Former mayor of Seattle Michael McGinn was a major part of our Strong Towns Summit last week. He was featured in a live podcast interview with another former mayor, Joey Durel (Lafayette, LA), and he also led a workshop about citizen activism. Today, we're sharing an essay by McGinn about the power of telling your story as your work for change in your town.


When you figure out something is broken (and you can’t just throw it out and replace it) the natural inclination is to figure out how to fix it. If you’re reading Strong Towns, you’ve probably already figured out we just can’t throw away the places we live and there is so much that needs fixing.

This article isn’t about the technical nature of the fixes. That’s policy. This is about the process of engaging others to create change. That’s politics.  I know, it seems like a dirty word these days, but sooner or later, every policy wonk has to deal with it.

Don't get me wrong - the starting point is always policy.  If the city council did this and the engineers did that, by golly, we might start making some progress.  We advocates have no shortage of arguments about why we are right.  Indeed, we’re experts at digging deeper into the facts, piling up the shortcomings of the current approach and pointing out the benefits of doing it differently.

Sooner or later you’re bound to discover that rational argument does not seem to have the power it should.

But sooner or later you’re bound to discover that rational argument does not seem to have the power it should. The status quo is thick as molasses. The short-term benefits of the current policies roll over the long-term benefits. And some folks just seem obtuse as hell - why can’t they get it?  In other words, you are out of the policy realm and find yourself falling into the deep end of politics. You discover a truism - being right is easy, it’s changing things that’s hard.

Trust me, I know how this works. When I moved to my neighborhood of Greenwood in Seattle I could see we needed safe ways to walk to our neighborhood business district. But it took years of work, and some serious neighborhood organizing to get the common-sense outcome of safe sidewalks. The same thing was true on the multitude of issues I worked on as a neighborhood volunteer, as a non-profit leader, and even as Mayor. You need a way to solve problems that transcends the analysis of issues.

One lesson I learned is that people don’t always respond to analysis, but they respond to stories. Not just any story, but a narrative that includes the people who want to make change. I held a workshop at the Strong Towns Summit last week to introduce the topic, although the study of it could take weeks.

Here is how Marshall Ganz defines it:

Public narrative is a leadership art through which we translate values into action: engaging heart, head, and hands. As narrative it is built from the experience of challenge, choice and outcome. As public narrative it is woven from three elements: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.

What does that mean? Strong Towns is a great example of this principle in action. Chuck Marohn, the founder of Strong Towns, came to a realization several years ago that his professional work wasn’t helping, it was hurting. His challenge was to find a way to use his training to make our places stronger, not financially weaker. He shared his story (a story of self), listened to the stories of others, and together have created a vision for the future (a story of us) and how we can collectively work towards it (a story of now).

Your ability to share how you came to care and to reach out to others to hear their stories is the starting point to finding a common vision and taking action.

Chuck’s success is amazing, but it is not unique. It is how advocates of all persuasions have created change. It happens at the most local level. I wanted a safe way for my kids to walk to the store and my neighbors wanted similar things.  Our vision was small, but very meaningful.  We wanted to be part of a safe and healthy community. Together we put together a plan for change, and made it happen. I find this topic of how ordinary people create change so fascinating that it is the focus of my podcast “You, Me, Us, Now.”

If you’re reading Strong Towns, your head is already in the right place.  You know things need fixing. Your heart may be there too; you really care. The hardest part is taking action. Where do you start and how do you join others? Believe it or not, it actually starts with you and your story.  Your ability to share how you came to care and to reach out to others to hear their stories is the starting point to finding a common vision and taking action.

In these terribly partisan times, it also comes with another benefit — learning how to build bridges to those with different experiences.  You won’t just move them, they will move you in ways you could not predict.

Keep working to make your town stronger!

(Top photo by Aziz Acharki)


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About the Author

As a neighborhood leader, environmental activist,  and a big city Mayor, Mike McGinn has worked to build communities that are safe, thriving and environmentally sustainable. Elected Mayor of Seattle in the midst of the Great Recession (2010-2013), Mike worked to reinvigorate the city by relying on low-cost high-impact interventions that increased quality of life and economic activity.  Before becoming Mayor, Mike founded and ran a non-profit, Great City, which brought together neighborhood leaders, environmentalists and business leaders to find common ground on building a thriving and sustainable city. Great City built on Mike’s work as a Sierra Club volunteer and neighborhood leaders.  In the Sierra Club Mike worked to help elect environmental leaders at the federal, state and local levels and build the Club’s influence on policy. Mike’s neighborhood work began in 1996, in trying to get sidewalks built in his new neighborhood of Greenwood. He then served for years as president of the local community council, working on rezoning and redevelopment of the auto-oriented portion of business district to support mixed uses. Mike’s podcast, You, Me, Us, Now focuses on people who try to change things, and can serve as a resource for those entering civic and community life.