5-1 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

To call the occasion “rare” would grossly understate reality. Over the course of the past week, our newspaper received four different letters to the editor. And these weren’t letters from weird groups with names like “People for the Ethical Treatment of Anthurim.”

While you may be surprised in my knowledge of the anthurium flower (look it up like I did), your surprise pales in relation to the quick gasps of air I took after reading four letters personally addressed to The Demopolis Times.

Two of the letters dealt with a recent story we published about an increased use of OxyContin in Demopolis. Another letter was a thank-you note from a school official. The final letter, which never made it to print, asked that we withhold the name of the author to protect a couple of juveniles.

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In some cities, newspapers receive hordes of letters to the editor. Many small newspapers, like ours, are forced to set readers’ opinions aside because the papers simply don’t have enough room to print all the written comments.

Then there are towns like Demopolis, where citizens rarely share opinions with the public. Every once in a while, readers do want to take jabs at other people, but they refuse to publish their names, and we refuse to print them.

We newspaper folks put a lot of stock in public response. For that matter, we have a sick sort of infatuation with negative feedback. When we make an error in a story (yes, it’s happened once or twice, at least) we actually appreciate readers who tell us what morons we are. Even better, though, are the responses from readers after the newspaper raises an important community issue.

For instance, few people have openly discussed their thoughts on a project that has tangled the hairs of city officials and property owners on Arch Street. As some know, the city has won pre-approval for a grant that will fund construction of a walking trail along Arch Street. A group of property owners in the area, however, don’t like the idea of pesky teens hanging out in their back yards in the middle of the night.

Obviously, a newspaper like ours can survey everyone involved in the Arch Street project — as we’ve done on at least three occasions. Then again, I often wonder why people in Demopolis don’t stand up and voice their opinions before a tape recorder is shoved in their faces.

Here’s a different sort of example: Ever since I moved to Demopolis, I’ve heard rumblings from some of the young people in town who don’t feel they have any say-so in the direction of Demopolis. In one sense, I understand their concerns. In another sense, I probably don’t understand.

As a member of two local boards, I’ve seen a growing trend toward the recruitment of younger members — and by that, I mean under the age of 33. The chamber of commerce has at least four young members. One of the historical commissions has demonstrated a youth movement.

However, there is some validity to the quiet whispers of many youth who feel left out of this city’s plans for the future. In 20 or 30 years, the youth of today will be the property owners who may wonder why there is no walking trail along the river. Without input today, those youth literally have no say-so about tomorrow.

In part, community leaders must do a better job of including young people in discussions about the future of this city. For that matter — and knowing some will call and ask me to quiet down on the issue — I believe Demopolis leaders must do a better job of including minorities in the direction of our city. While our boards may have younger members, they do not accurately reflect the population of our city.

By including young people — both white and black — in the decisions that will affect tomorrow, today’s leaders can help educate the next generation of community leaders.

While the youth movement may seem like an irrelevant tangent to the beginning of this column, there’s an interesting correlation between community opinion and the inclusion of a diverse group of young people.

The men and women who rise into positions of authority are never those who wait for an open invitation. People who want to lead are the ones who take initiative and pursue a debate on ideas.

Young people, both black and white, need to become involved in the community. Obviously, I’m pitching the idea of sharing opinions through our editorial page. At the same time, there are other ways. Show up at public hearings and don’t be afraid to share an idea. Call the chamber of commerce and the industrial development board and tell those groups you want to help the city.

In the end, the young people in our area force the hand of our established leaders. If you have enough to say — and you say it wisely and respectfully — you become more than just a spectator.