Novice Activist Creates Weekly Videos to Showcase North State Facts, News and Shenanigans

Please join me in welcoming Benjamin Nowain to A News Cafe. I first noticed 39-year-old Benjamin and his 37-year-old wife last month at Shasta County Board of Supervisor meetings. Most recently Benjamin has created weekly wrap-up videos to encapsulate some of the major Shasta County happenings, primarily related to the attempted recall of Shasta County Supervisors Joe Chimenti, Leonard Moty and Mary Rickert.

Benjamin is a Shasta County Health and Human Services analyst. He grew up in Palo Cedro, and says he has a penchant for storytelling. He loves technology and film, which he studied at City College of San Francisco. On weekends he runs Redding VR, a Virtual Reality Arcade in downtown Redding. His hobbies include filmmaking and gaming. He is married to Jenny-O’Connell-Nowain, and has two children, Chloe and Ari.

Benjamin Nowain and his children.

DC: Hello, Benjamin Nowain. Welcome to A News Cafe. It’s so nice to chat with you. First, do you go by Benjamin or Ben?

BN: I go by Benjamin.

DC: Thanks, Benjamin. First, would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?

BN: Yeah, I grew up in Palo Cedro. I’ve lived here pretty much all my life. I always thought I’d get into film. I spent a few years in San Francisco, (Daly City more specifically) going to film school at City College of San Francisco. I was certain I’d be a film maker someday.

When I moved back, I ended up working at a technology company in Anderson and inadvertently started my career as an analyst. I got a job with the county in 2013 as an analyst and have been with them ever since. In 2018 I started a Virtual Reality Arcade called Redding VR that’s located in downtown Redding.

Since I grew up here, I always appreciated a place where kids could play games together, like the Gold Mine that used to be in the Mt. Shasta Mall. I still remember being upset at being told by an official at the mall that they had to close it due to it bringing in a negative influence. Then it was replaced by a bar. *sigh* That’s why I opened my arcade, to share the joy of gaming with the community.

DC: Oh my gosh. I remember the Gold Mine. That’s a blast from Redding’s past. How cool that you grew up to open your own arcade.

I first noticed you and your wife as speakers at Shasta County Board of Supervisors meetings during the public comment period. Basically, you spoke against the recall and in support of the three supervisors being targeted for recall.

Can you tell me a bit about how long you and your wife have been actively involved in participating as speakers during the supervisor meetings, and what prompted you to become so active in the first place?

BN: We started coming in May. The first meeting we attended was on May 4th. We wanted to go to the previous one in April, because it was the first in-person meeting the community was allowed to since COVID restrictions began. Unfortunately, both myself and my wife ended up with COVID. I was only two days from my second shot, too.

Benjamin Nowain and Jenny O’Connell-Nowain at the Shasta County Board of Supervisors where they’ve become regular commenters.

I can tell you the reason we went, though. We were scared what would happen to our community if people like us didn’t start going. We saw a video of Carlos Zapata threatening violence if things didn’t go his way, and we simply couldn’t believe what was happening. We knew we were only two voices, but the online groups we were in seemed scared to go to these meetings, as we have seen reports of threats made to them. We were scared, too, but I was determined to have my voice heard.

DC: That’s quite a story, Benjamin. I’m so sorry to hear you had COVID, and hope you’ve both made a full recovery.

Is it your nature, typically, to become so involved in community politics?

BN: It’s totally uncharacteristic of me. I’m what people might describe as a keyboard warrior, and most of my involvement that way was in national politics. My wife has always been the active community member in the family. She worked with Western Service Workers Union to advocate for Carr fire victims whom lost their homes in 2018. She was responsible for more than a few people being able to rebuild their homes because of her involvement. She frequently had to deal with FEMA, and got quite adept at how to navigate their systems.

DC: I can imagine that many people who lost homes in the Carr Fire were grateful for Jenny’s help during such a traumatic time.

But now Shasta County is embroiled in a different kind of trauma, to the point where we’ve been in the news outside of our region, and not for good things, I’m afraid. Can you describe your basic thoughts about what you’ve observed in Shasta County lately?

BN: In early April of 2020, my wife and I noticed something we thought was pretty amazing. For a brief moment, nearly the whole country was on the same page. For just a moment, there was no partisan politics, just people trying to navigate a difficult situation together. That’s when partisan politics kicked in. Tribal thinking pushed everyone back to their respective corners. It was upsetting to see; especially when lives were on the line.

I saw our role in the community was to follow regulations as best we could to limit spread; to hold off until a cure, a vaccine, or some way out of this materialized.

Early on I was critical of non-essential businesses that chose to be open. Often chastising them for going against regulations. I have since developed a different take on it. We all did what we had to do. I closed my arcade, because I had a second job. I had a way to support my family, and that job was both essential and allowed me to work remotely. Not everyone had that. I tell myself now, that if I hadn’t had the job with the county, I may have had to open my business against the governor’s orders. There would have been no other way, even with grants, to take care of my family. So I have a lot of sympathy for businesses that were in that position. The only thing I continue take issue with are those that choose to flout safety measures.

DC: That’s a very measured and compassionate way to look at the big pandemic picture. I respect that.

Benjamin, would you consider yourself an activist?

BN: Strangely enough, I never even considered it. I guess yes.

DC: Well, I think I’d describe you as an activist, too, and you’ve taken your participation to a new level with your weekly videos to describe the county’s previous week’s news. I’ve watched two episodes, and am impressed with how professionally produced they appear. Do you have related experience in broadcast journalism?

