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Where do you begin if you want to become
more involved in 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.
Begin with a community building
The "Community Building Activities" section of the Handbook lists seventeen informal opportunities for neighbours to meet one another. The bulk of community building in Vancouver comes from these activities. The most common are Organizing Around an Issue, and Block Watch.
Begin by joining an existing group
Most neighbourhoods 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 community groups listed by city hall.
Begin by starting a new group
If working with an existing group looks difficult, you might have to start a new group. New neighbourhood 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:
What are we trying to do?
What size of area are we going to
(The smaller the area, the easier.)
Who will support our efforts?
What is a good idea for our first action? (It should be simple, focus on a local concern, and increase the group's visibility.)
How are we going to reach out to others?
Should we organize a general meeting and invite the community?
Make a special effort to remain friendly with other local groups that have similar goals. Friendliness can replace the common tendency toward competition with the potential of cooperation. Inter-group cooperation is the engine of real progress at the grassroots. (Back to Top)
If you want to expand the number of people who know what you are doing, you need to get noticed. This usually means working with the media. Besides informing a larger public, the media can empower residents, nudge politicians, and add momentum to a grassroots initiative. According to David Enwicht in Reclaiming Our Cities and Towns, empowerment comes from simple exposure. "Group members say, 'Did you see we were in the news again. Isn't it great? We are really starting to get places now'".
When you understand the media, you can also raise public issues that are being ignored, and reframe issues from a citizen's perspective. Be careful, however, if you are not used to dealing with the media. Many journalists look for stories rooted in conflict, error and injustice. They may impose a confrontational agenda that can actually make it more difficult for you to resolve your issue.
Assemble a list of sympathetic journalists
If you have a positive news story, you may find no one is interested. One way around this is to cultivate a list of journalists who care about community building. Note their deadlines, so you can call after a deadline.
Find the media professionals in your
Seek help from the people in your community who work for newspapers, radio and television stations. They can provide advice on what is newsworthy, how to get attention, and who to call. Most will not want to appear in the foreground, but in the background they will be invaluable.
Define your objective, then your
Don't rush off to the media without a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. Use this to create a set of clear messages you wish to project. If you intend to air a problem, one of your messages should suggest a reasonable solution.
Make actions newsworthy
To get media attention you need to tell a good story with a human focus that is happening now. The more creative, colorful, and humorous, the better coverage will be. Getting noticed is largely a matter of dramatizing issues.
Link actions to other news events
Your actions will stand a better chance of getting covered if they tie into other events in the news: government announcements, holidays, local conferences, world events, hot issues. The media like a good feeding frenzy.
Issue news releases
Send out a news release if you have fresh information you wish to publicize. Issue the release on your group's letterhead. At the top put "For immediate release" and the date. Next, create a strong newspaper style headline that will interest an editor who has to shuffle through hundreds of news releases every day. The first sentence of the copy should contain the most important fact in your story. The rest of the release should cover the essentials of who, what, where, when and why. At the bottom put "For more information" and contact name and phone number.
Keep the whole thing short, one to two pages double spaced. For big events send out a news release seven days prior, then telephone a reminder one to two days before the event. Faxing a release without any personal contact is usually a waste of time.
Aim at TV
Some of the most effective citizens groups get TV coverage by staging events that provide action and good pictures. Greenpeace, for instance, gets attention by sending little rubber boats buzzing around huge aircraft carriers. Some groups also shoot their own broadcast quality video or create video news releases to help control what is broadcast.
Try to schedule actions on dull news days, allowing enough time to process material for the 6 o'clock news. Choose a spokesperson who comes across well on TV. On television a great deal is communicated non-verbally through tone of voice, facial expression, and body gestures.
Practice your blurb
For regular TV and radio news you will have 15-30 seconds to make a statement. Practice what you want to say before the event. Your statement or a minor variation can be used in response to any question asked. No one will know the difference.
Reframe stories on live radio
If you can get on a live radio show you can actually shape the news, because you won't be edited as you would on TV or in the newspaper. Just make sure you know what you want to say.
Write a Letter to the Editor
Writing a letter to the editor of a community newspaper is an easy way to get publicity. Small papers will publish any reasonable letter that does not require a lot of fact checking. Common Cause, the largest citizens group in the US, did a study which showed that a letter to the editor was one of the most effective ways of influencing politicians.
Don't rely on the media to educate
The mass media prefer to entertain. If you want to get out detailed information, you will probably have to do it yourself through newsletters, bulletins and other methods listed in the Handbook.
