Seven Steps To Becoming A Citizen Activist

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NOTE: The article below is by Nick Licata a former Seattle city council member who has a lot of progressive policy successes from his work. He currently organizes a network of progressive city officials. He is the author of “Becoming a Citizen Activist: Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World.” Licata was politically active in college with the Students for a Democratic Society at Bowling Green State University and was elected student body president. He became a Seattle City Council member despite being significantly outspent, with the majority of the council, the mayor, and both daily newspapers supporting his opponent. He was elected to five terms to the council and became its president. In 2012, he was dubbed America’s “Most Valuable Local Official” by The Nation and has helped to write a manual on urban progressive activism.

He was twice named Best Local Politician by the Seattle Weekly.  He was an acknowledged leader in passing Paid Sick & Safe Leave, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and legalizing marijuana.  -KZ

Despite who is elected as President or elected to Congress or City Hall, each citizen has the ability and the tools to influence whether good or bad things happen. But you must be willing to do something about it.

To gain political power you don’t have to be a super hero or dedicate your life to activism. However, you should know what you want and how to get it.

This brochure briefly outlines the steps toward making effective change based on the more detailed lessons described in Becoming a Citizen Activist – Stories, Strategies and Advice for Changing Our World.

First: Complaining is therapeutic – not an action plan

When meeting with a public official you must explain the problem you want addressed and what you want that person to do. It should not be so general a request that the politician can nod and say he or she supports your goal and will work toward it. That is fine but not enough!

Make your ask for something specific and measurable. For instance, ask the politician to hold a press conference, issue a statement, hold a public hearing, be the main sponsor on a piece of legislation or work with you to write that legislation. All of these options must be tied to a specific time line. And one that is not so distant that it can be postponed indefinitely.

Present the problem and your request on no more than 2 pages, which should include your contact information. When you leave it with them ask for a specific date when they can get back to you.

This is the first step in gaining momentum for making greater changes. Demonstrate that by working with you, they can taste their own success. If you can only meet with the public official’s staff, meet with that person and follow the same routine. However, also ask for confirmation that the politician has personally received your request.

Second: Know how government works

No matter whether it is a city, state or federal government there are basic structural and procedural features that they all share. Know what they are and how they work.

They all have issue committees and chairs of those committees. Determine in advance what committee will deal with your issue. You can do that by either looking at the committee title or looking at what issues it has dealt with. Almost all levels of government have this information on their websites.

Know who the committee chair is and members of the committee. Do research on them. What groups have endorsed them? You can find this out from looking at their past or current campaign websites. Find out if their campaign contribution donors are listed on any government websites. Find out if you know any of the groups or donors.

Know the schedule for introducing and passing legislation. For instance, how long does it take for a piece of legislation to be introduced before coming before the full deliberative body? Who has the authority to introduce it? How many sponsors are needed to move it forward?

Find a committee member who will work with your group on some level. Best if they can hold a hearing on your issue. But if not that, see if they will allow testimony before a committee meeting or at a committee meeting. Or at a minimum bring the issue up at the committee meeting to get it aired publicly.

Third: Build momentum by finding allies

You cannot win working alone. Strength comes from numbers. Reach out to individuals and groups to increase the chance of success. Start with people you know: neighbors, workers, those from a religious community and finally any citizens that may be serving on citizen advisory groups to the city, state or congress. Providing even a simple petition, on paper or on the Internet, shows that the issue has more than a handful of supporters.

If the issue is geographically based, approach the leadership of the local community council or religious organization. Even if just one of that organization’s board members is willing to sign in support of the issue, it will make an impression on a politician. Also, approach former elected officials to sign on, which may help garner media coverage.

If it is a non-geographically based issue, invite a representative from a national interest group or union to speak out. If they must travel to your city, see if you can cover their travel costs. Use that need as an opportunity to hold fundraising events and attract a broader base of support. If you have a noted speaker, request that they speak before a committee, a public forum or a hearing and invite the media to cover it.

Ask your supporters, including allied politicians, to contact potential sympathetic groups for a letter of support. The point is to show politicians and the public that the issue goes beyond the immediate advocating group from just one district or interest community.

Fourth: Use facts and question the reliability of the opposition’s

Using hard data gives the media something to include in their coverage. It also shores up support among those who may have doubts about the merit of an issue. Using facts demonstrates that the advocates know their subject matter.

Encourage supportive elected officials to share government reports from departments and drafts of legislation under consideration. If an agency refuses to release information, then the issue becomes “Why are they hiding this information?” It puts the opposition on the defense and forces them to account for their behavior.

If the opposition cites a survey to derail your effort, demand to see the entire survey instrument, all questions, responses and demographics collected. Again, if they refuse, attack their creditability because of their lack of openness and accountability. Once you receive their information, look for inconsistencies and expose them. All surveys have multiple ways of being interpreted, pursue them.

Conduct your own opinion survey on the issue. You do not have to spend $10,000 for one. A reliable survey with a couple of questions can cost under a $1,000. Consider using university students and faculty to assist with one. You just need one strong fact to stand out to derail the other side by forcing the media to include it in their coverage.

