Profile: Changing the World, One Cause at a Time, Starting in New Jersey
Her efforts range from ‘pay-to-play’ reform to training ‘citizen journalists’ to keep tabs on government
Name: Heather Taylor
Family: Married to David Bander
Job: Senior Director, Communications and Public Affairs, The Citizens Campaign
What she does: While this title usually is given to people who put out press releases and talk to reporters, Taylor spends most of her time nurturing "citizen journalists."
How she got there: Taylor's interest in civic issues started when she was a teenager.
"From high school on, I was always motivated to change the world," she said. "I thought I would go into politics and change the world."
Music became one of her passions and, after attending her first concert at age 14, Taylor got involved in the alternative music scene, which she says led naturally to her involvement in student council and groups like Habitat for Humanity. She went to Rutgers University, graduating in 2002 with a double major of political science and journalism/mass media studies.
How she started changing the world: An internship with New Jersey Common Cause, a citizen lobbying group working for honest government, was the perfect fit for Taylor's interests. After her graduation, Taylor was offered a job with the group and took it.
Anyone who knows Taylor would probably find it hard to believe that she was "the shyest, meekest little girl" when she began working with Common Cause. She said dealing with legislators was, at first, "intimidating," but she learned on the job.
In 2004, Taylor joined The Citizens Campaign, which had been founded a few years earlier by Harry Pozycki, a former head of Common Cause. Where Common Cause was known for traditional lobbying for good-government reforms in the Statehouse, The Citizens Campaign's focus is "empowering citizens to be leaders, leveraging reform from the bottom up," Taylor said.
Her greatest accomplishment: Taylor is especially proud of her work helping to get a so-called “pay-to-play” law enacted in the state. The law limits the amount of money companies with government contracts can contribute to candidates.
"This was really a significant victory for the citizens of New Jersey," she said, calling the state's law the strongest in the nation. "Having pay-to-play and other accountability measures further encourages citizens to get involved. That was pivotal in creating an opportunity to really focus on citizen empowerment."
The citizen journalism project: Taylor hatched the idea one night as she was sitting at a council meeting in Paterson in 2009. The council was considering how to spend $10 million from a Community Development Block Grant and there were numerous "community leaders begging council members for their piece of the grant and there was no one there from the press to vet it."
Then, Taylor continued, "The wheels started to turn ... Maybe there was a way to tap into all the people in the room."
That fall, The Citizens Campaign held its first citizen journalism conference. Over the last five years, Taylor has helped train more than 1,000 people, although not all are providing community journalism.
"Each person takes it and applies it in different ways," she said.
Her latest project, being announced today, is a two-day storytellers' boot camp, set for October 25-26 in Asbury Park. The idea is to bring civic journalism beyond merely covering council meetings and blogging to "really telling the story of what citizens are doing in the community." Taylor is especially excited about the project because participants will be making a yearlong commitment to community journalism, including regular blog posts.
This part of The Citizens Campaign's work gets increasingly more important as the state's newspapers continue to downsize.
"It's shocking almost," Taylor said, in describing the change in news coverage. "Newspapers are really the glue that ties communities together ... Really, local news facilitates community dialogue."
Taylor said a free, unbiased press is "fundamental for a functioning democracy."
The greatest success story of her efforts is the Paterson Press. The Citizens Campaign got a grant to start its first hyperlocal news site in 2010 and launched the site. Today it continues to survive, in part through a content-sharing agreement with NorthJersey.com, and is "close to sustainability."
But not all citizen journalism sites are successful in making enough money to be profitable and some are more of a labor of love, providing news without advertising or other revenues.
"We're really at a crossroads now to see if this model is going to work," Taylor said.
On possibly running for office: Taylor's husband, who she met while she was lobbying Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Mercer, on “pay-to-play” amendment legislation when he was the state senator's chief of staff, is a Plainsboro committeeman -- and she says having one elected official in the family is enough.
"From my perspective," she said, "you can get more done from outside the system."
One thing you don't know about her: Taylor loves puzzles. She takes a puzzle book to the beach and is happy to spend three hours on a good crossword puzzle.
"To me, puzzles are calming and give me some focus."