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Citizen Toolkit

Get Mobilized to Win

The ABCs of organizing your community to take on power

By Charles Dobson 2 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca
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Second of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.

Community organizing is getting a group of unconnected people who are doing many unconnected things to start working together for some common purpose.  It tends to focus on bringing together people who share a common place such as an apartment building, city block, or neighborhood, but most of what is said below also applies to organizing around an issue. 

Most organizing methods will be easy if you have resources, particularly money for a coordinator. Some will be difficult or impossible without resources. Most of the literature on community development is too optimistic about what can be achieved by all-volunteer groups that are not propelled by a hot issue. Without resources you usually need to:

Where do you begin if you want to become more involved in public life or the public life of your neighborhood? Here are some options.

Begin with research

Although professionals often start with research, you don't have to start here. On the other hand, you might be wise to begin with research if you intend to tackle an issue you do not fully understand.  If your focus is local, a good place to begin research is by talking to local politicians, and people in local organizations.

Begin with a community building activity

As part of this series we will look at projects that bring people together.

Begin by joining an existing group

Most places have many different kinds of active organizations. Linking up with one of these can be an easy way to get involved. Begin by checking out the groups listed on your city's web site under the heading community organizations, or neighborhood organizations. Begin by starting a new group

If working with an existing group looks difficult, you might have to start a new group. New organizations usually form around a core of three to five committed people. Putting together a core of first-rate people is worth the effort. Once you have done so, consider these questions:

Make a special effort to remain friendly with other local groups that have similar goals. Friendliness can help cooperation prevail over the tendency toward competition. Inter-group cooperation is the engine of real progress at the grassroots.   

Forming a core group


Forming a core group is the single most important part of creating new community group or public-interest group. A core group without funds or staff should stay small. It should not expand beyond ten people--what sociologist's call a primary group. For groups that do intend to grow, the core initially sets direction of the group, makes most decisions, and does most of the work. Because members of a core group usually spend a lot of time together, they should be people who enjoy one another's company.

Never open the door to all-comers

The makeup of the core will determine the friendliness, effectiveness and lastingness of the group. So don't open the door to anyone. Instead, carefully choose friendly, keen people with a record of getting things done. Open the door, if you must, once you have an effective core group in place.

No doubt this advice will set off alarm bells for anyone trained in community development where unreserved openness and inclusivity have become a mantra. In an ideal world every group would be completely open and inclusive. In practice small groups with no external support tend to break up when they include people who are incompetent, unreliable, or simply unpleasant.

Decide what kind of group you want to be


Different grassroots groups have different reasons for getting together. This book is mainly intended for public interest groups meaning groups that are interested in providing public goods to more than their own members. So the first consideration is defining the public good: Is it preserving native fish, or preventing teen drug addiction, or something else?

Grassroots groups also have different styles. They range from those that try to provide a public good themselves, to those that try to get government or someone else to provide the public good. The first kind of group might clear streams for fish habitat, or arrange for former teen drug addicts to talk in high schools. The second kind of group might campaign for stronger laws protecting streams, or agitate for a program to prevent teen drug addiction.

Decide what kind of people you want

If you are fighting a battle against a large company you might want a corporate lawyer from your community, a communications expert for signs and flyers and a labour organizer to mobilize the community. A different kind of group might want people who are well-connected to the community, to political leaders, or to business leaders. A group that gets together for conversation will want people who are friendly, we'll-read and knowledgeable. A group that takes on social change projects will be interested in creative people with an activist background, and strategic abilities. Generally, look for people who are:

Find the right people

There are several ways to do this. Most involve identifying prospects then arranging lunch or follow-up meeting to get to know them better.

You may already know people who fit your criteria.

If you don't know anyone, you may know someone who does.

You can hold a community meeting and survey participants. This is the best way to proceed if the community is faced with a problem. Natural leaders tend to come forth. If skills are important ask prospects what they do for a living. Get a name and phone number from the best prospects, then arrange to get together. Once you identify a good person, ask them to join the core group.

Connect the core to other participants


With a good core group everything else falls into place. If the objective is to address a community problem, the core group will have to figure out how to keep everyone informed with what 's going on, and at least lightly involved.

Next week: Grassroots rebellions need leaders. How to be one.

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art & Design in Vancouver and is author of The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, available from bookstores and New Society Publishers.  [Tyee]

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