The Mailbox: Outsiders wanting change

From a reader of our January 24 post Starter Strategies for a Strong Town:

I enjoy reading your blog and hearing what you have to say, but that may just be because I tend to agree with you. (We tend to favor the thoughts of others when they match our own thoughts.) I live in a town of about 50,000 in Southwest Ohio. It is an older, industrial town that has really suffered from years of disinvestment, deindustrialization, and a bad development pattern. I am not working for the municipality, nor am I involved in much of the democratic process. However, as someone who reads this post and sees it as something that should be done where I live, how would you recommend that I go about seeing these strategies implemented (or at the very least, discussed) by the town and its officials?

-Michael N.


You ask a difficult question, one we have thought about. How do you make change if you are not part of the insiders?

Strong Towns itself is actually an attempt to respond to that question. We’re truly trying to change the world, largely through the power of our ideas. We rely on people like you to read them, digest them, give us feedback and make us better, then pass the resulting stream of ideas on. We truly are a creature of the modern era, embracing the web as the greatest idea-dissemination tool since the printing press. We live in exciting times.

My quick advice is to pass stuff on. Your local officials probably field a lot of complaints, but not often letters of encouragement. We try to write our stuff to be provocative enough to matter, but not gratuitous or offensive. If you routinely pass along the stuff that you think would help along with a brief message on how this applies to your town, you’ll be doing something to make change.

(You can pass it along to your friends too, not just public officials. Most substantive change throughout history was done at the grass roots. Let’s give everyone who cares a different alternative.)

You can also suggest a Curbside Chat. It is our program to start a community dialogue. We’ve been really successful with it here in MN. We’d love to come to Ohio – lots of need there. It could make a huge difference. For places out of state, our Board has asked us to get our costs defrayed, but we are free to donate our time. Help us get a couple of plane tickets and put us up for the night and we’ll work to start a revolution in your town.

I’ll also recommend focusing on your neighborhood. Our economy is about to get much more local. That will make what happens on your block far more important than it currently is. Meet your neighbors. Start to work collaboratively, maybe with a neighborhood watch or a community garden. Plant the seed, tend to it and it will grow.

A great example of a neighborhood high impact project is the Better Block project in Dallas. Just a few neighbors that wanted to do a quick, cheap demonstration project to draw attention to a better way of doing things. We have a link to a video of them on our YouTube channel.

I think as a final point that it is fair to mention that you can get involved directly with the decisions being made. Maybe you won’t run for office – most people are not politicians – but you can certainly volunteer. Planning Commission, Park Board, Garden Club….if you get involved, you may find that you are capable of much more than you think (or, more likely, that the people you assume know more than you really don’t know all that much).

Good luck! Thanks for working to build Strong Towns.

-Chuck Marohn


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