Community Advocates: What Does It Take?
Spoiler: We Can All Be Good Community Advocates.
When people hear the terms “grassroots organizers” or “community advocates” they often do not see themselves reflected in those descriptions. However, very often they have already been an advocate without even realizing it. Community advocates are anyone advocating or speaking out on behalf of themselves, another person or a cause. Some simple examples of community advocacy are parents who speak out on behalf of their children in school when there is a problem, or someone speaking out on behalf of a family member in need of better medical care. These may seem like small things, but when you are one of many parents or patient advocates being vocal, then these actions might actually lead to future change. So, before you count yourself out as a community advocate, think of a time you’ve advocated on behalf of someone else.
Often we see things happening in our communities we want to change. For example, the need for smaller class sizes in our schools, stopping a problematic new real estate development, or even the need for a new stop sign at a busy intersection. These problems might seem, at first, too big for one person to take on, but community advocates can utilize tools to organize fellow neighbors into action. These problems don’t seem as big when you have multiple community members by your side. But where to start? Keep reading for some information and tools to set you up for success.
What is organizing?
Most community advocates start with some good old fashioned grassroots organizing. But what is grassroots organizing and why do we do it? To understand grassroots organizing, it is crucial to create a common definition: A process of building power through involving a constituency in identifying both the problems they share and the solutions to those problems, identifying the targets that could make those solutions possible, engaging with those targets through strategic tactics, and developing the capacity to take on further problems. That is fancy language for talking to your friends and neighbors about community issues, brainstorming solutions and then working together to get local decision-makers (e.g. city council members) to take action.
Who do I organize?
Once you’ve determined an issue or cause, you’ll want to think of who else is likely affected, and who would benefit from a solution to the problem. There are a couple simple ways you can find others who will be most inclined to join in on your efforts. If your issues pertain to a specific area or region it makes sense to recruit your community advocates within the same geographic location. This could include areas like a housing development, a specific school or hospital, a specific neighborhood, or a particular legislative district. Perhaps your issue affects a certain demographic type and so you want to start with people who fit within that group (e.g. seniors, or college students). Or maybe there are also a number of organizations already doing work on this issue who you can tap for support (e.g. labor unions, faith organizations, nonprofits).
How do I talk to these people?
Relationship building is at the core of organizing and a critical tool for community advocates. It happens in many different ways at different times. One core technique that many organizers use is the one-on-one. The general purpose of the one-on-one is to build and strengthen a relationship with individuals you’ve identified who might be prone to joining your efforts.
Here’s a quick rundown or how to have a successful one-on-one conversation:
- Be clear on your goals. Having goals in place will help you get the most out of a one-on-one conversation. The goal should not solely be to make friends (although it does tend to happen) but more so to build a strong community and a strong movement for your issue.
- Set up for success. The way you set up your meeting is critical to starting the relationship off on the right foot. Be specific about why you’re reaching out for a meeting (e.g. you think they are affected by your issue and want to hear their concerns). Pick a place that will facilitate a comfortable conversation and be clear on how much time you think the one-on-one will take (usually about 30 minutes to an hour will suffice).
- Crushing the meeting. The meeting should feel very organic and not scripted (no one likes being read a list of questions). That said you should prepare for the conversation and have some questions in mind that you would like to ask. Remember to ask open-ended questions and not simple yes or no questions. The idea to get them to talk as much about themselves and what they care about as possible, so you can learn about them. A good rule is an 80/20 split – that means you’re listening 80 percent of the time and talking (aka asking questions) about 20 percent of the conversation. The more information you can gather the more likely it is you’ll find a way to plug the person into your efforts. Lastly, don’t forget to take notes (in a non-distracting way obviously).
- Follow up is key. Timely follow-up to one-on-ones is super important (and it is also where note-taking can be very helpful). Follow up in a way that makes sense or the way that was agreed upon in your initial meeting. Follow through on any tasks that you agreed to take on to help build trust. You have invested a lot of time in the one-on-one and your quick and thoughtful follow through will often determine whether or not it was worth it. Follow-ups also should include specific next steps and deadlines if any were agreed to and helpful reminders along the way.
How do I keep people engaged?
Now that you’ve had a one-on-one you will want to be intentional about keeping your community advocates and coalition partners engaged. An easy tool for doing that is a ladder of engagement. Below is a template for how to think about creating one that makes sense for your community and efforts. An effective ladder will help focus your efforts on moving individuals to action that moves you toward achieving your goal. Think about the steps you want people to move through to get them to where you want/need them to be.
- Awareness: Step one is to get a person to be aware that the problem or issue exists.
- Interest: Step two is having that person express an interest in learning more about the topic or issue.
- Participation: Step three is moving that person to take an action (e.g. gives time, money or social capital).
- Commitment: Step four is getting the person fully invested in the outcome of the campaign or solution to the problem.
- Leadership: The last step is asking that person to become a decision maker, thought leader or asking them to lead others.
Hopefully this post was helpful in breaking down how to build a team of community advocates and gave you some tools to use along the way. As always, feel free to reach out to our team with any all advocacy questions you have. Check out more on community advocacy here!