Another short insight into successful citizen activism by veteran change-maker John Graham

It’s not just the national and global impacts of issues like Covid, global warming, racism, inequality and a rotten political system—that demand our attention these days. It’s the local impacts of these huge issues that often most affects the quality of our daily lives. How do we cut carbon emissions where we live? How do we counter the misinformation from anti-vaxxers waving signs in our faces—or deal with our city’s homeless—or with racist elements present in our local police forces and zoning boards? What do we teach the kids in our schools? How do we counter local white supremacists? And on and on…

I understand the fatigue that sets in when you even think about the whole agenda large and small. But to me there’s no choice but to get involved. How many times do we have to learn that if we take our eyes off the balls, we pay the price.

The short tips below are mostly aimed at your local scene, but relevant to the larger ones as well.

But you can’t do it all.

So start with a problem you care enough about to get involved and where you think

you can make a contribution. Maybe it’s local or maybe it’s global, but whatever it is, it’s got your a name on it and you’re ready to get to work.

Now what?

I know you know this—but the first step is to do your homework. Sure that can be 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 the multiple sources available online. 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—activists, political leaders and reporters, for example. Are there other communities, cities, and so on, with identical or similar problems?

Ask them when this issue became 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. Issues 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. As an example, a community might try to block a low-income housing development from coming into their area and the stated reason for their opposition 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. Some guy lashing out at you may be really lashing out at the bullies who tormented him in grade school.

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 current issue.

At this early stage, don’t be afraid to bail. 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 is your 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.

Next: #4—How to Create a Focused Do-able Project

John Graham is author of Stick Your Neck Out—a Street-smart Guide to Creating Change in Your Community and Beyond

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