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GovLoop Member of the Week: Vanessa Casavant, Communications Writer – Evans School of Public Affairs, University of Washington

Thanks so much to Vanessa Casavant for agreeing to be the member of the week this week!

How did you get involved in journalism and public affairs?

I was actually a really disengaged citizen living in NYC at the age of 21 and pursuing an acting career. I had a temp position in downtown Manhattan across the street from the World Trade Center. I had only been there a month when 9/11 happened, and I only knew how to get from my train stop to the gym, both under tower one, and from the gym to the office, which was across the street from tower two. When the first plane hit I had just stepped outside the gym, and once debris started falling I went to my office thinking they’d know what to do next. I was in my office on the 14th floor when the second plane hit, which shook our building.

They eventually evacuated the building, and I had a co-worker who said she’d get me to the train. By the time we got to the bottom of the stairs, the fire department had cordoned off the area because debris was crashing through the front of the building. In the chaos, I got separated from my co-worker. In a daze, I was about to cross the street and walk back toward my train under tower one, and then someone grabbed my hand. It was my coworker who brought me to the 1 and 9 train a few blocks away in the opposite direction, and we got the very last train out of there. My supervisor, who went the direction I had been heading before my co-worker grabbed me, actually got buried in rubble from the first collapse, but he survived and dug himself out.

After two years of working through the post-traumatic stress from that experience, I started asking myself why I didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was or how our government worked. So I started reading the newspaper every day, and took classes on politics, government, and media during my studies at Hunter College. The big change for me came when I took a PR class where we were given the assignment of taking a current event and comparing and contrasting it with coverage in foreign media, alternative media, and mainstream media. The issue I picked was the five POWs who had just been captured at the start of the Iraq War. I found out through my research, that leading up to that situation, the U.S. was under fire in a lot of foreign media coverage for violating 13 Geneva Conventions because of Guantanamo Bay. That’s when I realized I wasn’t getting enough information about my government through American media. I felt that there wasn’t enough media presence to ask the hard questions of government.

So I became more active, and became a reporter for my college’s online paper The Word covering local government. That led to an internship in Albany covering state politics for the Legislative Gazette.

I know of that paper from when I was the Internship Coordinator at Baruch College.

That internship really opened my eyes. In the past I had been doing a lot of opinion pieces critiquing journalism, but when I was actually working under the pressure of trying to cover a sometimes dysfunctional state government as a journalist while taking classes on the news media’s role in government, I saw how hard it really was to be a journalist.

That was the most I ever learned about government processes, how legislation was passed, things like that.

When I graduated, I needed a job, and that led me to Seattle with an internship with The Seattle Times, which led to a job as a reporter with the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles, Wash. It’s a small-town paper published six days a week covering the Olympic Peninsula. It during that job I realized I couldn’t make as much change in the media as I had hoped to be doing, especially as a fledgling journalist. Having to produce three to five stories a day really hampered the ability to provide context. I responsible for covering several school districts, three tribes, a national park, a national forest, the town of Forks, and serve as the breaking news reporter every Monday. It was too much.

How did you get your position as the Communications Director of the Quileute Tribe?

I’m from a tribe in North Dakota (the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa), and the Quileute tribe was slowly wooing me from my job at the Peninsula Daily News. I later got a job with them in LaPush, a reservation of about 300 people from a tribe of about 700 members. They were, and still are, in a big boundary dispute with the Olympic National Park. They basically recruited me and I decided it was time to make a change anyway because the field of journalism was becoming bleak. Older journalists were getting laid off, making the competition for the few jobs remaining at newspapers incredibly fierce. I knew if I kept being a journalist, I’d have to keep uprooting my life. Which after moving from NYC to Albany to Seattle to Port Angeles all in less than a year, I just didn’t have another move in me.

Tell me more about your experience with the Quileute tribe.

There’s a big misconception that tribes have money because of casinos, but there’s actually a big divide between the haves and have nots. The Quileute are one of the tribes with fewer resources. They have a wonderful resort and fish plant, but are in a really rural area with only one-square mile of land. They don’t even have cell phone service, the nearest grocery store is 15 miles away, they had just gotten DSL access before I started my job, and still don’t have broadband. You couldn’t even text with your cell phone, get cable TV, or receive radio reception. And that’s here, not just in our country, but here in our state.