Consider other kinds of announcements
Community bulletin boards run by radio and some cable stations can announce your event. So can ethnic newspapers, TV and radio stations. Public service announcements on radio and TV offer another opportunity. For radio, send in public service announcements of 30 seconds or about 75 words. Include a start and stop date, plus information on your organization.
Consider alternative media
Consider printed t-shirts; buttons; window signs; posters; bumper stickers; cartop signs; public projections, bridge banners, notices in apartment building laundries, church orders of service, web sites, email networks, and the newsletters of other groups.
Try the direct approach
Consider phoning or writing those who have the power to put things right. If you have a city-related problem that you cannot solve, even with the help of city staff, call or email a city councilor. (Back to Top)
Planning is necessary if you want to avoid wasted activity, and make your collective efforts count. It 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". Planning entails:
Setting a goal
Devising objectives (or strategies) to achieve the goal
Devising actions to achieve the
Look beyond the obvious to find good objectives
In trying to deal with a problem like growing juvenile crime your group might decide on the obvious objective of getting more police. If you looked beyond symptoms, at causes, you might decide to try to open local schools during evenings. Research can help you look beyond the obvious.
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:
Does it have strong group support?
Is it specific enough? ("Reduce crime" is too general. "Eliminate street prostitution on Angus Drive" is specific.)
Is it easily attainable?
Will it have an immediate visible impact?
How will we know when we've reached our objective? How do we measure progress?
To be effective, your group should pursue no more than one or two objectives at any given time. New groups should begin with small projects having a high probability of success over the short term.
Plan the action
Generate ideas that will lead to your objective, then decide which to carry forward. Once your group agrees on an action, create an action plan. It should include a time-frame; an ordered list of tasks to complete; persons responsible for each task; a list of resources required including materials; facilities and funds. Keep action plans flexible so you can respond to the unexpected. One good way to identify a group's priorities is to ask people to write their views with thick markers on large post-it notes. Each person sticks their notes to a board or large sheet of paper where everyone can see them. A facilitator then helps the group arrange the notes into clusters with similar characteristics.
Once you've completed the necessary groundwork, you need to act. Surprisingly, many groups never get around to acting. John Gardiner says, "Many talk about action but are essentially organized for study, discussion or education. Still others keep members busy with organizational housekeeping, committee chores, internal politics and passing of resolutions."
While many interest groups get together just for discussion, community groups tend to work best when acting accompanies talking. Otherwise, they tend to shrink to a few diehards for whom meeting attendance has become a way of life. (Back to Top)
Cities behave in tricky ways. What may seem an obvious problem, or an obvious solution often seems less so after a little research. Acting before researching can waste time and energy. It can also 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 half-way 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 snrfs are not even known to local residents. Without these facts, the group goes to battle. Over nothing.
Gather existing information on your neighbourhood
Information on your part of town already exists. The municipal planning department has 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 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.
Find out what people want
In the absence of a single over-riding concern, your group will have to identify neighbourhood issues. In many cases you will try to answer the following questions:
What do residents like about the neighbourhood, and what do they want to change?
What are the opportunities for making the neighbourhood more interesting, identifiable, understandable, helpful, friendly.
What is the highest priority problem? Who is affected?
Where is it located? What has been done? What can be done? Who can help?
Give this research some time. A question such as, "What do you like about the neighbourhood, and what do you want to change?", can take a group a couple of evenings to itemize, condense and prioritize.
Consider a survey of residents
Any survey requiring face-to-face interaction not only provides information but helps build community.
Go to those in the know
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. Other sources of information are community activists, and people listed as contact persons for community organizations.
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 our community have: public institutions, 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 see John Kretzmann's and John McKnight's book, Building Communities from the Inside Out, reviewed in "The Citizen's Library".
How, why and where do people get together?
How do people find out what is going on?
Who most influences local decisions, local funding, and local investment? Who has a big stake in the neighbourhood?
Research solutions from other places
A problem in your neighborhood probably exists in other neighborhoods in Vancouver and other cities. Find out how citizens in other places are solving the problem. In Vancouver, connect with residents groups in other parts of the city using The Inventory of Community Organizations. Check out the books and periodicals in "The Citizen's Library". Ask citizens in other cities for help; if you have a computer and Internet access, post requests on the freenets of other cities. (Back to Top)
The Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Building Community in Vancouver
(c) Charles Dobson / Vancouver Citizen's Committee
FIELD NOTES COMMUNITY INITIATIVES
PHOTO GALLERY ABOUT US