When the Texas Campaign for the Environment heard a news report that recyclables were being sent to landfills in Houston, they launched a campaign within 24 hours.
They called upon their local advocates to write to the city and the results were immediate: more than 1,600 emails were sent in just two days. That’s a response any organization would be proud of, but it’s not unusual for those who work to change policy in cities and counties. In local advocacy, quick response and direct impact are often the rule.
“[There is] a really strong connection between local policy decisions, local advocacy and what happens in people’s day to day lives,” said Robin Schneider, the organization’s executive director.
That connection was explored in depth at our latest webinar, Powering Up Local Advocacy. Schneider joined Laura Bracci, community advocacy director at the American Heart Association; Jonathan Perri, digital advocacy manager at Lime; and moderator Martyn Griffen of Phone2Action to discuss how local advocacy is both different and powerful.
As Griffen put it, “Constituents are really, really engaged at the local level in ways you might not see at the federal level.”
The Growth in Local
Dozens of industries are regulated locally, from retail businesses to transportation firms. So it may not be a surprise that local advocacy grew threefold between 2018 and 2019, according to the 2019 State of Advocacy Report.
What is often surprising is how willingly advocates engage in an environment where the geographic and political territories are smaller, the sense of community is larger and everything is more personal.
“There is a more clear sense of community involved in local advocacy,” Perri said, adding that, “constituents are likely to receive a personal response from a city council member that they might not get from a U.S. senator or Congressperson.”
At the American Heart Association, Bracci says it happens regularly. Not long ago, she emailed seven members of the Atlanta City Council on an issue. “Feedback is definitely more immediate,” she said. “Within just a couple of hours on a Sunday, I received three personal responses and a personal phone call wanting more information and wanting to know how to engage.”
That response is part of the tangible nature of local advocacy. People can get involved, participate directly and see the changes right in their community. It all adds up to higher levels of grassroots engagement.
“When we get people engaged in advocating for curbside compost bins in Austin and then those bins appear after a successful campaign, people can easily connect their actions to a change in their lifestyle,” Schneider said.
High-Impact Grassroots Advocacy
The personal nature of advocacy works in many ways. Just as officials are more apt to communicate directly with constituents, they are also more likely to listen when residents use grassroots tactics to make their voices heard.
At Lime, which rents electric scooters and bikes in 100 cities worldwide, a large network of riders also serves as advocates. “Those are all people who are willing to engage in these types of local campaigns, whether that’s to make sure their electric scooter sharing program still exists … or to advocate for things like protected bike lanes in their communities,” Perri said.
The company likes to generate grassroots action by asking advocates to send personal stories to public officials. Their calls to action are often a short explanation followed by a prompt for a personal story. “We get really great customized letters,” Perri said. “That has a really big impact.”
The company often asks for testimonials in the same fashion. “You can find advocates who have really wonderful stories that you can follow up,” Perri said. “You can ask them to participate in a blog post or social media or video, or even be interviewed by local press.”
Their strategy often works. In Orlando, Florida, Mayor Buddy Dyer initially opposed electric scooters. Lime reached out it its local riders, who sent roughly 1,600 emails advocating for scooters. The mayor gracefully yielded to the desire of his constituents in a speech earlier this year.
“A guy can change his mind when hundreds or thousands of people email you and say ‘we want scooters,’” Dyer said. “So scooters are coming.”
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