A Forum for All
By Pat Ford
Editors, publishers, webmasters, California Highway Patrolmen and California Assemblyman Dean Florez all came together for the first live bilingual forum on fresnobee.com, Dec. 8. But in the end, it was reporter Daniel Rodriquez who made it all possible.
Two fingers zinging across a keyboard in his self-taught typing style, Rodriquez simultaneously translated-English to Spanish or Spanish to English as required-and pounded out more than 30 questions so that the 1,500 people who "hit" the forum could learn how to make the ride to work safer for the poor and underrepresented farm workers of the San Joaquin Valley.
"He's one of the quickest typists I've seen around," says Rodriquez's boss, John Esparza, publisher of The Bee's Spanish language sister paper, Vida en el Valle.
It may seem like a small element but without Rodriquez, the forum might have been just another chat with a local lawmaker. His skills, however, opened the forum to a whole portion of the community that often feels excluded.
"I believe that The Bee's unique experiment with the Internet has only helped to further the important process of bringing our community together," Assemblyman Florez wrote to fresnobee.com after the forum. "It gave folks who have no special interest group or advocates to speak for them a chance to ask questions directly to their elected representative."
Fresnobee.com invited Florez online so that he could answer questions about his new legislation, which requires such basic safety amenities as seat belts in the vans that transport farm workers.
Though farm-worker transportation safety has been a problem for decades, Florez just managed to get the law passed last fall after an August accident killed 13 farm workers near Fresno and newspapers throughout the state -- led by The Bee -- editorialized for new measures.
The new law seemed to be a natural topic for an online forum to both The Bee's Editorial Page Editor Jim Boren and Director of Interactive Media Ken Riddick. They also agreed that, to make the forum meaningful, it would have to be conducted in both Spanish and English and they quickly enlisted the help of Esparza.
"More than anything, it's the right thing to do," says Riddick. "Much of our readership is Latino and many speak only Spanish or prefer Spanish and these issues affect them directly. It's one of those opportunities to provide public service."
Riddick says it was also important to create in advance a page on the web site where users could get information about the new legislation and post questions since many farm workers would not be able to send questions in live.
The Bee heavily promoted the forum; so much so, in fact, that local television stations and The Associated Press showed up to cover it. Fresnobee.com moved its equipment up to the building's auditorium to accommodate the other media.Florez also brought his own guests-officers from the California Highway Patrol-to answer technical questions about the law.
But he found many questioners interested in more wide-ranging topics."Don't you think it's immoral that the growers have so much money while the workers are so poor?" asked one person. "What are you going to do about that?""Why has it taken so long for the legislature to deal with the problem of farm-worker transportation safety?" asked another.
Florez found it very different from the legislative hearings or town meetings he has conducted. "The questions being posted were much more hard hitting than other kinds of meetings," he says. "They were very precise, more like an editorial board meeting and I think the anonymous nature of it helped people ask what was really on their minds -- things a legislator normally wouldn't hear in an official forum."
One of the most touching questions was from Jennifer Gonzales. "I am writing a report for History Day," she wrote. "Since the unfortunate crash and death of the farm workers was a turning point in history because it got bills on safety belts passed and called attention to this problem, I have decided to do my report on this subject. However, I have questions that I don't understand: We have to wear seat belts in cars. My mom says it's the law. How come farm labor vans weren't part of this old law?"
Florez didn't really answer the question. "We need to do a lot of follow up," observes Jim Boren. But some constituents have already started following up on their own.
"Our e-mail has doubled," says Florez. "People saw that we were responding and felt this is a way to connect with their legislator directly."