#861: State Matters

December 11th, 2017

She was waiting for someone else to care. That never goes well.


It was over the summer, when the news was full of Springfield’s budget stalemate and Chance the Rapper had made a publicized talk with Gov. Bruce Rauner to talk school funding. State-level politics was as hot as it gets, so Quinn Tsan was waiting to hear the reaction to a series of bills, mainly House Bill 4004, which would close tax loopholes that had protected corporations since the 1930s.

“I was sort of waiting for kind of a public hurrah, kind of a rallying around these important bills,” Tsan said.

And she waited.

After the news landed with a wet thwap on the pavement, Tsan, a Chicago-based musician and dancer, took to the internet. She and some filmmaker friends made a video in 24 hours explaining why people should care about HB4004. The reaction to that video, and to a video they made about a different bill a few weeks later — it received 25,000 views in a day — gave Tsan an idea.

“From those videos, I really saw that there was attention and people were digesting this information when it was presented in this way,” she said.

Maybe she didn’t have to wait for someone else to care.


Kacie Smith had her own problems. She was working two jobs and held meets of people who would gather once a week (technically twice a week — she had an a.m. and a p.m. group) to talk about how to get involved in politics. Not “When’s the next rally?” but the dirty nit and grit of calling legislators, learning about upcoming bills, seizing volunteer opportunities.

“It was just a complete nightmare trying to figure out what was happening at the state level, what any of these bills meant, or which ones had traction, which ones had steam,” Smith said.

Although ILGA.gov has a robust list of pending legislation, to know what it means, you have to talk the talk. A bill bound for passage is indistinguishable at first glance from one that’s going to die in Rules. A measure that will revolutionize the tax code is presented in the same staid blue-and-black text as one honoring a local Eagle Scout. An actual future law looks enticingly like a shell bill that’s going to be scooped out like a Deviled Egg to have some new, soppy mishmash slapped inside.

“I think [the state website's] fine if you’re looking for something really specific, or you know what you’re doing, or you’re a lawyer, or you’re working on a particular problem. I think that seems to be what that website’s geared toward — people who are in the industry so to speak,” Smith said. “But for people like us who are just citizens, who are just constituents, it’s really difficult outside of maybe the partisan version of whatever your specific legislator wants to tell you.”

The Hole

The news, Kacie found when trying to compile meeting notes for her group, was catch as catch can. An important piece of legislation might be ignored in favor of some Rauner vs. Madigan yelling, news coverage as incisive and relevant as a Macho Man Randy Savage wrestling promo.

National issues drown out local issues, Chicago coverage drowns out the rest of the state. Sometimes a story would appear out of nowhere and tell a tale, but with no way to track it after. No bill name or number for an interested civilian to follow up on after the reporter moved on to the next story.

Legislators were more helpful, but as trustworthy and unbiased as, again, a Macho Man Randy Savage wrestling promo. They are true believers in their cause, which make them the last people one should look to for objectivity.

So that leaves us with a governmental body that affects our lives on a daily basis, but one lost between what we can see down the street and the 24-hour air raid siren of news blasted from D.C.

“It’s a really big hole and I think that it’s the most crucial hole, that if folks actually knew what was going on in this state we could see some big turnaround,” Tsan said.

“Some Shady-Ass Shit”

There are others names that deserve equal dropping here — Stephanie Krim, Christopher Church, Devin Soule, to drop a few — but Quinn Tsan and Kacie Smith were the ones who sat around a heavy wooden table with me on Saturday morning in a snow-frosted city to sip tea and talk about politics, Illinois and State Matters, the 501(c)3 they formed to help educate you, me and everyone else about what’s going on in Springfield.

They’re going to make a series of videos, split in two categories. One slate of films will cover individual, upcoming bills that will affect how Illinoisans live. The suggested bills have been and will continue to be collected both from the public and from legislators on both sides of the aisle, one of the ways the group tries to keep their personal politics out of their political project.

“We’re trying to put together metrics that allow us to take some of our personal preferences out of it,” Smith said. “So looking specifically at how much money a bill costs or saves the state, how many people would be affected by a bill, and requiring a range of not only topics but also a range of geographical relevance in the state. So not only doing things that relate to Chicago.”

