By: Mark Mahoney
N’West Iowa residents who are worried about the future of their respective post offices will have a chance to voice their viewpoints to a group of Ivy League scholars this weekend.
A three-member team from Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA, that is working to protect U.S. post offices will be in the region Saturday-Monday, Oct. 13-15, to visit with residents, especially during community meetings in Calumet and Hartley.
Team members — such as 24-year-old Madelyn “Maddy” Petersen, a third-year law student who has ties to Hartley and Spirit Lake — are holding community meetings to conduct research for Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
“Our project and our clinic believe in the universal service of the post office,” Petersen said. “We know that some towns in northwest Iowa have seen closures and then also there have been a bunch of towns that have experienced reductions in services, reductions in hours or kind of a shift in how the mail is delivered.”
The main goal of the Harvard Law School team’s trip to N’West Iowa is to have conversations with residents to understand how they have been affected by post office closures and reductions of hours and services that the U.S. Postal Service has implemented during the past decade.
Petersen, fellow third-year law student Elizabeth “Liz” Gyori, 27, of New York City and clinical instructor Amelia Evans of the International Human Rights Clinic want to report the stories and perspectives of area community members to a wide audience and key stakeholders.
“We do want to look into what else could this massive infrastructure of the post office kind of do or serve or be in communities, particularly in smaller communities in northwest Iowa,” Petersen said. “Sometimes there aren’t always the services there that those communities need.”
Evans explained more about the Harvard Law School team’s project to protect U.S. post offices.
“One of the things that we really want to do with this is really listen to what communities want us to do,” she said.
“Rather than coming in and deciding that we’re going to have a report, we’ve decided that what we’re going to do is come in and ask some questions and really listen and then go away from there and figure out what’s best,” she said.
A Northwest Iowa Development study — titled “Impact of the Closure of Post Offices in Northwest Iowa” — from April 2012 was one reason why the Harvard Law School team decided to focus on the region as part of its project.
“We saw that and thought that kind of provides a little bit of a baseline of information that we could then kind of follow up on,” Petersen said.
Petersen’s ties to N’West Iowa — she attended elementary and middle school in Spirit Lake and her parents, Matt and Laurinda Petersen, graduated from high school in Hartley — were another reason why the Harvard Law School team’s first trip for its project is to the northwest corner of the Hawkeye State.
“I was kind of drawn to wanting to go back and report on some of these places,” the younger Petersen said. “When looking at some of the communities that were being talked about, I was like, ‘Oh, those are the communities I grew up around.’ It was an easy choice to kind of come in and see if we could talk to some more people about what happened.”
According to the Harvard Law School team, 572 U.S. post offices across Iowa — including in Alton, Alvord, Archer, Ashton, Boyden, Calumet, Doon, Granville, Harris, Hospers, Ireton, Larchwood, Lester, Little Rock, Maurice, Melvin, Ocheyedan and Sutherland — have had their business hours reduced during the past decade.
In addition, 34 U.S. post offices across the state have been closed, which — plus the reduced business hours at others — led Evans to note, “Iowa has been pretty badly affected by this.”
The Harvard Law School team is interested in the noneconomic value of U.S. post offices and their employees to N’West Iowa residents and the places they live, as well as the economic impact of the changes that have been made to many of the federal facilities.
“What sort of community function does it play?” Evans said. “We’ve heard a lot of interesting stories about people who have a relationship with their mail person, where if they haven’t cleared their mail for a while, they have permission to knock on the door and see if that person is OK.
“It’s those qualitative aspects that we feel are really important to capture, too, so as much as we’re interested in what are the economic consequences, what we’re really interested in is what’s the really human experience of public post offices and what it could be,” she said.