Community Understanding Increases Success

If you have not been substantially involved in activism in your community (very broadly defined), whether you are a long-time resident or a recent arrival, you will make better choices and be more effective if you take the time to really understand your community. Community InsightsMost people who have been or are now active in the community will also benefit from getting a better or more up-to-date understanding.

The suggestions below assume that you are considering becoming an activist or becoming more active, considering expanding your advocacy into a new arena, or simply that you would like to become more effective as an activist and advocate in your community. From whatever point you begin, the most important counsel is don't take a blind leap into the unknown. Instead, learn as much as you can first.

Ask Questions to Gain Understanding

For our purposes here, questions can be broken into three types: the nature of the playing board (e.g. community history), the identity of the players (both individuals and organizations), and the objective circumstances of the community. A book could be written about each, but short summaries will have to suffice.

Community History (The Playing Board) - What threads and themes tell the story of cooperation and conflict in past community endeavors? What pain has the community experienced (floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, mass shootings, surging drug deaths, police shootings, plant closings, toxic releases, discovery of pollution in the water supply, other traumas)? What community processes have tried to look ahead (development plans, land protection plans, transportation plans, any other forward looking plans)? Have there been "visioning" or "strategic planning" exercises (fancy names for groups of citizens trying to think about what they'd like to future of the community to look like). Have any of these processes identified threats and opportunities? What projects, plans, campaigns have recently been completed (whether successful or not)?

Leaders & Organizations (The Players) - Who are the leaders (considering both established institutions and activist movements)? What are their reputations? Are they regarded as solid, as honest and trying in good faith to contribute to the community, or are they regarded as gadflies, as attention-grabbing grandstanders, or in some other disapproving way? Do the leaders or the organizations have opponents? Or enemies? What have been the consequences of their conflicts? Are there particular people or organizations that have pushed what you view as goals of great importance? Who has opposed them, why, and with what result? Finally, are there in the community any experts or people whose practical life experience has made them skilled in the arts of conflict resolution? There may be people who identify themselves in this way, but are there also people who have a track record of successful negotiation? Or a record of successfully leading highly heterogeneous organizations through turbulent waters? Are there retired politicians or retired institution leaders who could be trapped to come out of retirement under the right circumstances?

The Objective Circumstances of the Community - What objective realities point toward or away from particular threats or opportunities? What does hard data about employment, income levels, education levels, unemployment claims, government assistance claims, crime, drug use, alcoholism, divorce rates, etc. reveal? Likewise, has or could a physical assessment of infrastructure and utility adequacy and condition, flooding and seismic risks, and other physical characteristics unearth vulnerabilities (and sometimes opportunities)? Have such threats been objectively identified and publicly called out? When and by whom? Have there been scientific opinion surveys adequate to reveal truly enduring sentiments that are effectively facts, realities beyond the reach of short-term change? Have opportunities arising from physical conditions been identified (e.g. strong resource development potential)? What are the most significant verifiable trends influencing the likely direction of the community?

Getting & Staying in Touch With Your Community

OK. So most people aren't going to tackle the kind of research project implied by the above. But as is often the case, 80 percent of the benefit can be gained from the first 20 percent of the effort. Go to those with their fingers on the community's pulse early in your process. Then, for those questions still unanswered, you can dig deeper if it seems important.

Fingers On The Pulse - Many people may have a sense of the community drawn from extensive contact over an extended period. Such impressions are very subject to distortion (both unintentional and intentional), but they are still the best, shortest path to a better understanding of the community. People who may have their fingers on the pulse of at least some of the community's sentiments include reporters, planners, clergy, call-in radio hosts, local politicians, editorial and op-ed writers, local political party chairs, public safety officials (police, sheriff, fire), public affairs representatives of institutions, and others unique to each community. Again, obviously, many of these people will be significantly biased. Try to know their biases and make corresponding adjustments, but don't neglect sources because they are biased or (worse) because you disagree with their biases. Talk with people on "both sides" whenever possible. Don't argue with your sources. Ask questions. Listen carefully. Take notes. Full stop. Don't meddle with what you don't (yet) understand.

To Dig Deeper - Libraries may maintain local newspaper archives, and they may have all kinds of local and unique information. Sometimes they have census publications, and they may have copies of important local documents (studies, reports, development plans, etc.). The local librarian, if in service for a long time, may be valuable both to point you to the resources in the library's collection and to relate verbally some key aspects of community history. Sometimes librarians pay attention to what is going on around them. These comments apply to local planners, who can point you to and give you access to key reports and plans as well as provide verbal assessments of many community leaders (in confidence, of course). However you get them, be aware of key community plans. Don't be thrown off by the names. They may be called development plans, land use plans, visioning reports, strategic plans, and described with a rich variety of terms. It doesn't matter what they are called. If they report on the results of a systematic process by community residents and officials to assess future directions, then they should interest you.

Building Up Your Credibility & Influence

Of course, few people start by saying I want to be an activist, and I'm going to look for the best opportunities to do that. Instead, most people start out with a particular issue in mind and look for ways to push that interest.

But if you want people to listen to you, usually you have to listen to them first. And that means really listen. It takes time and patience to really listen, and that's hard to do if you are caught up in the passions of activism. And, if you want people to seriously consider your views on what to do, usually you have to follow their lead first. Most people know enough not to join a group and immediately try to lead it. But you should wait a lot longer than the second meeting you attend before speaking as if you have too many answers.

Your activist passion may be the climate crisis, but your community may be more immediately concerned about their roads falling apart and their bridges falling down. Chances are, if you think about it, you personally don't want your roads and bridges falling apart either. So maybe the place to start your activist journey is to support what the community wants and pitch in to help make those wishes into reality. If you do that, especially if you contribute a lot, people are more likely to listen when you say the levees along the river need to be raised and reinforced, and that this is because of climate change.

Study your community, your neighborhood, your workplace, and the organizations in which you participate. If you look for them, there may be steps to reduce differences and build greater unity that could win broad support. Notable problems in the recent past may open some opportunities. Look for the overlaps between what activists are interested in working on and what the community may be inclined to support. Pick winnable campaigns.

Remember that when you are involved in community life, you are always doing many things with any single step. Some you intend, some you don't. No matter what impacts you do or do not have, you are always either building or diminishing your credibility as an advocate. The Golden Rule of Leadership suggests that you should ask what kind of person you would follow as a leader, and then strive to be that person. If you, dear reader, are the kind of person who would be reading these words, then you are also likely to be the kind of person who would follow someone who was honest, had no hidden agendas, was respectful in dealing with everyone... you fill in the rest of your list, but you get the idea. As a great (and successful) leader once said, "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."

Published: June 2019
Revised: May 2023

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