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Tuesday
Apr292014

Ask Strong Towns, Question #3

We invite our members to submit their questions on anything that they would like our thoughts on. We’ll give you a Strong Towns answer or find an expert who can. This week, Brittany M. asks:

So, what is the best way to mobilize the Strong Towns' concepts in a community? We had our event in October 2013 and got lots of buzz about it. Now we're trying to find a non-profit to champion the efforts, but we're not sure how to best deploy and organize it. What do you suggest?

This is a good question, perhaps the hardest question we face. How do we get Strong Towns ideas off the ground in our community? Mobilizing a community has everything to do with the people and the place, and the people and the place are always different. The most important idea we need to start with is that change requires influence, and in our country the most powerful influence is a critical mass of committed people.

The team at The Better Block are experts in generating social capital.The real answer to this question is: If your community has a critical mass of Strong Citizens, then the strong towns principles and ideas will naturally take over as the municipal government adapts to the demands of the new majority. If your community does not have critical mass, then you don’t need to worry about anything except building critical mass.

Most communities today do not have a critical mass of Strong Citizens. If you aren’t sure, ask this question: if your community lost its two or three most vocal advocates for change, would the momentum for change continue? Or, would advocacy for change in your community fizzle out?

When I was serving as President of CNU-Houston, we had this very problem. There were a few key people in a few different organizations who were leading the vast majority of the activist efforts in the region. We would hold events and try to reach out to the community, but what we found was that we almost always had the same people show up. It was hard to avoid tension among the various friendly non-profits in town, as we were all basically drawing from the same pool of people looking for volunteers. It was more common for someone who was a member of our organization to also be a member of three or four other similar non-profits than it was for someone to be only involved with us. When local organizations experienced turnover in their leadership you tended to see a sharp drop in activity, because there just wasn’t a deep enough bench to keep the all the various interest groups running. We didn’t have critical mass.

So what if progress in your community depends on a few key people? This is the normal, natural starting condition. It is to be expected. However, if this is the case, your only major concern should be building critical mass.

Trying to start by getting a formal organization going and trying to hold outreach events sounds like the sure way forward, but in the end these are just as likely to drain your energy without yielding very many new committed citizens. Instead you should focus on building critical mass first, through personal relationships and networking. Getting your ideas formally on the agenda of local non-profit allies or city council members along the way is a nice bonus, but not the primary objective. When easy wins present themselves it’s good to capitalize on them, but remember that we're fighting to change the culture and that only happens from the bottom up.

The first step in building critical mass is for you to personally take action. When outlining the individual call to action a few weeks ago I offered the following suggestions as places to start:

  1. Start taking meaningful walks.
  2. Get serious about your local food supply.
  3. Take a pilgrimage.

The idea is for you to become an effective neighbor-to-neighbor advocate, to influence your friends and family in favor of living a resilient life. Your neighbors should be able to tell there’s something different about the way you live, which should lead some of them to ask you about why you do the things you do. Some of them will follow in your footsteps.

As you become a strong citizen you start to teach what you’ve learned to other people. Over time the people you taught become teachers as well. Eventually there are many people teaching, many more learning, and when the numbers grow people with the gift of leadership naturally emerge as advocates who can begin to effectively engage city hall.

It can be frustrating to be on the ground and feel like you can’t perceive any progress, but even winning over one neighbor to a different way of thinking is an important victory. This process may be slow, messy, and unpredictable, but in the end the only thing that will bring about lasting, effective policy change is a widespread bottom-up cultural change.

An alternative approach that you should consider, if you’re frustrated by the slow pace of change in your community, is moving to another place where there is more of a critical mass already established. If you join an existing community you will make it stronger, and accelerate the change of that place. When any town or city in the country shifts to adopt a strong towns model, that place becomes an inspiration for many others, providing an example for them to follow. Right now this movement is too young for there to be any places that serve as iconic examples, but perhaps you can be part of the group of people that creates the first.

The key takeaway here is this: the key to effective advocacy is critical mass, until we have critical mass we can’t expect lasting change to be accomplished in our cities. First we need to reach individuals, then their friends, then establish stronghold neighborhoods, and eventually our movement will have a chance to lead cities, and have a powerful voice in state and federal government. But we can only get there one person at a time.

So, make yourself a strong citizen, teach your friends and neighbors and encourage them to follow you - or join forces with other people in this movement and help them take over a neighborhood and then a city that can serve as a model for the rest. It won’t be easy, quick, or simple, but it’s the most realistic roadmap we have to create long-term, lasting change.

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