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Citizen Toolkit

Preparing Your Battle Plan

Launching a successful community project begins with good research, strategy, and knowing your recruits.

By Charles Dobson 10 Jan 2004 |
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Seventh of a ten part series from The Troublemaker's Teaparty, A Manual for Effective Citizen Action.

Devising and carrying out community projects is a key part of community organizing and of community development in general. This article focuses on place-based projects where citizens work together to provide a public good or community benefit. Let's talk about two key phases of any such endeavor: research and planning.

Research before reacting

Let's suppose your focus is a neighborhood problem in a city. Cities behave in tricky ways. What may seem an obvious solution often appears less so after a little research. Acting before researching can waste a lot of time, and it can reinforce the stereotype of active citizens as highly vocal, but largely uninformed. The stereotype is the most often cited excuse for dismissing calls for greater citizen participation in local decision making. Here is a typical story of what can happen for lack of a little research. People living in a quiet neighborhood receive notice of a proposal to use a nearby residence as a psychiatric halfway house. Fears of "crazy people" running amok prompt them to form an ad hoc citizens group, which moves swiftly into action to combat the proposal.

Having skipped research, they don't discover that most special needs residential facilities (or SNRFs) do not create problems or reduce property values. They don't discover that most local residents are not even aware of SNRFs in their neighborhood. Without these facts, the group goes to battle. Over nothing.

Gather existing information

If your focus is a local issue, your municipal planning department may be able to help. It will usually have community profiles, traffic studies, zoning and other maps, aerial photos, and possibly an official community plan. Local health authorities or service agencies may have a needs assessment or more focused social studies of your area.

Back copies of community newsletters and local newspapers will contain the recent history of many local issues. Your branch of the public library will have copies of many local reports, studies and newsletters. Interview those who know what is going on in the community, and those who know how to deal with an issue. Often they are people with first-hand experience. A small focus-group discussion with six teens can reveal more about teens in the community than a survey of 500 adults.

Discover your human resources

To really understand your neighborhood, you need to research its capacity to act. Start by answering these questions:

Who can help?

What resources does the community have: churches, hospitals, schools, business groups, religious organizations, citizen associations, clubs, ethnic groups, sports and recreational groups, cultural associations, service groups, major property owners, businesses, individuals?

For a practical guide to tapping local capacity by working in partnership with other organizations see John Kretzmann and John McKnight's book Building Communities from the Inside Out.

Research solutions from other places

Your problem may seem unique, but people in other places have probably faced a similar problems. Rather than start from scratch, you can save a lot of time by finding out how they have addressed the problem.

Start locally with other neighborhoods by contacting neighborhood associations -- most towns and cities try to keep an up-to-date list. Then move on to other cities. For place-based problem solving in the U.S. contact the National Civic League, or look up back issues of its journal, the National Civic Review. In Canada the Federation of Canadian Municipalities might be able to help.

The planning phase

Planning is necessary if you want to avoid wasted activity and make your collective efforts count. Planning should move from the general to the specific, from the big picture to the small, from the long term to the short, from "what" to "how." It entails:

How do your objectives score?

Generate ideas for objectives that will lead to your goal, and then decide which to pursue. Test alternative objectives by asking:

One objective at a time

To be effective, your group should pursue only one objective at a time. New groups should begin with small projects that have a high probability of success over the short term.

One good way to identify a group's priorities is to ask people to write their own view of what the priorities are. Each person writes his or her priorities on large post-it notes, one priority per note, and then sticks them to a board or large sheet of paper where everyone can see them. A facilitator helps the group arrange the notes into clusters with similar characteristics. The top priority soon becomes apparent.

Map the landscape of support and opposition

One of the most important recurring decisions for any group is what their strategy will be in the face of opposition. Given the situation at hand, what is going to be most effective: cooperation, negotiation, or confrontation? Smart groups do not have a single style; they constantly respond to shifting circumstances by deciding what is most appropriate at the moment. Generally they make every attempt to succeed through cooperation and negotiation, reserving confrontation for clear and continuing intransigence.

As you think about strategy, you will need to answer the following questions: Where can you find the resources you need? Who will support your initiative? What concerns will they have? How can you take advantage of their support? Who will oppose your initiative? What concerns will they have? What form will their opposition take?

Charles Dobson teaches creative problem solving at the Emily Carr Insitute of Art and 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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