The Citizens Handbook
Organizing around Hot Issues

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. Sometimes an issue can serve to invigorate an existing organization.

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.

If a hot issue makes people angry, it is not the best way to build community. Who wants to spend more time with angry people? Under pressing circumstances people often forgo trying to get to know one another, which leaves interpersonal connections weak and temporary.

Many people who respond to hot issues will not show up for community projects that are not hot issues. A hot issue may help to bring people together but something else will be needed for people to maintain contact with one anther.

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 barn-raising model of city government.
Developing a Civic Culture
Making Citizens Scarce
Confronting NIMBYism series,
"The Citizen's Library" and "Community Organizing" sections of the Handbook.
Also see the community problem solving practices developed by the US National Civic League, published in its journal The National Civic Review.

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. 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.