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Track How Stimulus Dollars Are Spent, Ethnic Media Told

New America Media, News Report , Eunji Jang Posted: Aug 25, 2009

NEW YORK -- Twenty-five ethnic media journalists from across New York gathered at a workshop to learn how they could keep track of how the $787 billion stimulus dollars are being spent.

The Aug. 20 briefing was co-hosted by New America Media, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the New York Community Media Alliance.

We, as community messengers, didnt know how to cover it so people didnt even know about it, said NAM executive director Sandy Close. There was no advertising money in the stimulus, so people didnt know.

Close said it was through data collected by ProPublica, an investigative non-profit news organization based in New York, that NAM was able to find out that only one Asian American small business in San Francisco had received a federal stimulus contract.

After giving an overview of the federal stimulus program, ProPublicas Michael Grabell pointed out numerous resources that could help journalists find out how stimulus dollars were being spent in their communities.

Grabell told ethnic media journalists to be alert about the October deadline when the first group of recipients of more than $25,000 in Recovery Act money are scheduled to report to Recovery.gov.

Ive been really fascinated to look at some of the things that we dont really think about when we think about stimulus money, said Grabell, who encouraged journalists to spend some time looking at different sites so they will be able to uncover stories.

The panel discussions in the second and third part of the workshop offered tips on how to watchdog collectively from different perspectives. It largely focused on how money is being spent in New York City.

I think its just very important for all of us to realize that theres still plenty of time and plenty of work for all of us to do to make sure that this is shaped properly, said Juhu Thukral, director of law and advocacy with the Opportunity Agenda, a communication, research and advocacy organization aimed to build broader opportunities for America.

Thukral, who has been looking at the issue from a civil rights perspective, said that although the administration has been openly committed to transparency, there has been less discussion around whether there was an equal level of public investment in different communities.

So our goal really is to make sure the implementation of recovery and other funds through the lens of equal opportunity, said Thukral. This idea of equal opportunity is just not a good idea or a sort of hopeful moment of transformation. Its actually the law.

Transparency and accountability are the most important no matter what issues you are working on, noted Chris Keeley, an associate director with the New York based chapter of Common Cause, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization to watchdog politics. Keeley emphasized the need to focus on the decision- making process and later on transparency.

We are bleeding now, we need to stop the bleeding. We need that the money get out today, or the entire economy is going to go to hell in a hand basket, he said.

Victor Bach, senior housing policy analyst at Community Service Society, Bettina Damiani, a project director at Good Jobs New York, Earle J. Walker, executive director at Regional Alliance for Small Contractors, and Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director at Make the Road New York, participated in the last panel discussion. They analyzed how the stimulus money affected immigration services, small businesses and social safety nets, as well as whether the jobs that are created as a result of stimulus dollars are good or bad.

Bach said $500 million was offered to New York City, specifically targeting housing and urban development. He wondered how Section 3 of HUD funds were being used to generate jobs for low-income residents and small and minority-owned business. Under Section 3 of the HUD Act of 1968, HUD financial assistance should be expended for housing or community development. Economic opportunities will be given to public housing residents and businesses in that area.

Over 40 years, Section 3 has been very weakly enforced at both federal levels and local and state levels, said Bach.

Bach encouraged journalists to investigate whether the billions of federal dollars the New York City Housing Authority receives each year is being spent fairly on minorities.

Ana Maria Archila of Make the Road New York also expressed her concern on the impact of stimulus money on immigrants.

We know the reality even before the economic crisis, said Archila. She warned journalists to ensure that contractors pay their immigrant workers prevailing wages. Some of them dont she said.

That was the reality before, and that continues to be the reality now, said Archila.

At the end of the seminar, Close encouraged the media participants to share story ideas.

I especially liked the brainstorming session when participants were asked to come up with story ideas, said Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter of Sing Tao Daily. I'm sure I'll pursue some of the ideas that I got from the workshop.

It helped give me some insight into the enormous, and pretty confusing, stimulus effort, said Peter Meryash, a producer for Bill Moyers' Journal at Thirteen PBS after the seminar.

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