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
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;
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.
Our experience is that a steering committee should be composed of:
* the organizers of the original meeting
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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.
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