Although Tsan and Smith identify their politics as progressive or liberal, State Matters is staunchly objective, focusing on education rather than advocacy.

“State Matters in particular is not about convincing people that they should be fighting for one bill or fighting for another,” Smith said. “I just want to convince people to actually be able to be engaged in state government.”

Of course, Springfield’s inhabitants help the leftists stay neutral.

“Coming to Illinois and seeing the Democratic Party in Illinois, it’s not necessarily something that I’m getting out of bed rooting for every day. So I act feel much better in Illinois being able to say we’re not going to be partisan because Democrats do some shady-ass shit,” Smith said, laughing.

They hope to get 10 bill videos out of the next legislative session. The session starts in January and they hope to get the first videos online by March.

Media Snobs

The second category of video will be basic civic education — “straight-up Schoolhouse Rocks, but not,” as Smith put it.

They’ll be a series of primers on terms and topics that come up in legislation, but ones people might be too sheepish to admit they don’t know, or ones people think they understand but really don’t. Can people have a truly informed opinion on the pension crisis if they’re shaky on what a pension is?

“In terms of the educational videos, there’s a lot more room for a lot of humor and a lot more room for style,” Smith said. “Whereas the legislative bill videos are going to be a little bit dryer and a little more straightforward.”

The video team is looking to a number of sources for inspiration. Vox Media for one example, the Khan Academy’s educational programming for another. “NPR meets Broad City” is a term the video team has bandied about. Eventually, the goal is to be able to farm out different videos to production teams across the state to put the best person with the best topic. Animation to explain one issue, interviews for another. The only constant is that the videos have to look good.

The videos have to look great.

“We as a society are media snobs now,” Smith said. “Even if it’s good information, if it doesn’t look slick and professional, I think we kind of tune it out.”

The endgame is prosaic, not rallying in the streets or tipping the halls of government, but making political education and involvement as commonplace and rote as a billionaire-owned newspaper used to make it.

“They have coffee, they find out what’s happening in Springfield, they go to their job, they come back, they write an email, they tuck their kids in, go to bed, do it again the next day,” Smith said. “And then it’s just a part of our life, engaging with our government is easy enough that it can just be a normal, casual part of our life.”

Songs to Civics

You’re reading a blog post about an unfunded 501(c)3 with some fantastic damn ideas. Of course this is going to come to a call for money.

State Matters is pursuing a number of more traditional fundraising sources — grants, donations, etc. — but right now it’s all volunteer. They meet for free, brainstorm for free, research for free, talk to legislators for free, make video for free and Quinn Tsan has been driving back and forth to Springfield, Illinois, for months for free.

They have a Kickstarter. Donate to it. You’ll feel better.

The funding source for Tsan’s trips has been her music career. Not just gigs, but the unglamorous grunt work that separates a pro from a dreamer. Scores for movies, backup vocals for others’ dreams. And of course the bartending gig. She’s making a go of it in music “a couple hundred bucks here, a couple hundred bucks there.” And then she converts every note and chord into gas tank fill-ups down to the state capitol.

If the Kickstarter makes its goal, they’ll use the money to:

1. Get a research director. First volunteer, eventually paid.

2. Subsidize Tsan’s trips down to Springfield for legislative sessions and outreach to legislators. She’s essentially paying out-of-pocket to be an embedded Statehouse reporter. As romantic as converting songs to civics might be, it’s not sustainable.

3. Video production. Make those videos outlining nerdy topics works of art that engage the viewer with the political process in the best way they know how.

Billionaires’ newspapers won’t teach civics, officials are all too keen to teach their party’s version. Instead we have volunteers. We have videographers and bartenders, lawyers, organizers, artists, animators, a research director post they’re looking to fill and a musician-dancer who needs a break on trips to Springfield. Help them out, huh?

Or you can wait for someone else to care.

Read about a group dreaming of science, not civics

And one turning video into social representation

Why I don’t trust true believers

And an explainer video I did a long time that I should mention is absolutely not what they’ll be doing because their videos will be incisive and professional and mine was cobbled-together nonsense but somewhat funny and I got in a few Garrison Keillor digs before it was relevant

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