Fifth: Get the word out

Even after you make a specific request and have strong allies, you still need to keep the public informed of your efforts and the relevance of the issue. Make a list of journalists and bloggers who might cover your issue. Personally contact them to tell them what you have accomplished, no matter how minor it may seem.

You want to show that the issue has the attention of a number of people and groups. And that it has momentum. Reporters want to see movement, something that is developing, and something that is changing the public discussion or could significantly change the political landscape.

If you hold a protest action, follow it up with having your participants post on Facebook and tweet with photos and comments. Make sure that your supporters share your group’s posts and retweet them. This requires having an email list serve to your supporters to remind them to spread the information among their friends and media contacts.

Hold an open forum on the issue at your place of worship after a service, at a public library community room or even at a city hall council chamber during lunch hour. Try to get a public official or sympathetic organization to host the event. Invite all public officials to attend, even if they do not speak their attendance will be recognized.

Sixth: Celebrate every win no matter how small

Don’t dwell on the goals not achieved because you will never achieve all of them. Instead, with every struggle make sure that you know what a minimum win looks like from the beginning. When that is achieved, celebrate it. Then remind supporters that it is just one victory and that the next day or week the fun begins again in fighting for and winning the next battle. A meaningful and joyful journey is the end objective, because there will always be something to work on.

Integrate cultural activities into every organizing effort, because people like to have fun and if it isn’t fun, it’s harder to grow your movement. Have a parade, a party, a dance or a movie; any opportunity to enjoy oneself with others keeps people engaged.

Make these activities open to everyone, because a growing supportive community achieves success far more than a stagnant or shrinking one.

Seventh: Believe in Democracy

If you don’t believe you have the power to change your life, it will not change. If you withdraw from participating in the democratic process, those that remain engaged are those that benefit most from the status quo and have the most to lose from any change. So, things are likely to remain the same.

As a result cynicism replaces hope, leading to distrust in democracy and a democratic government. If that happens, those who want to shrink a government that is accountable to the public, and replace it with a corporate or elitist model that is not open and accountable to all citizens will determine your future. That may be good for a business or closed special interest groups but not for the general public whose needs and rights can only be guaranteed when citizens participate in guiding their democratic institutions.

Always keep in mind that being a citizen is knowing that you have the opportunity to make a difference and then acting according to your needs.

  • Lonnie Lopez

    There were at least 68,000 millionaires in King County, where Mr. Lacata operates, in 2007. Since then, public and social services have been drastically cut, homelessness has reached crisis proportions, and some of the wealthiest corporations in the country (Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) make this county their home in exchange for huge tax cuts. Whatever Mr. Lacata and his network of “progressive” city officials are doing, it ain’t helping. The Democrats are NOT ON OUR SIDE and shame on Popular Resistance for feeding into that lie.

  • kevinzeese

    We definitely agree that the Democrats are not on our side. We also agree that is a
    dangerous lie. Lacata has done some good work including on the issues you raise.

    I read this right comment just after I sent an email to an antiwar discussion list about an article published by the American Conservative that made the point that one reason the antiwar movement is so small is because it was tied to the Democratic Party during the Bush years and when Obama came it, the movement shrunk even though he continued and expanded war and made drone bombing a normal activity in US foreign policy. Here is What I wrote:

    The American Conservative’s paleo-conservative philosophy often publishes strong anti-war, anti-militarism articles. They were one of the early opponents to the Iraq War in the George W. Bush years. Their philosophy goes back to the pre-Trump meaning of America First — stay out of other countries and fix the United States at home.

    The point the article makes about partisanship being a key reason for the small size of the antiwar movement and how it shrunk when Barack Obama was elected is very true. UFPJ is a very good example of that reality. Our challenges are bigger than partisanship but that remains a factor. Now with a Republican government there are so many other fronts of struggle that war does not make it to the top of the list. War and militarism have become a norm people in the United States seem to accept.

    The broader truth is that any “movement” that becomes partisan and ties itself to either party is going down a very dangerous path. This is especially true for progresive or left movements that become allied with or even serve as an arm of the Democratic Party. The Dems are very good at absorbing movements and killing them. This has been true for decades. In more recent times, Dems have been good at creating or being closely allied with groups that seem like movement groups. We can see that now with Indivisible and the Resist movement. Our Revolution is another example and slightly longer term are groups like MoveOn (who stabbed the anti-Iraq war movement in the back at a critical time in 2006).

    The constant battle is the power holders vs people power. Movements should be non-partisan and push both parties and build political power by organizing people against the power holders from both parties. Neither Wall Street and war dominated duopoly party will give the people what they want or need, both must be pushed.

    A good book on the history of the Democratic Party including how it absorbs and destroys movements is The Democrats: A Critical History by Lance Selfa.

  • Lonnie Lopez

    Ah yes, the “progressive Democrat” whose “done some good work.” By the way, I’ve slept on Lance Selfa’s couch.