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Civic Engagement

Exercising your civic muscle on local issues can expand your base, empower your members and result in some worthwhile change

Aren't you tired of giving up your benefits, your rights and your dignity?

Our communities are on the verge of being stripped of benefits and rightsInequality is moving in the wrong direction. All of this is happening because low income people don't vote. Here's the good news. Voter participation is so low that even a small effort at a high rise, a community center, or a neighborhood meeting can make a huge difference. Canton provides an example of the problem. Voter turn out was less than 10%. Youngstown and Cincinnati primaries may illustrate the impact of electoral participation by your members.

Last week, In Youngstown, incumbent mayor John A. McNally lost to challenger Jamael Tito Brown. While race more than turnout seems to have been decisive, one must imagine that enthusiasm made a difference, because every party-endorsed candidate (all white) lost in the primary campaign.

In Cincinnati, low turnout hurt second place finisher, incumbent John Cranley "Cranley did not address why he thought turnout was an abysmal 11 percent, but he commended Simpson for rallying voters." and enthusiasm characterized the campaign of his opponent Yvette Simpson. "Simpson had about 30 to 40 consistent volunteers and they started making calls back in January." 

​ If your organization is sitting on the electoral sidelines, you are missing a great opportunity. Fannie M. Lewis taught many of us "There's only two things that make a difference: people and money...and we don't have money." Wanna make a difference? Mobilize your people. 

Cleveland Lead Safe Network (CLSN) is engaged in a campaign to remove an amendment from the State Budget Bill. Here are some lessons that CLSN learned.
1. Don't wait for voting time to get engaged. Engage public officials and opinion leaders through meetings, op/eds, background briefings, and email updates.

2. Encourage your members to get engaged in public issues by using petitions, sign on letters, and op/eds Hold a demonstration or make a presence to make a point. Local issues are much better ways to "train" your members in the political process.

3. Talk about issues early and often. Six months before the pre-emption amendment was added to the bill, CLSN members were warned that this could happen and educated about tactics that they would need to adopt.

4. Visit in teams so newbies in your group can gain confidence and learn talking points from more experienced members.

5. Work your lists. CLSN has two normal lists and two more "special" lists. Normal is members and supporters. Special lists include opinion leaders and allies in other communities. You never know who may be supportive of what issue. You often can't tell who can reach a critical decision maker.

5. Simplify your message to a sentence. For CLSN the message is "Remove the lead poisoning pre-emption language from the State Budget bill."

6. Build alliances, networks and coalitions around common interests. Without a "tip" from Ohio Healthy Homes Network, advocates around the state would have missed the hidden amendment.

Arlo Guthrie taught us "Friends, it may be a movement" back in the 60's 
 when the Civil Rights, anti-war, and Feminist campaigns merged into a movement. Even if you've lived through a social movement, it may be hard to recognize how mass social action evolves. The present moment "feels like" an emerging movement. Currently called "The Resistance," this new movement may have roots in the "Occupy" actions of the last decade, which mobilized young people against the excesses of the Great Recession. That's the thing about social movements. No one is in charge, everything seems possible. Local change efforts that build on a movement can get momentum (and success) more quickly. Use the flow!

Posted May 7, 2017


 

Converting social action into social change.

    Social movements arise when masses of people begin to act together to demand change. Think of the social movements of the 60's and 70's: civil rights, women's rights and the environment. A "normal" course of events is that mass actions shift to organizational advocacy and then institutional change. The recent upsurge in political participation by ordinary people seems to confirm that a new wave of mass action is upon us since around 2008. Early signs of this new social movement were the Tea Party Movement and Occupy Wall Street. The problem with uprisings is that they don't make change unless they find an organizational "home."

    Advocacy networks can be the backbone that connects mass social movements to organizations. Networks can help connect activists to staff who can sustain the energy of the movement.

Here's some real life examples of network operations that illustrate these differences.

  • Networks bring personal needs and interests around a common interest or theme. Issues that the network addresses depend on personal/shared interests.

  • Power in a network is based on participation, expertise, and contributions. Networkers who contribute the most and best content have the most influence. In a thriving network, no one's participation is "out of order."

  • Communications in a network are ideally interactive. Networkers call this sharing. Anyone in a network can share with anyone or everyone else in the network. Often networks use a "community manager" to moderate communication.

  • Decision making: Consensus decision making is characteristic of networks because attracting networkers to join involves balancing personal and network interests and goals.   

  Advantages of advocacy networks:

  • People who are mobilized in a mass movement can be brought into on-going involvement through a network. Participants in the recent Women's March on DC were connected into local networks while still on the buses back from the march.

  • Networks provide scale. Networking is an inexpensive way to reach a lot of people. No space, staff, or supply costs to cover for normal operations.

  • Networks promote diversity. Traditional grassroots organizations are based on "face to face" relationships: church, school, neighborhood or housing development. Networks can span a city, county or state.

    Drawbacks of networks

  • Advocacy Networks can be all work and no play. Most networks are problem or issue focused. Social supports are limited to periodic meetings, sometimes called "meet ups." Planning events can help.

  • Without broad participation, networks can become echo chambers or ego exercises.

  • Organizations that are accustomed to member-based behind closed doors advocacy will need to loosen up to accommodate the new activists.

    For RHINOs, a good place to start with networking is to link people that you know from other community groups and program participants together in an interactive listserv or open Facebook page. Be patient. Many of your networkers will be unfamiliar with sharing on line. Encourage networkers to ask questions, share resources and collaborate on projects. The more value they get, the more incentive to participate.


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