In January, The Independent publisher Joan Seppala was presented with a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Legacy Award by the Tri-Valley YMCA.
The award acknowledged that she not only supports and promotes quality of life, but is an active participant in a variety of causes.
In introducing her prior to her talk, the speaker commented, “There is no more worthy recipient of this award than Joan Seppala. Joan has a very impressive list of accomplishments.”
The speaker went on to list a number of them: she is the founder and publisher of The Independent, a Livermore and Pleasanton weekly newspaper established in 1963. Phil Dean, Phil Wente and she launched in 1998 the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center, which built and operates the Bankhead Theater and manages the Bothwell Arts Center. She serves as president. She was cofounder in 1999 of Citizens for Open Space in Alameda County, which worked to establish the county’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). From it, the Friends of Livermore emerged.
Seppala has participated in several Alameda County public bodies, including the Altamont Settlement Committee. She also serves on the Livermore Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Committee. Over time, she found that just a desk role as publisher was insufficient to make change. She came to believe that it was critical for her to enmesh herself personally in grassroots issues that she and The Independent were supporting.
Seppala talked about the founding of The Independent.
She stated that she spent a summer in Palo Alto when she was 17, and came to see California as freedom from constraints that she felt growing up in the more traditional Midwest and East. After graduate school, she came back to the Bay Area at age 23 looking for a job as a journalist. She applied at about 10 newspapers who had posted job openings. She was told that they only hired men for the news pages; they offered to hire her for their society pages. To make a long story short, in order to land a job, she raised funds in the Bay Area and founded The Independent.
She said that Livermore attracted her because she found the social values were different. “No one was admired because he or she drove up to the labs in a Cadillac. Lab and Sandia employees served on city boards and councils. Their values resulted early on in support for low cost housing, and other programs benefiting the disadvantaged.
“For me, the diversity of the community was epitomized by the scene I remember at a local First Street bar, the 1079 Club. Drinking beer at the bar were men with cowboy hats and boots; nearby at a table were scientists drinking wine and playing chess.”
She added that The Independent’s staff embraced that diversity, and championed its expansion. We backed War on Poverty campaigns, and drew attention to the homeless, farm workers, the disabled and emerging minority spokespersons. As reporter Ron McNicoll describes us, we gave voice to the voiceless.
With its arts tabloid and its news and editorial pages, The Independent has been a cheerleader for the arts because we think that they are what humanize us.
“We have believed in the traditional role of newspapers, that of advocating for the public good. We think that newspapers who continue to fight for what is right in the social, environmental and cultural realms will be fulfilling their obligation and satisfying their purpose.”
Thinking back, Seppala explains, When I first arrived in this area in 1962 after just having traveled in Greece, the vineyards and olive trees, along with the active cultural life, reminded me of Athens. I imagined the Tri-Valley becoming a model that other communities would come to emulate. I still do.
“Looking ahead, the Tri-Valley is on track for setting a high standard in regard to environmental issues and the cultural amenities, although Doolan Canyon still needs to be preserved and the arts need further strengthening. However, when it comes to creating equal opportunities for all of our citizens, I believe that The Independent and I, personally, have much still to do.”
In talking about the role of a newspaper in a community, Seppala said, “It should not be about making money, but should be about thinking about what is good for the community first. I think that’s one of the reasons we are who we are.”
Seppala concludes, “We will not please everyone. We may or may not prosper, but then, that is the choice made fifty years ago when I turned down writing for a society page.”