Why do, or don’t, southern Illinoisans vote? What is their personal story with the voting booth? What is their view on democracy?
More specifically, where do Massac Countians stand on those questions?
That’s the subject of a documentary that will begin this weekend.
“The Democracy Booth” will provide residents of voting age the opportunity to voice their opinion on democracy.
An independent media project collaborating with local producers and educators for the creation of special outreach initiatives, the booth will be set up in the basement of the Metropolis Public Library from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 4, Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, and on Monday, Sept. 13. Strict COVID-19 guidelines will be followed. Contributors will receive a small gift as a token of appreciation for participating.
Based on NPR’s “StoryCorps” model, “The Democracy Booth” gives people of all backgrounds the chance to anonymously record in a private booth their personal stories on ways democracy has been significant in their life.
“This is an opportunity for folks to set politics aside and to contribute to the broader conversation about democracy in their own words,” said producer Sandra Pfeifer, of Pope County.
The audio recordings will be archived for future use in special educational and community outreach programs planned for the region and outward. The recordings are intended to reflect the views of a rural Midwest population whose voice is not often heard.
“The idea is to expand the idea to the rest of the country that everybody counts in a democracy — that every voice is important,” Pfeifer said. “(As southern Illinoisans) we are in the central part of the country. We’re a small, rural area that is not nationally noticed. We’re underserved. And yet, we vote, we go shopping, we contribute, we’re a part of this.”
Pfeifer is a documentary film maker, producer and director. She is graduate of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale film department. Between filming documentaries, she is also a media maker.
She had the idea of doing a democracy documentary three or four years ago, but was never was able to get funding. Part of that idea was to have a booth where participants could share their views and stories on democracy. Last year, she and her collaborator, Gloria McElearney, also of Pope County, began filming a documentary of former Congressman Glenn Poshard’s peaceful marches in the 39 southern Illinois counties he once represented.
“At some point, Gloria said, ‘We need to hear the voice of the people. This is a silent march, and we can see what’s happening but wouldn’t it be nice to hear what people think. The voice of the people is really important.’ She was really adamant about it,” Pfeifer said. “When I told her about my previous idea, she said, ‘That’s it! That’s perfect.’ ”
Inspired by their experience with Poshard, Pfeifer and McElearney formed The Democracy Booth Group as a separate project.
“It kind of grew out of concerns for the country,” Pfeifer said. “We thought it could be significant in community outreach and communication. There’s a lot of feeling — at least between us, and it seems to be the case all over the country — that there’s a complacency about democracy: where do we come from, what does it mean. A divided country isn’t conducive to a good democracy, and we’re pretty divided right now.”
Pfeifer emphasized “The Democracy Booth” has nothing to do with a political group but democracy itself.
“(The United States is) a representative democracy. In a democracy, basically, we govern ourselves. Governing yourself means you have a responsibility to vote and be part of it. When there’s dissension, something has to give. People have to start figuring it out,” she said.
And communicating is part of that.
“Understanding, and believing in, who we all are in this country is our civic duty. Stories are one of the most important traditions humans possess. Stories teach us about who we are and where we came from. They are invaluable to a culture and invaluable to each other within our communities,” Pfeifer said. “We look forward to hearing these important stories about democracy.”
Pfeifer and McElearney originally planned to set “The Democracy Booth” up at area festivals until Pfeifer mentioned the idea to her niece Rhonda James, the president of the Metropolis Public Library board, who suggested the library.
“We realized it was the ideal place — you’re not hot, you’re not out in the elements,” Pfeifer said. “If it works out there, then we have established something that we could go to other libraries. That would be wonderful.”
Participants, who must be at least 18, will come into a welcome room where they’ll be given a fact sheet on democracy with things to think about and another page with talking point suggestions. Participants will then go into the next room where their audio will be recorded anonymously in a soundproof booth.
“We’re hoping for a mix of things of how people feel. We want to hear all sides,” Pfeifer said. “We have a few suggested questions for people who may not have a particular story — like maybe from your childhood and going with your parent to vote and you went in the booth and you thought it was really exciting — or need inspiration. My personal favorite (question) is, ‘Do you vote? If so, why? If not, why?’ Maybe it’s important why you don’t feel you want to vote because, obviously, voting is key to a democracy, terribly important.”
Pfeifer noted the anonymity of the project provides, for many, the opportunity to discuss a subject they may have never given too much thought to.
“It’s a good thing that you don’t have a microphone shoved in your face while in being asked, ‘So, how do you feel about democracy?’ You can be anonymous, you can be honest and no one will come at you or challenge you about it. It just seems to be a really good idea,” she said.
Pfeifer said there won’t be time limits, “but we certainly don’t want people to go on and on. Be brief, but be comfortable to say what you want to say.”
Metropolis is the initial stop for “The Democracy Booth.”
“Metropolis is basically our guinea pig,” Pfeifer said. “It’s our hope Metropolis can come through and give us a good idea of how can go on with this.”
For more information about “The Democracy Booth,” email Pfeifer at email@example.com or visit their Facebook page, The Democracy Booth, which also has an events list.