Heidi Kyser

Journalist, writer

Archive for the ‘Social issues’ Category

Little ‘hood wins journalism award

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I was happy to hear from Desert Companion Editor Andrew Kiraly this week that the magazine grabbed 13 trophies in the Nevada Press Association’s Best of Nevada Journalism 2011 awards – even happier to learn one of them was for a story I contributed, The little ‘hood that could. It took 3rd place for Best Explanatory Journalism in the magazines category. A judge commented, “This illustrates what the strength of a group can do to better a community. A very nice piece.”

Thanks to Andrew for his guidance on the story, which appears to have accomplished what we hoped (exploring the possibility of John S. Park’s success being repeated elsewhere), judging from comments readers posted online.

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Homeowners vs. neighborhoods

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I discovered something curious while working on The little ‘hood that could (Desert Companion, March 2011): the vexed distinction between neighborhood associations and homeowners associations. It wasn’t central to the point of the story – that any neighborhood can benefit from banding together if it’s willing to put in the effort required – yet, erroneous confusion between the two different types of organization may prevent some people from getting in on the action.

The distinction is alluded to in the story, when City of Las Vegas neighborhood planner Yorgo Kagafas says, “I’ve often heard people say, ‘I don’t want my neighbors telling me what color to paint my house,’ but that’s not what neighborhood associations do. They don’t have the power to make rules, only to enforce what the city adopts.”

Who does tell you what color to paint your house? Homeowners associations.

While the two types of group manifest in myriad forms, depending on the circumstances in each case, there are some common, general differences between homeowners and neighborhood associations: Homeowners associations are usually mandatory, dues-gathering groups of residents in a designated area that have the authority to impose and enforce rules related to design and maintenance of that area; neighborhood associations are usually voluntary groups, open to residents in a designated area, that can only enforce (or request enforcement of) public laws governing that area.

So, a homeowners association will collect dues that help pay gardeners who trim your hedges to a mandated height. A neighborhood association will organize a crime watch and call law enforcement to report suspicious activity.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that homeowners associations are profit-oriented, while neighborhood associations are community-oriented. The former focuses on property values in order to protect the owners’ investment. The latter focuses on quality of life; property values are one of its indicators, along with crime rates, owner-occupancy and anything else residents deem important.

People who have a knee-jerk reaction against neighborhood associations should consider this distinction. Although your neighborhood association may take some action you disagree with, such as seeking historical status, it can’t make or enforce any rules that aren’t already on the books. It’s also an open forum, where you are free to express your opinion, providing you’re a resident.

And that’s the democratic process at work, isn’t it?

It’s the climate, stupid

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Something from my reporting on It’s Getting Hot In Here: Top 10 Places to Save for Endangered Species in a Warming World (Desert Companion, Feb. 2011) kept nagging at me after the story was done.

I had to ask Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, how she would respond to those who don’t believe in climate change or its human-based causes to begin with – considering the report treats them as a given.

I felt stupid, maybe a hint of what a journalist would feel like asking the president of the Anti-Defamation League how he would respond to those who don’t believe in the Holocaust.

Her initial response was something like gasp-meets-laugh. Then, with a sigh, she launched into her I’m-sure-oft-repeated summary of the science on climate change. I pictured a thought bubble above her head reading, “Really, I have to go through this again? REALLY???” – undoubtedly from my own bias more than her attitude.

Asking the question at all wasn’t just an attempt at balanced reporting, but also a result of the immediate culture in which I live. Nevada residents regularly comment on environmental stories in the local press with wingnut talking points about climate change science. (Here‘s a recent example from the Las Vegas Sun‘s letters to the editor.) I have to take into account the beliefs of all my readers, regardless of my own convictions.

The really interesting part, though, came when Huta discussed the coalition’s Ten Things You Can Do To Help Imperiled Wildlife Survive Climate Change. She translated these 10 things into a local lexicon that transcends political and religious beliefs, focusing on fire prevention, water conservation and dust reduction as ways to preserve our desert landscapes.

Now that is something outdoorsy Nevadans can relate to, regardless of their stance on climate change. Whether campers and rock climbers, or hunters and ranchers, the people I’ve met and interviewed over the years who respect and rely on nature understand the interdependency of an ecosystem’s various elements (not including ATVers; I don’t know any of them). No reasonable individual wants to jeopardize the big picture for the sake of one activity or revenue stream.

If we start from that common ground, maybe we can agree on what we need to do to prevent further damage – even if we can’t agree on what caused it, god, man or Mother Nature.

Marriage and Domestic Partnership Live Together

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OPINION

This morning’s State of Nevada on KNPR covered the one-year anniversary of the enactment of Nevada’s Domestic Partnership Act. Host Luis Hernandez spoke with four guests, two of whom were also sources for my Desert Companion story on the same subject.

The producer of the show, Irene Noguchi, invited me to sit in the production room and watch the discussion live. From that vantage point, I could hear both the aired conversation and Irene’s screening of callers. The behind-the-scenes flurry of calls about marriage and partnership and rights reminded me of things I wanted to say in the magazine article, but couldn’t.

A lot of any story gets left on the cutting room floor or off the air. Readers and listeners will only give journalists so much of their time, and we respect the value of it by giving them what we hope are the most important and relevant points.

Among the parts of this story that had to be cut was one that matters to me (and all my sources) personally: For some couples, a religious marriage is out of the question. Does that mean they don’t deserve the rights afforded to married people?

My boyfriend Peter and I live together, and raise his kids together (part-time, along with their mom) in the house we bought together. Our commitment to each other couldn’t be more apparent. But he’s an atheist and I’m an agnostic. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of being bound by a religious sacrament, which marriage seems to be. (If it isn’t, then why do opponents of same-sex marriage base their arguments on religious concepts, such as the “sanctity of marriage”?)

OK, so Peter and I could become domestic partners. This would definitely make our lives a lot easier. (See the story for more on that.) Still, we would lack the benefits of marriage determined by federal law, because of DOMA. As one of the guests on SON pointed out this morning, we’d be fine as long as we stayed in Nevada, but heaven forbid we get in a car accident in Utah. We would no longer have the right to make life-or-death decisions for each other. That right would go, instead, to next of kin.

In our case, it’s unlikely that either of our sets of parents would deny Peter or me the privilege of caring for one another in a time of need. You never know what can happen, though, and we’re heterosexuals, free from the cultural taboos that further vex the situation for same-sex couples (and prevent even those who do want a religious marriage from having it).

From this example you begin to see that marriage is the elephant in any room where domestic partnership comes up. That’s because the rights and responsibilities bestowed on people by domestic partnership are modeled on those granted to married people, while falling far short of full equality.

Consider the Nevada Domestic Partnership Act, which employs the word “spouse” throughout to describe the relationship – then at the end reminds us it is not to be confused with marriage.

I surmise this is to prevent domestic partners from obtaining the rights that married people have both within and outside their respective states, in the federal jurisdiction, and to keep closed the can of worms that is same-sex marriage.

But why? If marriage is a civil, not a religious, institution, then on what grounds are marriage rights denied? Let me put it another way: If Peter and I choose to live in sin, churches, which define sin, may care, but why should the federal government?

If it doesn’t – and if we fulfill all the other criteria of marriage – then why can’t we get a married couple’s rights without getting a church’s blessing?

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