Civic Activism - 10 top tips
Following our series of Ideas Generation Workshops, we have put together this essential guide to developing civic activism, with expert advice from experienced local practitioners.
You must think strategically
Any tool or approach will only be effective if it is well-planned and deployed as part of an overall engagement strategy. A starting point for any individual or group would be to ask the following three key questions:
Where are we and what is our current situation?
Where do we want to be and what do we want to achieve?
How do we get there?
There are many ways to engage with the organisations and individuals who make decisions that affect lives - from letters, to arranging meetings, sending emails, establishing public and media campaigns and, increasingly, through the use of digital technology.
You might engage in forums designed to facilitate public engagement with decision makers and service providers such as the Health Trust Local Commissioning Groups or the Housing Executive Tenants’ Forums. Think carefully about what it is you are trying to achieve, who you need to engage with and choose the best methods to suit you, your stakeholders and your issue.
Don’t throw people in at the deep end!
If people are already actively involved in their community then they are more likely to want to, and feel able to, engage with decision-makers. Begin your civic engagement work by either starting with people who are already actively involved in their community or by easing people into civic engagement through other, less political, forms of participation such as volunteering.
A relatively recent innovation in volunteering which has helped get more people involved in community life is timebanking. Volunteer NOW’s timebanking initiative in Holywood reports participants having “a greater sense of confidence in themselves and their community and a greater sense of agency, and as a result of that they’re able to engage with greater confidence with the local statutory providers such as, in this example, the Housing Executive.”
It’s not “one size fits all”
Different situations call for different kinds of tools and approaches. For example, it was recognised that tools which depend on digital technology can only work effectively if the stakeholder group can access and engage with digital platforms. There is a danger that an exclusively digital approach could exclude those not comfortable with technology, particularly older people.
Increasingly, if an individual or group wants to engage with and influence decision making, it is essential to have the information and evidence to back up its case. The East Belfast Community Development Association described gathering statistics and developed “a clear ask” based on this evidence, in order to attract support from the Public Health Agency for counselling aimed at suicide prevention.
While the word “evidence” can suggest professional academic research, this does not always need to be the case. Depending on the issue, a survey of local people who live in a street could be as valuable as an academic study.
Engaging successfully with decision-makers involves building relationships. It will often be on the third or fourth attempt that a breakthrough happens. One community activist described how a group of residents successfully campaigned for the blocking of an alleyway in their housing estate in south Belfast in order to stop easy access for people engaging in anti-social behaviour – but it took a long time and involved repeated approaches to authorities.
Be clear about who you want to engage with and why
There are many democratic institutions in Northern Ireland (local Councils, local and regional service providers, government departments) and therefore many tiers of decision making. Think through which decision maker(s) you want to connect with and get clear about what you are hoping to achieve from the engagement, for example better relationships, to have your voice heard, to achieve a particular change or improvement to policy or to influence how things are done in your community.
Involve key stakeholders
These will including those affected by, or interested in, the issue, decision makrers, allies and experts.
Remember to include the unusual voices – that is, those who are most affected by the issue but have least influence. Ensure your approach, the venue you use and materials you produce are accessible to all members of your community. Avoid or, where necessary, explain terms and jargon used.
Include everyone who should be included
Depending on who your group is or who you want to represent when you are engaging with decision-makers, you will need to consider how you are ensuring that you are really enabling all relevant voices to be heard.
Ways to ensure this include:
Think outside the box – be creative! Use arts activities poetry or music to engage people and bring an issue alive.
Use social media to reach those who are more likely to use those platforms.
Think about what is likely to appeal to the people you are hoping to engage: this might be as simple as a cup of tea or a community event.
Think about disabled access, language requirements, literacy and ensure that everyone who needs to be heard can be heard and included, whatever their requirements.
If you or members of your group would like to engage more directly with agencies by attending formal meetings (such as Health Trust Local Commissioning Groups) explore the availability of training and support for people attending.
These meetings are meant to provide an opportunity for people’s voices to be heard, but they can be intimidating for non-professionals.
Build numbers – if you have to!
You don’t have to involve everyone in every issue all the time. But for some issues, building a critical mass and getting as many people engaged as possible is essential.
Run events or campaigns where every member of the community can be involved and be seen to be involved.
The Planning for Real exercise held in Tullyally in the 1990s used a 3D model of the village, with a red dot used to mark each household which had participated. Everyone could see who had voted and who had not and as a result turnout reached 95%!
Develop an appealing message
For the particular issue that you want to effect change on create an engaging and imaginative slogan or symbols that people can relate to. You could run events or competitions locally to generate these, and where you can, make use of visual symbols.
A good example of this is the “Empty Purse” campaign which was organised to oppose the Welfare Reform Bill: women gathered at Stormont brandishing empty purses to symbolize the likely impact of welfare changes on women.