How to create change In your community: finding or forming a local group

October 2, 2008

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Living Locally & Creating Change

We have discussed living locally here before – essentially, living locally means you’re not only eating locally grown food, but you’re buying locally, and becoming an active member of your community. You are beginning to work on community building and strengthening.

When we live locally and strengthen our communities, we become stronger and better able to adapt to changes in the economy, climate, and energy availability. Each community is unique and has its own needs, whether it be public transportation, sustainable food resources, strengthening local businesses, reducing carbon emissions, increasing recycling and reducing waste, building community gardens and parks,… the list is varied and lengthy.

And we have discussed a bit here about what we can do. But we haven’t talked much about how to do it in detail. So… how do you create change in your community? And how do you form a group of people who can tackle these community needs?

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Finding A Local Group

First of all, before you think about creating a new group of people, I encourage you to make sure you’ve taken a good hard look at what’s out there. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to! If you can find an organization that is already working toward sustainability in some sort of way, it may be easier to try to create a project within their already established group, rather than start completely from scratch.

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The types of groups where you might find local people who are interested in creating community-wide change include: disaster preparedness groups, peak oil, climate change and environmental groups (those working in your local community), gardening outreach organizations, programs that help fight homelessness, food banks, community gardens/allotments, neighborhood associations, block watch programs, neighborhood, city and town councils, city and neighborhood sustainability boards, youth programs, PTA meetings, community center events, earth day and other “green” fairs, city or town Department of Neighborhoods, native planting/invasive species clearing groups, local animal welfare societies, university campus groups,… the list goes on, but these are some things that I’ve come across.

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Where Do You Find Them?

Subscribe to your local paper – either online or in paper form. Subscribe to your community paper or newsletter. Look through your local “goings on” paper, usually a weekly paper. Search online using Google, the phone book, The Relocalization Network, and Transition Towns.

Talk to people, ask around, call one organization and ask them if they know of an organization that is more what you’re looking for. Attend conferences, film screenings, fairs, and local meetings about things you’re interested in – and talk with people there. Ask local bloggers, follow links on websites, visit your city/town website for possibilities, and check out your local chamber of commerce.

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But… What If There Isn’t Anything Locally?!

Forming A Local Group

Starting an organization is not particularly easy, but you may find that there just aren’t any groups that are doing what you want to do – nor working on what your community needs most. So go for it. Get like-minded people together. Get people with disparate areas of expertise together. Find people who can complement your skills. You may not know how to do something, but someone else you know (or who you could meet and get to know) may be able to do it!

Network. Bring local bloggers together, introduce yourself to people at your farmer’s market, attend your chamber of commerce (or city council and neighborhood council) meetings and feel out people who would be interested, announce a sustainability meeting at your church and ask people to come, talk with organic gardeners, slow foodies, knitters, environmentalists, whoever you can find that might be interested.

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Then Set Up A Meeting!

Once you have a group of people interested, set a time, date, and location and publicize it! Email and call everyone. Put an announcement in the local newsletter, the community paper, and post fliers in coffee shops and other gathering places.

Include when, where, directions and/or a map, beginning and ending time, briefly what the meeting is, and whether or not people need to bring anything. And make it sound fun, worthwhile, and interesting!

When setting a time and date, try to schedule around other local events, sports, and holidays, and make sure to schedule a meeting after work or on the weekend days. If you are holding the meeting in a space where having kids is appropriate, do tell people it’s ok to bring children. If people don’t have to leave their children at home and pay a sitter, they’re more likely to come.

And make it easy. Host something small at your house, the local church, the local community center, a nearby park or community garden. You can make it a potluck. Or if it’s after dinner, you can provide just a few snacks and coffee and tea. Or make it a dessert potluck.

When the meeting time nears, make sure to email and/or call people to remind them of the meeting. If you have a limited time, don’t be afraid to set up a phone tree with people you trust.

