Work

Part 2: Documenters don’t identify as do-gooders, they identify as citizens.

Darryl Holliday
Apr 3, 2018 · 4 min read
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(Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

On March 10, City Bureau brought together 35 enrolled Documenters to refine and build upon our groundbreaking program that is changing the nature of civic engagement. It was an overwhelming success, and if you haven’t read the “how-to” of our first-ever Documenters Summit please take a look at Part 1 of this series then come back here to see what we learned.

Who are the Documenters?

City Bureau’s 330 enrolled Documenters come from 55 of Chicago’s 77 Community Areas (i.e. neighborhoods), range from age 16 to 73, 61 percent identify as female, 33 percent identify as Black/African-American and a majority cite “I want to be more involved in my community” as a reason for joining the program. We’re proud that Documenters is an inclusive, diverse and intergenerational space. But to understand who they are beyond the numbers, we asked them about what motivates them and how they see their own role within society.

At the Documenters Summit, we asked people to use three words to describe Documenters. Here’s a world cloud of those responses:

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(The larger the word, the more often it was used to describe Documenters in this exercise.)

These aren’t journalists by trade. They’re citizens who understand the value of reclaiming journalism and citizenship for the public.

Why do they do what they do?

The results were similar when we asked our Documenters what doing Documenters work (i.e. live-tweeting public meetings, note-taking and producing audio/video at public meetings) has taught them.

Here are a few responses:

“About how to empower communities, build trust in media and be more fearless personally and in my coverage”

“Everyone has a voice no matter how invisible they may feel”

“That I’m more in-demand (impactful) than I realized!”

“There are important stories that never make it into the news. Ordinary people have important stories to tell that few of us ever hear.”

And when we asked why they became Documenters:

“My community needs me!”

“I want a newsroom-like experience with a community flavor”

“I wanted to learn more about topics/issues that might harm my community”

“My curiosity is empowered allowing me to feel like I can engage and dig deeper on issues that need to be looked into beyond the surface”

“I want to make sure that public discourse includes diverse perspectives”

The Give and the get

The Documenters program creates a new space and a new dynamic for civic engagement — unlike volunteering or donating to charities, the work in which Documenters engage is, by its nature, a two-way exchange where they derive concrete benefits (skill-building, knowledge about the city, self expression) while contributing to their communities in meaningful ways. In short, they can give and get at the same time. Getting paid for their work also is a crucial part of this exchange, not necessarily because of the dollar amount, but because it acknowledges the value of their time and allows them to prioritize the assignments among competing interests.

What the Documenters said:

“If you’re not getting paid, it’s just a hobby. So that diminishes the amount of effort — you just fit it in whenever you can. I can go see [“Black Panther”] or I could go to this community group. It’s a hobby, it’s not income.”

“It matters — the work around City Bureau feels worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean that money isn’t the thing that allows people to be in the room.”

“Having that direction, and being able to funnel that energy feels like it fills an important need. And I learn about things going on that I might not otherwise pay attention to.”

Identity, class and ‘who belongs’

City Bureau is providing a structure that can activate a segment of citizens who have not been invited to participate in traditional civic processes but who want to engage. The Documenters program highlights the mechanics of civic processes and gives people an on-ramp and a role to play in their communities, which makes it easier for them to get involved without worrying whether they “belong.” We’ve found that Documenters don’t identify as do-gooders, they identify as citizens.

What the Documenters said:

“Going from working class to middle class and coming back to my community, [I was anxious about how to reintegrate into the neighborhood]…this took away that edge and anxiety for me.”

What’s next?

Our next milestone for the Documenters program is the Documenters platform, which will allow City Bureau staff to more easily export the Documenters program to cities across the country, with partners who understand local conditions and needs. The Documenters Platform will allows Documenters to log in, create accounts, claim Documenters assignments and collaborate with other Documenters. It will also house our City Scrapers project, which is collecting, standardizing and sharing information on local government’s public meetings in a single location.

Is this something you want to see in your city? Our platform will make it easy for City Bureau staff to consult with you to create it (get on board early by emailing us at

In the meantime, follow along here and via our newsletter for updates. Become a City Bureau Press Club member to support this work. Comment on this post to let us know how you feel. Let’s redefine civic engagement together.

Ellie Mejia and Tran Ha contributed to this post.

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