Becoming a Strong Citizen requires engaging with your community and, most importantly, with those who are in positions of power in your community. Today we are sharing a guest post from Chris Hardie on how to get the attention of local leaders. Chris blogs about technology, culture, marketing and community building at ChrisHardie.com.
A version of this essay first appeared on RichmondMatters.com in May 2017. It is reprinted here with permission.
Sometimes our community leaders don't do what we want them to.
When we're frustrated about this, it's easy to generalize and say, "People in power don't listen; they just do what they want."
It might even be tempting to think this is always true based on our worst imaginings about people who hold office, lead departments/organizations, or those who otherwise have influence over the world around us. We see powerful and corrupted villains all the time in movies and on TV, and indeed there are often prominent people around the world living out harmful versions of leadership and power.
But leaders with truly villainous intentions are probably pretty rare.
I suspect most people who have sought or been placed into positions of power—especially at the local level—are not sitting around thinking about how many people they can oppress or rubbing their palms together while laughing maniacally about their latest evil plan. They are probably not looking for the darkest, smokiest, furthest back of back rooms in which to devise new ways to make life miserable.
They might have the wrong priorities, bring the wrong qualifications or just be ignorant, but they are probably not malicious in their intent. And for better or worse, they are in a position of influence or power that affects you.
So what do you do when they're not doing what you want?
If you disagree with local leaders, or have questions and concerns that you want them to address, it's important to follow through on that and actually work to engage them directly on the issues you care about. If you assume they don't care, or that others have tried and failed to get them to take action, and if everyone else assumes the same, then nothing will ever change for the better.
If they truly are abusing their power or not listening to the people they represent, it's important to get that on the record sooner rather than later.
Not sure where to start? Here's one path of "escalation" for getting a response from local leaders:
Set up an in-person meeting to talk through your concerns. Most local leaders are happy to spend time talking with people genuinely interested in what they do. Don't go into the conversation on the attack. Just explain your thinking and what you want to see happen, and focus on the issues instead of the personalities involved. Try to be solutions-oriented. When it comes time for the local leader to respond, listen respectfully, ask clarifying questions and see where you can get together.
Call, email, or write a letter.
If you can't get a meeting in person, try a slightly more formal attempt at communicating with them and their office. Place a call to register your concerns, send an email explanation, write a detailed letter. Make sure you include a specific request and any specific solutions you can offer. Attach your full contact information so they know how to follow up with you if need be.
Talk to their peers and/or supervisor(s).
If you can't get a direct response, try reaching out to the people the local leader works with, and/or the people who hold them accountable for the work they do. And if you don’t get a response from those people, keep escalating: department heads, the office of the Mayor, City Council members and so on. If there's an ethics body or association that the leader is a part of (maybe at the regional or state level), check in with them to see what they recommend for making accountable contact.
Consult other community members.
You're probably not the only person who has tried to work with the local leader to get a response. Find other people who have formed connections (or encountered frustrations) around similar issues and see what works for them. Maybe they can introduce you, give you some tips for getting in the door and help you craft your message or request.
Write a letter to the editor in the newspaper.
If all of the above fails, it might be time to take your request for a response more public. Whatever state your local paper is in, letters and opinion pieces that end up there likely still get significant visibility in the community and are read by many local leaders who are invested in the future of their job. Be respectful, but don’t hesitate to be provocative. In some cases, news media will join in the attempt to get a response, raising the profile of your work even more.
Use the web and social media.
If you're still not able to get a response, it may be time to raise the visibility of your request even more. Facebook and other social media may not be a good place to start when trying to engage local leaders, but if you've tried all of the above steps and they're still not responsive, chances are that there's a bigger problem with their communication style and others are having the same challenges. Set up a simple, public website to detail what you've tried so far, what you're hoping to accomplish, and a call to action for others to join you. Share links on social media accounts to amplify the conversation. Stay focused on solutions and practical ways to move the issue forward, avoiding personal attacks and ultimatums.
Organize an event to raise awareness.
It can be easy for leaders to ignore the words of a few people, but when they see citizens gathering in larger groups to talk about the ways local leaders are not living up to their responsibilities, it gets harder to look past. Host a town hall, a community information session, a neighborhood potluck, or even a march or protest—whatever format suits the issue at hand and the other members of the community who are affected by the issue you need a response on. Take pictures and video, try to get local media coverage, and use the event to emphasize the importance of getting a real response.
Become a local leader.
If you still can't get local leaders to engage with you, consider becoming one yourself. Run for office, become the media, apply for a job, or otherwise seek to insert yourself in the institutions you are trying to change. If your local leaders aren't working for you, replace them.
Methods to Avoid
What are some things that don't work when you're just starting out to get a response from local leaders?
Complaining on Facebook. The rush of likes and comments when you rant online can feel good, but it doesn't often change much if you’re just describing a problem without proposing any solutions or a path forward. Social media also isn't usually a great format to make complex points about local community issues, and you are rarely going to get the respectful attention of the local leader you want to talk with. Your time is probably better spent in other ways.
Making threats and drawing hard lines. "If local leader so-and-so doesn't do this by that date, we are going to burn their office down." Being clear about your desired action is good, and maybe there will eventually be a time for more direct action, but threatening someone or eliminating the possibility of compromise is almost certainly not going to help anything.
Attacking the person, not the issue. Making personal attacks on someone who has devoted some part of their life to public service or local leadership is going to immediately put them on the defensive, if not push them away entirely. It may feel like a good way to get their attention, but the conversation has nowhere to go from there, and it may actually hurt your cause.
Community improvement is a group effort.
It's important to say at this point that there are many power dynamics, class issues and other factors that come in to play when thinking about the above actions and advice. I write this as a straight, white male with many advantages. I rarely encounter roadblocks to being heard by local leaders because of my race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, wealth or other characteristics.
But "just ask for a meeting" may not work for a lot of people, especially if they don't have the time, skills, resources or appearance to fit in to what that kind of interaction usually looks like for local leaders. Some people may not have an email address or stable phone number for communicating, or the time to plan an event and start a social media campaign.
But they may still have ideas that need attention and voices that need to be heard, and so it's each community’s responsibility to make sure we help each other in getting responses and action from our local leaders. Even if the issue at hand is not one we're personally passionate about, or the local leader in question is someone we consider a friend, we should be ready to assist neighbors trying to make our town a better place.
It's also the responsibility of local leaders to make sure they are open and welcoming of input and constructive criticism from people who aren't like them, or who aren't "good" at traditional versions of community building.
What experiences have you had trying to get a response from local leaders on issues important to you? What has worked and what hasn't?
About the Author
Chris Hardie is a software engineer living in Richmond, Indiana. Chris has served in volunteer and leadership roles for a variety of not-for-profit organizations there and writes about local community improvement ideas at RichmondMatters.com. He also blogs about technology, culture, marketing and community building at ChrisHardie.com.