BN: Film has always been a passion of mine. I used to film and edit shorts for myself and friends for school projects. It never felt like work to me. I actually did work for Channel 7 back in 2000 as a floor director. They used to hire high school kids to do the camera work. It was pretty fun. I majored in film at San Francisco City College. I made a few short films over the years. Most I’d be pretty embarrassed to show nowadays, though. Throughout the years though, I still periodically play with cinematography and editing. It comes in handy when you need a short commercial, or to film yourself giving a breakdown of weekly events.

DC: I’d say your passion for film-making paid off, but I’d guess you never imagined using your film skills as you do now. For those who’ve not seen your videos, can you describe them, please?

BN: The Northstate Breakdown came out of feeling of desperation; desperation to get information out there. As a self-proclaimed keyboard warrior, I spent a lot of time — maybe too much time — arguing with trolls online, just trying to fact check and get the proper information out there. I knew I couldn’t convince those I was speaking to, but maybe the casual onlooker would derive something from it. Then it hit me. My audience could be so much bigger, and I could package it in a way that was easy to understand, and in a short enough format that you could watch or listen and get a good idea about a subject in five minutes.

I do two or three current events from over the last week that are somehow tied to the recall efforts, then a “breakdown” of a somewhat complex subject that I feel is commonly misrepresented by the community. Currently the subject matter is mostly surrounding subjects tied to the recall. A lot of talking points recall supporters use are easily verifiable as untrue, and since telling them doesn’t work, I decided to produce a show that essentially educates the public and debunks that information at the same time.

DC: That’s an excellent idea, and if I can tell you a secret, I’m grateful to you because it helps with my guilt at not covering everything. Selfishly I thank you for making my job easier and easing my stress load. And as an aside, I don’t know whether you named your program with a double entendre in mind, but the title, The Northstate Breakdown, can aptly describe not just a summary, but also the crazy state of affairs we have here, in a nervous-breakdown kind of way. Either way; clever.

You are obviously a person with strong opinions, but when I’ve watched both videos, I’m struck by the professional, impartial tone you adopt as you’re delivering your broadcasts. Your style is calm, laidback and lowkey, which is nice, but it’s a bit surprising given the often dramatic content. You totally keep your cool, which is admirable considering the sometimes emotionally charged material.

BN: That’s deliberate. Actually, I originally intended to try and make a comedy-based news program, but the information I was trying to get out there was too important to me. It struck me while writing the first episode. This stuff isn’t funny. People just need to be exposed to it. A little of it is editorial, but mostly I try to expose the viewer to untouched facts. I suppose my real life persona is quite different than my newscaster persona.

DC: I can relate. I agree with you that “this stuff isn’t funny”. It’s serious!

Can you offer examples of some of the topics you’ve featured?

BN: At this time I have only done two episodes. The first was actually inspired by an article you wrote! It was about petition signatures. My wife actually ran for Assembly in 2018, and the process for attaining signatures to become a candidate was very similar.

Jenny-O’Connell-Nowain is sworn in as a 2018 Assembly candidate.

So we had a little more knowledge out of the gate on that one. I realized the public has no idea how this process works. So I did some research to flesh out what I didn’t know, and the first Breakdown was born. The second episode is about the Shasta County Budget, which is very complex.

DC: I’m glad you mentioned the episode about the county budget, because I was particularly impressed with your grasp of the county finances. Is that an area of expertise for you?

BN: Some of that information I was able to derive from my position in the county. But more importantly, the budget is super transparent. Most citizens don’t know this, but you can look up how much of your tax dollars are spent. I didn’t know enough to write that episode off the bat. I had to spend a few days doing research. It was pretty eye-opening. Many members of the community think the government can just do whatever they want with the tax money received, but so much of it is legally required to be used in certain ways, which actually is a good thing for the community.

DC: Benjamin, what’s the public feedback been like to your videos?

BN: I’m surprised, honestly. I thought producing these would be like shouting into the void, but people are genuinely hungry for programming like this. They want to know how their community works.

DC: I can confirm that you’re far from shouting into the void. Your videos are being shared and talked about.

How long do you picture yourself doing these broadcasts?

BN: I planned on doing one episode a week, Breaking down talking points from the recall groups until the date that the recall signatures have to be turned in, which is September 29, 2021. I have left open the possibility to continue doing the Breakdown, distancing myself from the recalls after they are no longer a subject of discussion. If the recall succeeds, then I’m likely all in.

DC: It’s hard to imagine a time in Shasta County when we can move away from the topics of recalls and extremist groups, but I certainly look forward to that day.

What else would you like us to know, Benjamin?

BN: What I’d like to say is, those supervisor meetings have become very demoralizing; particularly if you go in person. The meetings were never intended to be used in the way they are. I go out of a sense of duty now. I’m hoping more people follow suit. However, despite feeling like democracy is under attack, I feel extremely hopeful lately. More and more people have been approaching me to thank me for the show, or for my comments at the meetings. They feel represented.

DC: Well said, Benjamin, and I second those people’s expressions of gratitude for the work you do to keep us informed, and the work you and your wife do as a couple to help Shasta County. I appreciate you both.

I’ve posted your most recent videos here, for those who’ve not seen them.

For as long as you continue creating these videos, A News Cafe will be honored to post them here. Thank you. Keep up the great work.

The Northstate Breakdown – Episode  1: Petition Signatures
The Northstate Breakdown – Episode 2: Shasta County Budget

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate, Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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