Civic Advocacy: A Brief Primer

Build relationships, find common ground, and focus on campaigns that are concrete and winnable.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 04, 2008

If you want to effect change, you need to form real relationships with people in an actual organization that meets in person and hashes out strategies to make its case in the community, the local media, city staff, and politicians.

As an example of what I mean, I humbly offer Hamilton Light Rail, of which I am one of several founding members. When we formed a little over a year ago, LRT was off the radar. We started holding monthly ad hoc planning meetings open to anyone, and over several months put together a strategy of reaching out to community groups, business associations, city staff, councillors, and so on to make our case for light rail.

In combination with a few dedicated people inside government (including the mayor), we managed to convince Public Works staff to start a feasibility study that compared bus rapid transit, the existing rapid transit plan, with proposed light rail.

By the time they released their initial report in April 2007, the local news media had noticed and were starting to provide coverage.

We organized a public presentation and panel discussion for May 1 with a spokesperson from HLR, a manager from the city's Public Works department, and a planner from Waterloo Region. To our delight and amazement, it was attended by over 120 enthusiastic citizens who came prepared with questions, challenges and anecdotes of their own experiences with light rail in other cities.

Many of their comments made it into the city's public outreach efforts, which ultimately garnered over 1,600 responses, almost universally in support of rapid transit and light rail in particular.

Since then we've kept at it with monthly meetings, more community outreach, op-eds, letters, media interviews, reporting, and so on.

We're probably going to organize another public presentation some time in the near future as the Metrolinx budget shapes up.

Finding Common Ground

An important lesson for me was that the way to achieve success is not through opposition and conflict but through building relationships and finding common ground with the people you're trying to convince.

We decided to make our case for light rail on the basis of economic development because it's supported by very robust empirical evidence and it's an argument everyone can get behind without having to 'lose face' or concede some kind of ideological defeat.

To be honest, the case for light rail practically makes itself. Aside from the physical work of doing the background research, preparing our slide show, contacting community and business groups, arranging meetings, showing our presentation, and so on, it hasn't been a difficult 'sell'. Everywhere we've gone, we have been received positively.

Again, I think that has a lot more to do with light rail in itself than with our efforts to promote it. You'd have to be pretty spectacularly inept or cleverly diabolical to make light rail look bad.

Focus on Winnable Campaigns

There's another lesson in here: if you want to achieve success, start or join a campaign that's concrete and winnable. To put it bluntly, certain elements of Hamilton's activist community seem to have gotten pretty comfortable with losing - with being on the morally superior side of an issue in a hopeless stance of reactive opposition. That may be comforting in an identity politics kind of way, but it doesn't lead to tangible gains.

I don't want to overthrow the system; I want to make it work better. Radical politics may be personally gratifying for radicals but it almost never improves people's lives. Instead of maintaining some kind of ideological purity, work at building relationships with people across the various divides (urban/exurban, liberal/conservative, business/labour, etc.) that cleave our city, trying to understand and respect everyone's values and priorities, and looking for issues and arguments on which you can all agree.

For example, environmentalists and poverty advocates joined up with the Chamber of Commerce in 2006 in a campaign to stop council from raising HSR transit fares. It was simple, empirical, broad-based, and successful.

In fact, the city dodged a repeat campaign in late 2007 by rushing the introduction of the fare increase recommendation to the Public Works Committee on a Monday and ratifying it in council just two days later. (They may be planning to follow the same strategy this year.)

You Can Persuade People

Better transit, higher quality integrated affordable housing, new investment into poor neighbourhoods, safer streets and pedestrian crossings, continuous bike lanes, tree plantings, community gardens and so on: these are the kinds of issues on which you can make a strong case from evidence, build broad support across socioeconomic and partisan lines, and achieve success.

Environment Hamilton has enjoyed some remarkable successes in such cooperative partnerships, from the Tonnes for Trees campaign a few years ago to the north end transit study (which led to the new Wellington/Victoria bus loop) and the current Kirkendall walkability study.

As a result, they have a lot of credibility with city staff and councillors, which you need to have if you want to be taken seriously since they are the very people who prepare recommendations and vote on them, respectively. (Disclosure: I worked for Environment Hamilton part-time for a year as their Transit Users Group coordinator.)

Even the most obstinant councillors will respond to a strong argument backed by strong public support. You can convince Lloyd Ferguson that light rail is a smart, worthwhile investment in economic development. You can persuade Terry Whitehead that two-way street conversions help create safer, more vibrant neighbourhoods.

But to do so, you need to organize passionate advocates, make your case to the community, attract the attention of the newsmedia, and build relationships with the people who form policies and make decisions.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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[ - ]

By Whiner (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 12:11:33

Gee, I dunno Ryan. Sounds like a lot of work to me. Can't I just write my fav bitches here instead?