Because of their remoteness, they also have trouble retaining and recruiting workers. It seemed like every time I left my desk I came back with an additional job title. I was originally hired to start a monthly newsletter for them called The Talking Raven. A lot of tribes and rural communities don’t have coverage of their issues—it may only have 700 people, but there can a lot of news to cover with 700 people. Then soon after starting the job I found out I was also the tribe’s planner and grantwriter. I had no experience as being a planner and actually asked them what a planner does. They said, “If we need a bridge built or something like that, you will handle the contracts and the planning.” I joked, “Well don’t blame me if the bridge falls down; I don’t have any training in that.” They said not to worry, that I’d do just fine and they’d be handling the majority of it anyway. Thank goodness we didn’t ever need to build a bridge!

After awhile, the Tribal Council and I finally decided my official job was serving as their communications director producing the newsletter and helping them develop their website and coordinating their internal and external communications. Because of their funding structure, things were uncertain about being able to continue funding my position. I missed living in the city as well, which led to me pursuing my current job as the Communications Writer at the Evans School of Public Affairs.

Before we hear about that, I should say I think not that many people think about tribal governments when they think of government.

In Washington state there are 29 federally recognized tribes plus one still fighting for recognition. That means there are 29 sovereign governments within our state. I’m amazed at how there’s a great government to government relationship between local and state and tribal governments, within and around reservations in Washington state. In North Dakota, there’s still a lot of hostility that exists. I can see here in Washington that they’re both working to make a government to government relationship work. Not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s there. That’s one thing I really worked on as a communications director and as a journalist, to bring awareness that tribal governments have their own courts, laws, policies, constitutions, roads they build, etc.; it’s a very interesting thing.

For a while I was thinking of going into politics on the federal level, working on government to government relationships with tribes. But then I found this new career path, which is creating civic engagement through social networking.

My major in college was how politics influences media and the citizen’s role in all of that. When I was in college, I don’t think there were any social networks. When I graduated, Friendster was just getting off the ground.

When I graduated college, there was this new thing called Netscape or Mozilla, and you could download fractals. (It was the coolest thing after the 2800 baud modem.)

I’ve been plugged into the world of the Internet and computers since kindergarten. My brother is a computer genius. In 1985, he and his friends would tie up the phone for hours, and try to get their self-built computers at home to talk to each other on phone. I would always complain that he tied up the phone. Once he slammed the door on me and said “Don’t you see, this is the future!” and he was right. It amazing to think my family were some of the only people in my small town who had a computer.

What are your thoughts on civic engagement through new media?

Websites like Govloop are all popping up, and it’ll be interesting to see which of them stick around. I think Friendster’s already died, but you will also see that different organizations are starting their own social networks. At the Evans School, we are even working on turning our student email listserv into a closed social network for students.

The first moment where I personally experienced digital media revolutionizing the way discourse is happening about government was during the interactive debates for this year’s presidential election. There was a debate in the primary, and one of the local news stations was providing a live feed—because I don’t own a TV, I’m only an online person, I found it all online.

I don’t own a TV either—all my news is from news sites on the web.

Facebook had teamed up with CNN, and they hosted a live debate with Facebook users. I had one screen open that had the debate, and one had the discussion on Facebook—and everyone was commenting in real time while CNN was streaming the status updates and comments in a ticker at the bottom of the screen.

As the presidential campaign progressed, CNN started streaming debates live, and it created a whole new level of civic engagement. I sometimes hear people say, “your generation isn’t tuned in, you aren’t watching paying attention to the news, where’s your revolution…” But we are engaged—it’s just that we’re engaged online.

What I found when I joined GovLoop was that someone in D.C., who was from North Dakota originally, contacted me and we had a great conversation about our government representatives (there’s only three from North Dakota).

With social networks, we’re learning from each other, sharing news links about things. It’s almost overwhelming sometimes, so it’ll be interesting to see which tools are still here 10 years from now.

Tell me more about your current jobs.

In my volunteer activities, I am on the Executive Board for the 43rd District Democrats, which makes up the majority of Seattle and is the largest and most Democratic legislative district in the State of Washington. I got involved as a private citizen. In the past, I’d never considered myself aligned with a political party, and as a reporter I couldn’t take part in political activities like I can now. I can go out and endorse a candidate, so long as–being a state employee– I don’t do it in the workplace or using any state resources. However, I now have the freedom as a private citizen to do what I believe in.

So, I got involved with their grassroots organization. For a first time in a longtime, the district now has a full Executive Board. Most of us –90 percent of us—are under the age of 35. Even though the excitement of one of the most exciting presidential races in our history is passed, everyone’s still asking what we can do now. We’re finding there are a lot of people saying, “I didn’t know this event was going on, or I’d like to get involved, how do I do that?”

