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Citizens for Local Democracy

Some ideas about organizing

The following are suggestions about starting a local group which will focus on issues of local democracy. These suggestions - they aren't rules, they are suggestions that may or may not be appropriate to particular circumstances - are based on the experience of Citizens for Local Democracy in Toronto. We held our first meeting in mid-December 1996, and have held large weekly meetings since that time.

1. A successful group

The key to a successful group is making sure it does things. Yes, the group is a forum for discussion, but it also must do things, such as: send letters to city council; organize a campaign to pressure MPPs by letter or in person, get speakers on the list for various hearings, get the message out widely to the whole community.

In thinking about the group, ensure it is action oriented, that it sets goals and gets them done. The group should not see its role as existing to discover the definitive position on a given issue, but rather to attract a lot of energy to that issue so people can help resolve it.

Keep the structure of the organization simple: a steering committee of ten or twelve, and the large group is all that's needed. The steering group should put any significant issue to the big group for decision or confirmation, so that the steering committee and its decisions remain transparent. Someone on the steering group should keep control of money, someone will chair meetings, but the group does not need to assign people to `positions'. In the normal course of events, two or three or more people will emerge as critical to decision-making, and that's fine, providing they agree to keep the whole steering committee informed.

Don't get bogged down in big discussions about detailed policy and what the group `stands for'. Yes, the group needs to agree to some general principles, but beware individuals who are pushing their own favourite exclusionary hobby-horses (each of us hosts a few of those). The key is finding the big common ground that we all can share and operate from.

Don't rely on `stars' or famous people. Many people make the assumption that successful groups need to have celebrities involved. Not so. Celebrities usually have their own agendas which are difficult to accommodate, and they hardly ever have any time to do the really important stuff, the junk work that keeps an organization moving along well.

1A. Meeting frequency

Our experience is that holding a large meeting once a week is very popular. It's probably quite satisfactory to meet every second week, although meetings too far apart could result in energy collapsing between meetings, and the group falling apart. Our suggestion is that it's probably best to meet weekly for the first four or five meetings at least.

1B. Chairing meetings

Every group needs a good person to chair meetings. The qualities to look for are:

* some experience chairing groups of various kinds;
* a good grasp of the issues involved
* an understanding of both the big and the little picture
* ability to listen to people and the help others listen and respond.

Good chairs are rarely the people who are quick to announce their own strong views, nor do they always end up being the spokesperson for the group. But the chair is the person who creates reliability and consistency at the large meetings.

A good chair grows into the role, but from the beginning the talent should be pretty clear. A good chair will ensure the group keeps moving ahead, doesn't rehash the same old stuff, and that no one dominates the discussion.


1C. Steering committee

Our experience is that a steering committee should be composed of:

* the organizers of the original meeting
* the chair
* people who seem reasonable, and dedicated, who have attended the first meeting, who have time to attend meetings. (You don't want good people who are too busy to come to meetings)
* a couple of `idea' people, that is, people who seem to have real spark in thinking about things and how they can be done.
* a writer who can take responsibility for the newsletter.
* the web master, who will be putting information on-line, assuming this resource is available.

It's very useful that the committee includes some people who have never worked together before - you don't want to same old crowd. Try to get people with a whole bunch of different experiences and skills, hopefully with different political views (providing its clear they will be willing to be part of the group in a non- partisan way.) A good committee will create new synergies by putting people together who haven't worked together before.

Start with a committee of seven or eight - you'll find that after a few meetings several other people are naturals to join the committee, or just attach themselves on in various ways.

There should be a general agreement in the steering committee that decisions are made by consensus.

Someone should be assigned to take minutes at committee meetings, and ensure they are circulated to all committee members (fax seems to work best and cheapest).

The steering committee should meet weekly to plan the larger meetings, define strategy, and generally do everything necessary to make the large meetings work well.


2. Successful meetings

The meetings belong to the large group, guided by the steering committee. The meetings must generate energy and create a sense of community as people discuss and take action. There needs to be enough information, laughter,
and activity at every meeting to ensure people want to come back to the next meeting.

2A. Selecting the chair

The organizers should come to this first meeting with a suggestion that this particular person will chair this meeting - don't go to the meeting and ask who wants to chair it.

2B. The agenda

The organizers should also come to this first meeting with an agenda. Our experience suggests the following for the first meeting once it has been decided to create a group:

