Work with your local government for positive community changes
Bureaucracy exists everywhere, but most famously in government, which makes some people shy away from working for change in that setting. But we say: take heart! Read on and learn how to work with local government to bring positive transformation to your community.
VOCAL-NY, a grassroots organization advocating for social justice for all New Yorkers, has worked on a range of issues—from affordable housing for people living with HIV and AIDS to improving drug policy. No matter what issue they’re tackling, they rely on a toolbox of tried-and-tested methods that involve as many people as possible to achieve meaningful goals.
How you can do it
Alyssa Aguilera, VOCAL-NY’s political director, highlighted for us the best ways to carry out a successful campaign:
Figure out what you want. What is the measurable goal you’re looking to achieve? Think about it as, “In a year, we will accomplish x.”
Do some information gathering. Find other people or organizations who have tackled your issue and learn what they did. Don’t be afraid to reach out; people are usually glad to share what they’ve learned (especially when they’re passionate about the same issue and want to see you succeed in guiding positive change, too). No need to reinvent the wheel!
Have concrete goals. Create a timeline that sketches out exactly what you’re looking for and when. For example: In one month, we want to have spoken with three councilmembers. Or: In one year, we want to pass a bill that will require x. Alyssa cautions that you will probably be asked to compromise along the way—but you can keep this in mind when forming your goals. In VOCAL-NY’s case, if they’re aiming to secure 50 affordable housing units, they may ask for 75. This gives them a point from which to negotiate. Alyssa says, Don’t be afraid to ask for too much, and don’t compromise before you’re asked!
Have short-term goals, too. Look at achieving your goals as a marathon, not a sprint, and set small and measurable benchmarks. Alyssa gives this example: In two weeks, we want 10 people at our weekly meetings. Something as simple as that will keep you planning and strategizing toward a consistent vision. Shorter goals are also good when they’re readily achievable, because the political landscape is always changing, and that big goal you’d been aiming for might suddenly become attainable. So instead of a huge piece of legislation, you could work toward a council resolution or report—anything that will keep momentum moving. And remember to take the time to celebrate when you reach your goals! Your supporters want to be in a group that’s succeeding and you should project that as you share updates and hold events. As Alyssa says: Take your wins when you get ’em.
Learn who the key players are. Find out who has the power to give you what you want. Is it the head of the town council? Is it a certain committee? You’ll also need to find out who’s on your side, who might oppose your efforts, and who might want to actively fight you.
Take stock of what you have. People who support your efforts will want to help—think artists who could help create media, or business owners who could open up office space for meetings. Or depending on your issue, it’s also possible that an existing organization—like a local Parent Teacher Association or pet lovers’ group—might want to support you somehow. Take some time to think about who your interested allies could be.
Plan your communications strategy. Pay attention to newspapers, blogs, and other outlets that are reporting on your issue. Track how it’s being reported, by whom, and who’s being quoted. Think about how you want to use social media yourself and identify any media producers you know who could help you present your issue. Identify the public figures surrounding and the groups of people impacted by your issue—you’ll want to tell stories about both. And to keep your community feeling connected, issue periodic updates. Even if the news isn’t huge, blog, tweet, email, and post on Facebook about the celebrity that just signed on to your letter, the new article written about your work, or the fact that your bill is almost into its committee. Continued conversation will build buzz and keep momentum going.
To build your base, go where your supporters are. In VOCAL-NY’s case, given their work with people battling addiction and coming home from incarceration, they often go to clinics and courtrooms. They also visit public housing complexes and knock on doors to introduce themselves, start conversations about what they do, and sometimes ask people to sign a petition. After they’ve collected residents’ contact information, they get back in touch to say thank you, and use the opportunity as a jumping-off point to talk more about the campaign. In Alyssa’s experience, putting up flyers and getting on Facebook doesn’t pack the punch that personal outreach can. So start building your base, and don’t stop.
Community members might need some guidance. Be prepared to support community spokespeople with one-on-one help. They may need media training or leadership development, depending on their skill level and any particularly difficult aspects of your work. And because they’re volunteering their time (and maybe a lot of it), you’ll need to help keep them feeling motivated as well as able and empowered. Alyssa suggests thinking individually about what might motivate someone: for example, maybe this issue impacts her children, or his country of origin. There can be lots of different motivations.
Lobby your local legislators. Alyssa reports that local legislators love working with constituents from the community that may not have an organizational stake; in this case, it could be an advantage to be a little less experienced. She says to convince and compel by sharing a story that’s hard to say no to. As always, you’ll want to do your research, looking into a legislator’s committee assignments and their past positions on your issue; have some stats in your back pocket. Tailor your pitch to the particular legislator you’re meeting with, explaining why he or she is uniquely positioned to help. For maximum impact, bring a mix of people with you—regular constituents, community leaders, and policy staff that work on your issue. And during the meeting, don’t forget to take notes! Circle back, noting what they said they’d do; try to keep them accountable.
Make it a win-win. You’ll want to make these legislators’ involvement with your issue beneficial for them, too. Think about how you can publicly position them as your issue’s champion—maybe plan a press conference to take place after your first meeting, or write an op-ed to which they can sign their name. Pitch your ideas and what their role will be; make it easy for them. But don’t feel let down if you don’t succeed the first time you try; there can be a steep learning and access curve.
Measure success. This can be hard, but VOCAL-NY sees success as raising awareness, shifting the narrative, getting media coverage, and growing their member base. Even if there are small successes—50 new people at a meeting, five media mentions—they are still significant to the larger goal.
Reminder: This is a marathon. Alyssa says it’s important to think about the long run. VOCAL-NY recently finished a campaign that took eight years to complete. Though not all are like that, persistence is always key! Moreover, a long process is sometimes more powerful than a brief one, as those you’re working with are transformed over time, and learn about their own power and voice. That itself is success, too.
Photo credit: VOCAL-NY (Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders)