I’m taking a brief aside in this post, to discuss matters related to community advocacy and action. Most long-term readers of this blog have noted that I engage from time to time in activities that benefit the neighborhood, community, county, and state where I live. (I didn’t mention “city” because I do not live within the boundaries of an incorporated city.)
Most of my engagement is by bringing people together to discuss issues of concern — from crowded roads, to public safety, to zoning for development, to density of growth (planned or unplanned), to environmental concerns, and so forth.
One does not have to have a degree in political science or have served in public office to do this type of work. Being able to work with people, to listen, to learn and to study, and to be patient are key requirements. In order to be effective at advocating about issues, raising concerns, and making your community a little bit better, I have found the following activities helpful to achieve success:
1. Find out who else in the area has similar concerns. Bring them together at a meeting. (Offer food at the meeting, and get better attendance.) Try to achieve consensus or agreement among your neighbors about the issue. Your message is much more powerful if you can say, “WE (emphasis added) all agree on this…”.
2. Accept the fact that everyone does not think the same way you do. Listen, listen, listen. Hear what other people have to say and seek out the input and advice from those you think may oppose you. Yeah, that’s right: you have to hear what “the other side says” so you can have a better grasp of the issue from all points of view, even if you disagree with it.
3. Do your homework. It is highly unlikely that the issue about which you are concerned is brand new. It is more likely that the issue has been reviewed, debated, and discussed in the past. Find past public records, archived newspaper articles, and people who were around “back then” and learn the history. There is a lot of “re-inventing the wheel” that goes on in public advocacy that doesn’t have to.
4. Try working with and through staff first. That is, before you fire off a letter to your State Senator or County Commissioner, my advice is to find the administrative department that is responsible for the issue and make some phone calls. Ask questions. Perhaps they have already resolved the matter yet haven’t implemented it yet. Give the staff a chance to explain positions and situations first, before running amok and sending letters that ultimately get turned over to staff anyway. Usually, staff know about specific matters more thoroughly and can answer questions directly rather than going through an intermediary, such as an elected official.
5. Keep the issue within the correct level of responsibility. For example, if you are concerned about a state road, then you have to bring your issue to the correct department at the state level, not your local city or county transportation department, or your local elected officials. They will all say the same thing: “not my job.” I can’t tell you how many times I have advised colleagues not to go to the county about such-and-such an issue because it’s a state matter, or vice-versa. So much time is wasted that way. Find the right place to go first, rather than spin wheels and get turned away because the person you’re asking literally cannot help.
6. If you run into red tape, push-back, recalcitrance, excuses, or other lame fall-deroll from staff about an important issue, then it’s time to approach elected officials. Begin by finding out which elected official serves your district (where you live), or serves at-large. You will probably find multiple elected officials who serve you (usually one or two for your residential district, and all “at-large.”) To refine the list further, look for information about which committees these officials serve. For example, if you have a transportation issue, then ideally the best elected official with whom to communicate is a representative who serves your district (or at-large) and serves on the Transportation Committee. Think about it, if your district rep serves on the Education committee, then he/she won’t be as much help.
7. Again, before you fire off that letter or make that phone call demanding to speak only to the elected official, instead, ask to speak with the staff person in the elected official’s office who deals with that issue. It is not widely recognized, but most elected officials, even at the city and county level, have staff who specialize in certain matters. One person may handle schools and public safety, while another handles development and transportation. Call the elected representative’s staff first! I betcha they have already dealt with the matter, and may have information and answers — all available just for the asking.
8. If the elected officials’ staff don’t have the answers you seek or if the elected official is considering a position on the matter before a vote, then by all means, ask to speak with that official. And yes, I mean “speak” as in “talk to.” Don’t just write a letter and think you’re done with it. Communicate with the official in person or by phone. It never ceases to amaze me how often local elected officials tell me that the public seems to be afraid to talk to them, so they don’t always know what people want or are thinking. Look at it this way: you (and your neighbors) voted in the last election which put these people into office. Even if you didn’t vote for that person, nonetheless, they are serving in public office and therefore represent you. Communicate with your representatives. It is your civic duty and their responsibility to communicate with constituents.
9. Follow-up verbal communications with a polite letter saying “it was nice to speak with you on (date) about (subject). Here is what we agreed on (item, item, item). Thank you for your support.” Confirm it in writing. Elected officials communicate with hundreds of people each day. Unless they know you personally, it is not likely they will remember your name or the specific conversation when a vote comes up. But they will remember better if they have something in writing to refer to.
10. Whenever a major issue may be considered by a body politic, they will hold public hearings. Find out the schedule of the hearing and plan to attend. Get on the schedule to testify. You do not need to be a registered lobbyist to testify at a public hearing! I am not a lobbyist, but I testify often. Why? I care. I prepare by writing down what I want to say. I find out if there are limits to the amount of time allowed for testimony. Usually, it’s 3, 5, or 10 minutes. Write it all out, then “present” it to your neighbors, family, friends, or anyone who will listen. Use their input to refine your points and get it to be within the time limit. Then go say your piece, and provide written copies of your testimony so it can be part of the record.
11. Follow-up, in writing. Write a short, polite, letter to each person who heard your testimony thanking them for their time and their service, and for listening to what you have to say. Even if you think they may vote contrary to your position, you will be considered highly among the officials and their staff by paying attention to details like this. Believe me, written follow-up doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it makes an impact.
12. Avoid veiled threats such as “you will lose my vote in the next election if….” or “I’ll tell all my friends what a loser you are if you don’t vote the way I want you to.” Elected officials have heard that before and will hear it again, and have learned not to pay attention to such threats. Making such threats doesn’t help, and often hurts by damaging a relationship with someone elected to serve (even if their position isn’t yours).
13. If a vote doesn’t turn out the way you want, continue your advocacy by collecting information on what the impact of that decision has had on “real people” — your neighbors, and those who are the constituents of those elected officials. Provide that feedback to the elected officials. Again, “impact statements” are seldom received. Most people think “what’s done is done” and it’s all over. Believe me, it isn’t. If you don’t like how something turned out, it can be changed. You just have to continue to pursue it and share information persistently. I have a record of getting some positions reversed simply by collecting and providing those “impact statements.”
14. Finally, be patient. The wheels of local, state, and federal government turn very slowly. Most people give up, and that’s something that elected officials expect. Those who persist and continue to fight for what’s right eventually see a positive result. For example, I fought for eight years to get a bill passed in my home state to prohibit the use of hand-held cell phones while operating a motor vehicle. The bill finally passed, although watered down, in 2010. My next work on this issue will be to strengthen the bill. I haven’t stopped my advocacy just because a nudge in the right direction finally happened.
Well, enough for now. Advocacy, community action, service … call it what you will. It’s not rocket science, but is the fundamental right of an engaged, Democratic Society. This is why I love America. Right or wrong, we can all engage and have our voices heard.
Life is short: engage!