Suburban Chicago event brings national experts on Russian influence, Washington ethics, media future

Suburban Chicago event brings national experts on Russian influence, Washington ethics, media future

Unify Our Voices, a year-old grass-roots Chicago-area group, is sponsoring a 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 25 event featuring nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations dedicated to protecting American democracy by bolstering the government’s adherence to ethics, analyzing Russian influence in our country, and promoting an independent and free press. “Preserving Our Treasured Democracy” is a two-hour event at Holiday Inn North Shore, 5300 W. Touhy in Skokie, Ill.

Three speakers will headline this unique event, moderated by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg.

• Noah Bookbinder is executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which has exposed ethical lapses and corruption by lawmakers for 15 years, and has been at the forefront of attempts to preserve the rule of law in the last year.

• David Salvo is a resident fellow of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. The ASD tracks Russian influence intended to weaken democracies and democratic institutions in America and across the globe.

 • Susy Schultz is a journalist and heads Public Narrative, a Chicago nonprofit that helps community groups gain access to media.

Tickets for “Preserving Our Treasured Democracy” are $20, and are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/unify-our-voices-tickets-40771514698 and via the Unify Our Voices Facebook page (discounted for students and complimentary based on financial need). 

Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times Columnist

“The Unify our Voices event grew from concern that family and friends felt helpless to stop the debilitating threats to our democracy,” said co-chairwoman Ellyn Hoffman, a Highland Park lawyer and activist. “We wanted to create an awareness of pressing and significant issues and a path to make a difference.”

Co-chairwoman Lauren Bondy said Unify’s directors “started out looking for speakers to address issues of societal injustices such as poverty, immigration, the environment and education. We ultimately realized we should seek those who apply themselves to upholding the pillars of our democracy. Without those pillars in place, we can’t get to those other issues,” the Northbrook social worker said.

Susy Schultz, President at Public Narrative and a former award-winning Chicago Sun-Times reporter.

From Salvo’s perspective, “Preserving Our Treasured Democracy” is a rare opportunity for both attendees and speakers. “We’ve met with domestic organizations before, and we have domestic foundations that support the Alliance for Securing Democracy,” he offered, “but this is the first group of concerned citizens with whom we’ve met.

“I think that makes the Chicago event particularly important. It shows that Americans outside the Beltway understand what’s at stake, and are organizing to protect the democratic institutions and processes that make our country what it is. Americans should be concerned about disinformation operations from foreign actors because they are designed to manipulate public opinion, sow divisions in our society, and ultimately weaken our nation’s standing in the world.”

The ASD web site features the “Hamilton 68 Dashboard,” which includes a running accounting of Russian influences on social media, complete with links to stories being promoted in America and elsewhere.

Generally, Russian influencers promote U.S.-originated articles they think will divide Americans, Alliance analyst Bret Schafer said. Then, they may add posts that promote Russian interests.

“Our new thing coming up is Hamilton 2.0,” he added. “It will give you the ability to search through over months, to see how trends of a promoted story have ebbed and flowed over time.”

Unify Our Voices’ 11-member board of directors hails from Cook, Lake and DuPage counties, and includes attorneys, educators, social workers, entrepreneurs, business owners and Emmy award-winning documentary producers Matt Hoffman and Scott Silberstein.

“I love that this isn’t about taking sides,” Silberstein said. “What Ellyn and Lauren did was bring people together who were interested in the truth. It isn’t partisan to have a commitment to the truth.”

“Democracy depends on active citizenry,” Bondy said. “When people stop caring about what is happening, or feel demoralized or that they can’t do anything, they retreat.

“If people fail to make their voices heard, this creates a climate for an autocrat.  Our event is designed to help people find their voice.” Bondy has a long history of quiet activism, stretching back to the late 1980s when she was a performer and leader of Chicago’s AIDS educational Theatre, and continuing to recent years, when she founded a microloan project serving women in Malawi.

Bookbinder, a former prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, and former Chief Counsel for Criminal Justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday, “We are facing a crisis of ethics and corruption unparalleled in modern American history.

“CREW is laser focused on working to ensure that our government works in the interest of the American people, not the financial interest of those in charge and their cronies, and that official corruption is investigated without interference.”

Bookbinder said CREW’s toolbox includes “large-scale innovative litigation, a steady stream of well-supported complaints highlighting ethics violations, incisive open records requests, and aggressive communications to stop violations and change behavior and to shine a light on unethical conduct and improper influence.  Our careful legal work and thorough research, together with the strong bipartisan leadership of our board, gives CREW tremendous credibility and effectiveness in pushing back on the current assault on ethics and democratic norms.”

Susy Schultz’s Public Narrative is a 29-year-old not-for-profit with a mission to buttress the nation’s democratic foundation through working with community organizations and the media to tell better stories. She was a long-time Sun-Times reporter, the editor of Chicago Parent and an investigative editor for the Chicago Reporter. She has also taught journalism at Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Roosevelt University, and is the founding president of the Association for Women Journalists’ Chicago chapter.

“The press is so vital that it’s actually written into the Constitution,” Schultz said. “The least you can do as a citizen is to vote and to interact with the media. Tell them if they’re not covering your issues well. Tell them when they’re doing great.”

“Susy’s the real deal,” said Unify director Karen Swoiskin Goodgold, an Evanston resident and long-time local school leader. “She’s very knowledgeable about what journalism needs to be, clear about the risks, and about having to get the truth out now.”

Preserving Our Treasured Democracy is intended as not only a public service but also a fundraiser for the speakers’ not-for-profit organizations.

“We identified nonprofit organizations that are perhaps lesser known that are taking proactive steps to ensure the integrity of our system of checks and balances,” Hoffman said.

“We wanted to find a way to support their work since they’re doing the heavy lifting. In addition, we wanted to put together an event that could be replicated in other districts across the nation; our plan is to send all our materials to groups in other areas of the country to make it easier to raise awareness and support these nonprofits doing valuable work.”

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award-winning columnist, author & former Chicago City Hall reporter (1977-1992). A veteran who served during the Vietnam War and the recipient of four SPJ Peter Lisagor Awards for column writing, Hanania writes weekly opinion columns on mainstream American & Chicagoland topics for the Southwest News-Herald, Des Plaines Valley News, the Regional News, The Reporter Newspapers, and Suburban Chicagoland.  

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