The Citizens Handbook
A Skinny on Building Community

Charles Dobson

1. If the focus is place, focusing on a small area is easier. It's easier dealing with a block than a neighbourhood. It's easier dealing with a neighbourhood than a local area. The most successful groups focus on a small part of the city.

2. Small groups work better. When a group is nine or less it allows people to manage relationships. Beyond nine it becomes more difficult.

3. Groups last when made up of people who enjoy one another's company. No one voluntarily spends a lot of time with people they don't like.

4. Don't expect people to do much on their own. Two should be the minimum number for any civic activity.

5. Too many long meetings are the Black Death of community involvement. They drive people away. Make meetings short and end them on time.

6. People are drawn to group activities that are fun, or creative, or educational. Groups that focus only on doing work drive people away.

7. People are drawn to group activities that make some part of everyday life easier. Hence the attractiveness of child-minding networks, community kitchens, weekly picnics-in-the-park, walking school buses. Avoid competition between everyday life and civic engagement.

8. A good way to begin just about any civic project is to knock on the doors of neighbours. Keep your focus small: a city block, or an apartment block. Begin by introducing yourself and saying where you live.

9. People are drawn to public interest activities that produce tangible results in a reasonable length of time. They participate when their participation makes a difference.

10. Some of the best projects are quick, "graphic", direct action projects undertaken without asking anyone's permission.

11. Some of the best projects are those that involve helping people who really need help. The helper benefits as much as the person being helped.

12. A local problem may serve to introduce people to one another but it's usually not sufficient to maintain contact. There needs to be other reasons to stay in touch.

13. Short-term, one-shot projects usually don't lead to anything else because people often haven't learned enough about one another to want to reconnect. Getting to know one another needs to be a part of every community building effort.

14. Television watching, video game playing, web surfing and too much time on FaceBook all undermine civic engagement.

15. People who work part-time are more likely to be civically engaged. Those who work full time are simply worn out at the end of the day. On the weekend they have to squeeze in shopping, recreation and everything else. A broad campaign to promote work-sharing and part-time work would reduce unemployment, increase civic engagement and boost social capital.

16. One or two people can make all the difference by serving as catalysts to bring together many people who would otherwise remain apart.


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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.