1. General introduction to the issues by someone, and a run- through of the proposed agenda
2. General discussion of issues that seem most important to this community (20 minutes).
By way of concluding this discussion, we have found it helpful if the chair suggests that at the next meeting that the group agree on the two or three key things the group stands for.
3. Need for a steering committee of about 10 people. The steering committee would simply help arrange things for the larger group, and there should be agreement that any issue of any significance should be decided by the larger group.
The chair should take the names suggested, and propose that the composition of the steering group will be recommended to the next meeting. This will give the chair and the basic organizers the opportunity of creating a steering committee that doesn't just consist of the most forward people.
4. Discussion and agreement on meeting at a regular time and place - for instance every Tuesday (or every second Tuesday) at x place. In terms of a place, get somewhere that costs a very small amount or nothing at all, and is pleasant to be in. It should feel like community space, in a place that is seen as open to the public. City Hall might be a good place to start, given the idea that citizens should have access to this place. Churches are also accommodating.
5. Discussion and agreement on need for a newsletter to help communicate with other members of the community. Find out who can design something simple, and who can write well and quickly. It would be terrific to have a newsletter ready for the second meeting of the group.
6. Discussion and agreement on money. Our experience is that people have volunteered to do almost everything. The only costs are for out of pocket expenditures, money for which can be raised from collections at meetings. What is money needed for? Newsletter printing, space for meetings, maybe coffee and tea - these are the key expenses, and they shouldn't create too much of a financial problem for a group. Given that financial needs are never great, the group should not think it needs to apply to governments or foundations to accomplish its aims. Don't get weighed down in making money the issue: local democracy is the issue.
7. Agree to get a list of names address and phone numbers of all those in attendance. Ask who would agree to be on the phone tree, and who will co-ordinate the tree, so everyone can be phoned and reminded of the next meeting. The phone tree co- ordinator might also want to keep the data base of names, and put them on a computer program of some kind.
8. Suggestions for a name for the group. Take the suggestions and agree to come back to the next meeting to settle the name.
9. Our experience is that people are most comfortable when meetings adjourn within two hours of starting. Remember to announce date and time of next meeting.

2C. Subsequent meetings

Following meetings will not follow this format, since many of the organizational matters will have bene settled. But our experience indicates that future meetings should be based around the following elements:

1. One or two inspirational speakers who can provide new information. Ten minutes apiece should be adequate for most presentations. Don't spend all the time discussing things among yourselves. Arrange for speakers who can bring information and new perspectives. There are two reasons people will come to meetings: to get information and points of view not available elsewhere; and to feel a sense of community. They won't come if they think they will have to listen to rhetoric or squabbling.
2. A member of the group (probably on the steering committee) who can bring everyone up-to-date with current information.
3. Discussion about strategies. Our experience is that many of the most useful strategies emerge from steering committee discussion, and should be presented by a steering committee member for general approval and ratification.
4. Mobilization for action. If there is going to be a newsletter distribution, then someone has to ask for volunteers. Same if there is to be a phone blitz, or a number of group meetings arranged. We have found that to be successful, actions must be preceded by clear instructions (perhaps in writing), with an opportunity to get people to sign up indicating their interest.
5. Entertainment. It is also possible to have entertainment at meetings, but it needs to be appropriate, and sensitive to the group. This is a difficult issue, and not as easy as it seems. Entertainment can't be too long, it can't be too foolish. Ensure that someone reliable has heard the proposed entertainers, and can vouch for them. Proceed with
discretion.

3. Strategies

3A. Media.

Our advice is that you shouldn't worry about getting the media to pay attention to you right at the beginning. In fact, forget about the media until you have things you want to say. Media attention is a very mixed blessing. There are better ways of letting people know about the group (word of mouth, wide distribution of newsletter) than broadcasting your existence through the media.

3B. Newsletter

Our experience is that a newsletter is really important. A newsletter can accomplish three objectives. It can make it clear there is a voice concerned about local issues - and that voice will give many people hope. It can provide information on those local issues, information rarely available elsewhere. And it can tell people about the group and the when and where of meetings. It can publish a telephone number where an answering machine can give pertinent details and a web site, as well as giving people a place to leave their own names and numbers.

Concentrate on publishing information rather than opinions - opinions are too easy to come by, good information is always scarce. Publish as often as is necessary - once every three weeks or so. Have the steering committee vet the copy and the design.

Design should be simple (and inexpensive): black on white, standard format of 8 1/2 x 11, or maybe larger, two sided.

3C. Electronic strategies

Our electronic strategies have included both a web site and online discussion areas as components of local organizing.

The website is a place where all the important hard information can be posted - government reports, speeches, commentary, background information. The key is ensuring there are clear pathways for identifying, mounting and
posting information. This means the public has access to detailed information on the issue at hand so that collectively we can build our `wall of democracy.'

You will need one or two people to run things online. Ask around - perhaps there is already someone working this way in your area. Once identified, ensure that the key person responsible for the website is a member of the
steering committee.

The email lists form the place where citizens share information and work together. A volunteer will be needed to facilitate the list. It may get heated at times, and there are many online venues to assist you. We're pleased to be of help.

The Citizens for Local Democracy electronic team has prepared templates you can use to set up your basic site. Please feel free to contact us:

Web site: http://community.web.net/citizens
E-mail: citizens@web.net

3D. Actions

The key resource a group has is people who are interested in the cause, and actions should be designed to use these people to speak out, to attend meetings,m to badger politicians, to distribute the newsletter.

Petitions are not a particularly useful tool, since pieces of paper can be - and usually are - ignored. But warm bodies can't be ignored, in a politician's office, at a meeting asking to speak, and so forth. Undoubtedly, it is often not easy to be forward, but the purpose of a group is to give people a voice, and being forward is often the only way this can happen. Thankfully, numbers often gives courage, the courage to speak out.

Our experience is that helping people express their own thoughts is the most powerful thing a group can do. Getting people to sign up in large numbers to present their own ideas is good for the group, for the individuals, and for the political process.


March 30, 1997

 

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