activist notes

6.7 Getting it through Council

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6.7 Getting it through Council

6.7.1 Mobilizing support

6.7 Getting it through council           

6.7.1 Mobilizing support

Council is an elected body; Councillors depend on the municipal electorate. In developing a campaign it’s useful to think about how the public may be involved beyond those directly active in it.

In the previous section, we emphasized the issue of how a policy proposal is worded. But the wording of an issue as it’s presented to the public may have to be rather different. This isn’t a matter of deception. But most people don’t speak municipal speak. The language used in Council and by staff as part of their work has to relate to the legal basis on which the municipality can act. Interpreting issues for the public is also something that needs work and thought. Coalition members may take for granted the justice of what they’re working towards. And may take for granted the language they use to express it. But outsiders don’t necessarily share what is taken for granted by coalition insiders. You have to find ways of engaging people beyond the coalition in a dialogue in which you can explain your concerns to them and, as well and just as important, listen and take seriously their responses.

So give some thought about how best to reach out. Today politicians and political parties use what are called ‘focus groups’ to sound out how the ideas they’re putting forward are going to be heard by members of the public. This can be expensive. But you can look for opportunities of talking with people about what your group is doing, and you can keep track of how the news is framing issues on local TV, in radio and in newspapers. The media, of course, have their own distinctive ‘speak.’ The main thing is to be attentive to possible gaps between how insiders’ talk and what may be intelligible to outsiders. Giving time to translating issues into terms that people can understand pays off when it comes to electoral support. And maybe they’ll be encouraged to write letters to local newspapers supporting campaign objectives, put signs on their front lawns, etc. 

Reaching out to the public outside a coalition also helps Councillors justify their support for your objectives in public settings. Councillors who are publicly supporting a given issue can also use a research background for their position. They’re going to have to make arguments in a public setting in which their reputations are up for grabs. If they look good presenting an issue, the issue is going to look good too.

Of course the media is one major way in which an issue can be brought before the public. But this is tricky. As mentioned above, local television stations and newspapers have an interest in filling the time or space, but they can’t be counted on to give favourable coverage. Here’s where coalition members’ experience and connections are very valuable. People who have some experience of working with or in the media or who have connections who can suggest and advise can be very useful here.

Here is where organized constituencies of coalition members that reach into the community beyond the coalition groups themselves are also invaluable. As stressed above, members of faith groups or unions may be interested in being actively involved in making their presence and interests known to Councillors.

Mobilizations such as demonstrations should only be launched if there’s a reasonable expectation of numbers sufficient to impress. Demonstrations in fact work through the mass media, but the news reporting doesn’t always transmit the message that is aimed at. On the other hand, they show a level of concern in the public that Councillors of whatever allegiance are going to notice. And they also mobilize the interest of those directly involved. Some theorists in communications have suggested that public opinion is a two-stage process. There are people who watch and read the news and may be active in some way or another in community organization and yet others who rely on them to keep informed (communication experts have called this the two-step sequence of public communication systems). The greater the number of people who are mobilized, and the more widely the issue is spread across and discussed in the community, the more effective your campaign will be.

And then, of course, some Councillors will have commitments one way or another. Some have been directly involved in working for the issue; others may have been active against it. And then there may be some who aren’t committed either way at the outset. Within the Council itself, Councillors supporting the issue can work with others who haven’t made a commitment.


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I thought I would share the story of the sit-in that took place this past weekend at York University:

Following a 45 hour sit-in by members of the Sustainable Purchasing Coalition (SPC) and their supporters, on Saturday March 8th, York University President Mamdouh Shoukri made a commitment to introduce a No Sweat policy at the university by April.

The SPC is a student group that has been lobbying for such a policy for the past 3 years. “We are exhausted but overjoyed, this is the commitment we were looking for and it’s great to hear it after all the work that we’ve put into it, not only over the last few days but over the past three years,” said Besmira Alikaj, one of the students participating in the sit-in.

“The policy will be at least as progressive as U of T and other universities, if not more,”
said president Shoukri, “If other universities have had this policy and withstood the test of time, I don’t see why we can’t do it too.”

The Sustainable Purchasing Coalition held a rally Thursday asking the university to adopt their proposed No Sweat policy. Prior to the rally, the SPC had circulated a petition asking for student support for the proposed policy. By the end of the rally, over a thousand signatures had been collected. Immediately following the rally, the SPC attempted to deliver the petitions to President Shoukri.

Dozens of students from the rally marched over to the President’s office at 2pm on Thursday. When they were told the President was unavailable to see them, the students decided to stay. On 24-hour security watch, the students camped outside the president’s office for 45 hours.

At 10am Saturday morning Shoukri finally showed up and asked the students to sit down and talk about their demands. It was at this point that Shoukri made his commitments to the students.

“We hope this meeting will set a precedent for future interactions between students and York administration”, said Alikaj.

A second meeting between the SPC and President Shoukri is scheduled to take place today.

Comment by Maquila Solidarity Network

more information on the Sit-in and the York policy can be seen here:

Comment by Maquila Solidarity Network

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