Published on January 7th, 2017 | by Carolyn Fortuna
How to Organize a Progressive Local Activist Group
Lots of people in 2017 are looking for activist opportunities to reduce their ecological footprints. We’re rising up due to the tenuous political climate around the world and the fear that anthropogenic changes are altering our planet irreversibly. Community involvement and progressive activism can help us to reimagine our local towns and cities and the society in which we live.
Each green community has its own identity— demographics, geography, financial capacity, average educational level, and other features that make each one unique. Add in a cohesive perspective on living in accordance with progressive politics, and you’ve got to approach any kind of community organizing with specific local knowledge in order to gather people’s interest.
Here are some approaches that have worked to bring together like-minded individuals as progressive activists.
Research other communities’ green initiatives
One of the most efficacious ways to organize at the local level is to gain background knowledge about how others are immersing themselves in a green lifestyle. How do towns create 5, 10, or 20 year sustainability plans? What does it take to reforest a barren tract of land? What steps are necessary to invest sidewalk infrastructure dollars for sidewalks in rural areas?
As a creative community organizer, you will be trying to appeal to people’s common self-interest, which is the essential element that binds political organizations and movements. Fight for, rather than against, a community practice. And be knowledgeable about multiple facets of a cause before you promote it.
There is a lot to discover about sustainable living practices, so use that next rainy afternoon wisely by taking a visit to your local library.
Use social media to determine what progressives want
All too often, we jump into an idea without knowing if others are actually interested. With the prevalence and ease of social media tools, we can ask focus questions about possible progressive initiatives. Start a thread on Twitter and see who shares or responds. Pose a question on Facebook. Send out a survey to a select group of individuals with a free and easy-to-create Google Form. You can even give permissions for everyone who answers the survey questions to see the responses for transparency and generating increased interest.
Is your potential audience interested in small actions, like writing letters to elected officials or discussing social justice movements over appetizers? If so, think of these small steps as a launching pad to start getting involved locally. You can expand your activist reach later on. Start a Meetup so people can come together informally, inexpensively, and with low risks. Keeping social justice topics as part of the public conversation is essential to creating any kind of progressive change, however.
Reconnect with the locals
To help green your community, you’ll probably have to revisit and reinvigorate your social circle. Examine where people are gathered for conversations and inquiry. Build in extra time on your errands, during exercise segments, and through social events to talk to friends, neighbors, and people with whom you’ve never before spoken. Sure, time is precious and extending social networks takes energy and enthusiasm. But it’s most often the busy days in your schedule that will provide the greatest number of networking opportunities.
We live in a contradictory age of social media isolation and personal relationships. So, use electronic means whenever possible to get the word out about your community organizing initiative, but also make yourself accessible and talk to community members. It’s really important to use the personal touch when asking others to join you with their time and effort.
Choose people-powered travel whenever possible
When you walk or cycle, you interact with the environment. You feel the warm breezes or the light chilling rain. Your body benefits from the exercise. Oh, and you’ll also have an easier time meeting people if you bike or hike. Leaving the car in the garage is an overt effort to show your commitment to reducing your individual carbon footprint, and you’ll set examples for others.
Once you start to discover others in your area who prefer to walk or bike, you could start a weekly gathering where people come together to share those interests. Who knows what other green topics could come up in conversations in your new small people-powered community?
Make as many of your purchases local as you can
Becoming an integral part of your community will help you to gain an activist collaborative, as you’ll give others the opportunity to hold you accountable. Where can you start? Well, what happens when you visit your local farmers’ market? You see the cultural core of your community surrounding you. You learn about varieties of plants suitable to your area and the people who have dedicated part of their lives to growing them. Your dollar stays in your neighborhood, sustaining the community. And you make your dedication to your community visible and tangible.
Even when shopping in the larger grocery, choose perishables with the smallest amount of shipping costs incurred. When food miles are lower, there is less carbon impact.
Get involved politically on the local level
Rather than jumping into national and international politics, it probably makes sense to put your focus on local politics. They’re excellent learning spaces and much less intimidating than the larger campaigns. As an activist, you can make connections, influence decisions, and speak out for underrepresented local groups who are often disproportionately affected by environmental injustices.
Local politics offer a good way to get your voice heard and offers rich opportunities to make an immediate impact so that your community becomes better, greener, and fairer.
Come up with one green concept, to start
As an interested and engaged community member, you are an observer. Look around your neighborhood or city and determine ways it can become greener with your guidance. Imagine the moment just before the climax of your community organizing initiative. Work backward from that moment, identifying each step that will contribute to your envisioned success.