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What Do You Do When You Get People Together…

The First Meeting

First of all, if only a few people come to the meeting, don’t despair. That’s a few more people gathering about sustainability than have ever gathered in your community before. So make it worth everyone’s while, make people excited and motivated, find common grounds and enjoy one another’s company. And then get them to invest in the group, feel a part of it, and they will talk with other people who might be interested in coming next time.

Secondly, if all your first meetings do is get people together talking and feeling like they are not alone, that is great. That is more than most people accomplish.

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But do set out with at least a rough schedule and a list of things you want to accomplish – and let everyone know at the beginning of the meeting, so they know what to expect. A good ice breaker is to ask everyone to introduce themselves and tell a little about why they’ve come to the meeting (especially if it’s a small group). Name tags are also a good idea.

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Make sure someone is greeting guests as they walk in. That person should be saying hello and introducing themselves, making people feel comfortable, handing them a nametag, and asking them to sign in with their phone # and email address. Don’t forget to get contact information so that you can make sure everyone stays informed!! If people are hesitant to give the info, tell them it’s to email them the meeting notes and the details of the next meeting.

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Generally speaking, getting people sitting in a circle facilitates a more informal and discussion-oriented meeting. You want people to participate, and to become an active part of the discussion.

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So, now you have people together and they have met one another. Next, it’s time to address some of the things you are interested in seeing in your community. Community gardens, educational seminars about sustainable living, motivating people to recycle, helping the impoverished in your community, fighting crime or graffiti, planting trees and creating more parks, overall community preparedness, helping local businesses become sustainable – whatever it is, bring it up and gauge people’s interest. Ask what others think are important, and what they would be interested in working on together. Make a list of priorities. (If there’s a chalkboard or whiteboard you can write these down, otherwise take notes.)

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Engage people, let them talk and make sure to listen to what they have to say, let ideas become better with discussion, and also keep the conversation moving and productive (you don’t want people to lose interest and feel like their time is being wasted).

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Make sure someone besides you is taking notes so that you can all remember what you talked about, and disperse those notes later in the week (via email, most likely).

Make sure to leave enough time at the end of your meeting to establish the next meeting time and place. Find out if the same time next month is good. And then THANK EVERYONE FOR COMING, sum up the meeting at the end, let everyone know how exciting it is to have everyone together, discussing these issues that are so important to the community.

As people leave, shake their hand, tell them you look forward to seeing them next time, that you liked their idea about xx, that you’ll follow up with them about the question they asked….

What To Do After The Meeting

Sometime in the next few days, send everyone an email: compile the notes, follow up on anything else you were supposed to do, and thank everyone for coming. Make it fun. And then remind everyone about the next meeting.

A week before the next meeting, make sure you remind everyone about it, and tell them how much you’re looking forward to it!

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What’s In A Name?

A name of a group or organization is very important. It must be unique to your own locale, and it must be a name that people will be fond of, or at least a name that they won’t mind being identified with. Nothing too controversial – you don’t want to turn off people (and businesses) to the group before they even meet you. But descriptive enough that it’s clear what the group is about.

Some groups here include: Sustainable Seattle, Sustainable Capitol Hill (our neighborhood group), Seattle Green Drinks, Washington Toxics Coalition, Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, Northwest EcoBuilding Guild, NW Energy Coalition, Farming and the Environment, Bicycle Alliance of Washington… just a few ideas to put into your head!

So you can think up a name for the organization before the first meeting. That way you’ll be able to put a title on your fliers and emails. Or, you can give it a temporary name and then let the group decide what the name should be (probably not during the first meeting, but several meetings in). You decide, you can gauge how people feel about the name and see how it goes!

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That’s it for now. Next time, I will probably discuss finding a good first project and making sure it works. Sound good?

Let Me Know What You Think!

Is this helpful to you? How could it be more helpful? What questions do you have?

Also please share your knowledge – how have you successfully formed groups? What advice do you have for others who are thinking about it?

Tags: Activism, Building Community, Consumption & Demand, Culture & Behavior, Education, Energy Policy, Food, Politics, Transportation, Waste