#3 — Getting Started

You’ve found a problem you care enough about to get involved. Maybe it’s local or maybe it’s global, but whatever it is, you’re ready to get to work. Now what?

The first step is to do your homework. Yes that sounds boring—but I can’t tell you how many well-intentioned people I’ve seen fail because they jumped into action on their issue before learning enough to guide their steps wisely. You don’t need to become an expert at this point, but you do need to learn enough to know what you might be getting into. Here are key things to do:

Find out if there are groups already organized to work on this problem. If/when you find such a group, download or send for their information. If they’re local, attend a meeting and ask questions.

Do some digging on your own. There may be no organized groups with information you can readily tap. And even if there are, they’re very likely to describe the problem from just their point of view. So do some independent research, using multiple sources. Go to the Web. Go to the library. If your problem is local, find and talk to people both inside and outside organized groups who may have expertise and experience in dealing with it—academics, authors, and reporters, for example. Are there other communities, cities, and so on, with identical or similar problems? Talk to them. Questions to ask:

• When did this issue become a problem and why? Were there past efforts to tackle it? If so, what happened?

Even if the work went nowhere, it may have made some progress or unearthed some information you can use. And finding out why it died may show you some important pitfalls to avoid.

• Identify the “stakeholders”—whose lives are affected by the problem and how?

• Identify groups or individuals opposed to what you want to see happen. Assess their information and learn from it—there’s always at least one other side to a problem.

• Gain at least a beginner’s handle on any technical background that’s important to this issue.

• Examine the “iceberg.” This is the tough one. Problems are like icebergs—the part that’s under the water is a lot bigger than the part you can see. The visible part is the part people talk about easily. But the real problem is almost always deeper, beneath the waterline, and not so easy to talk about, especially if some of those deeper issues are your own.

Part of what’s down there are hidden agendas. For example, a community might try to block a low-income housing development from coming into their area. Their stated reason might be traffic congestion—but their real reason might be racism, something they’re not willing to talk about.

Not everything beneath the waterline of an issue is as conscious and deliberate as a hidden agenda. You may be dealing with people who are carrying personal baggage—such as anger or resentment or fear of change—created by events and histories that may have no direct connection with what’s on the table. No one is asking you to become a psychotherapist—but the more you’re aware of what’s beneath the waterline, the better able you'll be to tackle the issue above.

At this early stage, don’t be afraid to bail out. In the course of this initial research, when your investment is small, you may find that this problem was not so much your problem to solve as you had thought. If that happens, drop back and find another one. It’s out there. But if and when you’re satisfied that this isyour problem, and you’ve done some initial research, including independent digging, then—

Choose the form of your participation. In the course of your research, you may have found an organization doing pretty much what you want to do. If what they’re doing offers opportunities for you to make a satisfying contribution, there’s no need for you to create a new effort—just sign on to work with this group.

But what if you don’t find a group already working on your issue? Or what if you find a group but its interest in your issue is peripheral, or you’re not comfortable with other parts of its agenda, or you don’t like the people running it, or for any other reason you don’t see a good match? If you’re determined to keep going, your choice now is to make do with the imperfect fit, or to launch your own effort.

If you decide to go your own way and the issue is not so large, you might choose to work alone. That eliminates potential management headaches—you get to call all the shots. But even the simplest of issues has a way of expanding beyond one person’s time, resources and abilities, so be prepared to expand into a team effort if and when you need to do that.

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