Select one simple idea on which to focus. Do you want to help a neighbor, extend the reach of your workplace, or organize a project with a particular audience in mind? What initiatives aren’t already on the community calendar? Your idea should be one that will resonate with and benefit a wide number of residents, with the opportunity for folks of different ages and backgrounds to get involved. Sure, you’ll have to delegate tasks to keep everyone feeling useful and needed, but that’s part of being a good leader and manager.
Maybe your idea will appeal to families, who are always looking for cost-effective ways to teach kids the value of service and philanthropy. Believe both in what you’re promoting and that different constituent groups can come together through the common connection of your community organizing initiative. Welcome all, regardless of any group or category affiliation to join you as an activist.
Become a role model
People are curious about how others adopt a green lifestyle. Share stories about your attempts and failures; throw in a little laughter. There’s nothing like being self-deprecating to help people be comfortable with something new and different.
Before you know it, you could be offering a small workshop at your local library or community center to educate and empower others about a progressive practice about which you feel strongly. Once you gain a public voice, you could bring in others to organize book or film discussions, vegan cooking demonstrations, organic gardening workshops, or hikes on local land trust properties. It all begins with your examples that you offer to share with others.
As you model, reinforce the importance of unity and seek out a variety of strategies to compensate for the divisions among the people with whom you work. You can also use these public opportunities to differentiate your role as organizer versus leader and spokesperson. Maybe you do want to take on all three roles, or maybe delegating spreads out the potential for success. Only you know the answer to that.
Plan and plan some more
Get out that last century notebook and start brainstorming every single action you need for your community organizing to get off the proverbial ground. Think through your event or concept and plan every last detail. What resources besides volunteer effort will you need and from what sources will you acquire them? Set a specific goal for what you hope to accomplish, review that goal constantly, and track your progress. Revising as you go along is okay, but be aware of what changes you’re making and why.
Send out a free electronic invitation to your entire online network through Evite. What will publicity look like? Will volunteers need to be assigned in shifts? Who is responsible for setup and cleanup? Assign individuals to take charge of particular parts, keeping those for yourself that only you have the specialized knowledge to accomplish. Use sharable documents like Google Docs so everyone that’s participating can add in ideas and see changes as they occur.
Prep your people
Take as much time as is necessary to help the people around you understand their roles, tasks, and responsibilities. Standing up for ideas takes a certain amount of risks. Role play a variety of scenarios that could go wrong so everyone can act responsibly, individually, and together.
Frame and ask questions so that people want to be involved in your community organizing initiative. Make people think deeply and in divergent ways as part of advanced preparation.
Invite local media to be involved
Traditional print news outlets that focus on local and regional news are always looking to feature the newest community activities. Writing a concise press release is really important, as it helps you to get the word out quickly and effectively. It also helps you to frame your green idea in a meaningful way that will be appealing to your potential audience in just a few words. Don’t hesitate to sprinkle in a few intriguing or persuasive words like “magical,” “optimistic,” or “transformative” to add a little zip into your press release, either.
And, at the highest moment of intensity in your community organizing initiative, you might consider organizing a demonstration. Demonstrations are a powerful visual image of your community coming together to fight toward a better world for all.
Reinvent the activity so it becomes a local cultural practice
If your idea was well-received, whether on a very small scale or as a major local event, keep the momentum going. Use the email addresses or Facebook followers you’ve collected to post pictures of people in action. Identify and congratulate other local activists for their efforts, thus become part of a web of a progressive green community. Send thank you notes by postal service and emails to the most important individuals who rose up to be activists alongside you. Acknowledge them and seek their help on your next community organizing initiative.
In other words, keep that momentum going. You’re making a green impact.
Be self-reflective about your community organizing initiative
Success is wonderful! You gain personal confidence and knowledge that your efforts have contributed to a better world. Yet, sometimes, when people gain power, they fail to use it democratically. Always incorporate social justice action so as to include as many individuals as possible in your initiative.
Also, separate out some time to think about your thinking processes from the beginning to the end of your community organizing initiative. What worked well, and what would you do differently next time? How did the participants react? How many people participated? What body language cues did you pick up on that can inform you for next time? Learn and grow from each time you bring together community members into your vision of what it means to be a progressive, contributing member of your community.
You’d also be giving adults the chance to feel good and learn while they’re contributing to their community. More than anything, your efforts toward progressive community organizing will inspire hope and motivate a new generation of community organizers, young activists, and everyone who wants to rise up and make an impact in their community.