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 17:19:38

This was a really informative and insightful article. Besides updating us on current developments, perhaps RTH could also highlight ideas that could benefit from additional support so that individuals who want to make a difference, but arne't really "idea people" have some way to get in touch with the idea people? Hamilton probably has two few groups like Hamilton Light Rail, and too many corporate swindlers looking to pull the wool over city council's eyes. Let's even up the lobbying playing field, shall we?

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 20:07:16

Yes I agree that the grassroots groups can be an effective part for change. But part of the change is to inform others that the political divide between party lines, as this division is part of the problem, when the voices of the people go unheard by the perspective parties.

Ryan: What you failing to see is that many in our community are struggling and while there has been some allowing of the voices of the people to participate, the voices from the people is still falling on deaf ears.

Look at the grandparents from ROCK, when it was the City itself that initiated the direct following of the letter of the law, yet now, we have our Mayor, saying he will write the province. As the voices from those that struggle is getting louder.

Radical, well did not those, workers, as in the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 be considered radical in today's standards? What are the people left with, when their voices go unheeded or unheard?

I guess I have to offer the following: You got paid to be an co-ordinator, why did you not volunteer, if the issue was so important? There are many in this community, those that struggle who volunteer for many things and do not expect to get paid. A little bit of hyprocrisy, maybe??????????

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 06, 2008 at 22:29:00

Ryan: As far as ROCK, it was the spectator that reported that the city followed the letter of the law. I guess you do not want to look at the truth, that those, grandparents who live on limited retirement funds, where thwarted by the city, as they, the city pursued the letter of the law. I mean if you are going to give a voice to the people at least be informed and give reliable information.

I think it was my words that actually touched a sore spot in you, not the other way around.

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By Cedric A (anonymous) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 00:13:08

^^ Ha ha guy reads article about how people have more power when they work together in groups then criticizes writer for not doing more himself.

Reading comprehension fail right there.

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 08:51:40

Ryan: you will have to go back further in the archives as it was reported that it was the city itself that initiated the complete following of the letter of the law. It was also reported that very few communities actually followed the letter of the law, in the cases such as ROCK.

If you go to the poverty blog in the spec, you can read what one of the actual members had to say about the fact that CHCH TV, did not report what the members had to say. So much for community media involvement.

It is also telling that last spring, when Mr Duncan came to Hamilton, that the Chamber of Commerce was calling for all kinds of cuts, such as access to legal aid, no increases to minimum wage and a variety of other things which directly affect those who struggle.

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By Tired of this (anonymous) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 11:43:13

Wow "Grassroots are the way forward" you want people to get more involved and then when someone does you crap all over them and call them a hypocrite. Jeez I can't figure out why your not having more success with your own campaigns your such a supportive people person.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 14:47:57


I think those lists you gave me have resulted in a bit of information overload. Many of those groups don't seem to be active now, or haven't been for years. Additionally there are just so many listed that it's hard to figure out wihch has the kind of good reputation with the city that this article suggests, and which are more "radical" as the article says and unlikely to get things done?

Maybe some future spotlight articles on some of the organizations you think can do the most good would help? I would ask you to just recommend some now, but I'm sure there it would be better to have some detailed articles on a few of the groups that have the most potential to truly improve the quality of life in Hamilton. They could definitely use the publicity, and the help.

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 22:59:04

Robert D:

One group that has been active in Hamiton is the Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disablity Benefits. This group put on an all mayor candiates debate for the election in Hamilton, they also put on a forum for the last provincial electon, in which they had a representation for each of the parties running, the focus was on poverty. The group has been involved in Community Gardens, various members have spoken at many forums, the majority of the members are low income. They are current working on a Peer to Peer project.

Campaign for Adequate Welfare and Disability Benefits meets every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at First Pilgrams Church from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. Go out and meet the members, they are a lively bunch. One can find information about this group on otherside.ca.

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By Grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted November 07, 2008 at 23:03:20

Robert D: Sorry but it is oside.cs

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 13, 2008 at 12:45:02


I wanted to ask you something off topic - why havent I been seeing any articles on this website about "peak oil" lately?

Does the fact that oil has dropped 60% have something to do with it?

How do you account for your oil price predictions?

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted November 13, 2008 at 15:47:52


So let me get this straight.

Oil price go up = "Peak oil"
Oil prices go down = "Peak oil"

i.e. tails you win - heads I lose.

Should I not then be seeing articles on this website about how "peak oil" has predicted the current decline. Why haven't you been trumpeting the current decline if it advances "peak oil" the way you did when the price broke throught $100 dollars per barrel.

