It was a big room in some DC law office with perhaps the largest wooden conference table I’d ever seen. Attorney Jim Baller was launching the US Broadband Coalition – a diverse group of stakeholders working to find common ground on the need for a national broadband strategy. The U.S. Broadband Coalition was created in December 2008, well before the stimulus funding that required the Federal Communications Commission to create the National Broadband Plan and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to manage a broadband grant program.
The room was filled mostly with guys with way more impressive titles than mine… When it came time to appoint members to teams, I waited quietly until Jim asked where I could help. I looked across the room and volunteered to work with Charles Benton from the Benton Foundation and Link Hoewing from Verizon. I think my exact words, while pointing at Charles, were “I want to work with him.” It was one of the smarter moves I ever made.
Charles always had so much to say. His understanding of telecommunications and information policy and programs was well… encyclopedic. There was passion in everything. I wanted to work with him, to learn from him, to dream with him, to make a difference, to be like him.
For that project, Charles and Link were both brilliant co-chairs; as the third chair, my wisdom was mostly founded in the hard work of drafting, editing and finding agreements on broadband adoption and use. After that project, Charles said I was his “new best friend for the year” and I like the idea that we can find “new best friends” throughout our lives. I liked it even more that I was Charles’ “best friend” for even a moment.
We discussed a million ideas and projects around broadband, libraries, media, policy, state planning, equity, diversity, community, and family. Every conversation included some essential ingredients: enthusiasm, partnership, a change-mentality, reflections on past work, connections to other people, insight, and a penchant for action. “What will we do about it?”
Today as I reflect on the loss of Charles Benton, it is with equal parts joy and sadness. I am sad that he is gone, but joyful to have known him personally and to live in country where the impact of Benton’s “good works in communication” will be felt for generations. Of course, the question he leaves us all is: “What will we do about it?” What will we do next to ensure that telecommunications and media serve the public interest and enhance democracy?