People often organize around a single issue. They get together because they are annoyed or angry about street prostitution, extra taxes, or an ugly building scheme. Often the issue is a proposed change or addition to the neighbourhood that is seen as undesirable. Those in favour of changes or additions often describe this kind of activism as NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome), a selfish attempt by residents to keep their part of town just as it is, in defiance of some larger public good. They rarely mention how the first towns arose out of the natural tendency for people to band together to oppose disruptive outside forces. A potential threat may be just what is needed to mobilize citizens.
In Vancouver, residents in Hastings/Sunrise found strength and common purpose in the discussion surrounding the proposed redevelopment of Hastings Park. Oakridge had no neighbourhood organization until community planners began talking about redevelopment - when suddenly the need for a neighbourhood "voice" became clear. Kitsilano residents found the need to organize over proposed zoning changes that threatened older houses and low-cost rental accommodation. Glen Park Neighbours got together to deal with an unsatisfactory development proposal for an abandoned supermarket site.
Sometimes an issue can serve to invigorate an existing organization. On one east-side block in Vancouver, neighbours decided to petition the city for paving and lighting in their lane. Their group grew as they contacted neighbours across the back lane to support their request. This in turn strengthened a Block Watch already in place.
However, organizing around a hot issue can be a waste of time if it leads to a hardening of positions. Too often, citizens have worn themselves out in fights that might have been resolved to everyone's satisfaction through collaborative problem solving that focused on interests rather than positions. Until recently, most of the books written about community organizing have taken a battlefield approach, because it used to be the only way to influence public decision-making.
With the dawning of a new age of co-operation between government and citizens, let's hope that the roundtable will replace the battlefield.
For more information see:
"The Citizen's Library" and "Community Organizing" sections of the Handbook; and the community problem solving practices developed by the US National Civic League, published in its journal The National Civic Review.
The Citizen's Handbook / Home / About / Table of Contents
The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org
The Troublemaker's Teaparty is an updated and expanded print version of The Citizen's Handbook. It contains all of The Handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots rot, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from bookstores, Amazon or New Society Publishers.