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.
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.
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.)
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.
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