Getting to Yay!

November 30, 2016

Right after the US election, I wrote a spirited article that made quite a splash (by my standards) along the lines of “don’t whine, organize!” The article made that old “glass-half-empty/half-full” point that helps people flip their perception of things, by arguing that Trumpists didn’t so much win the election, as others lost it. Specifically, I argued that it was lost because of chronic incompetence which we should do something about.

I promised to do a few newsletters on helpful points about how to be more competent, especially on food and city issues. So here goes.

Today’s issue is how to pick issues that have a chance of winning sometime soon and that we can rightfully feel good about: Getting to Yay!!!

The easiest way to understand that our side is incompetent is to look at the issues we do and don’t make an issue about.

If we were competent, we wouldn’t be slouching around, wondering why incompetents get all the media attention while we get ignored. (The painful explanation is: because they’re not as incompetent as you think they are, and you’re not as competent as you think you are.)

Bernie Sanders, to give an example you might feel positive about, shot to the top of media coverage and mass appeal because he knew how to pick an issue that had the legs to be a popular and unifying one – the 1 per cent. The rest is campaign detail.

From my experience with food and city issues, here are two key steps to picking an issue “with legs.”

  1. Understand that you pick your issues, in the dead-serious way people mean when they say “pick your battles” and “I don’t want to die on that hill.” You pick an issue because it allows you to make some progress, for both you and the person you want to pick a bone with. If it only works for you, it won’t go anywhere, except to a fight about picking over a bone. Issues need traction, just like car wheels stuck in icy snow, or else they just spin their wheels.
  2. Understand that you can make progress easier on issues that many other people automatically agree are important problems to solve, because they’ve long thought this was an important issue to solve, and couldn’t figure out why no-one paid attention to it before.

If you don’t get these right, pushing your campaign will be like pushing rope up a hill.

There are two city food issues that obviously qualify – food waste and local food.

There are a few issues that you might think are close runner-ups. Obesity and child hunger come to mind. But they fall afoul of the third rule: don’t pick an issue that lots of people immediately disagree on the right way to go, and get really ticked when they hear your way is different.

There’s barely a person alive who doesn’t know obesity and child hunger are hugely important issues, but the issues are minefields for every kind of disagreement you can name. Because both obesity and hunger have causes, which are obvious (too many calories or too little money, respectively), but also highly complex and controversial “causes of causes” (lack of willpower or frugality, versus Big Food and capitalism). Most disagreements about causes of causes go back to dearly-held and deeply-imbedded beliefs and unconscious assumptions that can’t be reasoned with, and certainly don’t offer a platform for starting a conversation or engagement.

People who say “we don’t want to go there,” and back off from a confrontation over causes of causes, know a thing or two about campaigns. And people who say “I disagree totally with you” on a causes of causes issue may have something valuable to argue, but they are going to spend their time arguing, not campaigning. I don’t think the planet has time for that.

Although I readily admit that there are many issues more important than food waste and local food, almost all these other issues fall afoul of the fourth rule for campaigners: don’t pick an issue that no-one even wants to talk about, let alone do something about on their own time.

I’ll bet you already know what those issues are: global warming, chronic disease, and poverty.

You actually have to be out of your mind not to know those are THE BIG ISSUES. As well, unfortunately, you actually have to be out of your mind to think anyone can win meaningful support for an action campaign on these issues.  

Not the slightest problem, however! Why? Because doing the right thing by food waste and local food will automatically look after the problems of global warming, chronic disease and poverty.

We need to be strategic!!

The test for competence in campaign design is two-fold.

One, you pick an issue that you can win with. If that doesn’t appeal to you, or if you think that is sissy or opportunist, please go to the other line, which is for the course on Seven Habits of Highly Effective Self Sabotagers. The Good Intentions Highway is well-paved, and there are rarely traffic jams, because no one who’s actually going somewhere pleasant is on that road.

Two, you design your platform and programs on food waste and local food, without making a big fuss about it, so that the programs coincidentally foster significant progress on issues  such as obesity, child hunger, global warming, chronic disease and poverty. When you reduce food waste, for example, you eliminate the major source of global warming in cities – the emissions from food rotting in landfills and emitting methane. Reducing global warming, hunger, and chronic disease are co-benefits of doing local food and food waste right. You don’t need to have an argument about motivations to get a good conclusion.

This is the way many great victories have been scored. How many people ever stop to think that if they worked at their same job 40 years ago, they would likely have died from breathing in toxins, or if they swam in the same place they just swam 100 years ago, they could have got polio? When the problem is solved, no-one loses sleep worrying about whether the original reason for solving it was right.    

I show how to pass the second test on city food issues in an e-book that costs less than five dollars: Food for City Building: A Field Guide for Planners, Actionists and Entrepreneurs. It shows, I hope, how to use food’s multifunctional power to provide leverage to solve many problems at a city level at the same time.

If you want to know more about campaigns, right now, about my strategies for effective design for food campaigns, tested while I was manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, please join me at my blog

Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy