Finding the Best Ways to Make a Difference

This seems pretty straightforward. Finding the best match between what you have to offer and what your community needs and wants is the key to making a significant difference. The better you understand your community, and the better you understand yourself, the more capable you will be of finding the best places to participate and, having made those choices, the more effective you will be in the roles and at the goals you have chosen.

If your highest priority as an activist is the climate crisis, you might regard local activist agendas as distractions from what is most important. You might also think that local initiatives won't really contribute much, even in those cases where they do focus on issues you regard as somewhat important. This perspective can be self-defeating.

While you might believe that what the community wants is not very important as compared to life-or-death issues such as climate change, this thought would mislead you. The very real urgency of the issues can cause you to overplay your hand when you should be engaged in a "long game."

The Virtues of the Long Game

There are two problems with the short-term thinking that seem to point to both your role and the issues you should address. If you try to play a role for which you are ill-prepared and ill-suited, you would be almost certain to dislike the experience, and you would be more likely to "burn-out" and drop out. And if you try to lead your community to do what you think is important without considering what the community wants, your community would be unlikely to follow. These outcomes would be, of course, mutually reinforcing.

A self-assessment can help you engage in ways that encourage your sustained motivation over the long haul. And a community assessment can help you recognize where your community is already motivated. You need to join in that because credibility and impact are established within the flow of community life. You must become part of that flow, you must jump into that particular river, if you want to be an effective activist and advocate. If you aren't willing to join in, to jump into the community's river, you'll always be an outsider no matter how long you have lived there. You must become credible to community leaders and respected by other activists to have the most impact, or for that matter, any real impact at all.

Building Your Credibility & Influence

If you are going to be a local activist for years, if this isn't just a one-time fling, then it will boost your effectiveness over time to cultivate a particular type of reputation. You do that by ALWAYS behaving in a manner that will be described by others using terms like these: honest, a straight-shooter, no hidden agendas, always bargains in good faith, consistently fair-minded, displays good will toward all, shows community spiritedness, very courteous, respectful, even-tempered, calm under fire, level-headed... You get the idea. You get the reputation you earn. Be a person of honor, be that person whose word is their bond, and your ability to make your community a better place will grow. Maybe by a lot.

Some Solutions Solve Many Problems

So, perhaps your greatest concern is climate change, or public safety, or the schools, or other particular local problems. (Another article offers a much more detailed description of some of the primary threats and opportunities for communities.)

The problems your community has are likely interconnected in various ways. Multiple problems usually make each other worse. But less widely appreciated are the connections between solutions. Things that help with one community problem often make it easier to solve other community problems.

Finding Roles That Fit You is the Key

There is no formula, no cookbook approach to finding the best match between you and your community. The best advice is to be calm, very calm, and then to look at things from all sides. Ideas may emerge from this process, such as a doctor telling his vulnerable patients about heat dangers and why they are growing.

You may decide that the best approach for you would be a bunch of small steps (tweaking how you carry out professional, business, or community roles, for example), or you may decide to work toward an ongoing role of community advocacy and leadership.

Regardless of where you land, remember that your abilities can be developed, your self-confidence can be strengthened, and things you may consider beyond your reach today may look realistic down the road.

Projects Need Cooperation & That Builds Trust

People involved in local projects often find that overcoming divisions and disagreements is central to their success. Sometimes local folks may simply ignore what they disagree about, and sometimes they may explicitly call a truce. But however they do it, in successful local community projects people find a way to set aside their differences in the interest of accomplishing a shared goal.

If you end up working on a committee to pass a local bond measure to repair roads and bridges, and if committee members are aware that some of them are on the "other side" in terms of state or national politics, members may be jolted by some pretty significant cognitive dissonance. If you discover each other to be friendly, community spirited, well intentioned, and capable, you may, in spite of underlying anger and frustration, make the connection and understand that the people you're feeling hostility toward in the abstract are these very same people in the flesh. Hostility makes less and less sense as people work together on shared goals. Cooperation breeds cooperation by replacing hostility with growing trust in a virtuous cycle.

If, after the successful conclusion of your bond campaign to repair roads and bridges, you begin to respectfully voice your concerns about climate change, including the dangers and opportunities the climate crisis brings to the community, you are much more likely to find people willing to listen and consider what you have to say. If you want your views to be treated with respect, start by showing respect for the community's desire for decent roads and safe bridges. Don't patronize those desires as side issues to what is "really important." Show respect to get respect, and show respect by joining in, becoming part of the flow of your community.

Local Initiatives Are Thriving

Millions are engaged on a local level, but their efforts seldom make the Network News. As a result, we miss, never have the opportunity to be inspired by, all the good and successful work already being done. It is only natural, as a consequence, to underestimate the potential to greatly increase the change accomplished locally.

Many people, particularly those with a more conservative viewpoint, see advantages to maximizing the amount of problem solving done at a local level. That view can be helpful. Local initiatives are vital to local communities because nobody else will secure their futures. State and federal governments won't be up to the task. If communities are to have a positive future, they will need to build it by local effort... we must save ourselves.

Published: June 2019
Revised: May 2023

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