In my role, I’m working with the Vice Chair for Technology co-chairing a committee on how to take aspects of social networking and incorporate them into our website. As a grassroots organization, we don’t want to create something on our end that we can’t sustain. So we go to places people already communicate, like Govloop, Facebook, Twitter. However, within our website, we can create the ability for people to engage with the district in any way they want to, whether it be finding out a rally that’s taking place, phone banking, licking envelopes, or whatever it might be. When people log onto the website, we can gather data of who’s really engaged in our district and start preparing for the next wave of elections in two years, so we can have an affect campaigns and initiatives we’re behind.

What do you think is the future of a career in public relations for government?

Even though the economy is slowing down, it seems there’s still job growth in the area for people working as digital media strategists. With print journalism dying, there are fewer journalists trying to cover the same amount of news, and fewer and fewer outlets for organizations and agencies to get their messages out. So viral marketing through mediums like social networks is becoming essential. It seems that those who have online networking talents have a leg up on those who don’t, when it comes to communications strategies. Today it’s essential for those who want to work on campaigns or in the public sector to know how to use social networking in a way that clearly gets your message across and out there. There are new positions popping up all the time in this field, and not just in public relations, but also in the newsroom.

If used wisely, these online tools can be a really priceless resource. The amount that it costs to do this kind of outreach is very little compared with the end result. It takes me a couple of seconds to update a Twitter status or participate in a chat online, whether in my role as the communications writer at the Evans School of Public Affairs or for the 43rd district. I think students with this interest have a great start on careers that might not exist today, but will in the near future. In a few years it won’t sound odd to have a job as a digital communications strategist for a government agency.

Can you say a little more about your work at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington?

I was originally hired to rewrite all the content of the website. I was kept on to manage all the web content, and also serve as the lead on all their HTML email communication for internal and external audiences. We work together as a team, but I’m the one who is usually putting social networking strategy into action. We have to keep that presence active. You can start a group on Govloop, or a Twitter account, or new discussion on Linkedin, but if there isn’t someone always checking the status and writing updates, it’s useless. One thing I see with Govloop is, there has to be work on promoting the community to make it useful. That’s the challenge of social networks– it’s a great idea but it has to be promoted among people you’re targeting.

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Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Great interview, Heather and Vanessa! It’s great to hear the evolution from disengaged to an active political and social citizen – we always need more of those. With my background in journalism, I read this piece with interest, and like you, Vanessa, I was happy to leave journalism so that “I now have the freedom as a private citizen to do what I believe in.” I also recently received citizenship in the Chickasaw Nation, so that background is interesting, too. Thanks!

Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Great, fascinating read. I particularly like the take of government experience from a lot of different angles. And yes – I agree – when you create a group on any social network (such as GovLoop), it takes some care and feeding. It’s easy to set up but you need to make sure that you create interesting questions, conversations, and remind members. Community building online is less about technology and more about bringing people together – much like a dinner party, a conference, or a grassroots movement.

Profile Photo William Theuer

Excellent interview. You have a diverse set of interests. I too worked for native corporations in Fairbanks, I was essentially a lobbyist but I was called a Director. I began in Photo Interpretation of all things. I know it takes effort to find understanding about the government to government relationship. Funds are always an issue. It was in Fairbanks I originally logged into the “internet” at 300 baud. I may have had the original in home presence in Anchorage, well before there were ISP’s. As it rolled out the Internet was about community sharing. Its a traditional value in that manner.

Profile Photo Vanessa Casavant

Thank you all for your kind comments and thank you Heather for selecting me. I think it’s exciting to be living in this time we are, despite the recession. There’s so many good things happening, and to be able to look back someday and see yourself as a pioneer in that is really amazing.

Profile Photo Paul van der Hart

What an interesting interview. I wasn’t aware, as a European, that there were so many forms of government in the US.

I used to be one of those telephone-hugging guys, and “Living in interesting times” used to be a confucian curse, but like you said, these are positively interesting times.

Hope to read more about you!

Profile Photo Robert Domaingue

Vanessa you told a very interesting story. I’m intrigued with your work with Tribal government. I’d like to hear more about comparing online community development with community development in a Tribal Nation setting.

Profile Photo Pat Rupert

I really enjoyed the interview, particularly the description of your growth in social awareness. You’re the kind of person I seek to join in my offline social networks… Good luck and hope to hear more from you.