activist notes

6 Making Change in Municipalities; Making Municipalities Change: A Guide for Community Organizations

This entire section of Activist Notes is based on a revised version of an action guide Dorothy Smith and Ian Hussey wrote for community organizations on making change on the municipal level. We’d love to hear if this thing actually works for you. Even better, if you want to tell us what worked and what didn’t, then we could all move forward, together!

Making change in municipalities; making municipalities change: a guide for community organizations

By Dorothy E. Smith and Ian S. Hussey

Rural Women Making Change at the Centre for Families, Work & Well-Being at the University of Guelph

Funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada under its Community-University Research Alliance program.


This guide is based on a small scale study done in the summer and fall of 2006 of a successful campaign establishing an Ethical Purchasing Policy in Vancouver municipality. Though our, Dorothy Smith’s and Ian Hussey’s research, was done in Vancouver, it was aimed in the first place at sharing what we learned from Vancouver activists, municipal Councillors, and municipal staff with community organizations who might want to become active in seeking change in their local municipalities.

Our purpose and mandate was to learn what we could about how this success had been achieved so that the experience of those involved could be made available to other community organizations. Municipalities are a level of government within closer reach than provincial or federal levels; the local community is an accessible but often neglected site for making change from below. Yet, for the most part, experience in this area of community activism tends to travel in informal channels and hence to rely on pre-existing networks. Our research conception thus had this simple concept: collect experience systematically for transfer from the level of the informal to public access, making it publicly available to community organizations, particularly to those participating in the Rural Women Making Change (RWMC) program at the University of Guelph. The guide was first distributed to RWMC participating organizations, then published electronically as a manual available to community organizations more widely, and is now accessible on this website in a format enabling people to contribute their experiences so that it has a cumulative value.

Our research project was simple in conception and economic in execution. When the research was being done, Dorothy and Ian both lived in British Columbia, close to a prime example of a community-organized campaign being successful in changing policy at the level of government closest to the community. We had access, we had an opportunity, and we had a clean and clear example. So our study simply drew on and assembled people’s experience. We used institutional ethnography to systematize our research method and strategy. Our research was to be relevant to community organization advocates and activists so the standpoint of the activists gave us what institutional ethnography calls our problematic. We talked with those involved — activists, City Councillors and City managerial staff. We listened hard and learned much from their experience and knowledge (we knew we were ignorant but not just how ignorant). This guide brings together the experience of those involved as well as information from other sources so that it can be available to community organizations interested in moving for change through municipal government.

The overall organization of the guide follows the research procedure, tracking from the background and groundwork that we came to see as important in the success of the campaign, the formation and work of a coalition, the specification of objectives, and the design of the policy through to implementation. This track can be seen in the guide’s list of contents in the left frame of this website. We also learned a great deal from City staff about what worked for them and hence have consciously directed readers’ attention to the need to anticipate and take into account what may be involved for staff in the work of implementing a policy.    


Having established the overall sequence and its key components through our research, we could then draw on examples of the US experience of living wage campaigns that Stephanie Luce collected in her study Fighting for a Living Wage (2004, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University).


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