This "peak oil" theory is set up in such a way that your asses are proteced should oil prices fall. Kind of like how "global warming" is now referred to as "climate change" to protect all the enviro nuts should the earth not warm and in fact get colder.

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By reuben (registered) - website | Posted November 13, 2008 at 16:18:44

capitalist, im not sure anyone ever said peak oil = ever increasing prices.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 14, 2008 at 03:06:45

Ryan, I offer to you my simplistic theory of balance to explain recent oil price (which are in US dollars) movements.

The Iraq war (which war was largely about securing cheap oil for the US economy) started in mid 2003. The price of oil began its climb beginning in late 2003.

Is it possible that unintended consequences of trying to get cheap oil actually resulted in the complete opposite result?

Another interesting point to keep in mind is how the US government has been borrowing money recently.

According to the BEA, interest payments on government debt has steadily shifted to entities outside the US.

What this means is that other countries are now paying a greater share of the US government's bills. Here are the numbers...

2001 - 82.4 billion foreign , 261.7 billion domestic.

2002 - 76.6B : 238.5B

2003 - 73.9B : 226.7B

2004 - 82.5B : 226.8B

2005 - 103.9B : 241.4B

2006 - 135B : 241.6B

2007 - 165.1B : 246B

Since nothing is free in life, the American people will pay higher costs for oil if they want to fund their social programs using Chinese savings.

My last point about balance refers to how high oil prices inflict most of their damage to lower income people.

In the 4th qtr of 2006, the Bush government had its highest surplus (when excluding military spending, since that does not directly benefit the average person) since 2001.

This means that the average US citizen was paying x in taxes and only receiving x - 2.68% back in useful services (minus interest payments).

Curiously enough, oil prices fell from 77 to around 50 as this larger surplus was being produced.

Since that time, the surplus has shrunk to a deficit, a result of ever increasing handouts to people, based on the theory that spending money that isn't yours will help generate economic growth.

The result of all this free money has been pain, primarily in the form of higher oil and gas prices, but also in food and other basic staples.

More recently, as the government has shifted its support to the corporate sector (bank bailouts), oil prices have been coming down considerably.

Once again this can be seen as balance in action, since debt attributed to corporations does nothing to directly help the average person.

What the government takes from the people on the one hand (by increasing their outstanding debt), the universe gives back to the people on the other (in the form of lower oil prices).

Lastly, I predict that if another large stimulus package comes in aimed at the average person, you will likely see another spike in oil prices, all other things being equal. Nothing in life is free.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 14, 2008 at 17:08:53

Ryan, I understand you discounting the "mystical" nature of my theory regarding balance, but keep an open mind.

In 1971, Richard Nixon was concerned about rising prices. At the time, inflation was around 3%, but after the government imposed wage and price controls, inflation spiked above 12 % and would average 9% over the next decade.

As soon as price controls were lifted in 1981, inflation dropped to around 2% in a year.

The same counter intuitive effect has happened with tax rates. As top marginal rates have fallen from 70% (under Carter) to the current 35%, the share of taxes paid by the top 1 % have risen from 19% to 40% (2006).

During this same time period, the bottom 95% of taxpayers have seen their share of taxes paid fall from 63% to 40%.

If this isn't an argument for balance I don't know what is.

High taxes are supposed to result in more money from the rich and yet the opposite is true. How do you explain this?

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By highwater (registered) | Posted November 14, 2008 at 17:58:23

A Smith wrote

Since nothing is free in life, the American people will pay higher costs for oil if they want to fund their social programs using Chinese savings.

Hilarious that you would single out social programs. So is there a secret memo somewhere? "Hey Beijing. You fund the social programs, we'll cover the tax cuts and Iraq and Afghanistan".

Bonus Friday Night Troll Recipe:

Dirty Martini

2 1/2 oz Bombay Sapphire 1/2 oz scotch (Seriously. Normally you'd use whiskey in a mixed drink, but the dirty martini is the one time you want to break out the single malt.) garlic stuffed olive

Now lay back and think of the Chicago School.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted November 14, 2008 at 20:51:30

Highwater, let me put it another way...

If the American people want the Chinese to fund their military, allowing them to spend more on social programs then they otherwise would be able to, then they will have to pay a price for that (which I think explains the dollar drop and subsequent rise in oil prices).

Is that better?

As to your point about funding tax cuts, what does that mean? Does cutting tax rates cost money?

Under Carter, tax rates on the rich were 70% and government revenue was 28.92% of GDP.

Under Bush II, top marginal rates are 35% and taxes comprise 30.42% of GDP (2007).

Lower tax rates have increased the money government brings in.

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By Dave (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2008 at 18:50:23

Ryan you seem to be attracting more than your fair share of cranks! :-)

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